The CBC should consolidate its operations in Montreal

Maison Radio-Canada

Maison Radio-Canada

Recently announced cuts to the CBC/Radio-Canada got me thinking: why is this particular crown corporation’s operations split between three different major Canadian cities and why is the CBC/SRC trying to rid itself of potentially lucrative real-estate?

I can’t fathom why the CBC and SRC aren’t located in the exact same place. As it currently stands, French media is consolidated in the Maison Radio-Canada in Montreal, English media consolidated in the Canadian Broadcast Centre in downtown Toronto, and corporate operations located in Ottawa.

Perhaps this was necessary in the past, but is it still necessary today?

Consolidating all of the CBC/SRC’s major operations in a single location is far more efficient and, perhaps most importantly, would allow a greater degree of cooperation between the two halves of Canada’s public broadcaster.

Quite frankly, the CBC could learn a lot from Radio-Canada. The latter is far more successful than the former in terms of creating interesting, engaging, high-quality programming.

To put it another way, I’d like to watch an English version of Tout Le Monde En Parle.

Or put it this way: 19-2 is a successful police procedural/crime drama set in Montreal created by Radio-Canada that, beginning this year, will appear on the CTV-owned Bravo Canada as an English-language equivalent. An idea created by the public broadcaster succeeds in French but is then sold to private interests for English language development. Why the CBC didn’t develop the English-language version of 19-2 is beyond me; it makes absolutely no sense.

Further, there’s been a plan in place for a few years now for CBC/SRC to sell the Maison Radio-Canada for redevelopment. According to the corporation’s public documents, they’re not supposed to invest in real-estate, and this is why they’re looking to rid themselves of an absolutely massive piece of purpose-built broadcasting property. Apparently, it’s too expensive to invest in upgrading existing facilities, and so they’ll sell the land to become a tenant. Whatever money is made from the sale, if it follows an unfortunate trend established by the Federal Tories, will likely not be equal to the actual and/or potential value of the property. Moreover, whatever money is made from the transaction will ultimately disappear paying the rent.

It’s illogical, in a time of constrained budgets, to limit a crown corporation’s ability to develop long term wealth. There is no wealth, no value, in leasing.

It’s also illogical to spread out a corporation’s major operations in three locations when one could easily be expanded to accommodate the whole.

What’s worse, one of the driving forces behind this proposed sale and redevelopment is that the Maison Radio-Canada has too much space for Radio-Canada’s current needs. In a sense I agree – the parking lots are a huge waste of space begging for redevelopment. But it’s the space inside the building which is thought to be superfluous. If that’s actually the case, why not sell off the corporate HQ in Ottawa and the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto and put the whole operation in the Maison Radio-Canada? Proceeds from the sale of those properties (particularly the latter) could finance the modernization of the MRC for just such a purpose. If they were to go a step further, they would use their real-estate holdings for the purposes of generating revenue to fund a public broadcasting trust, much in the same manner as the BBC has. I’m in favour of the plan to redevelop the expansive Montreal property with residential buildings, commercial and green spaces, but I think a far greater value could be derived over the long term by maintaining ownership of the Montreal site. There’s more money in the long term owning several condos, apartment blocks and commercial spaces than simply selling off the property. The undeveloped property is less valuable than a developed property.

Concentration and consolidation make a lot of sense to me, mostly because I firmly believe it will lead directly to greater cooperation and operational efficiency. I think it would accomplish the task of making our public broadcaster ‘leaner’ due to resource sharing, not to mention the fundamentally lower operating costs and greater quality of life offered in Montreal (as an example, and quite unlike Toronto’s Canadian Broadcasting Centre, properties within walking distance of Maison Radio-Canada are still affordable and there’s an established community of people who work in media located nearby, not to mention a concentration of competition). But to top it all off, if the CBC were to consolidate here with Radio-Canada, maintain ownership of their property and redevelop it, they could potentially get themselves back in the green sooner as opposed to later.

A closing thought. Shame on Heritage Minister and Tory cheerleader Shelley Glover for doing fuck all to help the CBC.

It’s a line anyone interested in Canadian politics is likely to hear time and again as Tory ministers dodge any and all kinds of responsibility for their own portfolios: ‘the (insert vital national interest here) operates as an arms-length government agency and thus we’re not responsible for it’.

Well what the fuck are you good for then?

The whole idea behind crown corporations is that they serve the interests of the people, either by providing a necessary service or by generating revenue for the federal government to lessen the tax burden. In some cases they can do both, but the key is that, if the crown corp is in the red or otherwise not accomplishing its goals, the peoples’ recourse is to elect individuals with plans to make these organizations succeed.

The Tory political playbook goes in the other direction, distancing government from crown corps in an effort to both deny any responsibility (breaking the public’s indirect involvement in the direction of the corporation) in an effort to prime it for privatization. Both the Harper and Mulroney administrations have a bad record of selling off major assets for next to nothing. The end result has almost always been the same: worse service, higher costs to the consumer, less competition. I have no doubt at all the Tories would like nothing more than to privatize the CBC, though for the moment they recognize the negative consequences.

Thus, their policy is that the CBC should die a death from a thousand cuts, a ‘creeping normality’ strategy that makes it impossible for the CBC to compete at all but would ultimately serve to facilitate its dismantling and privatization. If the problem, as a spokeswoman for Ms. Glover puts it, is that “the CBC (needs) to provide programming that Canadians actually want to watch” then why did the Fed not step in to protect the CBC’s lucrative monopoly on sports broadcasting rights? Why isn’t the Fed encouraging the CBC to develop a trust whose value is derived from the corporation’s real estate and infrastructure assets as a means to generate revenue?

And why is the minister responsible for our nation’s cultural heritage blaming the CBC for its shortcomings rather than coming up with a plan to make the CBC a focal point of our cultural identity?

What are we paying her for? To find fault or find solutions?

Pointe-à-Callière Going Underground

Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal - photo credit to Derek Smith

Éperon Building, Pointe-à-Callière Museum, Montreal – photo credit to Derek Smith

The Pointe-à-Callière historical and archeological museum is going underground and expanding for the city’s 375th anniversary.

Perhaps borrowing a cue from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (whose pavilions are connected underground though unfortunately still not directly accessible from the RÉSO/Underground City), P-a-C’s expansion program seeks to link several pavilions together via an underground passageway stretching the length of Place d’Youville. An antiquated sewer running from Place Royal to McGill Street in Old Montreal shows evidence of six distinct epochs in Montreal history dating back to the founding of Ville Marie in the mid-17th century and will developed to act as the ‘historical/archeological’ spine and foundation of the expanded institution. The current museum is centred on Place Royal at the intersection of Rue de la Commune and Rue du Place d’Youville. By 2017 it will stretch all the way to the Customs House on McGill, effectively linking Old Montreal with the Vieux Port along a linear axis.

What can I say? This is brilliant.

The underground expansion will bring people directly into contact with the veritable foundation(s) of the city.

Getting a better frame of reference and knowledge of this city’s history will be as simple as walking about ten minutes in a straight line, in the climate controlled comfort of the next evolution of our Underground City.

The expansion is novel in its use of disused infrastructure (such as the William Collector and the vaults of the Customs House) as part of the expansion, rather than building a large and entirely new above-ground structure. Thus there’s no direct interference with the city above ground, no dramatic altering of local built environment.

It’s cheaper than the alternative and won’t leave any major visible trace other than Place d’Youville’s conversion into a something that looks more like a park and a lot less like a parking lot.

And best of all, it is so quintessentially Montreal to recycle old buildings, basements and tunnels for the purposes of better connecting the populace with its history. Our history is literally underground and so, for that reason (and keeping in mind P-a-C’s role as both archeological and historical museum), this expansion project is particularly well-conceived.

The new Pointe-à-Callière will include a total of 11 pavilions and several buildings of historical value. In addition to the post-modern main pavilion (Éperon, 1992), there is Place Royal (the site of the first public market, circa 1676), the Old Customs House (designed by John Ostell 1836-37), the converted former Mariner’s House and the d’Youville pump house (1915).

Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering

Pointe-à-Callière expansion proposal rendering

The westward expansion will grow along the old William Collector, a sewer that was once the Little Saint Pierre River. No longer used for such purposes, the sewer will serve as a tunnel allowing access to other underground locations where history and archeology blend so perfectly together. Among the new pavilions connected to this subterranean passageway: the original Fort Ville-Marie (1642), Saint Anne’s Market (and former Parliament – 1832), the firehouse (1904), the old general hospital/ Grey Nun’s Motherhouse (1693/1747) and a new pavilion located in the underground vaults of the Customs House on McGill Street (1916).

This is an exciting and well-deserved expansion, in my opinion, and further proves the ‘Underground City’ is a lot more than just a series of interconnected shopping malls. It’s imaginative and unique and is wonderfully appropriate given that it will pull so many distinct historical periods, places, ideas and characters together in a rather straightforward manner. Places and times plugged in to one another along a route – in essence, a life source – that has been at the centre of life in our city since Day 1.

I really can’t imagine a better way to tell our story than to literally go directly to place where it all started. I’m also keen as to how it reinforces this notion that Montreal is a city both literally and figuratively attached to its history, growing as we do from our roots and with traces of our history and presence so integrated into our consciousness.

Under ideal circumstances the underground passageway would be open to the public as a branch of the RÉSO. Under really, really ideal circumstances they’ll continue expanding underground – albeit in the opposite direction – so that you could walk from Place Royal to Place d’Armes by way of Notre Dame Basilica, eventually leading to the Métro station and RÉSO access point at the Palais des Congrès.

(Yes, I think it’s weird that Place d’Armes is not connected to Place-d’Armes; it’s really not that far and the ground underneath the square was partially excavated long ago for the former public toilets. Plus, climbing up the hill from the Métro to the square in winter is a pain in the ass).

Place Royale set up as a kind of 'living history' temporary exhibit - photo credit to McMomo, 2009

Place Royale set up as a kind of ‘living history’ temporary exhibit – photo credit to McMomo, 2009

Also, Place Royale looks like a sarcophagus or a crypt. It’s bare and unappealing. If I could make one recommendation, it is that Place Royale be given something of a make-over as the eastern entrance to Pointe-à-Callière. Some planter boxes, trees, benches etc. It doesn’t need to be a huge renovation, just something that attracts people to the area. It was once the focal point of colonial era life in our city and today it gives the impression of sterility and stillness. This should change. The museum’s underground expansion is excellent, but it still needs to engage and interact with a broader public (i.e. tourists) that may not be familiar with the rather expansive museum operating beneath their feet. Ergo, I think a more ‘traditionally’ welcoming Place Royale would serve the museum, and Old Montreal generally speaking, quite well. A little more green to contrast with the dull grey and the provision for park furniture to encourage this space’s use wouldn’t cost much.

But of course, what would be really wild is if the space was used as a seasonal open air market, just as it was originally used. This, to me, would be the ‘icing on the cake’ vis-à-vis the historical ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of the museum’s mission. As great as it will be to interact with the remnants of historical eras as the museum intends it, I’m keen to see spaces of historical value used for the purposes that made them historically valuable in the first place. Thus, the site of the city’s first public market ought to be a public market. That way the link with the past is inescapable and the function of the public space remains true to its form. Place Royale’s purpose was to bring people together; today it seems to be generally unoccupied even at the heights of the tourist season simply because there’s nothing in the space to accommodate people. Adding some plants and temporary vendor stalls could turn all this around and potentially further serve to drive more people to this deserving and innovative institution.

The Mordecai Richler Monument to Municipal Illogic

Mordecai Richler 'Pavilion' in Fletcher's Field, Parc Mont-Royal - credit to the National Post

Mordecai Richler ‘Pavilion’ in Fletcher’s Field, Parc Mont-Royal – credit to the National Post

Hat’s off to Bill Brownstein over at the Gazette for shedding some light on the unnecessary civic embarrassment and ode to illogical urban planning that is the saga of the Mordecai Richler Pavilion.

You likely know the ‘pavilion’ as the dilapidated gazebo in Mount Royal Park, pictured above.

How this particular gazebo came to be known as the Mordecai Richler Pavilion is generally presumed to be as a consequence of Richler’s harsh and globally prominent criticism of the QUebec sovereignty movement. Allow me to explain.

It really is a completely random recognition. To my knowledge the gazebo doesn’t feature prominently in his writing, he wasn’t known to frequent it and while it’s a safe bet to assume he likely had once been there and was familiar with the structure, it’s far from being emblematic of the neighbourhood further east he actually grew up in. If anything the gazebo was more a part of the ‘city on the hill’ than of the city below it, and some of Richler’s characters are quite critical of the old money, elitist society Mount Royal Park was largely designed to serve. In sum, naming this particular gazebo after Richler doesn’t make much sense at all.

Naming one of the several small side streets (Groll, Bagg, St-Cuthbert, Clermont, Roy Ouest etc.) that intersect St-Urbain makes far more sense to me, and indeed, this was the first idea, initially championed by Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand several years ago.

In my opinion, naming a street after Richler in an area of town he grew up in is an appropriate way by which to recognize him. That said, at the time this was proposed Rotrand alleges he encountered opposition from the Plateau Mont Royal borough administration. Either they were concerned about potential backlash from hardcore separatists who live in the Plateau or otherwise were themselves of the mind Richler was merely a Quebec-basher who didn’t deserve any recognition at all. There were negotiations – perhaps a pocket park or playground, or more appropriately the Mile End Library – but ultimately nothing came of it. Richler died in 2001.

And so, perhaps the single most influential author this city has ever produced went publicly unacknowledged until about 2012, when Rotrand succeeded in convincing disgraced former mayor Gerald Tremblay to name something – anything – within the mountain domain after Richler. The mayor was in charge of the mountain (perhaps he still is), and the Plateau Mont Royal borough is not. Simple as that. The gazebo must have been chosen because it wasn’t already named and turning it into the ‘Mordecai Richler Pavilion’ would justify the cost of renovating the gazebo.

Great. It may have nothing to do with the man it’s named after, but hey, it will result in a better looking Mount Royal Park, so what’s not to like? Maybe it’ll become something meaningful to Montrealers, a preferred spot to sit and read.

And best of all, because it’s a renovation job it won’t cost as much as building something completely new and further steers clear of the oddly controversial proposal to rename a street, park or library after Richler.

And by the way – on the issue of illogical naming and recognition practices vis-a-vis our public spaces, consider that there is a playground off Clark south of Pine (i.e in the general vicinity of where Richler grew up) that’s actually called Parc University Settlement.

We can’t name this place after Mordecai Richler?

Our city will recognize a university settlement but not one of it’s most accomplished public intellectuals?

In any event, back to the pavilion.

The resolution was passed in 2011 and the gazebo, already in poor shape, was officially named after Richler. Then nothing happened for two years and here we are.

This is the newspeak offered by the city regarding the future of the pavilion:

“The Mordecai Richler Pavilion is an important element of Montreal architecture, one that is part of an area of outstanding heritage value. The administration strives to honour Montrealers who contributed to the vitality of the city.”

I’m not so sure about that first part. It’s an old gazebo that’s managed to survive a lot longer than anyone anticipated but this doesn’t necessarily mean it has any particular architectural value. If I recall correctly, I believe I read once there’s a connection between the gazebo and the nearby Quartier Général of the Montreal fire service. From what I’ve read the gazebo used to be used by brass bands, military and marching bands, back when this was considered genteel summertime entertainment. It’s a far cry from the EDM mini rave that now takes place around the gazebo (though not in it, because it no longer has a floor).

In essence, the gazebo is fundamentally worthless unless the city names it after Richler and spends some money making it into something more substantial than what it currently is. It’s only after the transformation that it will have any tangible cultural or heritage value.

And now… the cost.

Brownstein writes that, so far, fifty-seven thousand dollars (and change) has been spent on an architectural study of the site and a proposal for the new pavilion.

The city has a planning department, so I’m not altogether sure why we need to spend additional money subcontracting architects. What is Beaupré Michaud telling the city it’s own employees can not? What additional information are they bringing to the table with their analysis of the site?

It’s a gazebo.

The city has authorized a budget of 250 thousand dollars for the renovation project which is due to start some time this summer and will be completed by the end of the fall. The question is just what exactly we’re getting for a quarter of a million dollars, over 300 thousand dollars including the architectural study, and what purpose the gazebo will serve.

I’d like to hope for that amount of money we’ll get a lot more than just a renovated gazebo. You’d think the project will include a variety of extras – a drinking fountain, lighting, furniture, garbage and recycling bins, a large square in front of the ‘pavilion’ featuring a statue of Richler and some kind of inscription (in English, quel horreur!) carved into locally-quarried granite, not to mention a proper pathway with its own lighting and a hell of a lot of shrubbery. Oh, and maybe one of those mini libraries featuring beat up Richler paperbacks.

And while I’d love to see such a project realized, it begs the question. Is this really the best use of public funds given our city’s current economic situation?

Renaming a street, library or park doesn’t cost $300K or even $60K and it’s a more appropriate way to recognize the deceased author than randomly attributing dilapidated and antiquated park furniture after him.

And if the city were to go that route instead renovating the gazebo becomes a simpler affair as well. Because it’s disassociated from Richler, it’s suddenly not so significant and doesn’t need to become a pavilion. It can be given a ‘bare bones’ rehabilitation at a fraction of the current proposed budget.

But there’s little hope of all that. The city has made up its mind to create a new public space and has authorized quite a sum to pay for it. All the taxpayers can do now is ask, politely, to see the plans they’ve come up with.

High Hopes

Credit to Canadian Press

Credit to Canadian Press

Last night Quebec won. All of Quebec, all of us.

We won because the party that promised another doubtlessly fruitless referendum and an unbearably regressive plot to institutionalize discriminatory hiring practices in the civil service lost, and lost big. Twenty-four seats in the National Assembly lost, including that of current party leader Pauline Marois.

Ms. Marois has so far indicated she will resign as leader of the Parti Québécois, as is the custom of Canadian political party leaders upon such a staggering defeat.

And to think we thought the race was ever close…

The problem from day one was that the PQ was so fully focused on the charter and a referendum they became blind to the actual wants and needs of the people of Quebec. They are precisely the kinds of issues that generate a lot of talk but won’t necessarily translate into actual gains. Sure, they mobilized people, but they mobilized the base, the die-hards. Neither of these issues could possibly attract more voters, especially not in the province’s two major cities. In the end it was all bark and no bite.

The PQ failed to realize aggressively campaigning on these issues would backfire as they would invariably open the party up not only to harsh criticism but perhaps more damagingly it would end up exposing the PQ’s weak flank – their ideologues. The dogmatists of the party have a bad habit of propagating hate-speech, slander, fictions great and small and even conspiracy theories to advance their cause, and as the ideas sank in popularity the hysterical rhetoric of the PQ’s backbench came to the fore.

Suffice it to say it’s a good argument in favour of tight message control.

Marois, Lisée and to a lesser extent Drainville spent much of the campaign clarifying and re-clarifying two focal points of the campaign that were specifically vague to begin with – it was generally understood the PQ had no plan in place to kickstart constitutional negotiations, nor any idea of what kind of judicial trouble Bill 60 would get them in to.

And so there was no time left to speak of real, concrete plans to improve life in this province, opening the door to Philippe Couillard to define his own message as one that appealed to all the critics and Doubting Thomas’ of our province vis-a-vis independence and the charter, and all of us who’re most concerned about the economic wellbeing of our home province.

As the campaign entered the mud-slinging phase of the last week and a bit, all he had to do was pretty much the same as when he started and it was a sure bet he’d end up on top. The only good response to hysterical attempts at character assassination is not to acknowledge them. That’s strength, real power. It is literally rising above the fray and it conveys a powerful image.

So now that he’s Premier-Designate (because, of course, all Premiers are idiotically not elected directly by the people, but are rather appointed by the lieutenant-governor based on election results), we can all take a breather. A neurosurgeon for a federalist premier, one who acknowledges our primary position within Confederation, our influence on national affairs since before Canada was even a country, and the fact that knowledge of more than one language is both beneficial to the individual and in no way threatens the knowledge of the mother tongue. This is the man who will govern us for the next four and a half years.

I wonder how many of us secretly breathed a sigh of relief last night. I’m not fond of the Quebec Liberal Party though I did vote for a Liberal candidate I’m proud to say won her seat in the National Assembly. I breathed a sigh of relief not because I have any particular trust or faith in Philippe Couillard, but because I know he’s smart enough not to campaign on the politics of division and fear. I’m relieved because I trust people who have worked serious, professional, high-stakes jobs over career politicians.

Unfortunately, history is not on the side of the Quebec Liberals – most former Liberal premiers have started strong but wound up finishing wallowing in the mire. Coincidentally, so have most Montreal Mayors and Canadian Prime Ministers too. Perhaps the problem has more to do with the extant political system and how parties work than they do with the leadership.

So far Mr. Couillard has promised to create the most transparent government in Quebec history, to focus on job creation, and has pledged to work with the other provinces so that Quebec can take a more prominent role in national affairs. He will seek to develop new bonds with neighbouring provinces, and has also promised to cooperate with Quebec’s ‘big-city’ mayors to ensure metropolitan status carries a greater share of local responsibility and operational autonomy.

Denis Coderre, ever the shrewd politician, welcomed ‘the stability of a majority government’ without directly endorsing Couillard or the Quebec Liberals.

Mr. Couillard has also indicated former Premier Daniel Johnson will oversee a transition process, that he will work with all parties to develop programs and policies that address a wide spectrum of concerns, and that he will go ahead with the PQ’s proposed dying with dignity bill.

So far so good, especially on that last point. More than gesture to the PQ, it acknowledges a fundamentally good idea – inasmuch as human beings can control the creation of life, so too should they have control over their own deaths. It is a fundamentally humanist and progressive concept, and as you can imagine I’m all for it.

As to the rest of Mr. Couillard’s promises, I’m hopeful he’ll win me over and carry on with the work he laid out for himself. Concerning his key promise to improve the economy, apparently the Canadian Dollar rose modestly upon the news of the decisive Liberal victory.

I’m sure our local real estate market is also feeling rather bullish.

And now that this mess is all over with, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Gong Show {Part Deux}

The PQ has backed itself into a corner.

The more they turn up the heat on the charter issue, the less palatable it gets.

When they turn around and then start pushing the referendum issue, this doesn’t work either.

So then they come back with more on the charter, and have demonstrated themselves to be as autocratic and authoritarian as I can imagine the Union Nationale once was.

They’re bleeding supporters to QS. The PQ vote is going to become a rump of wayward ideologues so hell bent on realizing Quebec independence they’re willing to break with their base, turn their backs on their progressive roots and even accept the insane fabrications of a daffy former celebrity as gospel (rather than the sensible thing, which would have been to distance themselves from the the nearly nonagenarian Janette Bertrand).

In case you missed it, she spoke of how Muslim men (rich McGill students) had paid off her building’s owner to allow for segregated swimming times at Le Cartier’s pool.

It’s a great story about how Muslims are using their immense wealth and influence to gently erode the parity between men and women in quasi-secular Quebec.

I’m sure it spoke volumes to the hysterical soccer moms who listened in rapt attention to Ms. Bertrand’s every word at the so-called Secular Brunch.

Here’s the one tiny problem – it never happened.

The Parti Québécois have demonstrated themselves to be ignorant of the basic fact checking done by journalists (insert your own joke about the journalistic standards of the Quebecor/Sun Media chain) and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Le Cartier’s manager made it abundantly clear whatever yarn Ms. Bertrand was spinning certainly doesn’t have any basis in reality. He emphatically denied anyone has ever been paid off or that any religious group demanded their own day to swim in the pool.

You’d figure the PQ would be message-control savvy and not have let some old gasbag near the mic without a prepared script, but alas, as bullshit goes they gambled and thought it wouldn’t come back to bite them in the ass, unaware Le Cartier’s management may now be contemplating chucking Janette to the curb for the unwanted and unnecessary political involvement. I’m sure there’s got to be a clause in the condominium agreement owners can’t slander management with outrageous lies.

But this is consistent – the PQ’s base never questions the authority of their leaders. We need to face facts – Catholicism didn’t die in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution, all the mindless, uncritical devotion just switched orientation from one autocratic social machine to another.

When questioned about the Janette ring-leader’s ability to conjure up magical tales of religious minorities dismantling the very fabric of our culture, Pauline Marois, undeterred, simply said she stands by Janette Bertrand, who was ‘simply speaking from the heart.’

I.e. – yes, I know it was bullshit, but don’t tell me it never happened, somewhere, some time.

In the PQ playbook the end always justifies the means.

And this happening the day Radio-Canada announced that Marois hubby and multi-millionaire Claude Blanchet arranged a sneaky campaign financing scheme that skirted established financing rules by having two engineering firms convince their employees to take the form of a financial ‘straw-man’. Granted it wasn’t a significantly large sum of money, but enough to remind us that, for all the mud slung at Philippe Couillard, Pauline Marois and the PQ are just as sketchy financially speaking.

Sometimes I think all politicians in this country are completely incapable of playing by the rules, and those who succeed the most do so only because they manage not to get caught (or else have plenty of underlings to toss under the bus). As this campaign draws to a close my initial impression of Pauline Marois – that she’s a basically a slightly more charismatic, gaffe-prone and unapologetic version of Stephen Harper – hasn’t changed a bit.

And yet it’s all still so far away from a slam dunk. For all of the PQ’s foibles and poor politicking, they somehow maintain a sheen of respectability in Quebec that would never be tolerated anywhere else in Canada and doubtless only at Tea Party rallies down south.

The most absurd moment from last Thursday’s debate was when Legault, David and Marois accused Philippe Couillard of being insensitive to the ‘crucial issue of protecting our national identity’. Couillard had dared to mention he thought bilingualism was an asset.

Any normal person would agree with this fully. I can imagine many péquistes would agree – in person. But during campaign season it seems at least three parties are towing the PQ’s line when it comes to language – French is threatened by all other languages and is the only way of uniting all of Quebec, ergo, it must be championed to the point of discouraging bilingualism ‘except for those who need it most’.

In other words – it’s okay for the privileged elites of Montreal and Quebec City to be bilingual. It’s okay for the rich to be bilingual. It’s okay for the province’s businesspeople, entrepreneurs and all the movers and shakers in media to be bilingual.

Just not the common folk. If they learn English the whole culture of eight million people is at risk.

People who make these arguments elsewhere are derided for their profound ignorance on the issue. Here a politician risks political suicide by proposing knowledge of English might be advantageous on an individual level.

Bilingualism is an asset and it’s scientifically proven to enrich an individual’s ability to speak many languages. Bilingualism begets multi-lingualism, and all tongues are strengthened in the process.

The idea that learning English will kill Quebec culture is absurd.

That three ‘respectable’ political candidates would jump on Couillard’s back for suggesting Francophone Quebecois learn English, and then further insinuate that Couillard is oblivious to the imminent threats against Quebecois culture and identity is even more absurd.

There is no threat and Couillard acknowledges that and stands by it.

Continuing to do so in a calm and collected manner is only going to continue winning him points.

There has to be a breaking point in Quebec politics in which a significant chunk of the population asks themselves whether or not they can trust people who live in a fantasy land where learning English is somehow the final nail in the coffin of a cultural identity reflecting 8 million people.

Ms. David’s comments from debate night proved how little she actually knows about the language of business in Quebec.

She said the towers of downtown Montreal and the Outaouais (meaning Gatineau’s government office complexes) are filled with English speakers.

I suppose this is true to one extent – corporate Montreal and civil service Gatineau are two places where multi-lingualism is an asset. But to say English is taking over. Bullshit. Complete, total, utter bullshit.

I don’t think Ms. David has ever set foot in a Montreal office tower. She knows nothing of the corporate culture in this city.

The truth is that Montreal’s white collar workforce is multi-lingual, multi-cultural and intelligent enough to want to engage and exchange on the cultural and linguistic level with their co-workers, colleagues and friends. The primacy of the French language is unquestioned in the corporate environment, but English is used too. Using both doesn’t mean one is losing ground to the other – this isn’t a zero sum game. After all, English is the language of a considerable number of clients, customers and contractors throughout much of North America, and Quebec does business outside its borders.

Couillard understands that it is inevitable that English (and who knows, Mandarin, Spanish, German, Arabic etc.) will be spoken in our universities, hospitals and yes, our corporate office towers, and that this isn’t a threat to anyone’s cultural identity.

So as much as I don’t care for the PLQ, at the very least they’re not going to push Bill 14 or 60 and recognize legislation of this type to be as damaging as it really is.

It’s unfortunate but this campaign has demonstrated the near total intellectual poverty of our politics. Our choice is between a neurosurgeon with enough sense to know bilingualism is an asset and racism shouldn’t be institutionalized and three people who all fundamentally believe that independence will solve all our problems and the best way to fix the economy is to force doctors, nurses and teachers from their jobs and legislate No English policies in our CEGEPs and boardrooms.

What a choice: reality or fantasy.

***

Post-script: local human rights champion Julius Grey filed an injunction in Quebec superior court as representative of four McGill students denied the right to vote because they ‘lacked the clear intention to be domiciled in Quebec’.

Hearing to be held Wednesday or Thursday morning. Stay tuned.

What a Night it Was

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6:15 pm on a Friday night and Lionel-Groulx is busier than I’d expect. Throwback jerseys abound. Suburban knuckleheads on pilgrimage, smiles and high spirits all around.

The train arrives packed and we press ourselves in tightly, as though compelled by some invisible Tokyo subway platform attendant at rush hour. Squeezed in I find myself face to face with old friends and a common agenda.

Baseball. Lost opportunities. Nostalgia. Hope. Rebirth. Novelty.

Being there…

The Métro took it’s sweet time snaking it’s way through the tunnels of the city centre to Pie-Ix, pausing longer and longer as we slowly crossed the city, each time an increasingly agitated brakeman telling us, for the love of god, to let go of the antique mechanical doors that not a week ago nearly halved the head of some old woman.

It was slow and uncomfortable and no one cared. For the first time in a decade there was a baseball game to attend and that’s all that mattered.

Disembarking at Pie-IX I quickly lost track of my friends in the absolutely massive crowd surging its way to the stadium entrance. I had never seen the station ever look quite so busy, and a line stretched from the Métro turnstiles to the stadium and back again, pulsing to the beat of the Bucket Drummer. My heart sank – was this the line to get in?

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We quickly learned that this was the now infamous will-call wait line, thousands strong and perhaps the single longest line of human beings I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My pace quickened. Tickets in hand we’d waltz right on in.

Walking into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is very much like stepping back in time. Almost immediately I noticed my cellphone reception was shot, and that the seething mass of vendor kiosks and food carts reminded me not so much of baseball as it did a kind of food court you’d find in the middle of an epically massive 1980s video game arcade. Pink and baby clue neon lights and harsh overhead lighting stands out in my mind. Oddly appropriate and cacophonous Techno music was playing in the background as an assorted gaggle of sports fans – many of whom wearing Alouettes and Montreal Canadiens jerseys and caps – slurped down overpriced poutine and pizza slices from carts seemingly shipped over from La Ronde.

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Security guards and staff were decked out in clothing that must have been designed in the late-1980s and stored in boxes since the Expos’ folded. This, in conjunction with the overall retro aesthetic and lack of technology (no cellphone reception, no Interac, too few and generally outdated ATMs, antique scoreboards etc.) only re-enforced the strangeness of the situation. It was utterly bizarre.

I overcame the bewildering scene and propelled myself towards the upper deck seats behind home plate with my name on them. Moving swiftly through the bowels of the Big O comes naturally enough – the shape and size of the immense structure compels movement, the ramps almost make you want to run – it was apparent enough to all the children racing around.

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When I get to the upper deck with my date we discussed whether we should grab our seats or get something to nosh on. We both had an admittedly absurd craving for a ballpark frank we knew we’d gladly pay a hefty sum for just to say we’ve had the experience of doing so. Eating a hotdog while watching an MLB game in the Big O.

Strike that off the ‘things to do in Montreal’ checklist…

Such occurrences are rare these days.

We decided to take our seats imagining there would be vendors working the bleachers, and besides, the game had already began. That’s why we came here after-all.

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And not a moment later there I was watching something that hadn’t been seen in our city in just about a decade and I personally hadn’t witnessed in twenty-seven years. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan growing up, I preferred hockey, and later rugby. My interest in and appreciation of baseball came much later, and is nearly entirely as a consequence of the saga of the Montreal Expos as a franchise and the lasting impression the club (and to a greater extent the sport and the stadium) has had on our city.

Baseball in Montreal isn’t entirely about baseball. It’s about the city and its people.

Baseball is symbolic. Baseball is metaphor.

And resurrecting the Expos, long shot though it may be, has everything to do with people power and nothing to do with baseball as a business.

And yet, sitting there, one of 46,000 fans who filled the Big O on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think Warren Cromartie and the Montreal Baseball Project had succeeded at least in rounding first base as far as they’re own business case was concerned. They had proved that, ten years after the loss of the Expos, professional baseball could still draw significant interest in Montreal. Then they proved it again Saturday afternoon when 50,000 people showed up to the second part of the Jays-Mets pre-season double-header.

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Think about it – what kind of a game was this? An exhibition game between the Jays and the Mets, with the ground crew sponsored by the Quebec Egg Council, at the stadium that’s always been ‘too far away’ to be of any use? A total no-frills affair of no real consequence for either ‘away’ team? Just this first step alone was a bit of a long-shot in its own right. The stadium looked like it had just been re-opened after being completely shuttered for the last decade; the back bleachers were dusty with old cigarette butts still lying where they had been extinguished underfoot decades past.

But none of these minor and major inconveniences mattered. Everyone was happy to be watching a ball game. The stadium was nearly full, and it has more than twice the capacity of any of the other major sports venues in our city. No one was bitching about politics, or even this year’s endless winter. The crowd was as diverse as the city, with fans cheering both teams despite the assumption we’d be rooting for the Blue Jays out of some kind of misguided patriotism. The most awkward moment of the night was doubtless the half-hearted attempt to get a bunch of Montrealers to sing the Blue Jays’ version of ‘take me out to the ball game’ but even though I find group sing-alongs fascistic in nature and couldn’t possibly cooperate the crowd was in one of those typically Montreal ‘anything goes’ moods and saved face by joining in at the end.

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The game itself was great and provided plenty of excitement, but I can’t help but wonder how many spectators were thinking to themselves, pretty much all night, ‘how long will we have to wait until this happens again?’

After all, we don’t want to be teased, and Montrealers are sensitive enough as is.

What I saw on Friday night was step in the right direction and proof not only of baseball’s viability, but of the Olympic Stadium’s utility as well. I imagine the next step for Cromartie and the MBP will be to secure one or more regular season games to see if they can replicate their recent successes. From there planning would shift to next year and a set of exhibition and regular season games played at the Big O on a set schedule, say eight games over the span of four months to see if baseball can be sustained past the novelty stage. If all that works they’ll have much of their business case already made and all the evidence they need to support it before seriously starting the MLB-courtship, franchise-development and stadium design and financing stages.

So we shouldn’t get our hopes up we’ll see the Expos return any time soon, but I think it’s a safe bet we’ll see more baseball at the Big O in general.

My personal hope and desire is that the people in charge over at the RIO (Olympic installations board) get funding for minor aesthetic and functional improvements and do all they can to secure more sporting events at the Big O generally speaking. In a really ideal world some kind of a deal would be worked out to secure a set number of CFL and MLS games (with anticipated over-sized crowds), in addition to more exhibition and/or regular season MLB games and maybe even an NFL exhibition match too. Why not? It’s a sports venue, the people in charge of it should be in the business of ensuring it’s used for large-capacity sporting events.

The experience made me think the Big O could be the kind of ‘people’s stadium’ with local teams playing a few games each season at the Big O with heavily discounted tickets for the upper deck sections so as to encourage high attendance (and further ensure pro sports remains accessible to the people who have helped subsidize their development, both directly and indirectly.

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On a closing note, two other things worth mentioning. First, when I ordered my franks I concluded the transaction in French, my mother tongue. The vendor, upon hearing my Anglophone accent decided to switch to English. I continue speaking French, to which he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you spoke English’.

I said I do, and that I speak French as well and I typically just go with whatever’s most instinctive at a given moment. I told him he should never apologize for being so accommodating, it’s far too stereotypically Canadian.

We shared a laugh.

Much later on, travelling back home on the Métro, I noticed the determined stride and Lupine-blue eyes of Gilles Duceppe leaving the crowded Métro train in a huff. I said, rather too excitedly, ‘hey look it’s Gilles Duceppe!’ to which the crowd responded with ‘ooohs’ and ‘awwws’, such as it is when local aristocracy tread too close to subterranean common-folk.

What a night it was…

Andrew Coyne – Our Broken Democracy

Worth the watch. Applies as much to the Fed as it does provincial politics.

Specific note: this speech is in English and mostly focuses on federal politics, which Mr. Coyne follows closely. That said, it applies 100% to Quebec politics.

It is foolish to think Quebec’s democracy is any more vibrant or effective than democracy in other Canadian provinces. Our politicians tell us constantly how fundamentally different we are, but when it comes to the shite that is modern politics in Canada, Quebec is no better than any other province.

Coyne points out the grim fact – our Prime Ministers have been full of shit, consistently, going back forty years (and yes, very much including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the last good prime minister I can think of broadly speaking).

Quebec has it’s own political bullshit. If you watched Thursday’s ‘leaders’ debate you would have witnessed Pauline Marois, François Legault and Françoise David gang up on Philippe Couillard for expressing his thought that bilingualism is an asset to anyone living in Quebec.

He was almost accused of being a traitor to his race.

Anyways, I’ll talk about that a little more in a later post.

Listen to Coyne, he knows what he’s talking about. Fixing our democracy is going to take a national effort, and if it isn’t done soon there simply won’t be a Canada worth saving in the future.

Also – pay particular attention to his comments on the problems with our ‘first past the post’ system. Understanding why this system doesn’t work is key to understanding the major underlying deficiencies with our political system, because we have a democracy that propels massive disenfranchisement.

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Sometimes the gods just smile and align the stars just right.

Or in this case a tour bus for vedette Québec politician Pauline Marois, who was involved in running the province for a while about a year ago before she decided to start her campaign…

In terms of political clusterfucks of epic proportions, this one takes the cake.

I think the PQ is going to lose big, largely as a consequence of:

1. Selling out your base (via hiring PKP, pushing the unpopular charter, screwing students)

2. Running with the devil (PKP)

3. Retreating from the party’s key issue (independence)

4. Placing too much emphasis on the most divisive issue (charter)

5. Saying nothing of consequence re: getting more value from taxation, protecting the environment and creating jobs (bread and butter concerns)

6. Appearing hysterical in lieu of inspirational (David), funny (Legault) or rational (Couillard)

7. Claiming students from Ontario are trying to steal the election

8. Defending your candidate who spouts KKK conspiracy theories

9. Running a campaign against the former Premier, the man the PQ already defeated, instead of the new guy