In response to Maxwell Turner…

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I guess I’m late to the game on this one.

The rant entitled Montreal Sucks and Everyone Knows It by Maxwell Turner was published about a month ago on IXDaily and drove a lot of online commentary. I only just caught wind of it so I guess I’m not as branché as I thought I was. Oh well.

This clip, an interview with CTV’s Todd Van Der Heyden, does a decent enough job summarizing the author’s point of view, though he opens by denying that he thinks Montreal sucks per se (?) and then goes onto to reiterate the broad problems he identifies in the article. In essence he states that we happen to have a lot of problems in our city and that there’s room for improvement. He says we need to be critical of ourselves.

True. I don’t think anyone would deny any of that. But then again, many large cities have various problems that need to be addressed, and to each city a unique set of problems at that. He lists political corruption, economic decline, crumbling infrastructure and social unrest as among the city’s main problems and further argues a small town mentality, coupled with delusions of grandeur, only exacerbate these problems. I guess this is true as well, to a point. The problems mentioned are common and would similarly be exacerbated given the conditions the author mentioned. If anything, he makes me wonder what use it is pointing out broad social problems which are common amongst large metropolises in lieu of pointing out specific problems that could be addressed and fixed.

Unfortunately, when he does delve into the specifics he frequently confuses areas of municipal, provincial and federal jurisdiction.

Glass Supernova
Glass Supernova

Bridges, language laws, Bill 60, pastagate, the student protests etc etc – neither the city of Montreal nor the citizenry in general have anything to do with any of this.

Also, I’m not convinced we collectively suffer delusions of grandeur. If anything we suffer a kind of existential malaise, one exacerbated by deindustrialization (again, something common enough amongst large cities of the Great Lakes region) and our unique political geography at the crossroads of Canada. I think there are a lot of people who live here who are regularly inspired by this city and everything it has to offer. I know I am. Our history is rich, ironic, engaging, utterly fascinating regardless of your individual historical tastes. I think there’s a certain number of people who would like to know how and why we reached the dizzying heights of international prominence in our ‘heyday’ of the 1960s and 1970s, so that we might replicate it in the future. Again, I know I am.

But that said, as far as urban living is considered, I wouldn’t want to return to that period at all – it was an era in which Montreal’s architectural heritage was under constant threat from demolition. Downtown Montreal was being actively depopulated. The FLQ was bombing mailboxes and holding-up armouries and banks. Our crime rate, specifically our murder rate, was far higher than it is today. And say what you will of the Charbonneau Commission, back then we had the Cliche Commission and the Mob was busy putting up apartment towers with concrete purchased to build the Olympic Stadium nearly simultaneously. Urban life in Montreal has improved considerably since our ‘glory years’.

Small town mentality? Perhaps among some STM employees who happen to have grown up in small towns and reflect that mentality. But let’s be clear, Bill 60, and the abortive Bill 14, are legislative ‘solutions’ to problems that simply don’t actually exist. It’s Quebec politics when the separatists are in power. Perhaps if the author had lived here for longer than four years he’d be cognizant the PQ does not speak, nor represent, the interests of Montreal or its citizens.

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There are a few specific factual problems with the article I’d like to address. This next part is directed at the article and author more specifically.

1. ‘Montreal is barely able to maintain Canada’s busiest domestic bridge’.

A bit of research would have revealed Montreal has no control over its bridges. Strictly speaking our bridges aren’t our bridges. They are operated by a crown corporation, a federal government agency. Even if the city of Montreal had managed to save up several billion dollars to build a replacement all by itself, we don’t have the political authority to do so. If you want to make an argument that Montreal ought to have jurisdiction over its bridges, that’s one thing (and I’m all ears), but are you actually telling me we suck because after eight years of Tory government we still don’t have a new bridge? It begs the question, would we suck less if we collectively fellated federal Tories by voting for them in order to encourage bridge building?

2. On sinkholes…

Montreal is a city built on a swampy, marshy island with many streams and rivers criss-crossing deep underground. We have all the naturally-occurring and man-made risk factors that lead to sinkholes, and they’re pretty much all in play at all times of the year. Ergo, it’s not exclusively a problem related to crumbling infrastructure. The mayor has pledged to completely renovate Ste-Catherine Street and replace the antique sewers and water mains in time for the city’s 375th anniversary, and further plans to turn the strip into a pedestrian zone. Pledging to dig up the streets and remove cars from our main commercial artery is as politically unsexy as it gets, and yet, this is precisely what Denis Coderre has pledged to do. Action is being taken.

The mayor’s plan, if executed properly, could significantly reduce some of the man-made risks to our roads, and redeveloping Ste-Catherine Street has the potential to save a lot on maintenance, not to mention revitalize the city’s iconic thoroughfare. Coderre took a calculated risk on this issue and I’m glad he did. Again, are we now responsible for the choice of our ancestors to build here? Is erosion caused by suckiness or does suckiness cause erosion?

Beaver Hall Hill on Muggy Summer Day
Beaver Hall Hill on Muggy Summer Day

3. The guy who was crushed by the falling ton of steel.

This is called an accident. They happen. It wasn’t a city construction project, those weren’t city workers. It was an accident that’s being investigated by the provincial authorities who investigate workplace accidents. It’s extremely unfortunate, but this has nothing to do with the city. As far as I know the city has stipulated that scaffolding be erected around the base of construction projects once they begin building above ground, and this is specifically to prevent people from getting beaned/crushed by falling materiel, equipment etc. It just so happens that the work going on at that particular location was excavation, not above-ground construction. From the details available, it seems as though the man was walking near a construction site while the workers were maneuvering the plate into place.

My advice – don’t cross through construction sites, don’t walk under suspended sheets of steel, and keep your eyes up when walking around downtown. But you can’t use this as an example of inadequate infrastructure or the city’s apparent suckiness.

4. Paving the streets won’t prevent sinkholes.

Again, it’s erosion occurring underground. Paving, if anything, exacerbates the problem. You’re literally proposing we cover over our road problem and hope it goes away.

5. ‘Montreal’s two previous mayors were canned after blatantly admitting to kick-back allegations.’

Poor Laurent Blanchard, I didn’t know he admitted to kick-backs… Neither Applebaum nor Tremblay were canned, they resigned, and neither has admitted to receiving kickbacks. Only Applebaum has so far been charged with fraud.

Yes, we’ve had some shitty mayors lately and it’s unfortunate that voter turnout was only 43% in the last municipal election. Voter turnout is low everywhere and at all levels of politics (save, perhaps for the last provincial election) – generally speaking North Americans are at a low point in terms of civic engagement. But it’s a logical fallacy to deduce that all local politicians are corrupt because two mayors resigned under suspicion of corruption. That’s another point – nothing, so far, has been proven about either man. I’m willing to save judgement and give Denis Coderre a chance to prove me right not all politicians, or Montreal Mayors, are corrupt.

I think it’s disingenuous to mention political corruption without also mentioning a) the former political establishment was destroyed and replaced and b) the Charbonneau Commission is actively airing the dirty laundry of our former political establishment. A lot of careers are being destroyed right now, and the citizenry is benefitting in the long run. There’s simply never been a better time to build in this city – everyone’s under the microscope.

Fundamentally, I refuse to take any responsibility for this black eye – it belongs to the corrupt, not the people of this city, nor the city itself. I voted for Projet Montréal and encouraged others to do so as well, so I won’t take the blame or share in the blame for the crimes suspected to have been committed by the Bourque/Tremblay/Applebaum administrations.

LARPers in the Forest
LARPers in the Forest

6. On protests…

Yeah, it really sucks when a group of people use public demonstrations to encourage the discussion of important political issues. It’s not like we’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. The people really should limit their political engagement to blogging eh?

I find it interesting that you don’t recognize the city’s protest movement as a fundamentally good thing. Montreal didn’t dream up Bill 60, the Parti Québécois did. Montréal is rebelling against the proposed draconian legislation, and not just through public demonstrations, but through actions as well. Our city’s major institutions are, one by one, telling the provincial government where they can stick their plan to institutionalize racism and have further made it clear they will openly defy the legislation and use civil disobedience to further their cause.

This doesn’t suck. This is awesome. The people of this city are smart enough to recognize bad policy and are confident enough they make no bones about fighting it. Doing the right thing doesn’t suck.

Doing the right thing never sucks.

Montreal's Finest

7. Some police occasionally act like pricks.

What else is new? I’d rather deal with Montreal police than NYPD or LAPD any day. The fact that our crime rate is at rock bottom tells me they must be doing something right and that our city has figured something out, something crucial. Twenty five years ago we were dealing with over a hundred murders a year. Our city used to have problems with terrorism, armed robbery sprees, serial arsonists, large-scale warfare between biker gangs that resulted in civilian casualties etc. Montreal is recognized today for it’s unbelievably low crime rate. Police aren’t entirely responsible for our drop in crime, but they have played a vitally important role. There are enough good cops in this city who do good work so I’m loathe to universally condemn them all. I’ve never felt unsafe in this city. I know I can go anywhere in complete and total security. Isn’t this worth anything to you? And let’s be really real here – Montreal police are pretty tolerant in some respects. Ever been to the Tam Tams?

As long as you’re not acting a fool as a white man you’re basically invisible to Montreal police. What happened during the Printemps Erable is simply another example of the provincial government fucking around where it didn’t belong. Yes, some Montreal cops acted like assholes when on riot duty. But I’ve been in enough marches and demonstrations I’ve seen the other side of things, like when Montreal police block traffic and actually support the public’s right to mobilize and demonstrate peacefully and keep them safe in the process.

Video Installation at Place des Arts

8. On language laws…

Holy Christ I’m getting repetitive here. It’s a provincial clusterfuck responsibility, not a municipal one. The OQLF is particularly driven to see English eliminated from Montreal and so we have to deal with their BS, but it’s not the city nor the majority of citizens who approve of actions like this. Likely as a direct consequence of the OQLF’s involvement in ‘pastagate’ the proposed Bill 14 was completely scrapped. Oh, and the head of the OQLF who kicked off the whole ‘scandal’ was unceremoniously thrown under the bus by the PQ. From what I’ve heard the organization is going to focus on it’s online translation dictionary and stop taking calls from local lunatics who do much of the frontline ‘investigative’ work.

We can’t possibly suck because as a city our very existence, our continued success is a veritable thumb in the eye of the separatist movement. The language cops have a hard time justifying their existence in an era of austerity budgets, yet, for entirely provincial political reasons it is kept on life support and occasionally pops up in the papers. Of late, the OQLF has earned the scorn of Francophones, Allophones and Anglophones in our city and has only further served to demonstrate just how fundamentally different Montreal is from the PQ’s Saguenay-region perspective on cultural integration.

Steinberg's Stained Glass

9. On neighbourhoods, urban identity and latent racism…

How is it problematic to be interested in which neighbourhood one happens to be from? Montreal’s neighbourhoods are iconic, unique, each with their own local attractions, histories and particular racial/cultural/social mixes. Neighbourhoods say something about the people who live there and vice versa. Neighbourhoods are points of social contact. Neighbourhood pride is a crucial driver of civic engagement. In sum, this city needs people to care about where they live and why they like living there. The Mile End is different from the Plateau, NDG is different from CDN, St-Henri different from HoMa. Each offers something unique, something special that can be appreciated in its own right. Together, the neighbourhoods form this dynamic, fascinating city.

I don’t consider any particular Montreal neighbourhood better or worse than any other, though there may be some gentle ribbing for those in the know. I have a feeling what you perceive as latent racism is really just how Montrealers gauge each other’s connection to and experience with the city. Again, this happens everywhere, especially in Toronto and New York.

It’s an urban thing…

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10. Sports.

I get from reading this that sports aren’t really your thing. They’re not really my thing either, so again, a bit of research next time. I don’t even know where to begin. We’re working off the premise that this city sucks and now you’re saying we suck because our sports teams apparently suck. I think we’ve now achieved a grade-school level of maturity in this apparently serious call to enhanced civic engagement.

You should know that the city of Montreal isn’t directly involved in the affairs of the Montreal Canadiens. Denis Coderre has no control over the draft pick. Mayors don’t buy Stanley Cup victories. Say what you will about how well the Habs are doing today, the Bell Centre is regularly sold out and happens to be the largest arena in the NHL.

The Habs are a more profitable franchise today than they were back when they won more regularly. As to the Expos, they’ve been gone for a decade, but existed for 35 years. Warren Cromartie has been busy lining up investors for the Montreal Baseball Project and the proposal is being examined by the Montreal Board of Trade.

If Cro is successful, it will in fact be the second successful relaunching of a pro sports franchise in our city in twenty years. Similarly, the Alouettes were out of the picture for about a decade, then re-launched (in a crumbling old stadium no less) and have since become one of the best franchises in the CFL.

And all that aside, you missed the fact that the Montreal Impact graduated into Major League Soccer two years ago and have an average attendance of 20,000 spectators, about the same as for any Habs game. Our city has three major sports facilities that regularly hold over 20,000 fans (each). Who cares if we’re not winning all the trophies all the time, pro sports have literally never been bigger in our city than they are right now.

It’s good business, it’s good for business.

Tour KPMG Montréal

11. “Almost any day of the week, you’ll see tourists and locals alike wearing Bruins or Leafs memorabilia being verbally harassed”

No. No this simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never, ever, seen anyone give somebody else shit for wearing Bruins or Leafs caps or jerseys, and I’ve lived here my entire life. This is bullshit. Montreal is not some kind of Roch Carrier impression of small-town Quebec life in the 1950s.

12. “I was on the metro the other day politely discussing school with friends when two elderly women began to make comments about the “stupid English that have infested [their] city” and how they “wish Québec would return to being exclusively for the French.”

What can I say, I’m beginning to suspect not everything you wrote can be taken at face value. Did this actually happen to you or is this something you heard happen, once, to someone, somewhere, and you simply decided to invent something for the purposes of good story telling? If it did happen to you, what can I say, sometimes old people aren’t bright but are vocal. Who gives a fuck what these two old bigots think? Fuck them and their ethno-nationalist ideals.

Racism is racism; it’s common amongst the delusional, the demented, the deranged, the geriatric and the profoundly ignorant. You’re living in the centre of a metropolis of over three and half million people – yes, you will occasionally encounter this kind of bullshit, especially in a public space. You had your revenge by telling them off in French, move on. It isn’t happening every day.

I get that your editor had already spun the article for you before you wrote it, as you allude to in the interview on CTV, but please, don’t tell me there aren’t racist old Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers vocally complaining about ‘unclean Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders’.

Hate is pretty universal among the dumb, and with the exception of the Parti Québécois, generally the dumb never get to exercise much political power. You’re going to find loud-mouth assholes in subway systems worldwide complaining about god knows what and you’ll likely be bothered by it. This is why you have an iPod, remember?

Montreal World Trade Centre

13. “Nearly every day, I almost get tackled getting off the metro at Berri-UQAM. I was once pushed back onto the train and forced to ride to the next stop…”

Really?

Really?

I’m sorry you suck at riding the Métro. Keep your elbows up and don’t be afraid to kick a motherfucker in the shins next time. Seriously though, how can you possibly be having this much trouble using basic public transit? If you’re being jostled about and/or can’t seem to navigate egress I can only make a few recommendations.

First, Berri-UQAM is the single busiest station in the entire system, not only in terms of total passenger traffic, but transfers as well, so be ready for crowds. You can try getting up to leave before arriving at the station.

Second, if you’re planning on getting off a train, make like you look like you’re about to get off a train. Stand up straight, look up and keep your hands in front of you and don’t be afraid to make it clear you’re moving and that they need to get out of the way. You also have a mouth, which you can use to say ‘pardon’ nice and loud. Think of your mouth like how you might use a car horn when backing out onto a freeway…

Given that we’re now well past the 3,000 word mark I suppose I’ll conclude.

If you’re only going to look at the city in a decontextualized, overtly pessimistic light, then yes, we suck the big one.

Suffice it to say I disagree. I don’t think we suck. I think this a shock piece and the natural progression for blog posts once you’ve exhausted the whole ‘I was into it before you were’ schtick and the ‘best of this or that city’ lists that generally populate the blogosphere. I guess once something has been cool/desirable/interesting for long enough it basically becomes a race between hack j-school dropouts to be the first to declare it sucks.

So bold, so brave.

I guess it comforts me somewhat that despite all this city’s many problems (both homegrown and inflicted), true Montrealers know the city still offers far more than she demands in occasional emotional or existential taxation. It has stood and grown for nearly four centuries and we’re still evolving, often at the forefront of key social and political issues. We are the nation’s petrie dish, its incubator, its lynch-pin and focal point. This isn’t boasting or delusions of grandeur, just our history.

And the better we know where we’ve come from, and how we got here, the better we’ll be able to address the challenges of the future.

Ultimately, this city has a lot going for it, but what it could really use right now is a respite from people attempting to cash in on contrarianism masquerading as enlightened criticism.

Taylor out… {drops mic, exists stage left}

Reflecting on Internationalism - Taylor C. Noakes, 2013

One thought on “In response to Maxwell Turner…”

  1. I’m even later getting to this than you, but after reading Maxwell Turner’s piece, I drew a picture of him in my mind. I clicked through to the CTV interview, and I was still shocked to realize how closely my imagined image of him matched reality. Young, thinks he’s hip, a carefully cultivated aura of “whatever”, full of self-congratulatory, penny-ante cynicism, trendy haircut, some sort of body piercing or tattoo (Ah! an earring!) and not someone who grew up in Montreal. Right on all counts.

    And he’s from eastern Ontario? Sheesh! Where the seventies and eighties found a “white” flight of displaced, angry, Francophobic Montrealers resettling? I wonder where his parents came from (he’d be about the right age) and why he chose to move to Montreal? And why he’s still there? Maybe he had dreams bigger than Lancaster, Ontario…

    You touched on many of the things I thought as I read his blog — like the oh-so-convenient (but hard to prove) convenient anecdotes that never quite ring true, the cherry-picking of calamities that are hardly unique to Montreal, and the bizarre impression that Montreal is some sort of PQ stronghold (has he read a newspaper in the four years he’s been in Montreal?).

    Oh, he touched on many things Montrealers will agree with (I mean really — who’s FOR sinkholes?) but being young and basically passing through, he fails to take note of why Montreal doesn’t suck for so many of us. He simply hasn’t put the time in. Sure, I’m a reluctant ex-pat and may view things with too rosy a view, but Montreal still holds a huge place in my heart, despite all its flaws. Montreal holds no such place in this kid’s heart, so all he has left are the flaws, which allows him to indulge in the sort of facile cynicism that passes for wisdom in the young.

    And Christ, he’s so young! Has that baby face ever lived in any large city before? (I’m not sure Lancaster or Cornwall qualify).

    One thing’s certain: he doesn’t seem to know Montreal well enough to trash it so offhandedly (he’s no Richler, that’s for sure). But hey, it got him on television, which for a kid like him was probably a big dream come true. Too bad he couldn’t quite pull it off — frequently he had that Bambi in the headlights look, when he realized his backpedalling wasn’t working. (You could almost see “Hey, I’m a cold-eyed, hard-hitting social critic” fighting with “Hey! I’m on TV! I want people to like me!”).

    Neither side won.

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