Sabotaging Viger Square

Rule no.1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase drew shady characters, install better lighting.
Rule number 1 of building a park: make it open and accessible. If this staircase draws shady characters, install better lighting.

Here’s a hypothetical situation:

A city builds a park costing x millions of dollars with the intent to rehabilitate a given sector of its urban environment and cover over an exposed highway trench. It hires leading landscape architects and local artists to develop a master plan for the park and then sets about building it. At some point in time between the beginning of construction and the new park’s opening day, the city changes fundamental aspects of the master plan and eliminates others with an aim to lowering overall projected costs, claiming the initial vision developed by the relevant experts was too expensive.

Smart politics: a park gets built and various officials make claims they got the job done under budget.

The park opens and then for the better part of the next thirty some-odd years the city a) stops fully maintaining the park and b) actively sets about removing the park’s infrastructure – benches, garbage bins, picnic tables, fountains, lighting etc.

At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square,  I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.
At first I thought this odd arrangement of cement boxes was part of the art. When I noticed this pattern repeated itself throughout Viger Square, I realized this is where the benches were located. The big box was for garbage.

After thirty years the city proposes to demolish the old park and replace it with an entirely new park costing y millions of dollars because the park has become undesirable in the intervening thirty-year period. The city argues the park is considered undesirable because a semi-permanent homeless population now lives there, and that the solution to both the park’s undesirability and (somehow) the homeless camp is to spend public money on building a new park (and not a new homeless shelter).

The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.
The considerable open space and unique architecture of the Agora would make it an ideal location for public performance.

This is the situation with Viger Square; the city of Montreal intends to spend public money building a new park to replace the one they – for lack of a better word – sabotaged. Though Denis Coderre seems to have backed off a bit after considerable public outcry from preservationists, urbanists and the family of one of the people responsible for Viger Square’s design, there’s little doubt in my mind the political intent is fundamentally misdirected. As of this writing the proposal presented at the beginning of June has been rejected, more or less at the eleventh hour, after Coderre decided the project was unsatisfactory. Still, he qualifies the park as ‘a bunker.’

Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.
Initially panned by critics for excessive use of cement, the pergolas are now covered in ivy, giving sections of Agora the feeling of a vineyard.

Up until quite recently the city’s plan called for the destruction of a significant work of homegrown landscape architecture and sculpture to replace it with something banal and unimaginative at a cost of $28 million. This is your money. It was your money that financed the extant Viger Square as well. The idea that we should pay a considerable sum (think of how many new elementary schools $28 million could build) to tear down a fine example of local landscape architecture and sculpture so that the CHUM can have a nondescript ‘front yard’, and then further to lay the blame for the park’s disfunction on its design, rather than the city’s perpetual disinterest in adequately maintaining it, is simply inexcusable.

Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.
Rule number 2 of building a park: if the main attraction is a fountain and pool arrangement, turn the water on.

Without question renovation and rehabilitation is the best way forward for Viger Square, but this doesn’t mean starting from square one. Elements of the original design, such as a café kiosk, or a public market, could be easily integrated into what’s already built, and would serve to draw new interest to the square.

Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.
Again, this works better when the tap is turned on.

But what drives me up the wall is that the simplest and least expensive solution would be not to add anything at all; fixing Viger Square is as straightforward as making the fountains work, re-installing park furniture and picking out the weeds. While there’s considerable debate concerning the application of the ‘broken windows theory’ by law enforcement, the idea that a well-maintained urban environment serves to dissuade petty criminality and attract respectable public usage is fairly sensible. If we don’t want our parks and public spaces to become open air drug markets and homeless camps, then we need to ensure these spaces are well-maintained as a bare minimum. It’s common sense.

Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.
Rule number 3 of building a park: do not remove the benches.

As is, Viger Square is roughly as well-maintained as Place des Nations, which is to say the grass gets cut and that’s about it. As I mentioned previously, someone had the bright idea to remove all park benches and cover over all the garbage cans. No wonder people don’t go there to relax and read a book. Neither of the large fountains, arguably the main attractions to the square, work, nor do the smaller drinking stations. Weeds grow through the cracks of uneven paving stones, metal drains are broken, a waterfall, long since deactivated, has been painted blue. The only flowers I noticed were planted along the periphery; inside the square there are no gardens to speak of. And the periphery is probably the square’s single greatest problem – cement walls disconnect the squares from the street and provide too sharp a distinction from the surrounding urban environment. Removing these could do a lot to change the park’s fortunes.

There's no good reason for this wall. Removing it would  improve pedestrian access to the square.
There’s no good reason for this wall. Removing it would improve pedestrian access to the square.

But if we want a sustainable solution to Viger Square’s homeless population, then the city should consider acquiring the former CHSLD Jacques-Viger, located in the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute at 970 René Levesque East (a stone’s throw from Viger Square and the CHUM). The building is a threatened heritage site that was originally built as a convent and hospital complex, and was then used as a long-term care facility. This would be an ideal location for the CHUM’s public outreach programs, and could easily serve as a homeless shelter, and that’s ultimately what’s needed to make Viger Square inviting again. Closing the square for renovations will force the displacement of the homeless temporarily, but without better services and more beds to get the homeless off the streets, we’re either just delaying the inevitable return of homeless camps to Viger Square, or are displacing them to another public space.

This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?
This man deserves better than this. We have $28 million to build a park, but nothing to help him?

Rehabilitating the square is a good idea, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do need to look beyond the mere aesthetics of the park, however, and address the core problem of lacking services for the homeless and transient population. This is why we should start thinking of Viger Square and the Sœurs de Miséricorde Institute as inter-related urban rehabilitation projects. As inexcusable as bulldozing Viger Square without acknowledging the city’s role in its demise is, it is unconscionable for the city to displace the only people who have made any use of it, leaving them to continue sleeping outside when a usable building stands just up the street.

Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.
Currently nothing but an occasional bird bath.

Cabot Square Redux: not quite paradise, kind of a parking lot…

This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt
This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt

After about a year’s worth of work, Cabot Square re-opened to the public on Wednesday July 8th.

The major improvement involves two outreach workers who will now use the square’s renovated stone kiosk (vespasienne) as home base to provide services to the primarily Aboriginal homeless community that (up until the renovations began) called Cabot Square home. Whether this homeless population returns to spend their time in Cabot Square remains to be seen, but the mere fact that these outreach workers have their own workspace within the square is in and of itself a progressive step in the right direction. From what I’ve read, the kiosk will also serve as a café where the proceeds will support the homeless (or the outreach program that helps the homeless). This is also good – Montreal is well known for its dearth of coffee-purchasing opportunities…

Other improvements: apparently there’s daily programming (music, dance, theatre) organized throughout the summer, and free wifi. I have a greater interest in the latter rather than the former, but again, glad to see it and I hope these activities are well-attended.

However, as you can see in the above photo, much of the square has been covered over in a slick ‘water-permeable ground covering’ that looks an awful lot like asphalt and for that reason looks awful.

Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs
Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs

This is not to say that the square was completely paved over – just that too much of it was. The paved portion flows around ‘green islands’ – there are now several such ‘islands’ in the newly renovated square, sharply divided from the walking paths with large curbs that integrate a few benches and subtle anti-skateboarding dimples. Within the green islands, plants surrounding the bases of several trees. Elsewhere in the square, younger trees planted to replace those removed during the renovation are surrounded by small circles of wood chips.

The division between green and grey isn’t subtle – it’s very clear where you’re supposed to walk and where you’re not.

There’s almost no grass per se, no flowerbeds either. In its previous incarnation, there were patches of grass and no physical barrier between the somewhat symmetrical paving-stone walking paths and the green space.

The new arrangement reminds me of a trip to the Biodome; nature in the new Cabot Square is ‘grade-separated’ – look, but don’t touch seems to be the overriding design philosophy, which is ironic given how Aboriginal politics often involves efforts to sustain our interactions with the natural environment (i.e. preservation with an aim towards common appreciation etc.)

While there’s no doubt the new Cabot Square is slick, clean and modern, it’s also much less of a park. It feels more like a transit point than an urban refuge, and this is odd given that there’s so much less going on around Cabot Square these days (i.e. the Forum closed in 1996, the Children’s Hospital just relocated and the square isn’t the major bus terminus it once was). Considering there are plans to increase residential density in the area by building more condo towers and apartment buildings, I figured city planners would have gone in a different direction, aiming to provide an urban refuge instead of a kind of shaded crossroads.

It occurred to me that the paved surface will certainly make the space easier to clean, and further allows city vehicles to drive around inside the square without ripping up the ground and grass. Except that these posts have been installed at every entrance and seem pretty solid. I’m not entirely sure what their purpose is… I think it’s to slow down cyclists.

Questionable Purpose

There’s a greater irony here: before the renovation Montreal police would regularly drive directly into the square and either park their cruiser near the statue or do a quick lap before heading back out. Tactics such as these are intended to intimidate and drive people away. It also destroyed the paths and and the grass. Municipal workers would do the same when they were ostensibly working at maintaining the square.

Now the square has a paved interior with wide paths and large curbs to ensure the division between green space and walking space, but these posts make it impossible for any car or truck to enter the square (and Montreal police pledged somewhat to treat homeless Aboriginals more like human beings).

One thing I noticed when visiting recently was the removal of shrubs, decorative fences and bus shelters that once ran around the square’s periphery. I completely approve of this, and wrote about the necessity of opening up sight lines in the past. The former arrangement of bus shelters and shrubs made it impossible to see across the space and for this reason made it an ideal location for homeless people to congregate (Place Emilie-Gamelin and Viger Square suffer from the same problem).

So that being the case, it makes me wonder if the homeless Aboriginal community (or any members of the broader homeless community for that matter) will return to the square.

The picnic tables have been removed, as have a number of park benches. Garbage and recycling has been moved to the periphery, largely at the entrances (in a move I could only assume was based on a recent STM decision to do the same with Métro stations, wherein garbage and recycling has been removed from platform level and relocated to receptacles located up near the ticket kiosks). This is one of those ideas that’s good in theory but rarely in practice (i.e. people have about a 30-second tolerance limit to carrying garbage; if a garbage bin isn’t immediately available, they tend to just drop it on the ground).

And as to those anti-skateboarding dimples on the curbs? Again, useful in theory, but given that the entire square has been paved over, the whole square is now far more inviting to skateboarders than it was previously. Moreover, on all sections of the curbs that ramp up from ground level, there doesn’t seem to be any dimples at all.

Put it another way, when I visited the square last week, it was a group of skateboarders who were making best use of the space. I don’t think this is what the city had in mind.

Underwhelming

Here we see an example of one of the myriad ‘activities’ slated to take place in the square. I think this was for a caricaturist. Elsewhere there was a small group of somewhat depressed looking ‘street performers’ dressed like pirate-clowns; I’m assuming this was entertainment intended for children…

Again, more good stuff in theory, but only time will tell whether this actually leads to a major vocational change for the square. There seemed to be a lot of people working (ostensibly) for the city that day, and supporting this over the long term may prove problematic what with austerity budgets.

Renovated Vespasienne

And here’s the renovated vespasienne. It looks great, but it didn’t look like the café component was fully operational. It’s unfortunate there’s no landscaping around the base of the edifice (no flowers or plants), as this gives the impression the vespasienne grew out of the pavement.

Perhaps the single biggest lost opportunity was the Métro entrance kiosk located at the northwest corner of the square, in that what is arguably the most problematic structure in the square was left as-is. The Métro entrance in the square was once very useful indeed – keep in mind Atwater was the western terminus of the Green Line for about a decade, and up until 20 years ago the Forum was the city’s primary sporting and concert venue. Thus, it was useful to have a large Métro entrance located directly across from the Forum to help manage the crowds. Ever since the Forum stopped being a important venue this Métro entrance hasn’t been particularly useful. It, and the long tunnel that connects it with the Alexis Nihon complex diagonally across the street, hasn’t been very well maintained and all too often stinks of piss.

And as such it will remain – I suppose getting the city’s parks department and the STM to cooperate on a city beautification project may have been a little too difficult to coordinate. Thus, the STM kiosk remains an oversized, underused and aesthetically disconnected element of the square. Had they removed it the square could have had an entrance from arguably its highest traffic corner. Instead, the structure remains as a lasting visual obstruction to what’s going on inside the square and will likely continue to serve as something of a homeless shelter in its own right.

At the end of the day it begs the question – is this really the best our city can do?

Politically Motivated Memory

Victims of Communism monument original design conceptual rendering

Generally speaking I’m in favour of building monuments and creating new public spaces, particularly when said space reflects the nation’s history, culture and society. However, two projects with federal backing have been making the news lately and for good reason – there’s a lot of very public opposition to the final designs and, in both cases, the rationale behind the very purpose of these monuments has also been questioned. On top of it all, these projects seem to be politically motivated and specifically intended to appeal to Conservative voters.

The projects include Tribute to Liberty, a memorial to the victims of communism (the name alone is problematic, conflating a political ideology with the acts of tyrannical dictators. Communism is not inherently tyrannical, humans are, but I digress) and Mother Canada, centrepiece of the Never Forgotten National Memorial. The organizations formed to direct the projects are charitable organizations, though in the case of the former the Heritage Ministry is involved, and in the latter case the monument is to be ‘gifted’ to Parks Canada. In the case of the communism memorial, the land in question sits adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada owned by the National Capital Commission, and was for a long time considered for development into a new government office building. Mother Canada is supposed to open her arms to the war dead up the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. So even though the organizations may be nominally independent registered charities, both projects require direct interaction with government agencies.

The Never Forgotten National Memorial is projected to cost $25 million and has recently lost some high-profile supporters.

Tribute to Liberty is estimated to cost $5.5 million, roughly $400,000 over budget and on land currently valued at $16 million.

Ostensibly the funds are to be raised by the charities tasked with developing these projects, but as it stands both groups seem to be far from their fundraising goals (this despite the fact that the NCC has begun soil-decontamination work at the communism memorial site).

Financial matters aside, there’s the question of why build these particular projects at all.

Tribute to Liberty was intended to occupy much of the prime real estate in question in downtown Ottawa, though the project has since been downsized (and may shrink even further), with several features of the original plan either proportionally shrunk or axed outright (such as the lighting and the downward-facing faceless victim of communism, centrepiece of the original design). It’s bad when monuments are imposed upon the urban landscape; it’s worse when the artistic vision is altered by committee.

The revisions seem to indicate the committee was paying attention, at least in part, to some of the most immediate criticisms of the project – namely that it was imposing, looming, inappropriately violent (etc).

Here’s a fantastic piece of propaganda that looks like it belongs in the introduction of some post Cold War scenario video game; it shows what the original monument was to look like. The folded section was to generate a an image when viewed from the top of the chevron-staircase arrangement, apparently one of a row of dead bodies in a forest. The image would be created by 100 million ‘memory cubes’ representing the 100 million people ‘killed by communism’.

The figure of 100 million killed by communism is meaningless and intended uniquely for shock value. Yes, communist, Marxist and Maoist states have all demonstrated authoritarian if not totalitarian and genocidal tendencies throughout the 20th century. So have a number of capitalist democratic states during the same period of time. Germany invaded and occupied much of Europe in the early 1940s specifically to defend ‘freedom, liberty and capitalism’ from ‘godless communism’. The United States kickstarted wars and supported dictatorships all over the world that killed off millions of people throughout the 20th century, either directly (such as in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) or indirectly (the first Persian Gulf War, the Bush Wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, civil wars throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, etc.)

You could further make the argument that capitalism is just as destructive – just about everything there is to buy in capitalist, liberal democratic countries today is manufactured in impoverished nations all too often mismanaged by kleptocrats. The computer I’m using was made by people who work in near slave-like conditions, the factory dormitories they live in is lined with nets to catch workers if they attempt suicide. The clothing there is to buy is all too often sewn together by children. Where is the monument to those capitalism has killed and enslaved?

The project is entirely politically motivated to serve the interests of the Conservative party of Canada, obviously intended to secure support from the nation’s comparatively sizeable Ukrainian, Polish, German, Czech, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. If there is a desire to inform the public about the atrocities of the Cold War or otherwise honour all the Canadians who escaped persecution and totalitarianism abroad, fine, that has my support, but those stories can’t be summed up in a monument, especially not this one. Develop a new permanent exhibit at the war museum, create a graduate program at a university… anything but this.

Tribute to Liberty is anything but: it is ludicrously facile and demonstrative of a profound ignorance of the reality of contemporary geopolitics and recent history. Apt that it would have the backing of the Harperites…

The great irony of the Tribute to Liberty and Mother Canada monuments lies in their obvious similarities, in form and function, to the kinds of monuments erected by the very totalitarian dictators Canada ostensibly stands in opposition to. Both monuments are overbearing, cold, fundamentally unnecessary and intended to secure support for a particular political party. In the case of the former, it arguably attempts historical revisionism.

Mother Canada conceptual rendering

Mother Canada is intended to secure what I call the ‘military enthusiast’ vote – a subsection of the Tory support base that believes, despite mounting and damning evidence to the contrary, that the Tories are pro-military and all other parties are anti-military, and that Canada will only ever be safe under the watchful eye of a Conservative government. Supporters of the monument are chiefly former and current high-ranking officers in the Canadian Forces.

The monument is to be a 24-metre tall female form with arms outstretched, facing the Atlantic Ocean as though the welcome the souls of the dearly departed, all those killed in foreign wars, again, ostensibly in defence of liberty, freedom and the nation. As if we didn’t have enough goddamned cenotaphs in this country to the war dead, now a proposed allegorical representation of Canada is to stand with it’s back to the nation…

Supporters argue it will be a boon to Cape Breton tourism, but I can’t fathom many Canadians trekking out to Cape Breton just to look at the backside of a somewhat diminutive statue. Again, much like Tribute to Liberty, this monument serves no real purpose and provides no additional information or perspective. Parks Canada is reviewing 6,000 ‘comments’ (I have a feeling they’re mostly complaints) and there’s opposition to the project on ecological grounds, arguing the monument’s location in a national park is inappropriate and that the environmental impact of creating this tourist trap is being ignored outright.

Worse of all, it’s just so boring. Is this the very best we can come up with to represent the nation, or it’s war dead? There’s nothing inspired nor attractive about the monument. I’m all for a ‘Canadian Statue of Liberty’ but this isn’t it, this looks like the kinds of monuments erected all over Central Europe during the Cold War and subsequently destroyed during the Spring of Nations a quarter-century ago.

***

Combined, these projects require something like $30 million to complete, and the funds are to come principally from charitable donations secured through fundraising activities by the federally-backed charities organized to complete the projects.

This is not the best use of $30 million in charitable donations, nor the best use of federal support for fundraising initiatives. Imagine what good that money could do if used for other purposes.

$30 million could certainly help ensure fewer Canadian children go to bed hungry, could support numerous soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or used to send medicine and food to impoverished nations abroad. Are these not better examples of what Canada ultimately stands for?

Rethinking Viger Square’s Rehabilitation

Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.
Light Blue represents the Gare Viger project, red the abandoned religious property, light green to areas for priority redevelopment, and yellow indicates smaller parcels of land that could be better used.

This is a bit late, but there’s a petition circulating I urge you to sign. We need to save Viger Square for demolition, as the city now intends to do.

In point form, here’s why:

1. Viger Square’s reputation isn’t reason enough to demolish it.

2. Demolishing the existing square doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

3. It doesn’t make any sense to spend $28 million to demolish the square and build a new public space when the existing square could be rehabilitated at a lower cost.

4. Rehabilitating the square is an opportunity to fully realize the original artistic vision of three prominent Quebec artists.

5. Doing so would likely eliminate all the factors that make Viger Square so generally undesirable to all but the homeless.

6. Improving sight-lines across the park by eliminating the outer walls of parts of the square, in addition to better general upkeep and better lighting is a subtler way of improving security and making the area more inviting. The original plan also called for permanent park fixtures, such as a café and public market.

7. Once the CHUM superhospital opens there will be a significant increase in the number of people living and working in the area, and the only reason why Viger Square became ‘homeless park’ in the first place was as a result of poor city planning resulting in local depopulation. In terms of serving as an important urban focal point, the new hospital will be as important as Gare Viger was a century ago.

8. To my knowledge, there’s an abandoned former convent up on René-Levesque which could be used as a large homeless shelter (it’s outlined in red in the photo above). Viger Square and Berri Square have the same problem – semi-permanent homeless populations that give both spaces poor reputations. Clearly what’s needed most is additional shelter space and social workers to help get these people off the streets, not an entirely new (but ultimately less interesting) public space.

For more information on what was originally intended, check out this video featuring the voice of UQAM architecture professor Marie-Dina Salvione:

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Viger Square, it’s a bit of a local anomaly.

It’s underused public green space, a park many try to avoid in a city that generally values (and uses) its public spaces.

It’s also a radical re-thinking of landscape design, and the creative effort of three noted Quebec artists. That it has developed a poor reputation as a result of being associated with homelessness and drug use is not reason enough to destroy it: reputations can be rehabilitated.

The Coderre administration’s plan to spend $28 million to demolish Charles Daudelin’s Agora is shortsighted and unnecessary. Worse, it neglects the sad fact that the square was never completed to the original design.

Had it been, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Viger Square is a historic public green space; it’s been used as such since the mid-19th century, with its present boundaries taking shape in 1892. At the turn of the 20th century two major institutions took up positions on either side of the square – the École des hautes études commerciales on the Viger side (today a provincial archives building) and Place Viger (Canadian Pacific’s eastern Montreal passenger station and hotel, today a mixed-used residential, commercial and retail space) on the Saint Antoine side. At the time the area would have been bustling with activity, its immediate surroundings supporting a growing French Canadian middle and upper-middle class community.

Place Viger as it appeared in 1900
Place Viger as it appeared in 1900

The area’s high point occurred during the period 1898 (when the station/hotel opened) to 1935 (when the hotel closed) as Place Viger interacted closely with the park across the street, the hotel inviting guests to stroll ‘it’s vast gardens’. The train station would close in 1951 and the building was then sold to the City of Montreal to be used as office space. What destroyed the neighbourhood, so to speak, was the construction of the Ville Marie Expressway in the early 1970s. For whatever reason the decision was made to sacrifice the entirety of the park for the highway trench and then to build a new, modern, park atop the exposed trench.

This work was started in the late-1970s and completed in the mid-1980s. Modern Viger Square was designed as a public square in three distinct parts, set atop the highway to reclaim lost space. Have a look at Kate McDonnell’s photos of the site today.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Montreal never got the public space envisioned by Charles Daudelin, Claude Théberge and Peter Gnass.

The idea they came up with was to create an urban oasis, a place of refuge in the heart of the city. The original design included permanent fixtures, like a café and a small public market, as well as a comprehensive lighting scheme, and vegetation chosen to best interact with largely concrete structure.

None of this was ever implemented. The end result was perceived as cold and uninviting. Daudelin’s Mastodo fountain (in the western square) broke after a few months and never seems to have been repaired. Claude Théberges’ Forces fountain (in the central square) hasn’t been turned on in years. In the late 1980s the redesigned Viger Square began to attract a semi-permanent homeless population, one which exists to this day (the great irony being that the square would indeed serve as a refuge, albeit in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kind of way for the homeless).

For too many years Viger Square was the public space the city tried its best to forget about, but now that the CHUM superhospital is taking final form and the surrounding land values have increased there’s increased interest to invest in city beautification projects in this specific area. I suppose the city is trying to avoid the embarrassment of an opening-day ceremony taking place next to the city’s premier homeless camp…

Thus, the Coderre administration has come up with a plan to knock down Agora (the collection of raised concrete ‘boxes’) and radically transform the Daudelin and Théberge sections of Viger Square. Conceptual renderings of the proposed new space can be seen here.

This is a terrible idea.

For one the new design is completely uninspired. Whereas Daudelin, Théberge and Gnass came up with an original (though not fully realized) idea for an urban sanctuary, the proposed redesign is flat, banal and too open. Though the city intends to keep the Mastodo sculpture, it looks like it will be moved and decontextualized. As originally conceived, the Mastodo fountain arrangement was supposed to fill a channel with water, collecting in a pond adjacent to a ‘water wall’. In a similar vein, the Forces fountain was to demonstrate water ‘breaking’ through several granite pillars. It’s all quite avant-garde for landscape design, but because the city doesn’t want the homeless bathing in public fountains none of us get a chance to appreciate it as originally conceived.

And this is what brings us back to square one – bulldozing Viger Square and transforming it will make it a less desirable location for local homeless, but it does nothing to solve the homeless problem.

A tasteless, jingoistic, paramilitary embarrassment…

Lord what’s become of the RCMP Musical Ride?

The title of this post is a quote from former CBC journalist Frank Koller; you can read his blog post here.

The paramilitary demonstration in question, according to the RCMP, has been a part of the Musical Ride for roughly a decade (or roughly as long as Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, but that’s just a coincidence… right?).

Koller’s reaction echoed that of many in attendance who were shocked to see this military display at a Canadian institution that’s been described in the past as ‘ballet with horses’.

The RCMP in turn responded by down-playing the demonstration, arguing that it’s only a part of the Ottawa-based sunset ceremony and not the touring Musical Ride. They also mentioned it was just a few minutes in a two-hour presentation, and re-iterated the supposed longevity of the display to make it seem as though it’s a perfectly normal component of the Musical Ride (the Emergency Response Team or ERT has existed since 1977, and the Musical Ride has been going on since the late 19th century, but it’s only in the last decade that these ‘long-standing’ displays have popped up).

Also – mass citizenship oath? When did that become part of the ceremony? One of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy is not being compelled to demonstrate your citizenship in mass recitations. That’s more of a North Korea type of thing…

Some took issue with Koller’s use of the term ‘paramilitary’, as the RCMP was, in a sense, a paramilitary organization. I’d argue this hasn’t been the case for much of the organization’s recent history, as the 19th century need for a paramilitary police force has disappeared. The RCMP are not tasked with defending Canadian territorial sovereignty, this is the job of the military. The ERT is indeed the paramilitary component of the RCMP, intended to be used as an aid to the civil power in extreme circumstances warranting the use of military-grade equipment and tactics.

My question is what precisely they’re trying to demonstrate. I know the ERT exists, I have an idea about what it would be used for, but I just can’t fathom what this has to do with the Musical Ride, or why this component of the RCMP should be demonstrated at any public event in the first place.

Think about it: wouldn’t it be odd for Montreal’s SWAT team to put on public displays during Jazz Fest?

What are they trying to show us? A forceful traffic stop? This isn’t what an RCMP take-down of suspected terrorists would look like at all… it’s unrealistic to the point of being comedic, and if this is in any way comparable to an actual RCMP training operation we should all be very worried.

And this is aside from the fact that we still haven’t produced ‘home grown’ terrorists since the October Crisis, and even then the FLQ was really little more than a loose association of politically-motivated bank robbers. Zehaf-Bibeault was a habitual offender with mental problems who somehow got himself an old winchester dual action. He was only ‘radicalized’ by his own sick mind, not a Canadian based Islamic fundamentalist terrorism network. On a day to day basis the RCMP spends a lot more time and effort responding to domestic disputes and highway code violations than combating domestic terrorism.

So again, what is this idiotic spectacle supposed to demonstrate?

When are RCMP tactical units going to be cruising around the neighbourhood searching for slow-moving pickups with shirtless terrorist drivers?

Furthermore… as a patriot I feel compelled to explain that the Tragically Hip song Three Pistols references the community of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec (pistoles were an old French currency, not a gun), and that the song itself is a kind of interpretive biography of the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson.

So there’s that… on top of this being nearly Monty Python-esque in its asinine absurdity, this demonstration was set to an inappropriate musical choice, one that indicates a superficiality and lack of general awareness again, I would hope is not actually indicative of the RCMP.

A display like this doesn’t make me feel any safer, and knowing that I’d be subjected to this kind of tastelessness gives me every reason to avoid paying money to see the Musical Ride. This spectacle reminds me of the evident Americanization of Canadian police and this in turn is of no benefit to anyone but chiefly American arms dealers. The fact is crime has been falling for decades not as a result of this recent trend, but rather the result of sound public policy enacted by democratically elected responsible governments. Buying armoured trucks and flash bangs for the RCMP is of no particular strategic advantage, and it would be in our strategic security interest not to demonstrate how the ERT actually operates at public functions. If anything, we should treat the ERT much like JTF2, keeping them out of the public eye until absolutely necessary.

This demonstration is a farce we should be embarrassed of.

Montreal’s Central Business District in Evolution

The latest additions to Montreal's skyline taking shape - June 17th 2015
The latest additions to Montreal’s skyline taking shape – June 17th 2015
Overdale, we hardly knew ye...
Overdale, we hardly knew ye…
Lafontaine House, a still uncertain future...
Lafontaine House, a still uncertain future…
The new urban chasm
The new urban chasm
Tour des Canadiens de Montréal taking shape in background, with L'Avenue immediately in front of it and Rockabella in foreground at left
Tour des Canadiens de Montréal taking shape in background, with L’Avenue immediately in front of it and Rockabella in foreground at left
Icone Tower I with base of Rockabella II in foreground at right
Icone Tower I with base of Rockabella II in foreground at right
The west side of 1250 René Lévesque framed by new construction
The west side of 1250 René Lévesque framed by new construction

Panorama of new downtown towers - June 17 2015

The view from Mount Royal