Montreal’s Public School Crisis

École Baril in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, one of the CSDM's many condemned schools.
École Baril in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, one of the CSDM’s many condemned schools.

This is really disturbing.

A recent Radio-Canada report has shed some light on what might be the greatest case of long-term negligence in our province’s history of neglecting civic infrastructure.

82 public schools administered by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) are in advanced states of decay and degeneration, such that repairs at this time would indeed cost more than simply demolishing the schools outright and building anew.

Of the 226 schools run by the CSDM, another 134 are listed as in a ‘worrisome’ state while only 10 are deemed to have met minimum standards for air quality and general upkeep.

These schools suffer from a wide variety of problems. Mould contamination is the major issue as long-term exposure to mould can cause a host of medical problems. Then there’s asbestos which was used in a lot of public construction as a fire retardant back in the 1950s and 1960s. If I recall correctly there was a big push several years ago to try and clean it all up, but given this province’s predilection for half-assing infrastructure repair, who knows how well that job was done or how effective it was. Then there’s a host of other problems – defective masonry, busted pipes, leaking roofs etc. etc.

The official line is that ‘previous governments’ didn’t set aside enough money for school maintenance and that’s why they’re in as a poor shape as they currently are. This is a convenient enough argument since it’s what we already believe to have caused all the problems related to our bridges and highway overpasses etc. It’s not entirely true, but who cares if it works politically.

Besides which, assigning blame won’t fix the more immediate problem.

The head of the CSDM has indicated that, in addition to the $50 million annual maintenance budget, they got $43 million more this past year specifically to improve air quality in sixteen schools, but also stated that this amount isn’t sufficient and that she’ll ask the current government to double the CSDM’s maintenance budget to $100 million annually. The CSDM apparently has a maintenance budget deficit of approximately $1.5 billion.

Consider that the cost of building an arguably undersized school in Nun’s Island has been pegged at $10.5 million – building 82 additional schools (or however many more is required to handle a growing student population) could easily cost somewhere in the area of a billion dollars.

Now where exactly is that money going to come from?

As a society we feel ourselves over-taxed as is, and we seem to be getting less and less value for our tax dollars, as graft, corruption and broad inefficiencies have handicapped government’s ability to maintain an all too often purposely vague minimum standard for diverse services. Over a century ago populist reform movements established public education as a means towards social improvement. Over time, public education evolved to remove social and class barriers by establishing a more level playing field wherein the general population gained access to a quality education that could in turn provide access to good employment. But more recently political movements have developed that urge governments to cut taxes, often blindly, and this in turn has lead to less money to support the public education system.

Today, some ask whether it’s worth the cost at all, since it seems to be so problematic.

Of course, it’s illogical to expect a broad civic initiative to thrive if it’s poorly financed and ill-maintained from the outset.

The more we cut spending on education, healthcare, social services etc, the more they all suffer.

And remember, the CSDM is the school board with the highest drop out rate on-island. Is it any wonder? Their schools are in piss-poor shape, the board is obviously underfunded and the schools are over-crowded. In some cases, children can’t attend the schools purposely built to serve their own neighbourhood, and instead have to be bussed across town. And all this adds up to a far greater strain on what limited financial resources we have, delivering less and less because we’re paying for poor management, lack of vision, and a culture of civic infrastructural and institutional defunding, popularized by so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’.

Poorer schools and higher drop-out rates in turn means more crime, less social cohesion and a potentially larger permanent underclass of marginally employed people living on the fringes of society.

In other words – everybody loses.

But as we all know it isn’t exactly politically expedient to demand higher taxation, and the PQ sure as shit isn’t about to propose raising taxes, even if it were for something as noble (and you’d think politically worthwhile) as building a hundred new schools in the Montreal region alone.

Perhaps we could partially solve the growing public education crisis in Montreal by seeking to streamline operations and find some ways of making public education a bit more efficient.

For example, the last time I counted there are seven school boards operating on the island of Montreal and in Laval. Seven. Seven school boards serving a combined population of roughly 2.5 million people.

New York City has a single Department of Education for its 1.1 million students.

Why on Earth do we need seven separate school boards for a student population of less than 300,000 in our city?

I understand where it comes from – Montreal’s public schools were once divided along religious and linguistic lines. Today they’re divided along linguistic and somewhat arbitrary geographic lines. French schools are filled to the brim while English schools close due to lack of students. And no one proposes the space gets shared because the respective boards and their unions are all twisted up in provincial politics.

And as always it’s the children and the people who suffer.

It’s insane that an English school be closed in a neighbourhood where the French school is over-crowded.

The obvious local solution to our growing public education crisis is that the city be granted a degree of control in the matter. It would be advantageous to operate a single local school board simply because it would allow a complete and thorough rationalization of space usage, leading in turn to a better distribution of students generally speaking throughout the island. Moreover, it would permit either a redistribution of linguistic education services to adjust to demographic changes in the last fifty years, or the possibility of integrating French and English language services into a single school should a situation warrant such a development.

Some hardcore Québec nationalists have in the past argued against integration of French and English services into a single building out of fear that ‘English would rule on the playground’ and thus the primacy of the French language would be threatened. I can tell you that’s bunk. Before the changeover to linguistic school boards my anglo-protestant high school rented space on its first floor to a franco-catholic primary school. We were kept separate and that was that – the only interaction was an inter-board ‘big brother/big sister’ type program wherein high school students would practice their French and help tutor the elementary kids downstairs. Hardly assimilation.

Not only that, but streamlining janitorial, food and landscaping services, in addition to book and supply orders, would definitely save us a considerable sum of money. There’s no need for this to be worked out by so many different school boards operating in and immediately around a single city. It’s wasteful, moronic.

Consider this as well – a single board could provide for a larger unified pension plan. We should look upon the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan as our inspiration and seek to get all local teachers into the same retirement pool. The more contributors to a single pool, the stronger the pool gets.

The current system seems to be hopelessly outdated, the residue of an era in which Two Solitudes was a social convention. Are we not more evolved today? The status quo handicaps us, and strength comes through unity.

By maintaining a needlessly divisive system as we currently have it, all the pieces are doomed to fail. We should have learned this lesson long ago – segregation in public schooling doesn’t work.

De-segregating Montreal’s public schools may be the only way to prevent major service disruptions at the CSDM.

This is Getting Ridiculous – Israel is no Friend of Canada

Hat’s off to the Beaverton for nailing it with this headline:

“Israeli Prime Minister Stephen Harper returns after long visit in Canada”

…and to the Gazette’s Terry Mosher, for much the same reason (*Note the comments and replace the Star of David over the PM’s mouth with a Fleur-de-lys over Pauline Marois’ mouth. Would that be as shocking? Would that be Quebec bashing? How would these illustrious minds of the modern age have responded to such a caricature I ask you? With equal apparent offence? I should think not…)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, the Prime Minister and avowed ‘friend of Israel’ has been touring the country like an invited rock star, along with an entourage including businesspeople, MPs, cabinet ministers and religious leaders, a group of about 200 in total. The entire trip is being paid for out of Canada’s general taxation revenue, meaning poor saps like you or I are subsidizing this ‘love fest’ in the Levant.

Now you’re probably thinking, well, this is what Prime Ministers do, they go to other countries and sign lucrative trade deals, don’t they?

But there’s no trade deal being signed, and we don’t buy much from the Israelis in the first place because they don’t build much of anything we could use.

So why is Harper dropping a significant amount of coin for a ‘Tories-only’ trip to the Holy Land?

Is it to improve relations between the two countries? Hardly. Only Tories were allowed on this trip, no representatives from any other major political party in Canada was allowed to go. And as to the private business types who were allowed, well, they’re all major Tory financial supporters. If anything this entire affair seems to be little more than a carefully crafted media circus dreamed up in advance of the 2015 election.

Don’t believe me? Then watch the above video, wherein you can hear Tory MP Mark Adler whining like a little child that he won’t get an opportunity to get in on a photo-op near Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, something the MP describes as the ‘million dollar shot’.

This is the kind of trash we’ve elected to parliament. What an unfortunate joke.

It’s painfully clear the Tories embarked on this trip for purely political purposes. Fellating the State of Israel is good for the Tories not only because it secures the apparently strategic old-fogey Conservative Zionist vote, but further seeks to remind the Canadian people that Harper’s talking points re: Israel sound to be just about the same as the American President’s or the British Prime Minister’s. And this in turn makes Harper look like he’s a ‘player’ on the world stage.

Mulroney would do the same thing back in the 1980s, ensuring that at every big NATO meeting he had his mug photographed next to Reagan and Thatcher almost as if he needed to prove he was one of the big boys of his day.

Politics is ultimately all about image; some things never change.

Then there’s Israel.

I understand why Tories blindly support Israel. It’s not because all Tories are committed Zionists, far from it (in fact, the old Reform Party, from which the current incarnation of the Tories emerged, used to have a bit of problem signing up Holocaust deniers and other assorted racist scum to run in federal elections, but hey, who the fuck remembers what happened twenty years ago?); Tories support Israel because the Yanks and the Brits do, and Tories have never had the confidence to pursue a Canadian-made foreign policy.

Nay, Tories have never had the balls to try and develop our own foreign policy. The Tory mentality is that whatever is locally produced must be deficient. This is why Deifenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow, why Mulroney sold us out on free trade – Tories live to cut the legs out from under you and the whole of this nation. For the Conservative Party of Canada, this country only exists as long as other, bigger, more powerful countries count us as one of their friends.

Given this spectacle, it seems as though the PM earnestly believes Israel is indeed bigger and powerful than us.

And this in turn leads to Harper bromancing Benjamin Netanyahu. Why on Earth would Canada care what Israel thinks of us? Why do we need to court Israeli public opinion? Israel isn’t even in the same league as a nation as great as Canada, so why do we give a flying Philadelphia fuck what their current government thinks of us? Why does Stephen Harper need to make a big show of how Israel is our ally?

As friends go, Israel is a really shitty friend.

For one it’s highly likely, though unconfirmed, that Mossad assassinated one of this country’s greatest engineers and ballistics experts in 1990. Yes, Gerald Bull was a maverick who worked for some of the worst military dictatorships of the late 20th century and certainly shouldn’t have been developing super weapons like Project Babylon or improved SCUD missiles for the Iraqis (who were, to one degree or another, the West’s ally in the Gulf and bulwark against the theocracy which had overtaken Iran throughout the 1980s. It should also be pointed out that Israel sold Iran weapons during the Iran-Iraq War). But to kill a man who had done nothing to threaten Israel because some people thought he might? What the hell happened to the rule of law? Either way, if Mossad was concerned about Dr. Bull’s activities, they should have worked out an agreement with us first – he could’ve been designing artillery pieces for our own military from the comfort of the Kingston pen. Israel had no right to assassinate him and have never officially apologized for their actions.

Then there’s the issue of Mossad agents using Canadian passports to freely travel the world assassinating other people the State of Israel finds disagreeable. Yes, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda apparently do the exact same thing – but isn’t this the point? I expect our enemies would do such things, but I’d also expect our friends to respect us more than that. Let’s not forget – a Canadian passport has always been a symbol of our nation’s international respect. Mossad’s use of our passports to assist in their efforts to go kill people doesn’t do us any good at all – it just means that the Canadian passport is worth scrutinizing even closer and is no longer the international symbol of openness and humanism it once was.

As Toronto Star columnist Tony Burman wrote recently, it’s time for Canada and Israel to stop living in a fantasy land. Israel’s lack of self-awareness, self-criticality and near total disregard of how the state appears from an outsider’s perspective would make the Parti Québécois blush. In fact, I’ve often been surprised Likud and the Parti Québécois aren’t closer, what with the common hatred of local minority groups and the insistence that only the majority’s religion is inoffensive, and that international laws and conventions don’t apply blah blah blah.

Peas in a pod…

This buddy-buddy relationship with Israel truly does nothing for us, though it does remind relatively intelligent people elsewhere that, when we’re governed by the more conservative elements of our society, we suddenly become very myopic in terms of foreign policy.

How can a nation such as Canada support one theocracy with secret, unmonitored, uncontrolled nuclear weapons (Israel) while supporting sanctions and eliminating diplomatic relations with another theocracy for their unconfirmed, apparent desire to produce a nuclear weapon (Iran)?

Shouldn’t the message be the same for all theocracies with nukes (i.e. get rid of your nukes, stand-down your military and then we can talk)? What difference does it make if Israel is a quasi-representative democracy, they have nuclear weapons and their deterrence strategy is to launch simultaneous nuclear strikes on any and all enemies if ‘overwhelmed’ by outside aggression, something which they came very close to doing during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Samson Option could include the use of as many as 400 nuclear weapons, many of which are of the thermonuclear variety with a one-megaton yield (fifty times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). They can be launched by ballistic missiles with an 11,000 kilometre range, from cruise-missile armed submarines, from jet fighters or even delivered via suitcases.

The very existence of Israel’s massive nuclear stockpile is in itself a destabilizing factor in the entirety of the Middle East. The way we turn a blind eye towards Israel’s countless foreign invasions (Suez Canal, 1956; all of its neighbours, 1967, all of its neighbours for a second time in 1973, Lebanon in 1982, Lebanon again in 2006, and all this aside from regular military action on Palestinian territory), and the intolerance and racism of the Likud Party and it’s allies is astonishing. What does this say about our own government?

For a truly disturbing mini-doc on contemporary anti-African racism in Israel, see the video posted below.

Harper wasted an opportunity to excoriate the current Israeli government for its human rights abuses, weapons of mass destruction and the not-so-subtle anti-African sentiment that has resulted in more than one instance of sitting members of the Knesset demanding African immigrants be rounded up and put in concentration camps; a law recently passed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party will see undocumented African immigrants held for up to a year without trial. Instead of criticizing these laws, Harper said that anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism.

I should remind the Prime Minister, and anyone else dumb enough to buy that nonsense, that these are two very different things, but neither apply to this article nor any of a torrent of articles recently published about this trip or about Israel broadly speaking. Harper is so loathe to criticize Israel the Tories had the Department of National Defence quietly removed any online traces of a report that a Canadian peacekeeper on a UN deployment was killed by an Israeli artillery strike in 2006. What’s particularly damning is that the IDF was either obscenely careless or bombed the UN outpost deliberately, as it was clearly marked on maps and familiar to IDF personnel operating in the region.

What’s particularly mortifying is that the Prime Minister has confused hatred of a religious group and hatred of nation, but has also posited hatred of a nation/religious group as what underlies criticism of Israel and it’s policies.

Again, I can’t help but draw the parallel to Québec. Criticize the PQ or the charter of values? That’s Quebec-bashing. Criticize the PLQ, CAQ, QS, ON etc. and that’s just politics.

Why is Stephen Harper telling me criticizing Israel’s current government is equal to hating Jews? Is he as dumb as those who endorse him, like world-class idiot Sarah Palin?

It isn’t and never was. Nor is criticizing the PQ and attack on all Québécois. Nor is criticizing the origins of the First World War an attack on any of the soldiers who fought in it.

But this is modern politics, and as long as people would rather react first and think second, Stephen Harper can make statements like this, and embark on taxpayer-financed trips such as this, without any repercussions. Similarly, Rob Ford can smoke crack right back into the mayor’s office and Pauline Marois may very well win a majority government by institutionalizing racism.

Disturbing, repugnant, ridiculous. But back to the issue at hand…

What kind of friend is Israel? And why must we support them at their worst? It’s obscene that the Prime Minister can score political points in Canada by sycophantically and uncritically praising the current conservative Israeli government, and by extension support the vilest elements of contemporary Israeli society who conveniently ignore the lessons of the Holocaust and marginalize minorities in their own apparently liberal democratic nation. That members of Likud would use the same rhetoric in attacking Arabs or Africans today as fascists used against Jews throughout Europe and North America in the early 20th century is appalling to say the very least

Stephen Harper does not speak for Canada. Any pretence he might have to this effect should come to an end well before the next regularly scheduled election. The Conservative Party of Canada is leading this nation down a road I’m quite uncomfortable with, and this campaign stop in the ‘Holy Land’ is just another fantastic reminder why the Tories are wholly unfit to govern.

Skyline to Change, Condo Ghetto Unlikely

Cadillac-Fairview development proposal rendering

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while, but Bill 60 got in the way…

Cadillac Fairview corporation (the real estate arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the single best performing pension plan in the entire world) has announced their intention to invest about $2 billion redeveloping a significant portion of downtown Montreal. They’re already building the 50-floor Tour des Canadiens and the new 26-floor Deloitte Tower on either side of the Bell Centre, and as a result of apparently high demand for more condominiums in downtown Montréal, are now proceeding with the next two phases of their overall master plan.

Though Cadillac Fairview is cautious and are indicating, officially, that this is simply a proposal, they nonetheless appear confident the next phases will be realized. Phase II involves the construction of two 37-floor towers, one of which will be exclusively residential (with about 400 units) while the other will be mixed use, including a commercial base, a hotel and about 200 apartments. They’re to be built immediately south of the Bell Centre and will be feature a pedestrian bridge over St-Antoine Street.

Phases III & IV would involve construction of between four and five new towers on two plots of land on either side of St-Jacques between Rue Jean d’Estrées and Peel, in effect linking the downtown core with Griffintown. See the area here. While I would assume these are to be condominium towers, Cadillac Fairview senior vice-president Salvatore Iacono stated that he believes Montreal has a market for new office space in addition to urban residential properties.

I think he has a point too Рwe are lacking in class-A office space and most of our existing office towers were built in the 1960s, and most of our modern class-A buildings were built over 20 years ago. Aside from the Deloitte Tower currently being built, the Cit̩ du Commerce Electronique and the Cit̩ Multim̩dia are the last two significant office space developments, and those happened over a decade ago.

In any event, assuming all this works out Montreal’s skyline, and downtown, are going to change irrevocably, and with prudent civic involvement, for the best and for the city’s long term gain.

I find many Montrealers are sceptical of all the new condo projects going up, and there seems to be a somewhat prevalent concern the market is already over-saturated, and that these new towers are going to be half empty.

Perhaps our concern is unnecessary and/or is the result of massive construction in Toronto and Vancouver, two local real-estate markets regularly criticized for being excessively over-valued and unsustainable.

We should remind ourselves that what’s going up in this city pales in comparison to developments in the country’s other major cities. I think we might be proceeding more cautiously and sensibly than many would give this city credit for.

Consider this – most of the new towers that will soon redefine our city’s skyline are being built on unused land or parking lots; unlike a lot of other major downtown developments in our city’s history, nothing architecturally significant is being destroyed to accommodate these new towers.

Consider as well, these buildings don’t get built unless at least 70% of units are sold first.

So while there are many proposals, so far only the Tour des Canadiens, l’Avenue, Rocabella and Icone have past this necessary threshold to proceed with construction, though I’m not 100% certain both Icone buildings have been completely sold.

And consider as well that these buildings are going to concentrate a lot of high value residential property right in the heart of the central business district, assisting in the city’s efforts to repopulate the urban core. As long as people continue working office jobs downtown, there will be a market for these condos. And each of these new condos brings in more tax revenue for the city.

Nearly everyone wins.

From an environmental perspective, these developments may help us breathe a little easier. I think these new condos are going to appeal to new generations of young urban professionals who would rather live within walking distance of their office than spend several hours a day driving to and from the suburbs.

What’s more, these new condos are filling something of a gap in downtown real estate. Up until quite recently downtown real estate consisted almost exclusively of rental apartments of various prices and some of the most expensive homes in the city, without much in between. A lot of new condominiums coming into the market are affordable enough to be competitive with rental rates for similarly sized apartments in the city’s iconic inner-ring urban residential neighbourhoods. So it begs the question, why rent an apartment for $1200 a month when you can get a mortgage for less?

Suffice it to say, I think these new towers are going to appeal to a lot of people and I’m looking forward to seeing how the city evolves around all these new residents.

Now, that said, there are a few things the city can do to help see these projects realized, and to further help guard against the development of a ‘condo ghetto’.

What we want to avoid is too much of the same thing, and the city could implicate itself by mandating a certain number of ‘family-sized’ units be developed (though if you review the plans of a lot of these new towers, many of them incorporate a variety of unit layouts and multiple closed rooms) and can further work to secure the services necessary for so many new urban residents. We don’t just want to populate the downtown core with young professionals, we want families too (because they’re more likely to stay). Ergo, space needs to be allocated for clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, daycares, cultural and green spaces, community space and perhaps even a library and public school.

A large geographic area of this city is being completely redeveloped (basically the area roughly bounded by Bleury, Ste-Catherine, Guy and the Lachine Canal), I think the city would be wise to lead development by working to provide the services necessary to sustain a large and diverse urban population. Free market capitalism will take care of part of this problem, but ultimately the responsibility will rest on the city to make sure a diverse population takes up residence downtown and can be sustained living in an area which, up until quite recently, has been unfortunately underpopulated.

Further, the city could involve itself by developing new public green spaces, renovating the existing ones, and connecting as many of these new buildings directly to the Underground City. Being able to walk from your home to your office and back again without having to put on boots and a coat is going to appeal to a lot of people in this city.

And who knows, maybe all the sudden availability of thousands of new condominiums in the next few years will serve to lower rents (the logic being that thousands of people will choose to own downtown property, vacating thousands of otherwise desirable apartments).

My most immediate concern is that, despite all this new living space, there’s no cohesive affordable housing plan. Low-income earners have the right to quality, affordable housing, and this city seems to be lacking it. Now while none of these new condo towers are forcing anyone out of a home, to my knowledge they’re not providing any affordable housing space. If I recall correctly, there’s a provision in the local building code that stipulates new construction reserve a certain number of units to be classified as ‘affordable housing’ but there’s also a means by which developers can get around this, though the specifics escape me at the moment. From the looks of things, none of these impressive new buildings will feature subsidized housing, and affordable is an obviously subjective term.

In addition, 1180 St-Antoine will be demolished to make way for the next phase of Cadillac Fairview’s Bell Centre project. While the building is quite ugly, in my opinion, and I have no earthly idea what it was originally designed for, it has become a vital focal point for many Montreal musicians. There’s quite a bit of rehearsal and recording space in the building, and it’s well used mostly because it’s quite cheap. It’s also a decent enough DIY venue for small concerts, a means by which a lot of bands support themselves.

And as you might imagine, no plan to replace this lost space once the condominiums are built. It would be nice if someone stepped in and made the case that, whatever form this new mega-project takes, it include jam space at rock bottom rates. If for no other reason, it would be nice that the tradition of making music near the intersection of St-Antoine and Rue de la Montagne continue (back in the day this is where all the major jazz clubs were located, including the famous Café Saint Martin and Rockhead’s Paradise).

All this to say, the mayor’s been demonstrating a heightened level of civic engagement (surprisingly high for a Montreal mayor in my opinion) – hopefully he won’t leave major real estate development projects to market forces alone.

Pedestrianizing Ste-Catherine Street: How to Make it Work

Orange & Green denote the Métro lines that pass through the city centre, the red line indicates the possible route of a Ste-Catherine Street tram and the turquoise lines point out  where the RÉSO would connect the two
Orange & Green denote the Métro lines that pass through the city centre, the red line denotes the possible route of a Ste-Catherine Street tram and the turquoise lines point out where the RÉSO would connect the two

It looks as though Mayor Coderre is at the very least interested in discussing the possibility of pedestrianizing Ste-Catherine Street in advance of the city’s 375th anniversary.

This is as a consequence of needing to dig up the street and replace a sewer built in 1889, which as you might imagine is failing and causing a kind of chain reaction all along Ste-Catherine Street that has resulted in potholes, cracks and even a massive sinkhole that swallowed up backhoe last April. It needs to be replaced, post-haste, no question about it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to fixing sewers and eliminating sinkholes, this is about as politically unsexy as it gets. No one appreciates it, regardless of how vital it actually is.

Ergo, the mayor floats the idea of redeveloping the street as a pedestrian mall as the ultimate end goal. People, idiotically, don’t like infrastructure repairs. They like birthday presents.

Smart politics. Getting cars of Ste-Catherine Street would certainly reduce wear and tear on the street, but the mayor knows there needs to be an added incentive to get the people on board.

I suppose the rationale goes ‘if it’s going to be shut down, dug up and re-built anyways, why not turn it into something truly unique for the city’s 375th anniversary?’ Besides which, we already know the idea is economically sound based off the seasonal pedestrian mall in the Gay Village. Concerns that removing cars from Ste-Catherine Street would damage local business is unfounded; if anything a pedestrian mall would likely encourage greater foot traffic and, in turn, more shoppers.

That said, as recently experienced on both Parc Avenue and The Main, prolonged unorganized roadwork that doesn’t seem to have any kind of lasting positive aesthetic or social effect has resulted in an unfortunate number of empty shops and boarded up windows.

With that in mind, if I could make three recommendations to the mayor to help guarantee the success of this project:

1. Make absolutely certain the street doesn’t need to be dug up again for at least fifty years.

If we’re talking about 375th anniversary projects, here’s the legacy you want to leave behind. Be the person who fixed our most important street, permanently. Don’t just build a new sewer, install a proper utility tunnel right next to it. As it is it seems utility pipes and cables are simply buried under a thin layer of asphalt, and those in turn lie on top of segments of steam tunnels and ancient sewers. From what I’ve seen and heard, it’s remarkably disorganized.

Instead of the status quo, run all the pipes and cables through a new utility tunnel that runs the entire length of the street. Further, it could provide a solution to the problem of what to do with all the old Métro cars we’ll soon no longer need – the wagons could be modified and linked together forming a tube which could be sunk into the street, and the various utilities run along inside.

If you’re going to dig up the city’s most prominent street, you may as well give people something fascinating to look at as a means to sustain foot-traffic. I think burying Métro cars would qualify.

Placing all the various utilities in one easily accessible tunnel means we wouldn’t have to dig up part of the street each and every time something needs to be repaired.

2. Remove cars and increase foot-traffic simultaneously by installing a tram.

Close the street to vehicular traffic from Atwater to the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and give people a way to quickly traverse this distance in both directions. Installing a tram is a no-brainer. If we want Ste-Catherine Street to experience a renaissance that brings it back to its former glories, the city needs to give people a good reason to use the street. A tram is exactly that reason because it not only turns the entire street into a kind of immense, self-contained shopping and entertainment complex but also serves to alleviate congestion on the two most congested segments of the Métro. Because it parallels the Métro as it runs through the city centre it will appeal to locals and tourists alike, and it further connects to the RÉSO at multiple points. All of this serves to improve public-transit and alleviate congestion throughout the central business district. A tram on Ste-Catherine Street would help to redistribute traffic patterns and provide myriad new ways of accessing the city.

Fundamentally we want to broadly enhance the walkability of our city because this increases the quality of life of the citizens. It is supremely beneficial for a large city such as our own to be as walkable as it currently is, inasmuch as it is supremely convenient to live in a city where just about everything is either within immediate walking distance. But ‘walking distance’ takes on a vastly different meaning when you live in proximity of public-transit, especially our Métro.

Rejecting this idea off the bat is unwise. You can’t remove an entire street from the urban traffic and transit plan without providing some kind of a replacement. If a tram were installed on Ste-Catherine Street I have no doubts it would pay for itself in but a few years.

3. Foster the development of sustainable independent businesses.

Sometimes walking down Ste-Catherine Street feels like you’re in an old road-runner cartoon seeing the same background repeated on a loop. There are too few independent businesses and too many chains, and when it comes to the chains, there’s a lot of repetition. Ste-Catherine Street is supposed to be our city’s major retail and entertainment street, but there are far fewer restaurants, lounges, venues, bars etc. than there were back in the street’s glory days. In essence, the street isn’t terribly unique or interesting anymore. It’s all the same garbage you’d find on any other commercial artery in this or any other Canadian city. There’s no allure.

It’s up to city hall to do something about this. Legislation needs to be passed that limits the proliferation of chain stores on the strip, and rent controls need to be put in place to help small businesses thrive. A pedestrianized Ste-Catherine Street would be an ideal location for a concentration of vendors and could help add to the market atmosphere of the street. Perhaps most importantly, the city should try to facilitate a revival of the ‘entertainment’ component of the strip outside the Quartier des Spectacles, such as by redeveloping the old Loews and Palace theatres (or the Forum for that matter) as for-profit performance venues.

I think we’d be wise to look at what made the street a success in the past to see if we can find solutions to help guarantee it’s future.

Which Catherine is Ste-Catherine Street Named After?

The only known and likely historically inaccurate portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha
The only known and likely historically inaccurate portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha

Kate McDonnell did me a solid and linked to my recent article about the future of the Faubourg on her site, the Montreal City Weblog (which should be regular required reading if you want to know what’s going on around town), but also pointed out that the right way to write what I might pronounce as ‘Saint Catherine’s Street’ should in fact be written (and pronounced too) ‘Ste-Catherine Street, despite the fact that my word processor is screaming red underlines at me for doing so.

Anyways it got me thinking – which Saint Catherine does the street refer to?

Is it Catherine of Alexandria, the virgin martyr whose touch apparently destroyed the eponymous breaking wheel and was later beheaded by the pagan Roman Emperor Maxentius?

Or was it Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy, philosopher and theologian who brought an end to the Avignon Papacy and helped restore Pope Gregory XI to the Holy See?

The answer is possibly neither as it was once a fashionable convention to name city streets after prominent locals and add a saintly prefix. Perhaps the best known example is Saint-Urbain, named after the 17th century landowner Urbain Tessier.

If the street is in fact simply named after a member of our city’s former bourgeoisie, perhaps it might be prudent and politically expedient to officially name the street in honour of Kateri Tekakwitha, baptized Catherine Tekakwitha and also known as Lily of the Mohawks, canonized by Pope Benedict XVI as recently as 2012.

I mean, she’s as close as this city is going to get to having it’s own saint (* untrue, see below), and she’s been immortalized in fiction both by Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers) and William Vollman (Fathers and Crows). Her story doesn’t inspire me to become a Catholic, but it’s inspirational insofar as it makes me think about what life was like during this city’s colonial period. It’s captivating in its own right. So why not make it official and remove the ambiguity? I think there’s a case to be made here; if one of this city’s most important streets is to be named after a saint, why not make it our saint?

I say such a move may be politically advantageous simply because our mayor has already indicated he wants special status for Montreal with regards to the implementation of Bill 60 (the proposed secularism charter) and clarifying the origins of the street’s name (to coincide with a major redevelopment of the strip) would demonstrate the mayor’s doing the real ‘frontline’ work when it comes to protecting and promoting cultural identity in Québec. It’s a move that appeals to traditionalists and conservatives and is almost assuredly guaranteed not to offend the sensibilities of religious minorities or social progressives.

Just a point of clarification really, a win-win that shows the people the mayor’s got novel solutions to the PQ’s problems.

*** Update ***

So the Commission de toponymie du Québec indicates that the origins aren’t entirely clear and that it has only been more-or-less officially known as Rue Sainte-Catherine for two hundred years. Prior to that it was named both Chemin Sainte-Catherine and Chemin Saint-Jacques.

The Catherine and Jacques could be a reference to a ‘road inspector’ (I’m assuming that means surveyor/street-namer) named Jacques Viger (not the mayor) and his daughter, Catherine-Elizabeth.

Or it could be named in honour of a Catherine de Bourbonnais who lived on the street in the 18th century.

But it seems as though the oldest reference may in fact be of a religious nature, given that road once ran to a convent run by the Soeurs de la Congrégation.

Leaving us right back where we started: no clear answer.

*** Update II ***

I should have know better, Montreal already has two saints.

Saint Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns and patron saint of widows and troubled marriages.

And Saint André of Montreal, also known as Brother André, the apparent miracle-maker of Mount Royal.

So in this case, Saint Catherine Tekakwitha would be the closest this city’s going to get to having its own First Nations saint, given that she never actually lived here and was buried across the river.