Black Tie or White Tie?

Life was quite formal in the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) office in 1946 – and for several decades thereafter. The ladies on staff were always addressed as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ and I was addressed by them as ‘Mr’. Later, when I hired male officers of my own age, I called them by their first names, but they also called me ‘Mr.’ (to my face, anyway).

Not only were suits required of men in the office, but hats also were necessary as street attire. There was one concession – on Saturday mornings I could wear sports jacket and grey flannel trousers. During the hot, humid Ottawa summers in pre-air conditioning days, it was permitted to work in shirt sleeves. No shorts, of course. In neighbouring Hull, a city bylaw even prohibited men or women from wearing shorts in public at any time.
One of my first investments in Ottawa was to buy formal evening wear. This consisted of a dinner jacket, a set of “tails” and a mutual pair of matching trousers.

Formal clothes were widely worn at CCA conventions. At the annual dinners all men seated at the head table and perhaps half or more of the men in the audience wore dinner jackets (tuxedoes). Practically all ladies wore gowns or long skirts.

Indeed, the head tables at CCA conventions were a vital part of the overall program and necessitated a good deal of planning. Typically there were 40 seats to allocate at each luncheon and dinner function. Those for the annual dinners included wives and sometimes were extended to 60 seats in two tiers.

Basic lists were prepared involving CCA officers, guest speakers, local dignitaries, member association presidents and those related to the topic of the address. Embossed invitations containing an ‘RSVP’ and reply card were mailed out well in advance and, in the event of ‘regrets’ being received, substitute invitations were quickly extended.

Head table guests were assembled at a separate reception and, when the function was due to commence, lined up in the order at which they would be seated and introduced by the chair, and marched in, often led by a bagpiper. This all required military precision! Then, when seated, a quick check would be made to ensure that they were all still in the right order and the chair advised of any changes. Any errors would be observed by all present and cause laughter and embarrassment.

Three memories stand out for the annual dinner in Quebec City in 1955. As was the custom, the guest speaker was the provincial premier, in this case the Hon. Maurice Duplessis of the Union Nationale. The CCA chair was Raymond Brunet, who had served as the reform mayor of Hull and was a well-known Liberal. Both were “sly foxes” and engaged in bantering each other in their remarks. Mr. Duplessis had decided to bring five members of his cabinet with him (unannounced) which caused a mad scramble to extend the head table and change the chair’s list.

But the main memory relates to an exchange with one of the head table guests at the reception. Among those invited were the Roman Catholic archbishop of Quebec, the Anglican bishop and the head of Laval University. When the archbishop arrived, resplendent in his crimson robe, the CCA chair knelt before him, kissed his ring and said something that caused the archbishop to roar with laughter. Afterwards I asked what had caused the merriment. “Well, I told him my name; that I was a contractor in Hull; and that there was a saying in Western Quebec that if there was a building with a cross on the top of it, it meant that it was a building built by Brunet!”

There were two CCA events when the head table invitations stated “white tie”. The first was in Montreal in 1967 when the presidents of other international construction associations were invited to attend the CCA summer meeting at Ste. Adele; move to Montreal; tour Expo ’67; and help us celebrate Canada’s centennial. There was a fine response. The president of the Indian Construction Federation was the guest who travelled the farthest to attend.

The second function was in 1968 when the CCA marked its golden anniversary at its convention in the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. The guest speaker at the annual dinner was Prime Minister L.B. (Mike) Pearson. He had already announced his pending retirement and was in a very relaxed mood. His memorable address was punctuated by audible interventions by his wife – in concert, a most entertaining performance! It is noteworthy that Mr. Pearson was made an Honourary Life Member of the CCA. His citation stated in part that he was a”Builder of Canada”.

A half-century later, life styles are more casual. Accordingly, male delegates at the CCA centennial dinner in Ottawa in November 2018 will not have to choose between a Black Tie or a White Tie or to pack either a dinner jacket or formal evening dress. Indeed, they may decide to wear no tie at all!