“If I have to rob a f—ing bank I’m going to the Philippines,” said Raymond Yates, mayor of Stanstead, Que. Yates, an ill-shaven fellow whose singing voice sounds as though it has been steeped in bourbon, was holding court at Millie’s Diner, where he sings on Fridays and sometimes Saturday nights. It was on Robbie Burns Day at Millie’s when Yates had his epiphany, as he ate manakish bread with za’atar spices. The air smelled like boiling haggis.
Yates’s girlfriend lives in the Philippines, and he wants to sing for her there. That the singing mayor of Stanstead is even entertaining the idea is thanks largely to Syrian-born filmmaker Bashar Shbib, Millie’s tall, bald, fiftyish owner and would-be saviour of the town of Stanstead. Bashar, as he is commonly known, compelled Yates to take the stage soon after Yates’s wife died. It’s the kind of thing Bashar does. A Canadian citizen, he lived in Los Angeles until 2002. After he was strip-searched twice on the same U.S. flight—his Syrian name didn’t help—he decided that was enough of that and moved to Stanstead, an Eastern Townships town of 3,000. He remembered it from when his brothers attended Stanstead College, the local private school.
Bashar, whose 1991 film Julia Has Two Lovers starred an upcoming David Duchovny, bought the old elementary school and turned it into a film studio. He took over an old grocery store on Stanstead’s main drag and christened it Millie’s, after one of his daughters. Even though he literally lives within spitting distance of the border, he hasn’t set foot in the States since 2005. Instead, the Americans (among many others) come to see him.
Millie’s fare is a spicy, smoky Middle Eastern-derived smorgasbord prepared in the chaos that is Bashar’s kitchen. Menus vary wildly, depending on the occasion, of which there are many. Along with Robbie Burns, Millie’s has theme nights for Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s, Twelfth Night, May Day, as well as both equinoxes and the occasional solstice. “The nice thing about Bashar is that he celebrates everything,” says Gabriel Safdie, a Millie’s regular who has recently gone into business with Bashar.
To call Millie’s a restaurant is a little like calling the Sistine Chapel a church: it’s accurate enough, but it fails to account for the strange birds who populate it and the pretty things painted on the walls. Along with Yates, there’s Bob Murray, who knits sweaters, writes movie scripts and channels spirits when he isn’t eating at Millie’s. There’s Gordon Harding, a local self-taught artist whose squiggly, colourful, outsized canvases hang on Millie’s walls at the behest of Bashar, who is a huge fan.
Then there’s Safdie, a businessman, poet, writer and photographer who has, with his wife, Eva Juul, and three other investors, recently bought up much of Stanstead’s old city centre. Their goal is to revitalize a town that has, in many respects, given up on itself. As a border town, Stanstead (then known as Rock Island) benefited from the flow of people and goods from Canada to the U.S. At its height there were upwards of 30,000 residents. Ever since the divided highway came through in the ’60s, bypassing Stanstead all together, it has slowly but surely suffocated on its own redundancy.
The investors have bought up nearly 100,000 square feet of space in downtown Stanstead, including a movie theatre, two old banks, a hydroelectric building and a customs house. All, in various stages of decrepitude, are being restored, with Bashar heading up the whole shebang—planning, supervising, and staffing the project with willing film students. Pasolini, an Italian restaurant, is already open; a cooking school will occupy the old hydro building. The great Stanstead revitalization will be capped off by the Stanstead Stone Circle, a recreation of Stonehenge done in four-metre-high slabs of Stanstead granite.
“We are going to bring back Rock Island itself, if not the glory of its past day,” Bashar says in a screening room across the street from Millie’s, where he was reviewing an edit of his latest movie. (It’s a cheery boy-meets-girl romp shot in, you guessed it, Stanstead.) Not everyone is convinced, however. “A lot of people have given up on Stanstead,” says Gertrude Ketcham, who makes it known she hasn’t. “It’s a change, and people don’t like change.”
Bashar? For him the change has already happened. He made the mayor sing, and coaxed a man to paint pictures. People come from Montreal and the States to eat his food. “Bashar’s our ambassador,” says Yates, who just might get to the Philippines yet.