A Montreal Drive-By

Greene Ave at what is now Boul. de Maisonneuve, circa 1905
Greene Ave at what is now Boul. de Maisonneuve, circa 1905

So here’s the scene.

I’m standing with a friend while she waits for her lift on Greene Avenue in Westmount a few days back. We’re across from the entrance to Westmount Square, about half way between Saint Catherine’s and de Maisonneuve. As we’re chatting we notice a jaunty little tune is coming from somewhere. I figure it’s outdoor speakers at the new Cinq Saisons epicerie just up the way, but it’s getting louder.

We look up the annoyingly empty avenue and see a brilliant light coming our way and into focus.

It’s a rented U-haul pickup truck with a boom-box strapped to the hood and a gigantic menorah protruding from the flat in the rear, all lit up with lightbulbs.

As it rolled to a stop next to us, we saw two young Hasidic men in the cab, smiling from ear to ear.

They rolled down the window and wished us a Happy Hanukkah.

We smiled and returned the sentiment. And then they drove off, just like that.

A Montreal Drive-By…

***

I suppose some might be offended by such a thing, though this certainly wasn’t the case for either of us, regardless of the fact that neither of us are Jewish. Who cares? It was, fundamentally, an expression of good wishes between strangers. It is human to want another to feel good on a day that’s significant to them. How is it any different from wishing someone a happy birthday, or anniversary?

I’m not a Christian, but I won’t take offence if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. And simple common sense and politesse dictates one return the sentiment as you receive it. I’m not going out of my way to respond with a Happy Holidays to a Merry Christmas, that’s just silly.

Some people in this province, in this city, would take a great offence at the scene I witnessed. I fear some would have responded angrily. Perhaps there’s a reason they were cruising down a deserted Greene Avenue instead of Pie-IX or Parthenais. Regardless, though it may have been an ‘ostentatious display’ of a religion, it caused no harm whatsoever. Contextually, it made sense (inasmuch as it was an appreciably quirky occurrence), it was the last day of Hanukkah.

It was nice. It was pleasant. It’s a story to tell.

And as you might imagine, it brought my mind back to thinking about the broad implications of the proposed (and inappropriately named) Charter of Quebec Values, let alone what it actually says about the society we live in. Bill 60 is nothing but an attempt by the separatists to re-cast Québec society in their image, and according to their often incoherent set of values.

It is an act to institutionalize racism. What would Madiba have thought of this? The great institutions of the province, and of this city in particular, are lining up to defy the law in its entirety.

Perhaps even more importantly, the mayors of Montreal and Québec City, Denis Coderre and Régis Labeaume, are indicating a rapprochement of sorts, and both seem to be asking for ‘special status’ vis-a-vis the proposed legislation, in addition to a general devolution of powers from the provincial government to the province’s two largest cities. This is a particularly interesting political development – a bloc against the PQ representing the interests of about 2.3 million Québécois – and two cities where the majority of the population is opposed to the divisive and thoroughly unnecessary charter. I’m in total agreement with Jack Jedwab; when Premiere Marois says there’s a majority of Québécois who support the charter, she is only referring to Francophones. As far as she’s concerned, the Anglophone and Allophone populations aren’t ‘real Québécois’ anyways.

It’s vile, disgusting, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel nationalist-populist politics. Gutter politics, the foulest of the foul.

The péquistes, inasmuch as the people of Québec (all of us), need to realize this fundamental point:

Neither the French language nor French Canadian culture is in any way, shape or from threatened. There are ten million French Canadians living in North America and seven million living in Canada, the overwhelming majority of whom live in Québec. The Franco-Québécois community is growing and has been growing ever since the colonial period of the 17th and 18th centuries. There are more French-speaking people in Canada than there have ever been before, but by contrast, the Anglophone community of Québec is shrinking and has shrunk considerably. There are fewer Anglophones in Québec than there were forty years ago, and of those who’ve stayed, they largely learned how to speak French and got better integrated into Québec society.

And as to the immigrants, the first generation Québécois, they too have learned French, and are integrating into our society at their own pace. They’re of a naturally independent disposition, as are the Anglophones of the province, and they’ve formed bonds in their combined efforts to integrate into the broader society and culture.

And as you might imagine, nothing burns the ass of a dyed-in-the-wool separatist more than realizing the fundamental raison-d’etre for their political existence simply no longer exists.

There was once much less integration. There was once serious racial strife. There were once abuses and institutionalized racism of a different kind. There was ecclesiastical and existential oppression, there were (and still are) class struggles.

But people evolve and things change.

René Lévesque never wanted a political party. He wanted the PQ to be a simple political movement, uniting all Québécois in an effort to solidify greater provincial autonomy and bring the provinces and federal government together to re-negotiate the constitution. What he got, he did not expect. Lévesque believed things would not change, but Trudeau proved not only that things could change for the better, but further, that the independent and progressive mentality of Québec could ultimately be integrated into Canada as a whole. That’s why he won. Lévesque didn’t anticipate Trudeau would succeed in repatriating the constitution, ratifying it without Lévesque’s personal endorsement, and then further develop the Charter. Lévesque strengthened Canadian federalism inasmuch as he pushed a serious cultural reformation in Québec, one that would have the (again) unintended consequence of making Anglophones and Allophones better integrated in Québec society.

This is why we’re now dealing with Bill 60, a proposed law that would have been laughed out of any other self-respecting legislative body.

The péquistes know there’s nothing more that can be done on the language front – there’s no threat. This is why Bill 14 was dropped entirely.

So now it’s culture and this idiotic idea that hijabs, yarmulkes and turbans are somehow threats to the stability, sanctity and perhaps even vitality of Québec’s culture and society. Bill 60 is more punitive than Bill 101, and has the potential to put many more people out of work. Crucial people too – doctors, teachers, nurses, early-childhood education specialists and all manner of social and civil-sector workers. Middle class jobs, with good benefits, denied to those who dare to wear a religious symbol, regardless of how subtle and harmless it may be.

There is fear, easily-stoked, of a Muslim invasion, of foreigners fundamentally changing who we are. There’s no empirical evidence, there never is when the PQ asserts a danger, just rhetoric bordering on hate speech and the kind of easy panic you associate with poorly educated backwoods types and siege-mentality suburbanites.

Well to hell with them.

Let the fearful be afraid, let the ignorant remain in the cave.

I’m hopeful the entente cordiale between the mayors Coderre and Lebeaume leads to something really meaningful. They have the power to either make the bill completely unpopular and impossible to make into law, or, barring that, gain the special status our cities’ deserve.

***

I’m reading The Watch That Ends the Night, an impossibly brilliant book by the late, great Hugh MacLennan. In it, he describes Montreal in the early 1950s as follows:

‘In the West End are the old English families, and in the East End there are the old French families. And in between them a no man’s land of international people with international concerns. They occupy the centre of the city, and don’t have much to do with either of the other communities.’

There’s still a lot of truth here, though I would argue that in the last sixty years, the biggest thing to change is that the cosmopolitan middle ground has extended quite a bit in all directions away from the centre of the city, and at least on this island, the French and English camps that really were once two solitudes have integrated, at the very least, into the cosmopolitan aesthetic so popularized by those living in the ‘no man’s land’. And none of this has made us any less culturally whole, nor any less socially distinct.

We are what we are, as we are and have always been, so why are our politicians trying to forcibly change us?

I hope we’ve got some fight in us left, this bill cannot pass.

5 thoughts on “A Montreal Drive-By”

  1. Thanks for this about the proposed Charter – I am amazed about this proposed law that is being proposed by a minority government – I really cannot see it passing and if it does – it is a contravention of the The Canadian Charter of Rights and the government has been advised of this – the Courts should strike this down (That is my initial impression as a practising lawyer) – this appears to be all politics but a very sad and dangerous game to play – apparently there are few if any complaints about government employees wearing religious clothing. Where is the focus on things like attracting Doctors to Quebec and jobs? Strange politics and makes no sense to me and I would be extremely offended if I was still living in Montreal and wished to wear a religious symbol – is the PQ government telling us that an RCMP Officer can no longer wear his Turban ? They need a reality check! BTW I did read The Watch that Ends the Night as it was required reading for a CEGEP course about Norman Bethune – apparently the main character was based on Bethune – I hope to re- read it soon!

  2. As a member of a visible minority, I just think this government is an idiot. Who are they to tell us what to do with our identity and our freedom?

  3. The separatist windmills are spinning again. Let the Sons and Daughters of Mordecai raise their lances once again. When a government’s agenda becomes a joke, ridicule is the best weapon.

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