Champlain Bridge Blues

Conversely, a view from the bridge rather than of it.
Conversely, a view from the bridge rather than of it.

So here’s our situation.

The most used bridge in all of Canada may be in danger of breaking apart and partially collapsing. Last week a known crack was determined to have widened enough emergency repairs and lane closures were merited. We’ve heard this before – it seems like the Champlain Bridge is in a constant state of emergency lane closures and repairs.

As Bruno Bisson of La Presse points out, there’s no Plan B in case the bridge has to be permanently shut down in advance of any proposed replacement. And because there’s no inter-agency nor inter-governmental cooperation on major transit and transport issues in Greater Montreal, there’s also no real hope of creating a Plan B quickly.

Ergo, if the bridge is in worse shape than we’re being told, it may become unusable and create one hell of a transit and traffic problem. One that will require swift corrective action less the closure of the bridge begin to negatively impact the city and region’s economy.

Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair describes the Tories’ handling of the Champlain Bridge replacement project as ‘inexcusable’ as the project is significantly behind schedule and is currently estimated to cost anywhere from three to five billion dollars. In addition, the poor state of the bridge has been known to the crown corporation in charge of it for some time, and a considerable sum of taxpayers’ money (federal money, not local or provincial just to be precise) has been spent applying band-aid solutions rather than building anything new. The Tories first proposed a bridge replacement project early in their first mandate – seven years ago. Nothing has been accomplished to date, though the estimated cost has increased considerably.

For Context

Fifty million vehicles cross the Champlain Bridge each year, making it the single busiest crossing in all of Canada, working out to roughly 160,000 vehicles per day. Removing it from the city’s ‘transit and traffic equation’ without replacement would be very bad indeed, and not just for the individuals who cross it daily. The Champlain Bridge is bigger than itself, and if removed there will be a profoundly negative cascade effect presenting new stresses on every other bridge, tunnel and transit system used to cross the river.

Though the bridge is only fifty-one years old and the youngest of the city’s four principle bridges, it was built with an apparently poor quality concrete that has eroded far quicker than expected. Transport Canada argues that the span was never intended to handle it’s current operating capacity and that de-icing salt, sprayed in the volumes necessary to clear the bridge for high-traffic use, has expedited the deterioration of the concrete.

Today’s news is that a steel ‘super beam’ will be installed to buttress a girder against any further deterioration of its concrete. We should note that this beam was delivered in 2009; there are 350 beams on the bridge in various states of deterioration, and so I can imagine the Transport Canada may have several of these so-called ‘super beams’ lying around their worksites waiting to be used. Ergo, they’re anticipating years of serious maintenance and repairs anyways.

A report issued by the Fed back in 2011 estimated that yearly maintenance of the deteriorating bridge (assumedly at constant current usage rates) would come out to a quarter billion dollars over the course of a decade without solving anything: the bridge will remain in poor shape without replacement, though assumedly the quarter-billion dollar investment would, at the very least, keep it going for a decade.

Now Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel is indicating the construction of the new bridge may be expedited to be completed before the originally estimated date of completion set at 2021.

When was the last time the Tories got anything built and delivered on schedule? We have reason to doubt such pronouncements; not only are the Tories notoriously bad for over-promising and under-delivering, there’s no political advantage in speeding up construction.

Questions

Does the cost of the new bridge (which, at $5 billion is ridiculously expensive) include the cost of maintaining the current bridge?

It’s not like the question is ‘either we continue maintaining the bridge for an estimated quarter billion or we replace it for five’ – either both need to occur simultaneously or the current bridge is maintained up to the point it becomes redundant. Obviously, the current bridge can’t be shut down while the next one is being built.

And yet, with each and every car, truck and bus passing over it, with every winter and every snowfall, it gets weaker, and we may have painted ourselves into a corner where that becomes our reality…

I’d like to know, were structural maintenance and repairs to be suspended, how long would it take before the bridge became unusable? How long before pieces begin to fall off? How long until it collapses?

Assuming the bridge has a definitive expiry date, how much longer can Transport Canada and the Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridge Corporation realistically and cost-effectively maintain it and how much is too much to spend, per year, on bridge maintenance and repairs?

Would the bridge last longer/ cost less to maintain and repair each year if the traffic volume were reduced through the expansion of alternative transit systems?

As to the cost of the new bridge, where exactly is the money coming from? There’s been talk of tolls used to pay down the cost once the bridge is completed. But does this mean that the federal government has three to five billion dollars up front to pay the cost of the bridge?

It’s these last two points that brings us back to the issue of why we need a greater degree of inter-agency cooperation; if the Fed has five billion dollars to spend on a new bridge, why not invest that money in developing mass-transit systems that lessen the load on the Champlain? Reducing the bridge’s traffic volume may extend its life, or at the very least make it easier to repair and maintain. Even if the estimated cost to maintain and repair the Champlain Bridge for the next decade were to double to $500 million, this would be but a tenth the cost of the bridge’s apparent successor.

Cooperation

At the end of the day the issue isn’t ‘how do we replace the Champlain Bridge’, but rather ‘how do we get anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand motorists to give up their cars for the purposes of commuting in and out of the city?’

Wouldn’t cutting one to two-thirds of the bridge’s daily vehicle crossings not only potentially extend the bridge’s lifespan but reduce yearly maintenance and repair costs as well?

And if you could divert the rest of those vehicles onto other bridges without over-loading them, would we even still need a Champlain Bridge at all?

And if those costs were reduced, wouldn’t that have an effect on the total cost of the bridge’s replacement, given that the proposed replacement wouldn’t need to be built as quickly, nor to the same, rather grandiose specifications as the current proposal?

If the Tories want to do something that will actually benefit the people of Greater Montreal, then it stands to reason they should cooperate, fully, with provincial and local authorities to incite and propel a major shift towards public transit commuting throughout the South Shore.

As it already stands, the AMT’s Candiac line is the fastest growing (in terms of usage) of the whole system, but both South Shore AMT lines combined carry less than half what the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line carries by itself. In order to make the AMT’s South Shore lines more usable, they’ll need to increase operational tempo, and this in turn means working out a new agreement with the owner of the Victoria Bridge, which is to say Canadian National Railways.

Further still, an entire new network of bus routes will have to be created to quickly pull in commuters from the sprawling suburbs to either the Longueuil Métro station or the many commuter rail stations operated by the AMT, though this is quite outside further incentives, such as rebates on transit passes. Constructing large parking lots and parking garages near bus and train hubs could help keep cars on the South Shore, but who would be responsible for such construction isn’t entirely clear.

The major point is that the combined cost of maintaining the Champlain Bridge so that it doesn’t deteriorate quite as quickly, coupled with investments in public transit to lessen the bridge’s load, both come out to significantly less than building a ten-lane super bridge. Under ideal circumstances the Champlain would only be used by trucks, buses and people who cannot depend on public transit for their day-to-day work, with commuters dispersed across other modes. And if absolutely necessary, perhaps the Champlain Ice Bridge could be fitted with a temporary light-rail system to further encourage the shift away from car commuting.

But all this requires, as I mentioned before, an entirely new way of looking at transit and transport issues, one that looks at the big picture rather than short-sighted notions of limited responsibility.

As long as we’re dealing with an alphabet soup of transit agencies with competing political interests we gain nothing; as long as we wait for the Fed to replace the bridge we get nothing but a lot of cheap talk.

If our newly elected mayor is looking for something to do, I suggest he meet with the mayor of Longueuil, the heads of the RTL, AMT and STM and see what short-term measures they could put into place to turn down vehicular volume on the Champlain Bridge, and as quickly as possible too.

A List of Places Oddly Not Connected to Montreal’s Underground City

Credit to Michel Boisvert and Martin Gagnon from UdeM's Observatoire de la ville intérieur
Credit to Michel Boisvert and Martin Gagnon from UdeM’s Observatoire de la ville intérieur

You’ve probably heard this factoid once before – Montreal has the world’s largest underground city. It’s true, though an unfortunate number of American tourists routinely come here hoping to see some kind of super-sized subterranean lair replete with cave-dwelling French Canadians only to find an elaborate mass-transit system and shopping mall complex instead.

That’s the complaint I hear from most Montrealers – much of the Underground City seems to be nothing but a massive and irritatingly homogenous mall stretching between Métro stations. It seems boastful, maybe even delusional to call it a city.

That was certainly my first, and somewhat extended, impression of the RÉSO, as the Underground City is officially known.

But as we barrel down head-first into winter I recall my sincere appreciation for the RÉSO – the warm-cut. There are some 32 kilometres of pedestrian tunnels and 120 exterior access points concentrated in a 12 square kilometre area that roughly defines Montreal’s Central Business District. Some 500,000 Montrealers use the RÉSO every day on average, and it represents a unique component of the city’s public transit infrastructure.

If Montréal were to be compared to the human body, I see the Métro as the city’s circulatory system, the RÉSO as the lungs and the Place Ville-Marie/Gare Centrale complex as the heart.

And I’m but a red blood cell travelling through the system.

Or at least that’s the way I see it. Once I’m in the RÉSO, I feel a tangible connection to a vastly larger system. I feel like I move faster when walking through the tunnels, as though the tunnels were encouraging me to trot at a swift pace. I feel like everything’s only a five minute walk away, regardless of the actual time it takes. I like that there’s always an entrance nearby, that warm-cuts are a thing, that because so much of the city’s commercial office space and corporate infrastructure (convention centres, hotels, sports venues, etc.) is interconnected tens of thousands of white collar workers have abandoned their cars and cabs and now use a combination of foot power and public transit for their daily transportation needs.

I like that you can walk around underground for over an hour and still not see all of it.

I like that I can plan my routes architecturally, functionally – enter at university, walk through a massive performance venue, find yourself passing a fountain in a cave-like shopping mall, go down the escalator and down the hall to the government offices, follow the signs and meet me in the convention centre by the lipstick forest and we’ll stop by the café next to the reflecting pool in the atrium of the horizontal skyscraper.

Yeah, my directions are crystal clear…

In any event, the RÉSO is a testament to some fascinating modernist-era urban planning ideas about how space is rationalized, how urban functions are aligned, connected and integrated and what interactions people and cities should have with their immediate environment. The Underground City was in part a response to our city’s meteorological and climactic realities but it also drew inspiration from architects and planners who were envisioning self-contained future cities. Montreal benefitted in having a very large area of the urban environment ready for a major transformation (in our case, the massive open rail-yard trench where Place Ville-Marie stands today) as early as the mid-1950s, and within a decade planners were already looking beyond cars as the ecological damage caused by carbon emissions began to become evident. The expansion and development of the RÉSO has given us a veritable city within a city, one in which, increasingly, it is possible to live a completely insulated, integrated urban lifestyle.

Montreal’s Underground City may come off as a bit banal today, but I’m confident, as usage increases, so too will our imaginations with regards to what we can do with it, and how we interact with it. I’d certainly love to see all those new condo projects linked up, so that we can boast of an actual urban population who calls this underground city home. I’d further like to see more open, public spaces – the idea of a small underground park has always appealed to me. And if only we could get the annual weeklong Art Souterrain project to evolve into a permanent display of art throughout all facets of the underground city. Some ‘street’ vendors wouldn’t be half bad either.

While this kind of lifestyle might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can easily imagine this appealing to a new generation of young urban families. To put it another way, I don’t think it will be too long before we see condo towers with two or three bedroom units, medical clinics, 24hr pharmacies and daycare services. Condos are about branded living experiences, it’s just a matter of time before all the yuppies graduate from their ‘urban chalets’ to something more age and family appropriate. As the dream of affordable suburban home ownership is pushed farther and farther away from the city by rising on-island real estate prices, an entire generation of young families won’t have much of a choice but to stay in the city, close to work and without the added expense of a car.

But I’ll expand on that another day, until then I’ll leave you with the list you came for.

The Montreal Forum, as it appeared in 1996 prior to its conversion into architectural diarrhoea
The Montreal Forum, as it appeared in 1996 prior to its conversion into architectural diarrhoea

1. The Forum.

Despite the fact that there’s a tunnel stretching across Saint Catherine’s Street to Cabot Square, Place Alexis-Nihon and the Atwater Métro segment of the RÉSO is not connected to the most hallowed venue in professional sports history (even if all it is today is nothing but another shitty mall). I wonder if it would be a better mall were it connected. I wonder if it would be anything else if it were connected for that matter.

CLSC Métro, not connected to the Métro - not mine
CLSC M̩tro, not connected to the M̩tro Рnot mine

2. The CLSC that’s actually sitting directly on top of the St-Mathieu exit of Guy-Concordia Métro.

Yes, I get that it’s but a mild inconvenience to have to step outside to get back into the building you just stepped out of. That’s exactly why they should’ve been connected in the first place – it’s inconvenient otherwise. I don’t understand why all the apartment towers around this Métro entrance aren’t also connected by their own tunnels – this would be one very appealing reason to live here (and there aren’t many others).

McLennan Library, credit to McGill University
McLennan Library, credit to McGill University

3. McGill University.

It’s just weird that McGill University isn’t directly accessible from McGill Métro station, this despite the fact that both the Bronfman Pavilion and the McClennan Library are both just across Sherbrooke Street from the Mount Royal Centre and Scotiabank Building, which are themselves connected to both Peel and McGill stations. Worse still, McGill apparently has a large, rather intricate network of tunnels criss-crossing campus, but most are closed and/or off-limits. This is quite unlike the Université de Montréal, which boasts both a network of inter-connected buildings, but direct access to the Métro as well.

Tour Telus, formerly CIL House - not mine
Great shot but not my own sadly; a stately and elegant modernist office tower, under appreciated in my opinion

4. The Telus Building, formerly CIL House.

Diagonally across from PVM and just a touch north of the Square-Victoria’s northernmost entrance, it’s a prime real estate office tower with, I’m guessing a couple thousand people moving in and out every day, yet it’s disconnected despite its proximity to the absolute mega centre of the RÉSO network.

This was probably some kind of promotional postcard from the 1920s, showing the original building and the expanded tower
This was probably some kind of promotional postcard from the 1920s, showing the original building and the expanded tower

5. The Sun Life Building and Dorchester Square

A similar situation, the Sun Life Building has three full underground floors and sits just across the street from PVM and yet remains after all these years disconnected. In fact, several prominent buildings on Dorchester Square remain outside the underground realm, and the square itself has no chic Art Nouveau entrance, such as you might find in Square Victoria. I find this particularly odd given that Dorchester Square is quite literally in the middle of four Métro stations and is surrounded by branches of the Underground City. Perhaps this is because planners wanted people to step out for fresh air once in a while… not a bad place to force this to happen.

L to R: 1100 René-Lévesque, Tour CIBC, Le Windsor, Sheraton Centre
L to R: 1100 René-Lévesque, Tour CIBC, Le Windsor, Sheraton Centre

6. Tour CIBC, the Sheraton Centre and 1100 Boul. René-Lévesque Ouest

These three buildings are all quite literally located across the street from a direct connection to the RÉSO through 1250 Boul. René-Lévesque, also known as the IBM-Marathon Building. I would have figured the hotel, at the very least, would have been connected some time ago.

Come to think of it, I don't care for either of these buildings. I find them uninspired.
Come to think of it, I don’t care for either of these buildings. I find them uninspired.

7. Cité du Commerce Electronique.

Just a short walk up from Lucien-L’Allier Métro station, but same old same old, not connected and no one seems to have even considered it. I’m hoping the multiple new condo developments going on all along the boulevard changes this, but from what I’ve heard the city’s got no one in charge to push such a project through. At the very least you’d figure somebody in the planning department would have this as some kind of a priority.

The new Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, highlighted in white
The new Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, highlighted in white

8. The Montreal Museum of Fine Art

The four, soon to be five pavilions of the MMFA are interconnected with subterranean passageways stretching across both Sherbrooke and du Musée. With the construction of the new pavilion the museum will stretch farther south along Bishop Street, putting it within range of being connected to Concordia’s recently expanded segment of the Underground City. This means that, if the museum were to be connected, one could theoretically walk from above Sherbrooke all the way down to Saint Catherine’s and Guy without freezing or getting your feet wet.

And that’s not half bad.

I wonder if any of those old Métro wagons could be used to extend the underground tunnel network…

Wouldn’t it be fitting?

Oddball Ideas for the New Mayor

Denis Coderre - credit to The Gazette
Denis Coderre – credit to The Gazette

Denis Coderre was sworn in as the 44th mayor of Montréal last Thursday, along with the city’s estimated 50,000 councillors (I kid, there are 102 councillors, and I’m not altogether certain we’re over-represented, but I digress).

Coderre said everything one would expect from an in-coming mayor. He promised to bring honesty and integrity back to the civic administration, return our city’s pride, work for the people and turn a page. Whether there’s any sincerity in these statements remains to be seen – Montrealers are understandably suspicious of municipal politicians these days given that our last two (who made similar promises) are implicated in a vast system of organized corruption, collusion and fraud that only served to further handicap the citizenry and the city’s financial well-being.

Mayor Coderre’s inauguration was over-shadowed by the veritable gong-show going on in Toronto and Rob Ford’s unintentionally hilarious declaration that, given the apparent orgy of cunnilingus taking place in his own abode, he had no reason to state to a female staffer (or prostitute, it’s not entirely clear) that he wanted to ‘suckle upon the life canal’, as it were.

If you haven’t seen it yet, get out of the cave, this may be the single greatest statement in the history of Canadian politics to date.

I’m being fantastically ironic of course. This is the greatest statement in Canadian political history:

Every time I watch this clip I’m struck by the patience and intellectual sophistication of the exchange. At the very end, Trudeau says to the reporter ‘I see you’re playing Devil’s Advocate, it’s a hell of a role…’ to which the reporter is left momentarily speechless. Contrast this with the relationship between the vast majority of today’s politicians and the press in general – it’s passive aggression from the former and undue reverence and politesse on the part of the latter. It seems the relationship was more respectful, and mutually critical, forty some-odd years ago.

There may yet be hope not all is lost – the Rob Ford scandal came to light because he pissed off so many people, and a lot of good journalists too. Andrew Coyne summed it up perfectly: the Rob Ford mess is a monster born of divisive and condescending populism.

Nail’s head, meet hammer hit…

But back home for a moment and our new mayor.

Mr. Coderre has an opportunity to turn a page and I would encourage him to do so. I think people want to see action, but not just in the form of establishing an office of the Inspector general, as he has proposed to do. Ergo I would strongly encourage our new mayor to start doing things – perhaps small things – and build up a list of real, actual, accomplishments. I want a checklist of reasonable, sensible and above-all-else realizable projects for the new year, and I want things done on time.

The people can be helpful in this case; the mayor has said he will work for the people, so it stands to reason that the people help him draft such a list.

So I put the question to you; what would you include on a list of simple, straightforward improvements for the city of Montreal?

My trouble is that I all too often think in terms of mega projects, so I’ll try to steer clear of such grandiose ideas in my own list.

1. Fix Place Émilie-Gamelin and Cabot Square. These are two large public green spaces roughly equidistant from the downtown core, and they’re both pretty beat up. New landscaping, lighting and design (and perhaps on-site services) are only part of the equation; both spaces can at times seem ‘overrun’ by the homeless. Our parks, plazas and public spaces must remain open to all; they cannot be a last resort, a place where the unwanted go. I would encourage the new mayor not only to beautify these spaces and better integrate them into our socio-cultural fabric, but further endeavour to develop new facilities to house the homeless and offer drug treatment. Long story short, no more needles in our parks, and no more police handling the homeless situation.

2. Reserved bus lanes, bike lanes and BRT systems. Probably the easiest improvements to public transport a mayor could make without implicating the province or adjacent cities, though these would need to be involved to truly make a dent in the broader, metropolitan traffic problem. Within the city the STM could develop more reserved lanes and, potentially a Bus Rapid Transit network that could alleviate some congestion on the Métro (which is now getting a bit out of hand, in my opinion). Key streets, avenues and boulevards for either reserved lanes and/or a BRT network: Pie-IX, Papineau, Jean-Talon, René-Lévesque, Sherbrooke, Saint-Antoine, Parc, Cote-des-Neiges, Décarie, Van Horne, Cote-Vertu, Gouin.

As to bike lanes, the more the merrier. We’ve got a good foundation but could go much, much further, and I’d argue more bike lanes should be separated from vehicular traffic by means of a simple concrete curb. Regardless of how well Bixi’s doing, Montrealers are increasingly turning to their bikes during the more temperate months to quickly traverse the urban core. And why not – it’s cheap, efficient and great exercise. Any measure to make it safer will assuredly encourage greater use.

3. A pedestrian mall. There’s an interesting correlation between the potential success of commercial retail enterprises and the degree of foot traffic passing through a given area. For anyone looking to start a new business, knowing where the people are walking is a crucial consideration when choosing a location. But notice I didn’t say anything about vehicular traffic or parking spaces. Our most successful commercial arteries are often clogged with cars looking for parking where they’re almost assured not to find any. Banning cars outright from some key streets would consequently result in making them more walkable, increasing foot traffic and the potential land value of rental retail properties at the same time. Saint Catherine’s Street seems to me to be a logical choice for our city’s first true year-round pedestrian mall. The street’s Gay Village section is routinely closed to cars each summer, parking spaces have been removed elsewhere so restaurants could install new seasonal terraces and the section passing through the Quartier des Spectacles is also routinely shut to cars – all without having any real negative effect on the street’s commercial viability.

So why not go all the way? From Atwater to Papineau, shut the street to vehicular traffic but keep it open for buses, delivery trucks and other municipal, emergency service and/or utility vehicles, widen the sidewalks and introduce street-side commerce in the forms of vendor stalls, kiosks and seasonal terraces. Allowing the No. 15 bus to barrel down the street unencumbered by vehicular traffic may make it a suddenly very popular route and would only add to potential foot traffic on the street.

4. Expand the Réso. Not the Métro, since this is quite out of our hands, but the intricate network of tunnels that link downtown office buildings, convention centres, universities, hotels, Métro stations and even apartment/condo towers all together, forming an insulated city-within-a-city. For as much as I enjoy walking around my city, there are times when the local climate is less than conducive to this. It’s not just the cold, but snowstorms, seasonal torrential rain, heat spells, early darkness – the Réso provides an alternative and comfortable method of getting around the city.

There are many potential new areas for expansion, namely every single condo tower going up around the Bell Centre, the new Overdale development adjacent to Lucien-L’Allier. The MMFA could be linked with Concordia, which in turn could expand its tunnel network south towards the Faubourg and Grey Nun’s Mother House. Other smaller connections, like the Forum and the Seville condos to the Atwater Métro branch of the Réso, or a connection between McGill University and the northernmost portion of the Peel and McGill station sections also make a lot of sense to me. Aside from providing an expanded convenience, it further provides a safe and secure environment to walk around in, not to mention possibly provide new opportunities for small-scale commerce.

5. Turn the Faubourg into a public market. I may be wrong, but I think this is an excellent location for a public market, much in the same vein as the Atwater or Maisonneuve markets. At the very least the city would maintain the building to a higher sanitary standard than the current owners, and there’s a substantial urban population living within walking distance of the Faubourg work. I think much of its current woes stem from moving away from being a market to trying too hard to become just another shopping mall with a slightly more interesting food court.

In any event, just some oddball ideas – what do you think?

How to Beat Bill 60

Excellent retro shot of the Jewish General Hospital before it began it's multi-phase expansion - I'm guessing 1984
Excellent retro shot of the Jewish General Hospital before it began it’s multi-phase expansion – I’m guessing 1984

Defy it.

With extreme prejudice…

A tip of the hat is owed to Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, head of the prestigious Montreal Jewish General Hospital, for firing the opening salvo in the people’s defiance of Bill 60, the proposed charter on state secularism in Québec.

Among other things the bill stipulates all public-sector employees would be banned from ‘ostentatious displays of religion’ including wearing a yarmulke, hijab or turban while on the job. The ubiquitous displays of Catholicism in every conceivable aspect of daily life in Québec gets to stay as these are deemed to be of ‘historical and cultural value’, though apparently, the historical and cultural value of our ethno-cultural minorities constitute some kind of threat to middle-class, mainstream Québécois society. This means the large glow-in-the-dark cross atop Mount Royal, inasmuch as the crucifix behind the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly, will not be removed, but some Sikh surgeon will have to remove his turban if he wants to keep his job.

I’m an atheist, a socialist and a progressive. But I’m also a libertarian, though not in any contemporary American sense. I believe an individual ought to be free from religious persecution, insofar as their religious practice neither harms themselves, their relations or their community, nor places an inconvenience on the society at large. This thought is not my own – from my understanding this is the law of the land. Freedom from religious persecution is in the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities.

The Canadian Charter of Values.

I’m with Tom Mulcair on this one, the proposed Bill-60 is nothing but politically-motivated, state-sponsored discrimination.

I believe an argument can be made in which it is in the state’s interest to propose a dress code in the public service, especially in the domains of health and education. Certain religious garments, such as the niqab or burqa, would present an inconvenience to the public interest – the face is covered, and it’s as simple as that. These kinds of face coverings present an unnecessary communication barrier; it’s completely impractical throughout the entirety of the public service.

But let’s put this aside for a moment and ask ourselves a question – is it even worth formalizing such an objection of these particular garments? How many Muslim Québécoises who wear these particular garments are actually applying to the provincial civil service each year? Do we have to make fundamental alterations to our province’s legal and political foundations or can this simply be an edit to some kind of internal HR manual?

It reminds me of Herouxville passing laws against women being stoned to death or burned with acid. It was an amazingly insane instance of unencumbered small-town ‘multi-culturalism panic’.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not already covered by the Criminal Code? Do we not have laws against murder and assault? And do we not already have a secular judiciary, one that is blind to religious consideration so as to liberate the state from such an incumbrance?

pauline-marois

This kind of panicky, irrational fear was unfortunately poorly articulated by none other than Québec uber-vedette Celine Dion. As Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies points out, her concerns that she thinks justifies the charter’s implementation are ludicrous – no one’s taking down any goddam Christmas trees. Ms. Dion’s comments are a perfect representation of the kind of misguided thinking that has become troublingly prevalent amongst an a swath of the Québécois middle-class (though it’s by no means a Québec phenomenon; you could make the argument that Québec is following France’s example too closely, and that both share similarities with a host of xenophobic laws passed throughout the United States in the past decade).

The bill is hypocritical to the core and is, in essence, a method by which the PQ can sew its values into the provincial political fabric at a moment when a referendum is out of the question and the grip on power tenuous at best. The PQ knows it has an election somewhere on the horizon and as long as its economic record remains what it is – which is shitty – the Québec Liberals have a real shot at regaining power at some point in the next six months. Since the Marois government can’t do much else it is going into a perpetual campaign mode, and Bill 60 is their attempt to shore up their political base. They’ve spun it every which way – it’s pro-women, it’s modernizing – but it’s also, fundamentally, unfair and its unnecessary, punitive implications are too large to ignore.

The grim reality is that if this bill goes into law, a great many people, almost all of whom live and work in the Greater Montreal region, are suddenly going to find themselves in a position in which they have to choose between their jobs and their faith; religious minorities will be officially persecuted in the province of Québec. And who will bare the brunt of this new legislation? Why women of course; thousands of working moms who live in Montreal. Here’s a fantastic argument by Anne-France Goldwater as to why this so-called charter of values is a blatant attack on working first-generation Québécoises, a state-sponsored attempt to deny recent-immigrants access to the lucrative pool of civil service and public sector jobs.

In Québec’s political context Montreal is a prize and power base for one party and a liability, an inconvenience for another. Multiculturalism works in Montreal, and I would argue it evolves into a special kind of interculturalism all on its own, without government interference. But this flies in the face of the PQ stands for, and their vision of Québec. The PQ views itself as Québec incarnate, in much the same way that Tea Party Republicans view themselves as ‘real Americans’, and both are using the same fundamental tactic to achieve diverse goals – they define terms and tone first. The PQ has been doing this for years; Bill 101 established that there was a threat to the French language and culture in Québec and the bill was the response to it. Today it’s a fundamental component of our laws and most accept that this is the case, regardless that current statistical and demographic information is telling us the complete opposite.

This is Bill 101 2.0

Much like its linguistic forebear, Bill 60 places economic and socio-political limitations on minority populations. It is a ghettoization measure, and may result, much like the ‘Anglo Exodus’ of a generation ago, in a minority exodus of a kind.

So how do we, the free-thinking, address such Draconian laws?

We must defy them.

Director General of the hospital, Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg put it best “Since the bill is inherently prejudicial, there is no point in taking advantage of any clause that would grant us temporary, short-term relief” when referring to five-year implementation delays specifically designed for institutions such as the Jewish.

He went on to say that if the bill ever becomes law, the hospital will simply ignore it outright.

Right on.

Well that was disappointing…

La Grande Jatte Moderne - Mount Royal, Autumn 2013

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to digest the results, here are some thoughts on the 2013 Montreal municipal election.

Ideas didn’t matter. The election was entirely personality-driven and, once again to our detriment, over-focused on the person who would become mayor of the city, and not the representative at the district or borough level. In four boroughs – Outremont, Anjou, LaSalle and Lachine – parties that were borough-focused swept both the councillor and borough mayor positions. They have since indicated they will not form any kind of alliance with the mayor-elect. Independent borough parties now represent approx. 185,000 ‘Montrealers’. This represents about 11% of the city’s population who may be, for entirely political reasons, disconnected from the central administration. The three independents are all formerly of Union Montreal (insert obvious joke here…)

Voter participation came in at 43%, or 477,000 people in a city with 1,102,000 eligible voters. This means about 625,000 people who could have voted did not. 57% absolute disengagement (no participation), and an unknown degree of partial disengagement among those who did vote as a consequence of widespread political illiteracy vis-a-vis the design and function of our local electoral system. That the top two candidates managed to gain as many votes as they did, some 273,000 split between them, representing 57% of the votes cast, without any kind of grassroots local representatives or party architecture in place. The two mayoral candidates that represented parties РCot̩ and Bergeron representing a Union-Vision coalition and Projet Montr̩al respectively Рonly took in 178,000 votes between them, or 37% of the 477,000 cast.

Mélanie Joly declared herself to be something of the ‘real winner’, indicating it was “mission accomplished” vis-a-vis her mayoral campaign, this despite the fact that she lost the mayoralty with 129,000 votes to Coderre’s 150,000 (indicating 27% and 32% of the votes cast, respectively, though only 18% and 14% of the voting population). She says she’ll be sticking around and will make a run at the mayoralty in 2017, but I have a strong suspicion this was a test run for an entry into federal politics, likely as a star Quebec candidate designed to appeal broadly to Quebec women, youth, urbanites etc. (and that’s not a half bad mix either – it’s NDP territory, presently). Certainly Alexandre Trudeau’s out-of-nowhere endorsement helped what should be lauded as a truly brilliant campaign, but what kills me is that it may not really have been to lead this city in the first place. I’m not comfortable with the idea that my city’s municipal election, and a crucial one at that, is merely a tool for which political legitimacy can be tested and polling data gathered. What about actually choosing people to solve our problems and make tomorrow brighter than yesterday?

Equally disconcerting was how little the race really changed from day one. Denis Coderre came out ahead in the first poll and it was accepted as a fait-accompli that he would be mayor. Also disturbing, the boroughs with the lowest participation rate (running from 25% to about 42%), which included Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the Sud-Ouest, Ville-Marie, Pierrefonds-Roxboro and Saint-Laurent, represent about 483,000 people, or 29% of the city’s population.

I suspect Coderre’s ultimate appeal is that, perhaps some, feel he’s particularly well-suited to defend our interests against the PQ while maintaining a crucial link to the Federal Liberals. Should Justin Trudeau be elected in 2015, Mr. Coderre’s relationship with the party could come in handy and potentially result is some newfound federal interest and investment in our city.

But that’s a best case scenario.

Mr. Coderre is a career politician and that should be taken into consideration. He goes which way the wind blows.

But he’ll also soon be tested. The imbecilic Parti Québécois has decided to introduce the possibly unconstitutional, draconian, punitive and politically-motivated Charter of Values, ostensibly designed to defend the equality of the sexes and the secularism of the state while in actuality accomplishing nothing more than to sew needless rifts in Quebec society. Coderre said he won’t tolerate the proposed Bill 60, but it remains to be seen what he can and/or will do about it.

The only real light at the end of this mess was that Richard Bergeron would not be the last leader of Projet Montréal, that within one to two years a new party leader will be chosen, and lead the party in the 2017 municipal election. I’m not happy to see him gone, he has every reason to stay on and try again. After all, he built the party from nothing to 28 councillors, and that’s not too shabby, especially given he did it in three elections. But what matters is that Projet Montréal will live to fight again. It’s the most legitimate political organization this city has, and I’m glad it’ll stick around.

Francois Cardinal, an optimist, suggests that Denis Coderre should offer Bergeron the job of STM president (in addition to other interesting job opportunities). I couldn’t agree more.

Final thought: in order to avoid the myriad problems caused by widespread (and politically manipulative) disengagement, we should endeavour to secure a compulsory voting act for the city before the next election. I’d like to see what kind of civic administration we’d have with near 100% participation.

The Most Important Thing You Haven’t Heard About

The Trans Pacific Partnership has been described as ‘NAFTA on steroids’. While I don’t generally care for such pop metaphors this one may be quite apt.

It’s also been described as a multi-national agreement on enforced monopolies, one that would infringe on a wide spectrum of consumer, labour and environmental concerns.

And it’s by far the most secret trade agreement ever, so secret in fact that there’s a cash reward of $72,000 for a copy of its contents. So far only the negotiating parties have been allowed to look at the content, though in the way that the agreement has been designed, individual nations may only get to see the parts that directly apply to them in particular. The full scope of the agreement remains hidden, especially from the global public.

It’s being touted as a free trade agreement, when in reality it’s actually the complete and total opposite of one in some respects.

But even if it were like NAFTA, we here in Canada stand to gain nothing at all.

Don’t forget, it hasn’t been twenty years since we ratified NAFTA. Since then, we, much like the people of the United States, have seen millions of jobs flow out of our respective countries.

The best way for capital to rid itself of the ‘labour problem’ is to simply eliminate labour positions. In the last twenty years Canada’s manufacturing base has all but been destroyed by ruthless multi-national corporations. Our dollar, while currently at parity with the American greenback, actually doesn’t even come close to its value (everything costs more up here, from food to books to internet access and airfare). Factory jobs have been replaced with call centre jobs throughout much of the industrialized eastern portion of the country, while we’re patted about the head and told by our hapless (and thoroughly out-of-control politicians) not to worry, that this is all normal.

There’s nothing normal about selling out your economic sovereignty.

And let’s get something straight, we’re not the best performing economy in the G7.

We’re the least fucked-up economy in a group of nations that are all undergoing the same process to one degree or another. Free trade isn’t fair, least of all for the working classes.

And these days, there’s no middle class. It’s not that the middle class may disappear, or could face problems in the future. It’s that the middle class hasn’t existed in over a decade and we haven’t yet caught wind of the development.

The TPP deal is only going to exacerbate all of this.

And as you might expect, those in power are doing just about all they can to keep us distracted, looking the other way.

All those Bay Street types who spent last week watching Rob Ford’s crack-sponsored meltdown weren’t paying attention to the TPP.

Or perhaps they don’t care. Those who gamble money on the stock markets don’t have much of a vested interest in keeping industrial jobs in Canada, protecting the Canadian environment, or enforcing consumer regulations. All of that removes the potential for profit.

The rich are not ‘national’, their concerns are global and they have the means by which to enjoy a global life. The rest of us can barely balance our chequing accounts, and are drowning in higher levels of debt than ever recorded in our country – including the Depression.

And yet, we are distracted and pushed aside. Even though we have the right to vote, we choose not to, and so these decisions that will impoverish and cripple us are made without the slightest murmur from the toiling classes.

And when we do complain, well, what do you think this $360,000 monstrosity is for?

mtl_police_vehicle_20131106

Oh, and if you don’t know why NAFTA’s a bad thing, this should sum it up fairly well. An American company based in Delaware, Lone Pine Resources, as suing the Canadian government for $250 million because the province of Quebec has a fracking ban in place that would prevent the company from operating anywhere in the Saint Lawrence River Valley.

Fracking, for the uneducated, is a process wherein water is blasted into rock deep underground as a means of extracting natural gas.

It’s one primary drawback is that it destroys natural aquifers, makes your tap water flammable, and would, forceeably, force millions of North Americans, if not tens of millions, to rely 100% on bottled water.

Again, none of this bothers your run of the mill capitalist or any of the pigs who caused the economy to collapse (and so far haven’t been prosecuted); they just discovered a new business opportunity.

Here, add this to your nightmares.