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.