The human cost of school segregation in Quebec

It's hard to find photos that illustrate school segregation, so this article will feature an assortment of photos from around town. Prints currently for sale.
It’s hard to find photos that illustrate school segregation, so this article will feature an assortment of photos from around town. Prints currently for sale.

In my estimation and opinion, there’s no better demonstration of Bill 101’s flaws than the current local controversy concerning the project to settle Syrian refugees, and the Quebec government’s outright refusal to allow Anglophone school boards from participating.

The situation is as follows: Quebec is going to receive 7,300 Syrian refugees as part of the Trudeau administration’s larger plan to settle 25,000 refugees in Canada between now and next Spring. The lion’s share of that number will come to live here in Montreal. Roughly a third of that number will be children. The Quebec government has asked the province’s Francophone public school boards, as well as some private schools, to assist in this endeavour.

Quebec’s Anglophone schools are prohibited from assisting in this humanitarian project because, according to the Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) all immigrants to Quebec must place their children in Francophone schools. Full stop.


In purely practical terms the situation is illogical to the point of absurdity. Montreal’s French public schools are in poor physical shape due to generations of financial mismanagement and several have been closed without replacement. As such, over-crowding is a consistent problem for the city’s largest Francophone school board, the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM). Incidentally, the CSDM (for myriad complex and inter-related reasons I won’t get into here) has a generally low overall performance rating and the highest dropout rate in the province. Meanwhile, the city’s Anglophone schools are so underpopulated at least one board is preparing to close several of its schools in an effort to cut overhead costs. Of the city’s five on-island school boards, two have a surplus of space and resources and could easily handle the load. They are the city’s two English-language school boards.

Downtown, Chinatown

Bill 101 was created to protect the French language in Quebec, Canada’s historically majority Francophone province. There are 6 million Native Francophones in Quebec. There are fewer than 600,000 Native Anglophones. Bill 101’s mandate that the children of immigrants to the province be educated uniquely in French was intended to ensure French-language dominance in minority communities, at least in part to compensate for the declining birthrate amongst Francophones at the time the bill was enacted. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the problem in my view is that the Charter of the French Language is considered sacrosanct by the province’s political elites and can’t adapt to the province’s current linguistic reality.

Concrete Cathedral

What’s particularly absurd here is that situations such as this demonstrate Bill 101 is incapable of adapting to its own success. If there was a legitimate concern Quebec was becoming ‘too English’ in the late 1970s, then Bill 101 has succeeded in eliminating that threat fully and completely. The cultural supremacy of the French language is evident province-wide and especially in the province’s largest city, which is perhaps somewhat paradoxically where the majority of the province’s Anglophones happen to live. The number of Quebec Anglophones educating their children in French, and in turn the level of bilingualism among that population, has been steadily rising for generations. Quebec’s Anglophone school boards have adapted to the linguistic realities of the province and the inherent benefits of multilingualism; the Lester B. Pearson School Board, metropolitan Montreal’s second largest Anglophone board, offers bilingual education as a minimum in all of their schools, with the number of full French immersion programs steadily increasing.

St. George the Dragon Slayer

In other words, not only do Montreal’s Anglophone school boards have a surplus of space, teachers and other resources, they could also theoretically offer full French language education to Syrian refugees as well.

And yet, according to the Couillard Administration, this is impossible.

And on top of all of that, Bill 101 has a humanitarian clause that would allow the government to suspend aspects of the Charter of the French Language on humanitarian grounds. Evidently, the Couillard Administration does not consider the Syrian Civil War a crisis worthy of invoking the clause.

If settling refugees from the worst civil war since the breakup of Yugoslavia isn’t clause-worthy, what is?

What remains unsaid is all that is unfortunate and dehumanizing about Quebec language politics. Though a degree of cultural and linguistic separation predated Bill 101, the cultural segregation of public education in Quebec was solidified after the bill was enacted, and re-affirmed in the wake of the 1995 Referendum when Quebec abolished religious school boards (some of which offered services in both languages) and replaced them with linguistic ones. Though countless jurisdictions worldwide have eliminated segregated schooling and have embraced multilingualism and multi-culturalism, modern Quebec thinks itself to be exceptional, and that even placing Francophone or immigrant children within proximity of Anglophone children would strike a debilitating blow to the linguistic supremacy of French in Quebec. Consider that despite years of over-crowding in the Francophone sector, and simultaneous years of steadily decreasing enrolment in the Anglophone sector, there is but one jointly administered and semi-integrated school in the entire City of Montreal (FACE school is for ‘gifted students’ and has a population of 1400, it has earned a reputation for being one of the best in the city and yet, for reasons quite beyond my comprehension, stands alone).

Harbourfront, Clock Tower & Bridge (empty space)

Despite volumes of scientific, linguistic and cognitive studies that have proven bilingual education works and makes for smarter children, Quebec vigorously opposes any and all opportunities for greater integration. As far as I’m aware there are no public exchange programs offered between linguistic school boards in Montreal, despite increasing numbers of Francophone parents wanting immersion exchange programs for their children, and the increasing number of Anglophone parents enrolling their children in French schools.

Bill 101 has had an overall pernicious effect on the quality of education in Quebec, to say nothing of how it has unfortunately served to perpetuate the cultural divisions of a less evolved era. We cannot be held hostage by antiquated legislation, and Bill 101 impedes this province’s development and social evolution by ever greater degrees with every passing year. It is profoundly discouraging that the Quebec Liberal Party feels it is politically expedient to court the sensibilities of hardcore nationalists and language supremacists by playing hardball on a humanitarian issue. What could they possibly stand to lose by allowing Anglophone school boards an opportunity to help integrate and educate Syrian children?

Think about the message the Couillard Administration is sending the Anglophone population of Quebec, a community that for the most part helped him get elected. He is saying we are either unfit or incapable of integrating immigrants into Quebec society, and that the threat of the English language is so great he’d rather put refugee children into over-crowded under-performing schools than the empty classrooms of the schools that taught Quebec Anglos how to speak French.

Bienvenue au Québec.

Flushgate 1885 – or – Montreal’s first urban explorers

Montreal's sewer system in 1962; the route taken by P.W. St. George in 1885  can be traced from near the centre
Montreal’s sewer system in 1962; the route taken by P.W. St. George in 1885 can be traced from near the centre

If you ever get the feeling news in Montreal goes in cycles and can be a bit repetitive, this one’s for you.

Sudden and widespread public interest in wastewater treatment is not, apparently, a new phenomenon. It seems as though we’ve had a ‘flushgate’ once before, all the way back in 1885.

A smallpox epidemic struck Montreal that year, killing about 3,200 people (primarily in the cramped eastern wards of the city) and an unknown number in the surrounding region. In a city then of roughly 200,000 people, this was a catastrophic loss.

As you might imagine there was considerable public discussion about what should be done to lessen the impact of disease. We should consider for a moment that, while Montreal was in the infancy of its modernity at the time (and the city was responsible for sanitation, sewage, public health etc., then as now), the general understanding of how disease was transmitted was steeped in ignorance and superstition.

And so, people began to suppose the epidemic was related to congested, antiquated sewage systems, and began pressing the city to flush it all out into the river.

The city engineer in charge of sewerage, P.W. St. George, disagreed with the notion old blocked-up sewers were causing the epidemic. At the time the city’s sewers were comparatively modern (having been built for the most part in the two preceding decades) and, according to his own analysis, the flow rate was appropriate for the estimated amount of waste.

But then, as now, people didn’t care what the experts had to say.

The citizens of Montreal were convinced the only way to stop the spread of disease would be to flush and then clean the sewers all at once. St. George countered it would be fruitless and expensive.

I can understand why so many people would be utterly convinced a great flushing and cleaning of Montreal’s sewer system was the self-evident solution to the epidemic (and if it’s any indication of just how terrible a disease smallpox was, consider that it was the first infectious disease to be eradicated globally, and this was accomplished via mass inoculations no less!), so it’s also understandable why P.W. St. George came up with an unorthodox stunt to prove his point.

In so doing, he also became Montreal’s first urban explorer.

On the morning of September 7th 1885, St. George, along with reporters from both the Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star and three city officials, met near the intersection of Victoria and Sherbrooke, between McGill University and the McCord Museum. There they put on rubber boots and oilskin jackets and clambered down into Montreal’s sewer system. Over the next three and a half hours they would zig-zag their way under Montreal down to a planned exit at Rue Monarque, near the Molson Brewery and roughly three and a half miles from where they had started. The fresh air of the Saint Lawrence River would be there to greet them. All along the route city workers had removed manhole covers to provide light and a degree of ventilation, and a man with a ladder kept pace with the subterranean group from above lest they needed to be rescued. St. George was said to have passed out cheroots to help mask the foul odour.

What they discovered, as the Gazette reported the next day, was a modern brick and cement sewer system that was in remarkably good shape. The velocity of the current at their feet was measured and determined to be more than sufficient to carry the waste away, indeed, they were relieved to find very little sediment. For these reasons the Gazette reporters concluded neither a great flushing nor cleaning would be of much use.

However, they did discover a number of privately-built wooden drains connecting to the larger city sewers, and these tended to be older, rotted out and otherwise blocked-up. These drains were a problem unto themselves, though they didn’t seem to be having any particularly negative effect on the structural integrity or flow rate of the city’s existing sewage system.

One hundred thirty years ago, the people of Montreal were debating whether or not it was wise to flush out the sewers. Plus que ça change…

Then, the experts made their case for why a great big flush would not be beneficial for the city.

Today, the experts have made their case for why it is.


I first read of P.W. St. George’s epic underground journey in John Kalbfleisch’s This Island in Time – Remarkable Tales from Montreal’s Past and would like to extend the necessary credit for inspiring this article. His book is required reading for any Montrealphile, and provides a unique and thought-provoking perspective on this city’s colourful history. Highly recommended.

If you are by now thoroughly fascinated with Montreal’s sewer system, then you absolutely must check out Andrew Emond’s excellent and immersive website, Under Montreal. The sewer map image above was found on his website.

Flushgate: where do we go from here?

Montreal's massive east-end water treatment plant
Montreal’s massive east-end water treatment plant


You can be forgiven for finding this whole affair rather annoying, though I will happily point out we’ve collectively never given as much of a shit about sewerage and sewage treatment as we do right now. Flushgate, as it’s come to be known, is single-handedly responsible for teaching Montrealers what the ‘Southwest Interceptor’ is, not to mention generating a very strong public reaction against the idea of dumping waste into the river.

So bully for us; we’ve collectively learned something interesting about urban planning (a notoriously ‘unsexy’ topic as the pundits will tell you) and have demonstrated, unequivocally, that we’re keen to de-pollute the waterways around the island. It’s Montreal’s dirty little secret – we’re generally of the mind the waterways around our island have been so terribly polluted by years of lax regulations and waterfront heavy industrial activity that we’ve shit the bed, so to speak, and ruined any chance at being able to go for a swim come summertime. Isn’t this why we don’t have any beaches…?

To recap the situation for anyone unaware: the City of Montreal wants to dump eight billion litres of untreated sewage directly into the Saint Lawrence River. Perhaps ‘want’ is the wrong word – the city argues it’s a necessity. But the city lacks the ‘sovereignty’ (if you will) to just up and do it, and so it consulted with both the provincial and federal governments.

The general consensus among environmental scientists is that, while it’s generally speaking not a good idea to dump raw sewage directly into the water supply (and we get nearly all of our drinking water from the river), Montreal lacks the infrastructure to do anything else given it needs to empty a sewage collector in order to execute necessary infrastructure work as part of the Bonaventure Expressway renovation project.

Three days before the federal election, then Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a ministerial order cancelling the planned dump, so that an independent environmental assessment could be conducted to determine what if any effects this might have on fish reproduction around the island and downstream (and by the way, there’s nothing like being on verge of losing a federal election to get a chain-smoking Tory do-nothing cabinet member to suddenly take her job very seriously, but I digress). And so, even though Montreal’s assessment was that it was a necessary evil that wouldn’t ultimately do much harm to the local environment (and the provincial environment ministry agreed with that assessment), we nonetheless had to wait for Ottawa to confirm what was already known.

And as of the day of this writing Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, has given Montreal a conditional green light to dump the waste. The conditions are principally that Montreal develop a contingency plan and increases both the quantity and quality of its environmental monitoring during the dump. The dump is set to commence in the evening of November 10th 2015.

An alternative solution, proposed by the environmental group Fondation rivières, argues that tanker ships should transport the waste and, conceivably dump it out in the Atlantic, where the waste would dissipate over a far larger area. I can’t imagine this could be done cheaply, and I don’t think there’s any port infrastructure designed to pump sewage onto tanker ships (because why?).

The waste, by the way, is mostly human in origin, and not industrial (which, as far as I know, is treated differently). So if the ‘tanker option’ were explored, someone would have unenviable job of cleaning out several tanker ships’ worth of human waste residue post-dump.

The Environment Canada report issued on November 6th indicated that if the dump takes place before the annual winter freezing of the river, then it will likely not have any particularly deleterious effect on local fish reproduction. Also, given the strength of the current, the waste likely won’t be concentrated at our island’s shoreline, but will be dispersed downstream.

Again, it’s far from ideal, but it won’t be an ecological disaster. Aside from these rare instances of raw sewage dumps (it’s happened twice before in the last 12 years), Montreal normally treats its sewage, and is one of the few major North American cities to do so. And of the wastewater treatment engineers who have been consulted (or otherwise have commented) on this issue, it seems that the immense volume of the Saint Lawrence River, in addition to the speed of the current, will pretty much ensure the waste water is diluted to the point it will be harmless. Dilution, as they say, is the solution.

Though Environment Canada favours the dump as a necessary evil, they also want the city to start collecting hard data so that the impact can be fully measured. Apparently this was not already the case, something I find rather alarming. Perhaps I’m naive, but I assumed the city would have already been conducting environmental assessments of this type. Environment Canada also indicated that, if the dump is delayed and the infrastructure work is put off, it may lead to more dumps at less opportune times in the future as a result of a system rupture that would be very difficult to contain.

This is the expert opinion on the matter.

The question is, where do we go from here, and what can we do to ensure we’re not in this situation again in the future?

The problem is that our municipal administration all too often seems to wait until the last minute to even attempt solving a problem, and further never seems to propose long-term, forward-thinking solutions to long-standing environment concerns. If sewage collectors are old and there’s concern they will break, we may need to do more than just emergency repairs whenever a problem develops. Perhaps we need to build new collectors. If our sewage treatment plant is incapable of fully treating sewage after a heavy rainstorm, or if it lacks the capacity to handle an increased volume from time to time, shouldn’t we consider enlarging the existing treatment facility, or building a new one altogether? And if our existing treatment facilities aren’t sophisticated enough to break down the chemicals found in human waste – the pharmaceutical residue we know is wreaking havoc on fish reproduction – then isn’t it time to invest in new technologies and new systems to better treat our waste?

And do we really have to wait for the province or federal government to intervene? Shouldn’t we be able to judge the local situation by ourselves? Shouldn’t we have strong local leadership on issues of importance to the local population?

Montreal may have North America’s largest wastewater treatment plant (third largest in the world, apparently), but it has only ever offered a basic level of treatment, whereas other cities with smaller treatment plants can do a better job of truly purifying wastewater. Having a large capacity system is certainly a step in the right direction, now we need to invest in upgrades and improvements. It isn’t an appealing topic of conversation and politically-speaking is basically valueless – no one remembers the mayor who poured public money into improving the sewerage system, it seems.

But Denis Coderre should take note: whereas not everyone in our city will benefit from a professional baseball team (or even be able to afford the tickets), everyone – literally everyone in Montreal shits at least once a day, and it’s toxic human shit that’s both closed all of our beaches and made fishing strictly ‘catch and release’.

A city on an island should provide access to a clean shore and waterways for the benefit of all citizens.

Denis Coderre needs to stop spending money on parks

City of Montreal plan for the renovation of Place Vauquelin
City of Montreal plan for the renovation of Place Vauquelin

Another week, another colossal waste of our municipal tax dollars.

Tuesday’s announcement: $12 million to renovate Place Vauquelin, the public square between City Hall and the Old Courthouse. Among the many exciting new features: a redesigned fountain, heated granite paving stones and, as the Gazette reports ‘the return of the massive Christmas tree for the holiday period.’

Apparently the province will kick in $3.5 million, and it’s supposed to be completed by December of next year.

I won’t hold my breath… the Coderre administration so far is as well known for constantly pitching the inevitable return of the Montreal Expos inasmuch as their total inability to execute urban renovation projects on time or on budget. Coderre routinely over-promises and under-delivers, despite his ‘hands-on’ approach to dismantling poured concrete…

Given his administration’s track record with the Mordecai Richler Gazebo, Peel Street infrastructure repairs, Place du Canada’s multi-year $10-million renovation (not to mention the stalled Viger Square project and the plan to cover over part of the Ville Marie Expressway), we would wise to ask Mayor Coderre to simply stop undertaking any renovations of public spaces, and leave that to whomever his successor might be.

Place Vauquelin
Place Vauquelin

Moreover – $12 million to redo Place Vauquelin is excessive as is, and we’re assuming, with cause, that it will ultimately cost even more. How much can we really afford to spend on city beautification?

Don’t get me wrong – I want to live in a beautiful city with many well-maintained, well-conceived public spaces.

But don’t forget as well – we’re living in a time of austerity, or at least we’re supposed to be. All levels of government have indicated time and again since the Crash of 2008-09 that budget cuts are necessary so as to lower the debt, and that this, along with tax breaks for the wealthiest of citizens and corporations, will help revive our lagging economy.

Our economy is still lagging, and spending municipal tax dollars on city beautification projects is not the kind of economic stimulus we need.

Moreover, the underlying problem is – and always has been – that the people have no apparatus to measure government budgetary efficiency. There is no constant public audit of the spending habits of the City of Montreal, and we accept the city’s cost estimates for various projects without the means to judge whether these costs are reasonable or justifiable in the first place.

Take the Mordecai Richler Gazebo example: the Cadillac of modern gazebos, locally sourced, clocks in at a cost of about $25,000. Such was offered to the city, as well as the cost of construction, pro bono by a local entrepreneur a couple of months back. The mayor declined the offer, stating (weakly I might add) that the Richler Gazebo is a heritage structure and as such the current cost estimate of $592,000 is appropriate. It is already well-known Mordecai Richler never wrote of (or in) the gazebo that will bear his name, and by my estimate about half the total sum is linked to the city commissioning ultimately incomplete studies relating to the history and heritage of the structure. Information that was already publicly available, that any university student could easily have prepared in a report, could have saved this city at least a quarter-million dollars in costs associated with this project, and would have made a compelling argument in favour of simply demolishing it.

Derelict riverside park near Place des Nations
Derelict riverside park near Place des Nations

Another example: the $70 million renovation of part of Parc Jean-Drapeau to facilitate large open-air concerts is not only an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars, it will likely wind up exclusively benefitting concert promoters. The project is intended both to create a permanent outdoor amphitheatre as well as a new promenade to link Calder’s Man with the Métro station. Additional support facilities, like public toilets and vendor kiosks, would likely be integrated into the plan. But the project won’t be completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017 (in fact it’s due to open in 2019) and the economic benefits to the city are dubious at best. Parc Jean-Drapeau may be part of the city’s ‘tourism sector’, but the nature of these massive outdoor concerts tends to concentrate most of their economic activity to the immediate environs of the concert. Put another way, you’re probably not going to have dinner in the Old Port if you’ve spent your day at Osheaga or Heavy MTL, and this is quite the contrary of the city’s other, more urban music festivals (like the Jazz Fest or Francofolies, which provide direct economic stimulus to the restaurant and hotel industries across a far larger area of the city). What’s particularly onerous about this proposal is that a) there aren’t that many massive touring outdoor concert festivals to begin with, b) the existing space is already adequate given the limited need and c) Parc Jean-Drapeau already has a purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre, and it’s a derelict heritage structure to boot.

But wait, there’s more!

In January of 2014 the management corporations of both Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Quartier international de Montréal put together a project that sought to spend $55 million on a comprehensive renovation of Parc Jean-Drapeau in time for the 375th anniversary. At the time, the plan called for $12.5 million to be spent renovating and rehabilitating Place des Nations, $22.5 million to be spent building a three-kilometre long riverside promenade around both Ile Sainte Helene and Ile Notre Dame, $15 million on a new central promenade connecting the Métro station to Calder’s Man, and only $5 million to improve the open-air concert venue.

So in the span of just under two years the Parc Jean-Drapeau renovation project has increased in cost by more than $15 million and has been downgraded in terms of its scope (Coderre’s recent announcement seems to only include the Calder promenade and the infrastructure for a larger capacity and more permanent outdoor concert venue; there was no mention of Place des Nations or a riverside promenade). In addition, a larger and less expensive project that would have completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary is now only estimated to be completed two years later.

This is not an efficient use of municipal tax dollars, nor is it demonstrative of efficient urban planning.

Place Vauquelin, Viger Square, Place du Canada, Place des Nations and that wretched gazebo all fell into disuse and disrepair because they were not adequately maintained, as administrations from decades ago sought to cut costs for reasons that would be familiar to us today. Montreal has gone through several cycles of concentrated spurts of investment into massive urban beautification projects, most recently to celebrate oddball anniversaries (375th two years from now, 350th back in 1992, but the cycle goes back to Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics as well), followed by prolonged periods where maintenance budgets are cut back to the bone. This is an advantageous situation for politicians and private contractors alike – every other mayor can triumphantly proclaim major investments of public funds to demonstrate that, unlike their penny-pinching predecessors, they are truly working to push the city forward, wisely investing public funds in large-format public works programs.

It all has the allure of being good for the economy but it’s all just an illusion.


Coderre announced Thursday, from the trade mission he’s on in China (?), that there will be consequences for those responsible for driving the cost of the gazebo renovation project up to $592,000, and also provided the nebulous quotation: “…but trust me, I’m not going to spend too much money on that one.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what precisely that means.

The End of the Great Depression

Stephen Harper, Reformist - credit to Canadian Press (1992)

Now that we’ve all had a week to digest…

The administration of Stephen J. Harper, Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, has mercifully come to an end. A nation takes a much-needed sigh of relief.

This was not the prime minister the majority of Canadians wanted. Elected on promises to end a decade of self-congratulatory and self-serving Liberal government, the Harper Conservatives quickly degenerated into precisely what they had claimed to oppose. In the end, they were far worse than that which they had replaced. Patronage was rampant, the party could barely go a month without being embroiled in scandal, and the leader, his party and his band of raving sycophants treated the Canadian public, and the institutions which have helped unite a cosmopolitan and continental country, with utter contempt.

For nearly a decade a disorganized, disunited yet nonetheless vocal majority of Canadians opposed Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party he commanded, and just about every decision they made. This opposition rallied around the NDP’s Jack Layton in 2011, and found a new hope in the third-place Liberals under the apparent leadership qualities of Justin Trudeau in 2015.

Justin Trudeau, heir to the Liberal crown, is now prime minister, and he promises great change.

The problem of course is that this is not great change at all.

Canadians have been following a cycle stretching back to the Second World War at least. We get fed up with the Tories and replace them with the Grits, then get fed up with the Grits and replace them with the Tories. Each promises to move the nation forward and eliminate the wasteful ways of the predecessor, and then each winds up essentially committing the same crimes, further diminishing the public’s confidence in what the federal government is capable of accomplishing (and this here is the greatest crime ever perpetrated on the Canadian people; the idea that government is more hindrance than help has, and will continue to, set us back developmentally-speaking).

So let’s be real for a moment.

Our last truly great prime minister was Lester B. Pearson. In five years (and with two back-to-back minority governments no less) the man managed to eliminate the death penalty, establish universal health care, created the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan and brought in a student loan program to increase access to post-secondary education. He gave us our flag, the Order of Canada, kept us out of the Vietnam War (and was assaulted by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson for having the ‘temerity’ to tell American students precisely why) and established the bilingualism and biculturalism commission to better integrate the ‘two solitudes’.

And on top of all this he won the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing peacekeeping and was elected in 1963 at least in part because he insisted Canada should acquire nuclear weapons!

Pearson should have served as a model for all of his predecessors. A natural diplomat, he not only invested heavily in the establishment of a comprehensive and effective foreign service, he also fought hard to achieve consensus here at home. Neither Harper, nor Chretien nor Mulroney were able to accomplish half as much as Pearson during their twice-as-long-lasting reigns as prime minister, and with every passing decade it seems we’ve elected chief executives who have demonstrated a progressively decreasing interest in working with anyone other than their own partisans.

That this is taken for granted is terribly problematic. Our elected ‘leaders’ ought to work for the benefit of all Canadians, regardless of who those Canadians voted for or what region of the country they live in.

In the 148 years of this nation’s modern history, no prime minister has been as divisive as Stephen Harper. We are fortunate he has decided to exit federal politics and will allow new blood to run the Conservative Party. Whoever replaces him has an immense task at hand to regain public confidence and re-define the party. Given that the Trudeau Liberals have won a majority of seats in Parliament, the Tories have a while to rebrand themselves.

That being said, we have every reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Justin Trudeau has proven himself a very effective politician, and he ran a very successful campaign. In terms of how the Liberal Party presented itself to the public, they championed a kind of pragmatic progressivism which has characterized the Liberals for over fifty years, albeit delicately and without being overly precise.

Mr. Trudeau is Canada’s first Gen-X prime minister, and at the age of 43 one of the youngest in Canadian history (though we do tend to elect PMs in their mid-40s). He is also, of course, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s eldest son, born on Christmas Day 1971 to Canada’s enthusiastic and professorial prime minister and the flower child he met on the beaches of Tahiti. The American President Richard Nixon famously prophesized that Justin would one day walk in the shoes of his father when he was still a toddler. When the elder Trudeau passed in the Millennial Year, Trudeau the Younger’s eulogy from the pulpit of Montreal’s Notre Dame Cathedral turned heads: a nation heard the voice of a future leader.

We must not make a false idol out of Justin Trudeau.

There’s temptation to do so: our democracy isn’t that strong, and historically-speaking the people of this nation have, time-and-again, created a kind of local aristocracy out of our political class. If we despised the Tories for any one particular reason over the last decade, it is because they so frequently acted as though they were not beholden to the citizenry of the nation, not even to those who supported them most fervently. The Tories turned their backs on veterans and the military, their economic record was abysmal and a total lack of federal command over strategic resource exploitation has not only turned much of Northern Alberta into a environmental wasteland, it has further sapped Western Canada of its primary economic driver. Thirty years after the National Energy Program sank the Trudeau/Turner Liberals, we now wonder whether a degree of protectionism in the oil and natural gas sector might not be to our advantage in a world of unstable geo-politics, itself a product of un-stable oil prices.

Laissez faire, the unspoken motto of the Harper Decade on far too many matters of national importance, doesn’t seem to work anymore.

But inasmuch as Canadians seemingly voted to end ‘hands-off’ federal government, I can’t help but wonder if we also voted, even if we won’t openly admit it, for Justin’s father, and a notion of political genetics. I fear some of us may have.

The 42nd election was quite unlike any other in Canadian history, as it was so clearly an executive election in a parliamentary system that doesn’t directly elect executive leaders. This was not a three-way fight between three national parties, it was Justin vs. Stephen vs. Thomas, with Lizzie and Gilles off on the sidelines providing colour commentary. And so, this election was also a demonstration of just how broken our democracy really is. What we were supposed to do was collectively choose 338 legislators to replace a remarkably dysfunctional parliament. Instead, only 67% of us chose between one of two prospective national leaders (after taking a principled, socially-liberal and fundamentally Canadian position on the issue of the niqab, Mulcair paid for it by losing much of the early support he had acquired; for the last month of the election at least, it was a two-way race).

While the voter participation rate in 2015 was about five percentage points higher than in 2011, 67% participation still puts us squarely in C minus territory vis-a-vis democratic participation. A third of Canadians could not be bothered to execute their primary democratic responsibility. As far as I’m concerned, this is as much the fault of the ‘leaders’ and their parties as it is the system in which we operate. Even as bad as things have gotten, a third of those eligible still felt no particular need or utility in expressing themselves as citizens in a democracy.

Mr. Trudeau has indicated several times that 2015 will be the last federal election in Canada to use the ‘first past the post’ method, and that the next election will utilize a proportional system wherein the composition of parliament directly reflects the wishes and will of the people. He must be held to this. Canada cannot consider itself a true democracy when so many votes wind up not counting for anything at all.

Ultimately there’s a broader idea here – the chief executive of the nation must be held accountable at all times, not just during our quadrennial attempt at democracy. Unfortunately, given Mr. Trudeau’s majority government, he won’t be required to achieve consensus in Parliament to get anything done. He should try to nonetheless; he should govern more like Pearson than even his own father. We should not want Pierre Trudeau reborn.

There’s much Trudeau the Younger must do. He should repeal bills C-51 and C-24 in their entirety, make the TPP document public and even consider a national referendum on further free trade pacts. He needs to ensure next year’s census is long-form and mandatory, and I wouldn’t mind mandatory voting in addition to a new proportional voting system as well. November 11th (Remembrance Day) and February 15th (Flag Day) ought to be statutory national holidays, door to door mail delivery needs to be maintained and the CBC, NFB and NRC should all get major funding increases too.

And we also need a proper inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (and men) that results in a serious commitment and plan to end the endemic inequity, mistreatment and generally lower quality of life experienced by an unfortunate number of Aboriginal Canadians.

I could go on with a wishlist but I won’t, it would take far too much time and I’m certain there are other more talented writers currently drafting outlined for large tomes aimed at dissecting the nation’s most recent ‘decade of darkness’ and all we want our prime minister-designate to accomplish.

Rather, I’ll end it on this point here. François Cardinal at La Presse already neatly summarized an idea that’s now quite clear to Montrealers – the holy trinity of liberals at the helm nationally, provincially and municipally will likely benefit our city immensely, especially given the forthcoming sesquicentennial of Confederation and Montreal’s 375th anniversary in two years.

Cardinal argues that Montreal voted for the right team, and that this will benefit us. Not only is the Prime Minister a Montrealer, there’s a good possibility a number of cabinet members will be as well (and it should be pointed out that Canada’s largest cities not only rejected the Tories outright, but their mayors were far more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper, another national ‘first’).

At the very least this means our city’s unique perspective will be well represented. But what underlies Cardinal’s article is the notion we’ll benefit more directly in terms of federal money flowing into our city, perhaps in part as a kind of reward for electing so many Liberals, or to help stave off separatist rumblings. Either way, if the new government benefits Montreal in particular, it will be no better than its predecessors. We should not want a federal government that rewards cities or regions because of who they voted for, as this is precisely what we didn’t like about Stephen Harper.

Or Maurice Duplessis for that matter…

It’s natural that the new government and our new chief executive will likely favour our city in various ways, but it can’t come at anyone else’s expense. We can’t accept more patronage and favouritism simply because the guy doing it is young and handsome.

That being said, it is most definitely the right time for a new political arrangement between Canada’s largest cities and the federal government, one that gives Canada’s major cities greater local control over how tax dollars are spent, over how key services are administered, and in particular how our great cities are to move forward and develop.

If there’s a particular reason to be cautiously optimistic, this would be it.

In search of the Fat Damned English Ladies from Eaton’s

Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 - credit to the Montreal Gazette
Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 – credit to the Montreal Gazette

Here’s an example of a contemporary Quebecois myth you’ve likely heard before:

At some point in the past Quebec Anglophones were openly hostile to Francophones and insisted that Francophones speak English whilst conducting business transactions. This supposedly widespread phenomenon was illustrated with the image of a rotund middle-aged woman working behind the counter at Eaton’s, speaking the Queen’s English and insisting anyone who wants her service should do the same.

I’ve heard this story and variations of it for as long as I’ve cared to have an opinion on Quebec independence. The story is often brought up to suit various purposes, either as demonstrative of the ‘Westmount Rhodesian’ stereotype of old-school Anglophones, or to demonstrate the relative success of Bill 101 in ensuring Francophone dominance in our day-to-day lives.

Some, including Mathieu Bock-Coté of the Journal de Montréal, refer to the ‘grosses madames de chez Eatons’ not only as though this racist, sexist, characterization were an evident historical fact, but additionally claim the phenomenon of Anglophones refusing to do business in the language of the local majority is alive and well today.

If you have any common sense, you’ve doubtless thought this story was a touch far fetched.

It certainly never made any sense to me. Why on Earth would a business of any size prohibit their staff from speaking both official languages? Doing so would be a disastrous policy. Moreover, why would any business openly antagonize Francophones by hiring people such as this aforementioned stereotype? If I ran a business and discovered one of my staff was conducting themselves as such, they would promptly be fired. Any manager or business owner with a modicum of common sense would do the same today inasmuch as fifty, seventy or one-hundred years ago.

Let’s keep something in mind: Montreal has been a primarily Francophone city since before Confederation. The last time the relative populations of Anglophones and Francophones in Montreal were even close to parity was back before the Rebellions of the late 1830s. In the last 100 years, the largest the Anglophone population ever was (in all of Quebec), was 880,000 in 1971.

It is entirely unrealistic to imagine at any point in time in the last 100 years of our city’s history that saleswomen working in the city’s major department stores were instructed to not speak French or were hired specifically because they were unilingual Anglophones. It goes against the very nature of capitalism and basic customer service practices. It’s even more unrealistic to imagine there was some kind of concerted effort amongst the Anglophone minority to snub Francophones and/or antagonize the majority population to prevent them from shopping on Sainte-Catherine.

And yet, despite the fact that the stereotype of the fat unilingual Anglophone lady doesn’t jibe well with reality, there’s the very real fact that it is taken as historical truth and that the entire story is utter bullshit.

Here’s what really happened:

In January 1989 then provincial industry and commerce minister Pierre MacDonald granted a La Presse journalist an hour-long interview, during which time the reporter asked what MacDonald thought of the language debate. At the time the Quebec Liberal government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to uphold its ban on bilingual signs, and linguistic and nationalist/federalist tensions were running high.

MacDonald replied candidly that he was sick of the debate.

As it was reported in the Montreal Gazette shortly thereafter, and again in the May 1st 1989 issue, MacDonald was said to have called some Eaton’s clerks “fat, damned English ladies who can’t speak a word of French” (for those unaware, Eaton’s was a major national department store chain that went under around 1999-2000; in 1989 their Montreal flagship store was located at University and Sainte-Catherine and was one of the premier shopping destinations in the city). The Gazette article was itself referring to comments made by MacDonald in the La Presse interview from earlier that year. An opinion piece in La Presse dated to January 17th 1989 by Lysiane Gagnon excoriates the minister for having repeated the ‘sentiments of his colleagues who, evidently were wise enough not to repeat the racist and sexist statements of some their own constituents.’

In the context of the question “what do you think of the language debate?” MacDonald had answered that he was personally sick of it and that the phrase “fat, damned English ladies from Eaton’s who can’t speak a word of French” was an example of the language used by extremists on both sides of the debate (meaning both the Francophone and Anglophone communities had linguistic extremists who were either unwilling to speak with the other camp and/or felt excluded by them).

The Gazette’s ombudswoman in 1989, Stephanie Whittaker, felt it was necessary to clear the air on June 26th 1989 when she pointed out the inconsistency in the Gazette’s own narrative in an article entitled “Small inaccuracies can gravely distort news stories”.

Tell me about it.

What’s embarrassing for the Gazette is that they reported the inaccuracy, as fact, in MacDonald’s obituary, published on July 10th of this year.

The same mistake was repeated by La Presse writer Émilie Nault-Simard in her October 25th 2013 article “Les grosses Anglaises de chez Eaton.”

Too bad for Pierre MacDonald. Not only was he often misquoted as the source of a statement that did not reflect his own views, but by referring to this clichéd stereotype wound up inadvertently solidifying its place in our common memory. So much ink was spilled attacking the minister for his remark the fact that he wasn’t speaking of his own experience, nor even of any kind of recorded experience, somehow became unimportant.

And now, for some people, it’s accepted as a historical fact. Nault-Simard, writing for La Presse, even attempts to bring the mythological fat English ladies into the fold of Quebec history by arguing the Quiet Revolution was in part a reaction against them (and in additional historical revisionism, Ms. Nault-Simard refers to the Fédération des femmes du Québec, founded by Thérèse Casgrain and critical of the minister’s alleged comments on the grounds of the inherent sexism, as an Anglophone women’s group!)

I say again, there were no fat unilingual Anglos at Eaton’s. The Gazette reported it couldn’t find any on January 15th 1989, and letters published in La Presse on January 26th 1989 indicated at least three Montrealers who, by their own admission, couldn’t find any either and had always been served in French when shopping at Eaton’s.

Both Pierre MacDonald and Lysiane Gagnon were referring to a cliché, a stereotype, a mischaracterization and a fabrication that existed before MacDonald’s 1989 La Presse interview.

But a cliché isn’t a historical fact no matter how many people believe it.

What’s interesting to me is how local media dealt with the obvious miscommunication. For La Presse the problem was that an important cabinet minister felt such an obviously racist and sexist comment would in any way be representative of mainstream Quebecois sentiment. Gagnon objected to the sexist and racist stereotype on the one hand, then attacked MacDonald for not realizing there’s demonstrable proof French was the overwhelming language of commerce in Montreal, as it was then and as it is now. According to Gagnon, the same day MacDonald referred to the ‘fat damned English ladies’, the Conseil de la langue française issued a report indicating French was first in the shopping malls, department stores and small businesses across the city. It should be noted that Gagnon’s piece, entitled ‘La vendeuse et le ministre’, defends Anglophone linguistic rights, attacks the Bourassa government’s Bill 178 as being unnecessarily damaging and further adds that Bill 101 was more flexible in terms of the languages used on commercial signs.

Gagnon is a noted promoter of Quebec’s language laws.

For their part, the Gazette seemed incapable of choosing a narrative. At first they reported MacDonald as having made the remarks himself as an indication of his own opinion, seemingly approving of Bill 178 as necessary to protect the French language against Anglophone linguistic extremists under the employ of the T. Eaton Company. Then the Gazette corrected their earlier story and appropriately explained MacDonald was not expressing his own views. Then, inexplicably, the Gazette returned back to their original story, and continued reporting it as fact and as demonstrative of MacDonald’s personal views until the minister corrected them in May of 1989. It would take until June of 1989 for the Gazette to get their story straight, and only after the paper’s ombudswoman went to the extraordinary step of issuing a fairly comprehensive explanation of the prolonged communication breakdown.

And even once this was done, the story had been so widely taken out of context it even made its way into Mordecai Richler’s controversial ‘Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!’ as, you guessed it, an indication of MacDonald’s personal feelings.

So to recap: there were never any ‘fat damned English ladies at Eaton’s who couldn’t speak a word of French’, it was all one big game of broken telephone.

And it’s unfortunately become an indelible stain on the historical record, accepted as a real example of things used to be.

Special thanks to Kevin Areson for helping with the research.

Montreal Journalist