Remembering René Chartrand, “catman” of Parliament Hill

The Canadian Parliamentary Cats being cared for by René Chartrand at their shelter. Image: Montrealais, Creative Commons

The Canadian Parliamentary Cats being cared for by René Chartrand at their shelter. Image: Montrealais (2007) Creative Commons

Public radio has a soft spot for off-beat stories. Topics that reveal subtle qualities about people, places or things.

In 2011, Todd Moe profiled a famous oddity of Canada’s legislative capital, a warmly-regarded cat sanctuary on the grounds of Parliament Hill.

As a public servant at the Parliamentary Library told Moe, “There’s nothing better than leaving a meeting, frustrated, and coming here and petting a cat! It makes the whole day better!”

Workers there had fed feral cats on a casual basis for many years. But in the 1970’s Irène Desormeaux made that her own mission. Described by some as a classic cat lady (not very interested in humans) her devotion was picked up by a friend and fellow animal-lover, René Chartrand.

Chartrand was bi-lingual and engaging. He and a cadre of helpers built shelters and talked to strolling visitors. The kitty-condo spot became quite popular with hill staffers and the hundreds of thousands who tour Parliament Hill each year.  Here’s a story about that from the Cats of Parliament Hill Facebook page:

I will always remember the day a group of Japanese tourists visited the sanctuary, as they were leaving, one woman came up to me and asked, “Is there anything else worth seeing around here?” Of course I told her about the rest of Parliament Hill, but deep inside I wanted to say, “No, not really.” The tour left the Hill without any further sightseeing. They had come to see the cats. That was enough. (KJG)

Of course, Parliament Hill is well worth seeing. (More info, including how to enjoy free guided tours, can be found here.) However, the Hill’s famed cat sanctuary is no more. That was shuttered in January of 2013, with the last remaining residents being adopted into permanent homes.

This past week, René Chartrand died, age 92. As reported by Blair Crawford for the Ottawa Citizen, Chartrand had tended his feline friends as long as he could, for a stretch of 21 years.

Chartrand, a retired blue-collar worker and air force veteran who grew up in Lowertown, became the cat caretaker almost by accident. The first person to feed the Hill cats was his neighbour Irene Desormeaux. When she fell ill in 1987, Chartrand offered to take over. It was supposed to be temporary, but when Desormeaux died, Chartrand stepped up.

“He made a promise that he would feed them and he did,” Caines said. “He did it until he was no longer able to. [Brian Caines, retired public servant, friend and helper of Chartrand].

“He was there every day. He was there the day his wife died. On the 9/11 lockdown, he was about the only civilian let on the Hill. He was so well known and the cats were so well known they made an exception for him to get up there.”

Chartrand will be remembered at a memorial service, Dec. 29 at the Coopérative funéraire de l’Outaouais in Gatineau, Quebec.

Farewell to one of many unique individuals who make our world all the more humane and interesting.

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