By TOM HAWTHORN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, February 15, 2018
The restaurant Chez Monique has a global reputation despite never earning a Michelin star, an oversight not surprising considering the bistro is inaccessible by road.
On an isolated beach on a remote and treacherous stretch of water off Vancouver Island, the restaurant can only be reached by boat, float plane, or, more commonly, three days of hard trekking along the West Coast Trail.
The menu is limited and the décor underwhelming - plastic tables and chairs on a dirt floor beneath a tarp stretched between driftwood poles. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in scenery, with an unobstructed vista of the wild Pacific Ocean.
The namesake proprietor was Monique Knighton, a Montreal-born sojourner who sought an unencumbered life close to nature and the Indigenous people with whom she felt a kinship. For more than a quarter-century, Ms. Knighton, who has died at 78, offered a maternal presence, dispensing medicine, relationship advice and advisories about conditions along a trail so isolated the injured are airlifted to hospital.
"Mom took the hikers in as if they were her own kids," her son Daniel Millard said.
News of her death brought tributes from travellers spanning the globe, who shared their memories of a feisty, outspoken woman as "an angel on the Trail" and "a one-hour surrogate mother to hundreds of trekkers."
Hikers arrived at Chez Monique's after days in the bush and a steady diet of freeze-dried food. A whiteboard menu listing the day's offerings - pancakes, bacon and eggs, salmon burgers, couscous salad, cold pop in a can, beer and wine. The most popular item was the hamburger. Few were dissuaded by a steep $25 price tag for a burger with the works, reflecting the high cost of getting supplies to the beach by boat.
Her cheeseburgers were ordinary in execution but extraordinary in presentation, served, as they were, in a wilderness several days journey from the nearest fast-food restaurant. Many a bushwhacked hiker proclaimed it the best burger of their lives.
What Chez Monique lacked was a licence or inspections, reflecting a certain West Coast scofflaw sensibility, as well as a claim to being on native land.
The West Coast Trail stretches along 75 kilometres of the Pacific Rim National Park Preserve, attracting experienced heavy-pack hikers from around the world. With several dangerous sections, including steep wooden ladders and swinging bridges, it is not for the faint-hearted nor those afraid of heights, bears, or cougars. The hike takes from five to seven days. The trail was originally blazed to build a telegraph line, giving survivors of shipwrecks along what is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific a slim chance of reaching civilization.
The genesis of Chez Monique as a coastal oasis is hard to pinpoint. Ms. Knighton and her partner, Peter Knighton, a member of the local Ditidaht First Nation, were living on the beach only to have hikers arrive unannounced on their doorstep in search of supplies.
"I opened a can of pop and they showed up," she once told Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox.
In 1991, Wayne Aitkin and David Foster were researching a revised edition of a popular trail guidebook when they were surprised to stumble across a rudimentary structure on Carmanah Beach, 45 kilometres from Pachena Bay.
"The shelter enclosed a double-burner Colman stove, a thermos cooler and a fireball lady named Monique Knighton who was selling hot dogs and drinks," Mr. Aitkin recalled.
The updated edition of Blisters and Bliss recommended trekkers enjoy the shelter as a place for respite and homespun philosophy. Because they could not remember her surname, they dubbed the place Chez Monique and the name stuck.
Ms. Knighton developed an organic property on land beyond the beach, which attracted volunteers from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, known popularly as woofers. They stayed on the land in exchange for maintaining the garden, as well as flipping the occasional burger.
In dangerous weather, the café and adjacent home serve as emergency shelter for hikers. A 2007 storm destroyed the café and damaged the boat with which supplies were ferried.
Early on, a group of young hikers arrived without enough food to complete the journey. The proprietor canvassed spare food from the two dozen others enjoying the beach. This launched a program in which oversupplied hikers seeking to lighten their load are encouraged to deposit excess gear in a box.
In turn, the ill-prepared can take from the box to compensate for their neglect. No money changes hands.
Marie Yvonne Monique Quevillon was born in Montreal on June 14, 1939, a first child for the former Rose Marie Pelletier and Rodolphe Quevillon, an army man who later worked for the post office.
Her mother had been adopted and was of unknown ethnicity, while her father was franco-Ontarian. He died when she was 13 and her mother remarried. In time, the family had five children. Family gatherings featured pies and fudges with the eldest daughter helping her mother in the kitchen.
Monique was a superb student, graduating from high school at the age of 15. A marriage at a young age produced three children. The union ended in divorce.
She operated a store and post office in Tuktoyaktuk until the death of her second husband. She introduced Peter Knighton to her family 32 years ago. They had a long-time common-law relationship before holding a First Nations ceremony and, later, a civil ceremony, according to her family.
Ms. Knighton became something of a legendary figure, as trekkers posted praise for her cooking and her engaging personality. She was a dedicated proponent of Indigenous rights and claimed for herself status as Métis.
She had struggled with diabetes and heart disease in recent years, as well as chronic volvulus, a bowel obstruction. According to her sister, she requested a medically assisted suicide following a series of operations. She died on New Year's Eve at Victoria General Hospital with her family in attendance.
She leaves her husband, Peter Knighton; a sister, Jeanne Fontaine; brothers, Gilbert Quevillon and Guy Lemieux; sons Robert Millard and Daniel Millard; daughter, Judith Millard; and granddaughter Sandy Banser. She was predeceased by her son Paul Millard, who died in infancy, and sister Suzanne Raymond.
The future of Chez Monique is uncertain, although supporters vow to be flipping hamburgers by the time the trail reopens for the season on May 1.
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Monique Knighton, centre, is seen with trail-guide author Wayne Aitken, left, his daughter Jenni Aitken, back, and his grandson Max Amercrombie, in 2016. Ms. Knighton, a dedicated proponent of Indigenous rights, was praised for her cooking and engaging personality.
Friday, February 16, 2018
A photo caption for a Thursday obituary of Monique Knighton included an incorrect spelling for the name of Wayne Aitken's grandson. He is Max Abercrombie, not Amercrombie as published.