New Condos for Overdale, No News re: Future of Lafontaine House

YUL Condos from Mackay and René-Lévesque - not the work of the author
YUL Condos from Mackay and Ren̩-L̩vesque Рnot the work of the author

*Author’s note re: the above rendering. I’ve gone and checked – the trees along the left and right edges of the rendering above do not exist. In fact, the one at left could not exist as it would be located somewhere in the westbound turning lane of René Lévesque Boulevard. Also, the intersection at Mackay doesn’t look like that, and there’s no park on the right; it’s another shitty parking lot.

And now for something completely different.*

News on the real estate front, yet another developer is planning a massive condo project for downtown Montreal.

To be located on the Overdale Block (Crescent to Mackay, south of Boul. René-Lévesque) the YUL Condos project seeks to complete two 38-floor residential towers, as depicted above, in addition to about 20 townhouses along Overdale street, both components opening onto a central courtyard. The towers will be on the René-Lévesque side and the townhouses on the opposite side, where their stature will be more in keeping with the ‘human scale’ of old Victorian grey stones.

Admittedly, this project is a bit different from others, namely because it’s being shopped to a foreign clientele; sales offices have opened in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, and the main financing is coming from a consortium of Asian-Canadian investors. Considering this project’s proximity to Concordia University and the large Chinese population living in Shaughnessy Village, I feel it’s likely this project will be realized, perhaps before other similarly sized projects aimed at locals. This project aims to tap into a different kind of market. I have a feeling this condo complex is going to end up housing a lot of wealthy foreign students.

In any event, I’m merely speculating. How our housing market hasn’t yet tanked is beyond me.

So build, baby, build, right?

While I’m glad the useless empty lot will be filled with decently attractive residential towers and townhouses, I’m delighted the developer is also planning a renovation of the Lafontaine House. Perhaps more surprising, it’s not entirely clear what will go immediately behind the Lafontaine House, and so in the conceptual renderings it’s been left as a green space.

The developers are insistent that they’d like to see the Lafontaine House used for educational purposes, be it as a museum or interpretive centre, but they were also quick to point out that they’re not in that line of business. So I suppose this means we need our elected officials to get off their asses and make a move.

Not bloody likely, this is Lafontaine’s House after all.

For those of you not in the know, Louis-Hyppolite Lafontaine was the first Canadian to become Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada, the political entity which immediately precedes modern Canada (itself beginning with Confederation in 1867). Lafontaine, along with co-Prime Minister Robert Baldwin, instituted a wide variety of reforms which continued the gentle push towards independence. He was the very first PM to preside over a responsible government and worked tirelessly (and ultimately succeeded) in having French return to official status, something which proudly remains to this day.

You may wonder why the house of such a man as this should be in an advanced state of disrepair, and why no government agency has stepped in to preserve it.

It’s a good question, one I unfortunately do not have an answer to.

But in the current political climate, it’s unlikely the Lafontaine House will be saved either by Québec City or Ottawa. For separatists, Lafontaine (a committed Patriote during the Rebellions of 1837-38) is the source of original sin – he’s viewed as a traitor because he worked with other rebels from Upper Canada (modern day Ontario) in creating Canada. The separatists have often portrayed the Rebellion of 1837 as a simple French vs. English conflict which resulted in Québec’s first martyrs. The reality, as is always the case, was far more complex. In fact, the dual rebellions (which occurred in both Québec and Ontario) pitted Canadians of multi-ethnic origins against the British Empire. Ergo, Canada vs. the United Kingdom, not French vs. English. Lafontaine’s experiences during the Rebellion of 1837 convinced him to pursue the peaceful path towards national sovereignty. His ideal vision of Canada was one in which Aboriginals, French, Métis, Scots, Irish, Loyalist Blacks, Americans and yes even the English would live together in harmony, their commitment more towards a common set of social and political values rather than blood lines and language. Back in the day, this was cosmopolitanism in Canada. It was profoundly progressive thinking and it worked. The Canada we have today, and the Canadian ideal we aspire to, are largely thanks to Lafontaine.

And on that note, another example of why the Parti Québécois won’t be handing over any money to the man who did far more to preserve the French language in Canada than Bill 101 or the Official Languages Act combined. The Parti Québécois simply does not believe multiculturalism is a Québec value.

That it is a Canadian value, largely put into practice by the original Canadiens and our unofficially first Prime Minister over a century before the Quiet Revolution, is of little interest to the populist, reactionary and wholly myopic PQ.

And for that matter, Lafontaine’s house likely won’t be saved by our current federal government either. The Tories prefer a ‘blood & guts’ history that posits Canadians as frontiersmen, warriors etc. It’s a gigantic clusterfuck of idiocy, in my personal opinion, and is severely degrading to our nation’s actual comprehension of our history, but the Tories simply don’t want to know of anything else. Lafontaine’s commitment to peace, order and restraint in the face of adversity is hardly exciting enough to keep Tories’ attention.

So I’m a bit pessimistic government will save the day (do they ever?), but perhaps our new mayor might be a bit more forward thinking.

Lafontaine’s House must be preserved and used to educate the public. It should be both a national historic monument and a public museum and/or interpretive centre; remember it’s free to mail your MP should you happen to agree with me.

Suffice it to say I’d really hate to see this become a private residence, though that’s what will likely happen. If that’s the course of action, hopefully the grounds behind are used for a nice garden; I think it’d be too much to ask private real estate developers to set aside land for a park. Lord knows the current civic administration couldn’t be bothered to do so.

As to the proposed building complex, while I find it aesthetically pleasing and am happy to see the inclusion of the townhouses, I’m less than thrilled there’s no social housing provision (yet again). At a time when our homeless population is steadily increasing and low-cost housing is disappearing from the urban centre (where it’s most needed), we, the actual citizens of Montreal, have no need for more condo towers. But these really aren’t being marketed locally, and it’s not the developer’s responsibility to build such units, it’s up to the city to mandate it.

I only bring this up because, prior to the shady dealings which lead to the razing of Overdale, it was nothing but low-cost housing, and right in the middle of the city too.

That’s a big issue to get in to, one I’ve discussed before but won’t again here. Read this instead, pretty comprehensive.

Sad News for Montreal Conservationists – Angell Woods to be Razed for Housing

Angell Woods, the big green space in the middle of the photograph above
Angell Woods, the big green space in the middle of the photograph above

The Mayor of Beaconsfield, one of the wealthiest cities in Canada and a West Island suburb, has announced that a portion of Angell Woods, a large undeveloped tract of old-growth forest between highways 20 and 40, will be developed for residential use.

Angell Woods is one of the last remaining large expanses of ‘Montreal wilderness’ and an important wetland, a key component of the West Island’s broader ecosystem. Half is owned by a public consortium of sorts including the cities of Montreal and Beaconsfield as well as the Province of Quebec, while the remaining is in private hands. Mayor Pollock suggested that existing zoning regulations will stipulate high-density residential construction to preserve as much of the forest as possible, but that buying out the owners was impossible simply because no one is willing to front the coin, so to speak.

I think it’s fairly evident any residential development in this space will have a deleterious effect on the quality of the forest as a whole, severely undermining what such a large concentrated wetland provides to those living around it.

We don’t often think about it, but wetlands play a crucial role in water purification, flood and drought control as well as groundwater replenishment. All of this is of vital concern to every homeowner in Beaconsfield, Baie d’Urfé and Kirkland (at the very least).

Consider this: if you ever wondered why Beaconsfield and Baie d’Urfé had such a ‘lush’ quality about them, perhaps you should consider that Angell Woods has been providing considerable, and free, water treatment services for its immediate environs for thousands of years.

Destroying half of it may wind up killing the other half, and either way I can anticipate Beaconsfield may suffer some unintended consequences by permitting development in Angell Woods (namely seasonal watering bans, lower general groundwater retention, among other potential environmental changes).

For your consideration, an open letter written by one of those land-owners.

She makes a compelling argument. These people have paid taxes and the cost of surveys and environmental studies never reimbursed by either the province or cities, they’ve been denied access to their rightfully owned property and further denied the right to develop it. Imagine yourself in their shoes, jerked around by the public sector and prevented from making the fortune you and your family may have worked tirelessly to secure. I suppose it isn’t easy for most of us to imagine ourselves as property developers or land owners, but these people exist and have a right to conduct their business.

Unfortunately for them, the simple fact is that we were not thinking strategically about environmental issues and ecological conservation back in the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the properties in Angell Woods were secured by their current owners. Today we’re a little more in tune with the realities of environmental degradation, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas, and so a far broader interest must be considered. Inasmuch as it’s wrong that these property owners (and tax payers) be denied the right to conduct their business, it’s worse for the greater number of people to lose these woods. What’s Beaconsfield without it? The question is not how much it’s worth to the city, but what it’s worth to all the people who live in Beaconsfield and benefit from what I hear is an absolutely splendid little forest?

It’s not merely an issue of the public having grown accustomed to walking their dogs on private land they thought was a nature preserve for the last sixty years, it’s that this land is better off – for all of us – if it continues to exist in its natural state.

The quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we stand on should always be held in higher esteem than any individual’s right to profit.

And yet, unless someone comes up with a lot of cash really quick, Montreal will lose another fundamental component of its natural self.

It’ll be a damn shame if the housing market collapses after the area is clear cut…

Premier Marois to Stifle Opposition with Métro Extension Plan

AMT Métro Extension Plan
AMT Métro Extension Plan

The mayoral contest officially kicked off today with Projet Montréal taking a strong lead, winning the idiotically-named ‘poster war’ thanks primarily to the fact the party is fielding 103 candidates and an immense volunteer effort. Aside from Projet’s street sign ubiquity, Mélanie Joly may have come in second place (who’s counting?) with her unconventional Super Woman pose and dark background posters.

And in response to a week of outright hostility from nearly all quarters of our city, the Premiere, Benevolent Queen Pauline Marois, announced a Métro extension. As the CBC puts it, “Montreal’s Metro system is about to get its biggest and most expensive upgrade since the Laval extension.”

Indeed.

In fact, the PQ has announced that they’ve set aside $38.8 million for a planning office with a two year mandate. Whether the PQ lasts that long is another issue.

So don’t get your hopes up – this isn’t a ‘shovel-in-hand’ announcement of the immediate construction of Métro tunnels. It’s more an announcement of intent to eventually do something.

When it comes to the Métro, that’s pretty much all we’ve gotten for years anyways. The Charest government made a similar announcement back in 2009 though nothing came of it, and the idea to extend the Blue Line further east dates back to the mid-1980s when the line was first developed. Of note, Charest’s 2009 plan called for closing the Orange Line loop, as well as extensions in both directions of the Yellow Line, in addition to the Blue Line extension, as you can see in the above image. Today’s announcement mentioned that a Yellow Line extension would be contemplated once the Blue Line project is completed.

Why not do both?

Why not do the 2009 plan?

Wouldn’t we save money in the long run if we streamline one big Métro expansion, rather than small, piecemeal extensions? It would certainly streamline bidding processes and purchasing, no?

The Blue Line’s proposed eastern extension to Anjou (specifically, to an intermodal terminus at the Galleries d’Anjou suburban shopping complex) will undoubtedly alleviate congestion on the Metropolitan Expressway and extend a convenient and efficient mass transit system into a broad medium density residential area. There’s no question about whether the extension is the right way to go, but we need to be vigilant regarding the estimated cost.

The PQ is projecting a $250 to $300 million cost per kilometre and a total extended length of six kilometres (about the distance from University to the Olympic Stadium along Sherbrooke) with five stations. On the outside that’s a $1.8 billion extension to serve a combined population of about 120,000 Montrealers living in the boroughs of Saint-Leonard and Anjou, one hell of an investment in a relatively small number of citizens.

The cost to extend the Orange Line to Laval by three stations cost about half that amount per kilometre, and that project was announced in the late 1990s but only completed in 2007. As you might expect, post-industrial Québec takes a lot longer to get anything done.

So don’t expect this Blue Line extension any time soon; those making the announcement today were indicating ‘the beginning of the 2020s’ for ‘full operations’.

Christ; I’ll be old by then.

I’ll say it one more time – we built 26 stations between 1962 and 1967 across three lines and it cost just under $1.5 billion (or 213.7 million in 1966 dollars).

Granted I’m obviously not an economist, but I would like to know why the cost of construction has increased so much in the past decade in particular. You’d figure we’d be getting some kind of rebate in Post Charb Commish Quebec, but this is as expensive as ever.

And we’re not exactly reinventing the wheel either – so how the hell did it suddenly become so expensive to build basic mass transit systems in our city?

***

Original design of Edouard-Montpetit station's connection with Mount Royal Tunnel
Original design of Edouard-Montpetit station’s connection with Mount Royal Tunnel

There’s another issue we should consider when thinking about the Blue Line and any potential future extensions. It has the lowest ridership of all four lines and the trains are shorter by three cars (you’ll notice that the platforms at Blue Line stations have barricades at either end as the stations were designed to operate ‘full’ nine-car trains). I think this is as a consequence of the line not directly connecting with the city centre.

As long as we’re re-hashing old ideas, why not take a closer look at the original design of Edouard-Montpetit station, which was intended to act as a transfer point between the Blue Line and the commuter rail line passing fifty meters under the Métro in the Mount Royal Tunnel (as you can see in the station’s original design plan above). The tunnel is now owned and operated by the Agence Métropolitain de Transport and is in need of upgrading to support new dual-power locomotives inasmuch as some kind of emergency exit at some point in between the tunnel entrances. I would argue strongly in favour of developing a connection between the Métro and the Mount Royal Tunnel as a means to transfer passengers on the Blue Line to Gare Centrale. This would not only require high-speed, high-capacity elevators (as they have at some Parisian Métro stations), but the potential construction of a short ‘by-pass’ tunnel deep underground. A difficult job no doubt, but far from impossible.

The benefit is that the Blue Line becomes a lot more useful with this upgrade. I’d even argue prioritizing this element of the original design before any eastern extension. If this connection were made, transferring at Edouard-Montpetit would give Blue Line passengers access to the Orange and Green lines via the Gare Centrale and Place Ville-Marie portion of the Underground City. For the hundreds of thousands of people living along the line’s route, Downtown Montreal suddenly becomes much, much closer – about five minutes from Université de Montréal to the heart of the financial district.

Such a development could lead to increased land values of properties within proximity of the Blue Line, not to mention give the Blue Line’s extension a more practical raison-d’etre. Call me a cynic, but I smell subtle vote-buying.

Don’t get me wrong – expanding eastwards is a good if very costly idea, and I’d like to know why this is taking so long and costing so much.

But if we’re going to extend the Blue Line’s reach, why not also expand its capacity and increase its utility as well?

I have a feeling realizing the original plan would have the effect of increasing ridership on the Blue Line to such an extent that the STM upgrades to nine-car trains on the line, thus giving the line the ability to truly operate at full capacity.

In any event, I should close with a thought.

There was once a time in which elected officials had to deliver on promises made, otherwise they’d lose the public’s confidence and the right to govern.

This is not the case today. The people are so incredibly disengaged and cynical we don’t expect anything from our supposed leaders at all. We carry on despite them. Sometimes they do something good, most of the time they’re an annoyance, occasionally they’re discovered to be outright criminals.

I don’t know what was so different about life in this city back in the 1960s and 1970s that made the people here demand action and quick results for their political support. I don’t know what lit a fire under people’s asses to get shit done. I know many people suggest Expo and Olympics being the sole motivating factors, but surely this can’t be the case. The people wanted action and their will was respected. We elected, and kept electing, a visionary mayor, who paid us back by giving us a truly global city to live, love and play in.

Today we get flashy press conferences that ultimately only promise more study and preparation for some interminable project whose only purpose seems to be to sap whatever confidence the people have in their elected officials.

I suppose my question is why the PQ isn’t coming to us with a plan to actually begin development?

I wish government had the self-respect and restraint to only bother the people with announcements of actual accomplishments.

Your City, Your Candidates

The City Along Mountain Street

Part of an on-going series of interviews of local candidates I’m doing with Forget the Box, an excellent Montreal blog. This is the full version of the interview I did with Jimmy Zoubris, a local businessman looking to represent Projet Montréal in the Peter-McGill district of Ville-Marie borough.

And just a note – the answers are paraphrased. Otherwise you’d be reading a transcript of a recorded conversation, and that’s just too… NSA, FBI & CIA-ish for my tastes.

***

I met up with Jimmy Zoubris, city councillor candidate for Projet Montréal in Peter-McGill district, at one of my favourite local cafés, the Shaika in NDG. It occurred to me on the walk over that Sherbrooke Street West and Saint Catherine’s Street West have something in common – high concentrations of medium/high density urban housing and a surprising number of independently owned and operated businesses. I wondered if there was a correlation; St-Cat’s runs down the middle of Peter-McGill district, which is defined (working counter-clockwise from the north) by the mountain, Westmount, the 720/Guy/Notre-Dame in the south (i.e. including everything up to Little Burgundy and Griffintown), with an eastern edge created by University, Pine and Parc. It includes Concordia and McGill, the remnants of the Square Mile, much of the modern central business district not to mention a multitude of institutions.

It is a demonstration of the incredible contrasts of our city, and the juxtaposition of so much diversity in a part of town you could walk across in half an hour makes it a fascinating place to want to represent.

Consider the district has a very high median income – over $70,000 per annum in 2009, yet also a significant homeless problem, at about 10% of the local population in 2006 (and I’m assuming both these figures have increased since). Moreover, an incredible 45% of the district’s residents live below the poverty line (many of which are students). Though only 22% of residents speak French at home 63% are bilingual in both official languages. Immigrants represent 44% of the local population, the majority of them Chinese, though immigrants from Lebanon, Morocco and France are also well represented in the district. What’s curious about Peter-McGill, is, first, that small-scale enterprises seem to thrive near the large residential sectors of the district, and second that the district has large depopulated areas – notably in the central business and retail district towards the eastern edge of Peter-McGill. Suffice it to say there are a lot of competing interests here, and it will be a difficult task for any potential candidate.

I asked Jimmy off the bat what he likes about this city, and he simply looked around and waved his hand; “this,” he said, “small, independently owned and operated cafés, bistros, restaurants etc. These are a rarity in the suburbs, but in the city, they’re everywhere. Trendy little coffee shops are competing one-on-one with major chains, and it often looks like the little guy’s winning. There’s a lot of potential. It’s certainly what my district could use more of, especially as you get closer to the downtown core. Projet Montréal wants to empower entrepreneurs and support the development of more small businesses. Too much of the downtown is dead after five or six.”

Where’s your favourite place to bring tourists to the city?

First, I’d take them to Mount Royal, the lookout, Lac des Castors etc, so that they can see the jewel we protected. It’s hard to believe fifty years ago Jean Drapeau had half the trees cut down to ‘prevent immorality’, as they used to say. But today we’re smarter, we value our green space, especially a park of such quality design, so universally enjoyed by all Montrealers. I think I would bring an eager tourist to see Montrealers using something they cherish and love very much. But after that, we’d go to the market, Jean Talon, Atwater, just to enjoy the experience, have a bite, watch people go by. I know it sounds odd, but I think we can all appreciate it, there’s something calming and refreshing about a market place. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of them, I think they’re a hit with an increasingly food-conscious population.

You’re a small businessman and we’ve spoken before of your thoughts concerning the necessity for a better business climate for small-scale entrepreneurs; what can the city do to improve the situation?

The fact is this – people don’t like empty storefronts on our main commercial arteries. It’s a peculiar problem – it doesn’t mean one business has driven others out of business and are ‘winning capitalism’, it means property values have increased out of step with actual business revenue. And like a virus it can spread to a whole block; remember what Saint Catherine’s from Fort to Lambert-Closse looked like a few years ago? It was a ghost town! Projet Montréal wants to change all that and so do I. The city has the resources to initiate buy-local campaigns and develop web portals and social media sites and applications for local businesses and business development. The city needs to pay attention to merchant’s needs, especially on the small end of the scale. Simple improvements to sidewalks – be it by repairing old cement, or installing recycling bins and benches, whatever, improvements like these can do a lot to help local businesses. And on top of that, the city should probably become more involved in promoting the creativity and uniqueness of local goods and services, and the fact they’re so much more available to urban citizens than suburbanites. Facilitating a better business environment that supports local entrepreneurs is one part of a broad plan to reverse population loss to the suburbs.

What do you like the most and what do you like the least about living in your district?

Like? Well, for one thing the nightlife. It’s not just Crescent Street, on the whole we’re well equipped with a wide variety of restaurants, bars, bistros, nightclubs to suit all tastes. It’s the part of town that seems to be on all the time, and I don’t mind that. For a lot of Montrealers this is an exciting, entertaining district. As to what I like least, it’s the class extremes, too much obscene wealth next to abject poverty. We have about 2,000 homeless in this district, that’s a problem that’s been ignored for far too long.

What do you propose to fix it?

The city should take the lead, partner with established charities like Acceuil Bonneau, and work to increase their capacity, possibly by securing abandoned residential and institutional properties that haven’t sold in many years. Coincidentally, there’s an abandoned old folks home across from the CCA that hasn’t sold in over a decade. No doubt we should definitely collaborate with established charities and see if we can help them help others better.

What’s Projet Montréal’s greatest challenge in the forthcoming election?

Getting the message from one end of the island to the other. We’re a big, complex city with a lot of moving parts, so it’s definitely going to be a challenge not only to get the message out, but to make people care enough to listen in the first place. We’re dealing with a local population that’s already fed up with local politicians and it shows, only 40% of citizens voted in the 2009 municipal election. That’s pathetically low, but to me it seems like some people are getting turned off by local politics and politicians. Suffice it to say, this only makes the job of the honest politician that much more difficult.

But I’ll say this, despite those challenges, and despite Montreal’s size, Projet Montréal is about Montreal first and foremost, the affairs of the province and country come second. We are a party for the citizens, and we know once elected the citizens will be our boss. Projet is cognizant there are no one-size-fits-all solutions for Montreal, and that what works well in one borough may not necessarily work in another. We know this because we’re the grassroots party, built from the bottom up, not paid for from the top down. Though Richard Bergeron often likes to look at the big picture in terms of how Montreal is going to evolve, on the person-to-person basis, at the district level, it’s about being a good representative, listening to constituents’ needs and correcting local problems.

How did Montreal end up in the political mess it currently sits in?

There were far too many people with far too many powers, too much control at the borough level while the city executive, the mayor etc. all took the laissez-faire approach. Tremblay was either complicit or wasn’t paying attention – in which case his negligence is nearly criminal. Either way safeguards are needed, and increased transparency is one way to begin fixing things. We need an active, involved mayor, not some guy who only shows up for photo ops but is otherwise a ghost. It’s funny, I was reading recently that Denis Coderre wants to champion an ‘intelligent’ city and yet of all the former Union Montreal councillors now running with him, not one is participating in the live broadcasting of their meetings. Projet Montréal is going to great lengths to ensure we respect the letter of the law and the people’s interest in greater transparency. All you get from Coté or Coderre is a lot of hot air; all talk, no action.

There are well over one hundred thousand students living in what most would consider to be ‘downtown’ Montreal or in the most urban first ring suburbs. It’s clear they’re politically motivated, and yet the youth don’t participate in Montreal municipal elections. What’s Projet Montréal doing about this?

For one we have 19 candidates under the age of 35. Granted that’s not exactly young, but we’re doing what we can and as you might imagine, we have a lot of volunteers under the age of 30. Richard Bergeron proposed a few years ago that the city open week-long voting booths in the CEGEPs and universities to facilitate voting for Montreal’s students. It’s no different than absentee voting anywhere else, and we certainly have the technology to make it work. But Union Montréal struck down the idea, instead permitting those who own property in the city to vote even if they live and pay municipal taxes elsewhere. We were pretty upset about this. That students wouldn’t get help integrating into the democratic process, but the wealthy are allowed to participate in elections in places they don’t actually live? It’s sickening really, and it’s a kind of disenfranchisement as well. Of course, the political establishment in this city has been leery about the student vote since the early 1970s, when the party created by the students nearly ousted Mayor Jean Drapeau.

What would you like to see wiped off the map or otherwise expelled from Montreal?

What a question! Ha! Well, I’ll tell you what, I’ll answer it in two parts. For one, I’d like to officially banish Jeff Loria (chuckles all around, Jeff Loria is the art collector who ran the Expos into the ground). I’d put up a sign telling him to go back home to Florida (more laughs).

As to what I’d like to see disappear, definitely the big gaping hole where the Ville-Marie Expressway divides Old Montreal from the rest of the city. It has to be covered. Even if nothing’s put on top of it and we leave a big open field of grass, it would be a major improvement over how it currently stands. My understanding is that the Palais des Congrès is looking to expand on the western edge of the remaining trench, and the CHUM will expand on the eastern edge, the city should step in and cover the rest. We need to stitch this city back up, it’s been divided – physically, culturally – for far too long. Projet has a plan to change all that.

Pensées sur la rentrée

Clouds over Saint Henri - Summer 2013
Clouds over Saint Henri – Summer 2013

It’s official, Montréal’s exceptionally large student population is now safely locked away in their classrooms and lecture halls, allowing old people to once again return to our city’s streets, public spaces and transit systems, confident in their knowledge they won’t be subjected to anything too shocking from the young folk for many dreary months.

Fall announced itself over the long weekend in an odd manner: Saturday was humid with low, thick clouds, breaking in the afternoon. Sunday was a reminder of some of the really beautiful (yet unfortunately few) sunny summer days where all manner of colour explode all around you. And Monday, well, by Monday the party was over – fall was back with a vengeance. It was an odd day of alternating mugginess and fresh river breezes, clouds rolling all day with small breaks to show the azure skies behind. By dinner time the rains that held off all day soaked the city through and through, and then the clouds broke again, before returning with thunderclaps and lightning dancing across the night sky. And today the smell of poplar leaves lingering in my nostrils… autumn; the dynamic flourish of life before death.

What a town to live in. Today I got giddy thinking about walking through the forest on the mountain five or six weeks from now on a sunny day when the leaves look like an artist’s impression of fire in stained glass. Orange, yellow, red and green on a blue background.

What a pallet!

In any event, no more chromatic deviations, on to the task at hand.

Our schools kinda suck.

Granted in absolute terms we’re doing just fine, but on a national and provincial level our public schools have a lot of problems we’re not addressing. The drop-out rate in the public French sector is embarrassingly high. Some schools sit half empty while other burst at the seams, and in some cases these schools are within a block of each another. Street gang infiltration is a surprising and serious problem inasmuch as the casual disrespect shown towards inner-city students by the local police force (who all too often assume any group of three or more non-white adolescents constitutes a street gang). And if all that wasn’t enough some of these schools are stuffed full of asbestos or have had water infiltration for so many years toxic mould is sprouting in the air ducts.

The people deserve better. The kids deserve better. We shouldn’t have to pay a fortune to send our kids to private schools, the public sector must provide. After all, it’s one of the things our taxes pay for, and we pay a lot in taxes. There’s absolutely no legitimate reason our schools and public schooling system should fail the way it does, causing social problems, furthering the class rift, costing what it does without producing the results we want. The denigration of the public education system further impoverishes the middle class and drives suburban flight. There’s no pride in having to pay for your child’s education – it’s a failure of the state we live in.

I’m astounded we don’t demand better.

Perhaps we inadvertently lost sight of things, but a cursory examination of the local public education system offers some glaring examples of how and why local public schooling seems to be on the decline.

The fundamental problem is the near total lack of efficiency. Multiple boards, multiple unions, unnecessary duplication, inefficient space usage, poor maintenance, no standardization, – the list goes on and on.

Segregation, in my opinion, is the source of what ails and may ultimately severely damage our local public education system. The PQ’s decision to eliminate religious school boards in the late 1990s was a move in the right direction and a move towards greater efficiency and a positive reinforcement of state secularism. Montréal should take this a step further and unite all the school boards operating on-island into a single city-administered department of education. Ending segregation may save us a lot of money.

Imagine an end to linguistic segregation in Montréal public schools – I can’t think of a better way to integrate immigrants into our society than by demonstrating our own ability to integrate the minorités-majoritaires. Think about it. We send the kids of the people we want to integrate into our society to the overcrowded and underfunded French public sector, which in this city is losing Franco-Québécois enrolment to the private sector, while Anglophone schools with French Immersion and International Baccalaureate programs sit half empty. It’s insane; if there was just one board student distribution would be more even – no empty schools, no over-crowding. Integrating the school boards cut could busing budgets since students would simply go to the school nearest their home, rather than being shipped halfway across the city. Everything would be streamlined – from text book selection to resource allocation to cafeteria services, providing the potential for major savings as new areas of efficiency are exploited.

One island, one school department, but ultimately two languages.

This is the fundamental compromise – this new arrangement would require the integration of English and French school boards, their teachers and respective staff. It would mean all Montreal children would be taught the same regardless of what language they speak at home, and thus, the language of instruction and internal communication for this new island-wide education department must be officially French.

But not absolutely French. A good compromise cuts both ways.

If the English boards were to accept a French education department for the whole island, the French boards would have to accept a degree of bilingualism in public education for all Montreal children. I’d argue 30% of class time ought to be in English and 70% in French from kindergarten all the way to grade 11. This mix will, in my opinion, would thoroughly guarantee the survival of the French language and culture in Montréal while simultaneously providing a foundation of English-language instruction necessary for life in Canada. I’m pretty sure the end result would be a greater appreciation of both languages by all Montrealers, regardless of mother tongue or cultural background.

There are many reasons we should head in this direction – we’ll save money, get more bang for our collective buck, better ensure social cohesion and create the winning conditions for a local public education renaissance. We have all the social and economic reasons to pursue this, and yet, we’re incredibly cynical.

I’ve been told this could/would/should never happen.

That disappoints me.

I think Montrealers ought to have a greater say in how our children are educated, and ending segregation in our public schools, regardless of whatever the current provincial government may say, is the right way forward for our city.