Category Archives: Political commentary

City describes its own urban redevelopment project as ‘ambitious’

Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)
Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)

We may have come full-circle.

The City of Montreal recently released what it is describing as an ‘ambitious’ plan to redevelop the urban core of the city – what we ambiguously, perhaps ambitiously, call Downtown (though it for the most part occupies the plateau above the old city, but I digress) – in an effort to attract new residents and increase the population of Ville-Marie borough by 50,000 by 2030.

The city wants to attract seniors, young people and families (or, in other words, everyone) to the borough, the current population being about 85,000 over 16.5 square kilometres.

The borough includes Mount Royal and Parc Jean-Drapeau, not to mention Old Montreal and the Old Port, the Village, the Latin Quarter, the Quartier Sainte-Famille, Centre-Sud, Milton-Parc, the entire central business district, the Quartier des Spectacles, Griffintown, the Shaughnessy Village, Chinatown, the Square Mile and the Cité-du-Havre.

Adding 50,000 people to the very centre of Metropolitan Montreal by 2030 would bring the population of the borough up to over 130,000. Fifty years ago, the population of this area was 110,000, at which point it was already well on its way in its dramatic late-20th century population decline. By 1976 the population was estimated at 77,000 and by 1991 the population would fall all the way to about 68,000, it’s lowest number in recent memory. The population of the borough has grown modestly in the last 25 years, with measured increases in five-year intervals ranging from 4.2 to 6.5 per cent.

For comparisons sake, the Plateau’s current population is about 100,000, the Sud-Ouest is at 71,000 and Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the largest borough by population, is about 165,000.

Queen's Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 - Michel Seguin
Queen’s Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 – Michel Seguin

Bringing Ville-Marie’s population up to 130,000 would be quite an accomplishment, though it’s not an altogether hard sell. Not to be flip, but it’s basically where everything is.

And it would also mean that the urban depopulation of Montreal, an unfortunate and enduring consequence of the city’s urban planning efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, will have been reversed, perhaps permanently.

To me that’s a far greater accomplishment than simply facilitating an existing growth trend, and I wish the city much success. I would like to see and feel a ‘downtown’ with a population roughly equivalent to the its last high-water mark, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. If it works, it’s reasonable to assume the population of the surrounding boroughs would likely also increase. More people living in the city, within walking distance of the services they need and the places they work, is exactly what the city should be proposing and facilitating.

But again, it’s not a hard sell, and the trends are already pointing in this direction. It may ultimately be Montreal’s saving-grace; unlike other depopulated urban centres in the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence and North-East corridor, Montreal has succeeded in enhancing the overall quality of life of its urban core and has been slowly winning back residents.

Where the Coderre administration could have distinguished itself was a concrete plan with defined targets, and in this case, prepare to be disappointed.

Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin
Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin

The announced ‘ambitious’ plan is remarkable in how little specific information is required to attain the quality of ambition. They want to boost the population with no clear indication where they might live, nor what kind of housing will be needed (though they did make mention of Griffintown as being poorly planned, as too many housing units are too small and too expensive… who’d have thought). The plan indicates a desire for new schools and greater access to the waterfront, both of which lie outside the city’s jurisdiction in that building schools is a provincial responsibility and the Old Port is a federal one. Coderre indicated the waterfront development would require control of the Old Port to be ceded to the city. Richard Bergeron, former Projet Montreal leader and the downtown’s appointed development strategist, wants a cohesive plan for the twenty-kilometre stretch between the Champlain and Cartier bridges, with half being open to the public, and the other half available for riverside housing.

It’s been discussed before. The mayor has spoken in the past of opening a beach in the Old Port and a vague desire to emulate other cities that apparently have ‘better’ access to their waterfronts.

Of course, there is always the matter of the Saint Lawrence’s current, not to mention the periodic direct sewage dumps… I’m not convinced we’ll be lining up to take a plunge in the drink any time soon without major physical alterations to the Old Port, such as creating breakwaters or jetties, and improving our water treatment capabilities.

Oddly, despite a steady 10% office vacancy rate, the plan also includes 800K square meters of new office space and 200K square meters of new commercial spaces. Again, this strikes me as a touch odd: Ville-Marie has a surplus of both and is already well-known as the commercial and office core of the whole metropolitan region. Do we need more of the same or better use of what already exists?

And if the mayor wants the manufacturing sector to return to the urban core of Montreal, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant to convert every square inch of remaining industrial space into condos?

Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993
Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993

The other ‘specific’ ideas the city has in mind are all ideas that have been mentioned in the past: renovating and rehabilitating Sainte-Catherine Street; more parks and green space; more bike baths; a ‘greenway’ from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence; transforming disused public buildings into multi-use developments that bring new uses to old heritage sites.

None of this is really news, the city’s been talking about this for years and you’d think it would obvious and didn’t need to be spelled out. It’s hard to take the city seriously when its grand strategy for urban redevelopment consists of simply doing what we expect the city to be doing already.

Were we not already seeking to preserve public buildings with heritage value by redeveloping them for new purposes? Were we not already seeking more green spaces and bike paths? Hasn’t redeveloping Sainte-Catherine Street been a priority for every mayor going back to Jean Doré?

I agree with Mayor Coderre in that urban economic redevelopment and repopulation won’t happen without better living conditions in the urban boroughs, but the quality of life in these boroughs is arguably already quite high. Ville-Marie in particular already has great parks and is the best connected borough in terms of access to public transit. Ville-Marie is the borough that requires the least improvement in these respects: Saint-Henri, Cote-des-Neiges, NDG, Verdun, the Plateau and HoMa would all benefit immensely from serious investments to improve transit and green-space access, and given generally lower housing costs in these areas compared to Ville-Marie, it would seem to me that it would be more effective to improve the quality of life in the inner suburbs first.

City Hall ca. early 1990s - credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)
City Hall ca. early 1990s – credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)

Better public transit access and a beautification campaign could have a greater impact if applied to the Sud-Ouest, HoMa Montréal-Nord and Verdun where population density is already high and home values are comparatively low. Moreover, these boroughs already have the public education infrastructure that will draw young families. Instead of building new schools, the city could have proposed a bold plan to renovate and rehabilitate existing schools, possibly even going as far as mandating local school boards share space in existing schools. The Anglo boards have a surplus of space in well-maintained schools and the Francophone boards have overcrowded schools in dire need of renovations; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this problem (and one that would be beneficial to everyone) is to share the space. The unnecessary linguistic segregation of Montreal’s schools is more than just an ethical problem; it’s economically unsustainable and only serves to undermine the quality of education in the public sector generally-speaking.

Imagine a different scenario where the City of Montreal was directly responsible for public schools infrastructure, and school boards, while maintaining their operational and institutional independence, could operate from any school building (and by extension would no longer be responsible for maintaining the physical space of education).

Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée - date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s
Downtown viewed from Avenue du Mus̩e Рdate and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s

In a sense, access to public education would increase without having to build new schools. Students could be redistributed more evenly and all boroughs would be able to offer education in either language, proportional to the respective linguistic populations.

That issue aside, it’s evident any new residential development within Ville-Marie borough should certainly plan for the necessary green spaces, transit and education access that would be required by 50,000 additional residents. I would argue Ville-Marie borough is definitely lacking in school access, but not in parks or transit access.

All in all what Coderre and Bergeron announced was little more than the intention to hold public consultations and come up with some guidelines for urban redevelopment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it’s hardly an ambitious plan. I’m glad the city considers intelligent urban planning worthwhile, but without any concrete proposals they’re essentially telling us they have the intent to do their jobs. Lack of precision is politically-motivated: it’s hard to effectively criticize a mayor’s accomplishments if he doesn’t have any goals.

Money for Nothing

Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 - credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj
Tea time at the old gazebo ca. 2001 – credit to Andrew Dobrowolskyj

The Mordecai Richler Gazebo will now cost the taxpayers of Montreal nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

And a series of granite waypoints, apparently taking the form of stylized tree-stumps, are to be installed across Mount Royal at an estimated cost of $3.4 million.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory will get over $62 million in public money over a five year period to make it a better tourist trap, or as Mayor Coderre put it: “a heritage site… for god’s sake, it’s an investment.”

Credit where credit is due: Coderre is a great populist. He’s quirky and has a knack for puns and one-liners.

However, he’s also spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Sometimes I wish he and the city would stop trying to spend money. I understand municipal government can help stimulate the economy by spending public money on make-work projects designed to keep people employed. And I’m generally in favour of doing so in the name of public beautification projects.

But in Montreal – astoundingly – such efforts seem increasingly misguided if not wholly illogical. For every success – like the multimillion dollar multiphase overhaul of Dorchester Square and Place du Canada – there are far too many projects that are so outrageously ill-conceived it begs the question what our city planners are smoking.

What I find particularly astounding – in our age of austerity for education, health, transit and welfare – is our ability to spend astronomical sums of money to accomplish, in some cases, quite literally nothing at all.

Take for instance the recently cancelled police and firefighter games; if the city is successful in recuperating half the sum already allocated to the now-cancelled event, it will still cost us nearly $3 million.

More jaw-droppingly, the city’s plans on installing over two-dozen granite ‘tree-stumps’ all over Mount Royal.

Paul Arcand interviewed Réal Ménard, a member of the city’s executive committee, and asked him whether the city was really going to spend over three million dollars to erect a series of granite structures (that resemble tree stumps) all over the mountain. Ménard did his best to attempt an explanation, but did so by a) indicating the stumps are in fact part of a much larger eight million dollar project designed to ‘link’ the peaks of the mountain, and b) that (after much obfuscating) the cost of the planned park installations is in fact going to be about three million dollars. It didn’t help that he spent much of his time accusing Arcand of positing the city was intending to build granite trees on Mount Royal, an entirely unconvincing tactic Arcand saw right through and rightly ridiculed Ménard for having the gall to suggest.

It was also delightful to hear Arcand chiding Ménard for not reading the Gazette…

Research by the Gazette’s Linda Gyulai indicates the cost of the winning bid for the granite installations is 43% higher than the city’s initial estimate, and that the whole contract is 27% higher than what the city was estimating before the call for tenders.

The list of over-the-top civic beautification projects, all of which are being rushed through with seemingly no concern for appallingly high cost estimates so that they can coincide with the essentially pointless 375th anniversary celebrations, has grown steadily for the past few years, and this on top of a steady supply of infrastructure mega-projects that either never get off the drawing board or wind-up being delivered late and over-budget. Unfortunately, given the decades-long dearth of Stanley Cup victories, this has now become our most consistent accomplishment as a city: we’re spending a lot of public money for nothing.

For his part, Mayor Coderre insists the project will make the mountain more accessible and help beautify the city. The reaction of Arcand, the Gazette and much of the local social media sphere, is one of derision and incredulity. The firm that won the contract to build the granite ‘statues’ (in more official parlance) is Aménagement Coté Jardin, a landscape architecture firm that’s responsible for Domtar’s ‘front yard’ (by Place-des-Arts Métro station’s stand-alone édicule on Bleury) and more recently, the renovation of Cabot Square.

To put it succinctly I’m disappointed it would cost so much to accomplish so little. I doubt you could make Mount Royal any more accessible than it already is, and given that it is valued almost entirely because it is a refuge of wilderness in the very heart of a bustling metropolis, installing granite stumps and concrete slabs is fundamentally flawed. It makes me wonder when exactly was the last time Denis Coderre took a walk on Mount Royal…

If the plan is to spiff up Mount Royal for next year’s ‘spendiversary’, I’m fairly confident three million dollars could buy more than enough trees to replace those felled to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. It would likely be enough to also replace or repair the park’s existing benches, water fountains and garbage bins and maybe even pay for a year’s worth of superior park maintenance too. Whatever the final call, the city (more than anyone else) should be acutely aware that Mount Royal is precisely what it is because it was designed to be as such. We have a great park designed by one of the all time greatest park designers, and it is in part because of this that we can claim our status as a UNESCO City of Design (and by the way, we’ve gotten far more than our fair share of milage out of that ten year old distinction). This is not a wheel that needs to be re-invented, and there are far superior, less expensive methods to renew Mount Royal than by turning half of it into a construction site in the very same year we’ll want to have the greatest access to it.

If the gazebo project is any indication, Montrealers can be forgiven for being so intensely critical of yet another suspiciously expensive civic ‘beautification’ project. And much like the inappropriately rechristened gazebo, the granite stump project is also amazingly ill-conceived in that it will likely do the very opposite of what it ostensibly intends to do. Montrealers have contently stretched out their legs in the tall grass of Mount Royal for just about 375 years… all of a sudden we need concrete curbs and granite stumps, and this has something to do with maintaining our status as an important centre of design?

I don’t buy it. If this was an aspect of the plot of some novel about the intriguing life of an urban planner you’d find it completely absurd. The city’s plan to beautify Mount Royal is an excellent example of missing the forest for the trees.

And like just about everything else in this city, ultimately it’s not actually the city’s decision to make. Because Mount Royal is a heritage site, it’s the province that will decide whether this plan goes ahead. So there’s always the outside chance the province’s incessant meddling in our affairs may actually be worthwhile, if they put the kybosh on this ridiculous project.

Plus que ça change. Forty years ago the city was doing precisely the same thing, albeit with the hope of a greater return on investment than the 375th anniversary.

The human cost of school segregation in Quebec

It's hard to find photos that illustrate school segregation, so this article will feature an assortment of photos from around town. Prints currently for sale.
It’s hard to find photos that illustrate school segregation, so this article will feature an assortment of photos from around town. Prints currently for sale.

In my estimation and opinion, there’s no better demonstration of Bill 101’s flaws than the current local controversy concerning the project to settle Syrian refugees, and the Quebec government’s outright refusal to allow Anglophone school boards from participating.

The situation is as follows: Quebec is going to receive 7,300 Syrian refugees as part of the Trudeau administration’s larger plan to settle 25,000 refugees in Canada between now and next Spring. The lion’s share of that number will come to live here in Montreal. Roughly a third of that number will be children. The Quebec government has asked the province’s Francophone public school boards, as well as some private schools, to assist in this endeavour.

Quebec’s Anglophone schools are prohibited from assisting in this humanitarian project because, according to the Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) all immigrants to Quebec must place their children in Francophone schools. Full stop.

Portal

In purely practical terms the situation is illogical to the point of absurdity. Montreal’s French public schools are in poor physical shape due to generations of financial mismanagement and several have been closed without replacement. As such, over-crowding is a consistent problem for the city’s largest Francophone school board, the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM). Incidentally, the CSDM (for myriad complex and inter-related reasons I won’t get into here) has a generally low overall performance rating and the highest dropout rate in the province. Meanwhile, the city’s Anglophone schools are so underpopulated at least one board is preparing to close several of its schools in an effort to cut overhead costs. Of the city’s five on-island school boards, two have a surplus of space and resources and could easily handle the load. They are the city’s two English-language school boards.

Downtown, Chinatown

Bill 101 was created to protect the French language in Quebec, Canada’s historically majority Francophone province. There are 6 million Native Francophones in Quebec. There are fewer than 600,000 Native Anglophones. Bill 101’s mandate that the children of immigrants to the province be educated uniquely in French was intended to ensure French-language dominance in minority communities, at least in part to compensate for the declining birthrate amongst Francophones at the time the bill was enacted. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the problem in my view is that the Charter of the French Language is considered sacrosanct by the province’s political elites and can’t adapt to the province’s current linguistic reality.

Concrete Cathedral

What’s particularly absurd here is that situations such as this demonstrate Bill 101 is incapable of adapting to its own success. If there was a legitimate concern Quebec was becoming ‘too English’ in the late 1970s, then Bill 101 has succeeded in eliminating that threat fully and completely. The cultural supremacy of the French language is evident province-wide and especially in the province’s largest city, which is perhaps somewhat paradoxically where the majority of the province’s Anglophones happen to live. The number of Quebec Anglophones educating their children in French, and in turn the level of bilingualism among that population, has been steadily rising for generations. Quebec’s Anglophone school boards have adapted to the linguistic realities of the province and the inherent benefits of multilingualism; the Lester B. Pearson School Board, metropolitan Montreal’s second largest Anglophone board, offers bilingual education as a minimum in all of their schools, with the number of full French immersion programs steadily increasing.

St. George the Dragon Slayer

In other words, not only do Montreal’s Anglophone school boards have a surplus of space, teachers and other resources, they could also theoretically offer full French language education to Syrian refugees as well.

And yet, according to the Couillard Administration, this is impossible.

And on top of all of that, Bill 101 has a humanitarian clause that would allow the government to suspend aspects of the Charter of the French Language on humanitarian grounds. Evidently, the Couillard Administration does not consider the Syrian Civil War a crisis worthy of invoking the clause.

If settling refugees from the worst civil war since the breakup of Yugoslavia isn’t clause-worthy, what is?

What remains unsaid is all that is unfortunate and dehumanizing about Quebec language politics. Though a degree of cultural and linguistic separation predated Bill 101, the cultural segregation of public education in Quebec was solidified after the bill was enacted, and re-affirmed in the wake of the 1995 Referendum when Quebec abolished religious school boards (some of which offered services in both languages) and replaced them with linguistic ones. Though countless jurisdictions worldwide have eliminated segregated schooling and have embraced multilingualism and multi-culturalism, modern Quebec thinks itself to be exceptional, and that even placing Francophone or immigrant children within proximity of Anglophone children would strike a debilitating blow to the linguistic supremacy of French in Quebec. Consider that despite years of over-crowding in the Francophone sector, and simultaneous years of steadily decreasing enrolment in the Anglophone sector, there is but one jointly administered and semi-integrated school in the entire City of Montreal (FACE school is for ‘gifted students’ and has a population of 1400, it has earned a reputation for being one of the best in the city and yet, for reasons quite beyond my comprehension, stands alone).

Harbourfront, Clock Tower & Bridge (empty space)

Despite volumes of scientific, linguistic and cognitive studies that have proven bilingual education works and makes for smarter children, Quebec vigorously opposes any and all opportunities for greater integration. As far as I’m aware there are no public exchange programs offered between linguistic school boards in Montreal, despite increasing numbers of Francophone parents wanting immersion exchange programs for their children, and the increasing number of Anglophone parents enrolling their children in French schools.

Bill 101 has had an overall pernicious effect on the quality of education in Quebec, to say nothing of how it has unfortunately served to perpetuate the cultural divisions of a less evolved era. We cannot be held hostage by antiquated legislation, and Bill 101 impedes this province’s development and social evolution by ever greater degrees with every passing year. It is profoundly discouraging that the Quebec Liberal Party feels it is politically expedient to court the sensibilities of hardcore nationalists and language supremacists by playing hardball on a humanitarian issue. What could they possibly stand to lose by allowing Anglophone school boards an opportunity to help integrate and educate Syrian children?

Think about the message the Couillard Administration is sending the Anglophone population of Quebec, a community that for the most part helped him get elected. He is saying we are either unfit or incapable of integrating immigrants into Quebec society, and that the threat of the English language is so great he’d rather put refugee children into over-crowded under-performing schools than the empty classrooms of the schools that taught Quebec Anglos how to speak French.

Bienvenue au Québec.

Flushgate: where do we go from here?

Montreal's massive east-end water treatment plant
Montreal’s massive east-end water treatment plant

#flushgate…

You can be forgiven for finding this whole affair rather annoying, though I will happily point out we’ve collectively never given as much of a shit about sewerage and sewage treatment as we do right now. Flushgate, as it’s come to be known, is single-handedly responsible for teaching Montrealers what the ‘Southwest Interceptor’ is, not to mention generating a very strong public reaction against the idea of dumping waste into the river.

So bully for us; we’ve collectively learned something interesting about urban planning (a notoriously ‘unsexy’ topic as the pundits will tell you) and have demonstrated, unequivocally, that we’re keen to de-pollute the waterways around the island. It’s Montreal’s dirty little secret – we’re generally of the mind the waterways around our island have been so terribly polluted by years of lax regulations and waterfront heavy industrial activity that we’ve shit the bed, so to speak, and ruined any chance at being able to go for a swim come summertime. Isn’t this why we don’t have any beaches…?

To recap the situation for anyone unaware: the City of Montreal wants to dump eight billion litres of untreated sewage directly into the Saint Lawrence River. Perhaps ‘want’ is the wrong word – the city argues it’s a necessity. But the city lacks the ‘sovereignty’ (if you will) to just up and do it, and so it consulted with both the provincial and federal governments.

The general consensus among environmental scientists is that, while it’s generally speaking not a good idea to dump raw sewage directly into the water supply (and we get nearly all of our drinking water from the river), Montreal lacks the infrastructure to do anything else given it needs to empty a sewage collector in order to execute necessary infrastructure work as part of the Bonaventure Expressway renovation project.

Three days before the federal election, then Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a ministerial order cancelling the planned dump, so that an independent environmental assessment could be conducted to determine what if any effects this might have on fish reproduction around the island and downstream (and by the way, there’s nothing like being on verge of losing a federal election to get a chain-smoking Tory do-nothing cabinet member to suddenly take her job very seriously, but I digress). And so, even though Montreal’s assessment was that it was a necessary evil that wouldn’t ultimately do much harm to the local environment (and the provincial environment ministry agreed with that assessment), we nonetheless had to wait for Ottawa to confirm what was already known.

And as of the day of this writing Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, has given Montreal a conditional green light to dump the waste. The conditions are principally that Montreal develop a contingency plan and increases both the quantity and quality of its environmental monitoring during the dump. The dump is set to commence in the evening of November 10th 2015.

An alternative solution, proposed by the environmental group Fondation rivières, argues that tanker ships should transport the waste and, conceivably dump it out in the Atlantic, where the waste would dissipate over a far larger area. I can’t imagine this could be done cheaply, and I don’t think there’s any port infrastructure designed to pump sewage onto tanker ships (because why?).

The waste, by the way, is mostly human in origin, and not industrial (which, as far as I know, is treated differently). So if the ‘tanker option’ were explored, someone would have unenviable job of cleaning out several tanker ships’ worth of human waste residue post-dump.

The Environment Canada report issued on November 6th indicated that if the dump takes place before the annual winter freezing of the river, then it will likely not have any particularly deleterious effect on local fish reproduction. Also, given the strength of the current, the waste likely won’t be concentrated at our island’s shoreline, but will be dispersed downstream.

Again, it’s far from ideal, but it won’t be an ecological disaster. Aside from these rare instances of raw sewage dumps (it’s happened twice before in the last 12 years), Montreal normally treats its sewage, and is one of the few major North American cities to do so. And of the wastewater treatment engineers who have been consulted (or otherwise have commented) on this issue, it seems that the immense volume of the Saint Lawrence River, in addition to the speed of the current, will pretty much ensure the waste water is diluted to the point it will be harmless. Dilution, as they say, is the solution.

Though Environment Canada favours the dump as a necessary evil, they also want the city to start collecting hard data so that the impact can be fully measured. Apparently this was not already the case, something I find rather alarming. Perhaps I’m naive, but I assumed the city would have already been conducting environmental assessments of this type. Environment Canada also indicated that, if the dump is delayed and the infrastructure work is put off, it may lead to more dumps at less opportune times in the future as a result of a system rupture that would be very difficult to contain.

This is the expert opinion on the matter.

The question is, where do we go from here, and what can we do to ensure we’re not in this situation again in the future?

The problem is that our municipal administration all too often seems to wait until the last minute to even attempt solving a problem, and further never seems to propose long-term, forward-thinking solutions to long-standing environment concerns. If sewage collectors are old and there’s concern they will break, we may need to do more than just emergency repairs whenever a problem develops. Perhaps we need to build new collectors. If our sewage treatment plant is incapable of fully treating sewage after a heavy rainstorm, or if it lacks the capacity to handle an increased volume from time to time, shouldn’t we consider enlarging the existing treatment facility, or building a new one altogether? And if our existing treatment facilities aren’t sophisticated enough to break down the chemicals found in human waste – the pharmaceutical residue we know is wreaking havoc on fish reproduction – then isn’t it time to invest in new technologies and new systems to better treat our waste?

And do we really have to wait for the province or federal government to intervene? Shouldn’t we be able to judge the local situation by ourselves? Shouldn’t we have strong local leadership on issues of importance to the local population?

Montreal may have North America’s largest wastewater treatment plant (third largest in the world, apparently), but it has only ever offered a basic level of treatment, whereas other cities with smaller treatment plants can do a better job of truly purifying wastewater. Having a large capacity system is certainly a step in the right direction, now we need to invest in upgrades and improvements. It isn’t an appealing topic of conversation and politically-speaking is basically valueless – no one remembers the mayor who poured public money into improving the sewerage system, it seems.

But Denis Coderre should take note: whereas not everyone in our city will benefit from a professional baseball team (or even be able to afford the tickets), everyone – literally everyone in Montreal shits at least once a day, and it’s toxic human shit that’s both closed all of our beaches and made fishing strictly ‘catch and release’.

A city on an island should provide access to a clean shore and waterways for the benefit of all citizens.

Denis Coderre needs to stop spending money on parks

City of Montreal plan for the renovation of Place Vauquelin
City of Montreal plan for the renovation of Place Vauquelin

Another week, another colossal waste of our municipal tax dollars.

Tuesday’s announcement: $12 million to renovate Place Vauquelin, the public square between City Hall and the Old Courthouse. Among the many exciting new features: a redesigned fountain, heated granite paving stones and, as the Gazette reports ‘the return of the massive Christmas tree for the holiday period.’

Apparently the province will kick in $3.5 million, and it’s supposed to be completed by December of next year.

I won’t hold my breath… the Coderre administration so far is as well known for constantly pitching the inevitable return of the Montreal Expos inasmuch as their total inability to execute urban renovation projects on time or on budget. Coderre routinely over-promises and under-delivers, despite his ‘hands-on’ approach to dismantling poured concrete…

Given his administration’s track record with the Mordecai Richler Gazebo, Peel Street infrastructure repairs, Place du Canada’s multi-year $10-million renovation (not to mention the stalled Viger Square project and the plan to cover over part of the Ville Marie Expressway), we would wise to ask Mayor Coderre to simply stop undertaking any renovations of public spaces, and leave that to whomever his successor might be.

Place Vauquelin
Place Vauquelin

Moreover – $12 million to redo Place Vauquelin is excessive as is, and we’re assuming, with cause, that it will ultimately cost even more. How much can we really afford to spend on city beautification?

Don’t get me wrong – I want to live in a beautiful city with many well-maintained, well-conceived public spaces.

But don’t forget as well – we’re living in a time of austerity, or at least we’re supposed to be. All levels of government have indicated time and again since the Crash of 2008-09 that budget cuts are necessary so as to lower the debt, and that this, along with tax breaks for the wealthiest of citizens and corporations, will help revive our lagging economy.

Our economy is still lagging, and spending municipal tax dollars on city beautification projects is not the kind of economic stimulus we need.

Moreover, the underlying problem is – and always has been – that the people have no apparatus to measure government budgetary efficiency. There is no constant public audit of the spending habits of the City of Montreal, and we accept the city’s cost estimates for various projects without the means to judge whether these costs are reasonable or justifiable in the first place.

Take the Mordecai Richler Gazebo example: the Cadillac of modern gazebos, locally sourced, clocks in at a cost of about $25,000. Such was offered to the city, as well as the cost of construction, pro bono by a local entrepreneur a couple of months back. The mayor declined the offer, stating (weakly I might add) that the Richler Gazebo is a heritage structure and as such the current cost estimate of $592,000 is appropriate. It is already well-known Mordecai Richler never wrote of (or in) the gazebo that will bear his name, and by my estimate about half the total sum is linked to the city commissioning ultimately incomplete studies relating to the history and heritage of the structure. Information that was already publicly available, that any university student could easily have prepared in a report, could have saved this city at least a quarter-million dollars in costs associated with this project, and would have made a compelling argument in favour of simply demolishing it.

Derelict riverside park near Place des Nations
Derelict riverside park near Place des Nations

Another example: the $70 million renovation of part of Parc Jean-Drapeau to facilitate large open-air concerts is not only an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars, it will likely wind up exclusively benefitting concert promoters. The project is intended both to create a permanent outdoor amphitheatre as well as a new promenade to link Calder’s Man with the Métro station. Additional support facilities, like public toilets and vendor kiosks, would likely be integrated into the plan. But the project won’t be completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary in 2017 (in fact it’s due to open in 2019) and the economic benefits to the city are dubious at best. Parc Jean-Drapeau may be part of the city’s ‘tourism sector’, but the nature of these massive outdoor concerts tends to concentrate most of their economic activity to the immediate environs of the concert. Put another way, you’re probably not going to have dinner in the Old Port if you’ve spent your day at Osheaga or Heavy MTL, and this is quite the contrary of the city’s other, more urban music festivals (like the Jazz Fest or Francofolies, which provide direct economic stimulus to the restaurant and hotel industries across a far larger area of the city). What’s particularly onerous about this proposal is that a) there aren’t that many massive touring outdoor concert festivals to begin with, b) the existing space is already adequate given the limited need and c) Parc Jean-Drapeau already has a purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre, and it’s a derelict heritage structure to boot.

But wait, there’s more!

In January of 2014 the management corporations of both Parc Jean-Drapeau and the Quartier international de Montréal put together a project that sought to spend $55 million on a comprehensive renovation of Parc Jean-Drapeau in time for the 375th anniversary. At the time, the plan called for $12.5 million to be spent renovating and rehabilitating Place des Nations, $22.5 million to be spent building a three-kilometre long riverside promenade around both Ile Sainte Helene and Ile Notre Dame, $15 million on a new central promenade connecting the Métro station to Calder’s Man, and only $5 million to improve the open-air concert venue.

So in the span of just under two years the Parc Jean-Drapeau renovation project has increased in cost by more than $15 million and has been downgraded in terms of its scope (Coderre’s recent announcement seems to only include the Calder promenade and the infrastructure for a larger capacity and more permanent outdoor concert venue; there was no mention of Place des Nations or a riverside promenade). In addition, a larger and less expensive project that would have completed in time for the city’s 375th anniversary is now only estimated to be completed two years later.

This is not an efficient use of municipal tax dollars, nor is it demonstrative of efficient urban planning.

Place Vauquelin, Viger Square, Place du Canada, Place des Nations and that wretched gazebo all fell into disuse and disrepair because they were not adequately maintained, as administrations from decades ago sought to cut costs for reasons that would be familiar to us today. Montreal has gone through several cycles of concentrated spurts of investment into massive urban beautification projects, most recently to celebrate oddball anniversaries (375th two years from now, 350th back in 1992, but the cycle goes back to Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics as well), followed by prolonged periods where maintenance budgets are cut back to the bone. This is an advantageous situation for politicians and private contractors alike – every other mayor can triumphantly proclaim major investments of public funds to demonstrate that, unlike their penny-pinching predecessors, they are truly working to push the city forward, wisely investing public funds in large-format public works programs.

It all has the allure of being good for the economy but it’s all just an illusion.

***

Coderre announced Thursday, from the trade mission he’s on in China (?), that there will be consequences for those responsible for driving the cost of the gazebo renovation project up to $592,000, and also provided the nebulous quotation: “…but trust me, I’m not going to spend too much money on that one.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what precisely that means.

The End of the Great Depression

Stephen Harper, Reformist - credit to Canadian Press (1992)

Now that we’ve all had a week to digest…

The administration of Stephen J. Harper, Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, has mercifully come to an end. A nation takes a much-needed sigh of relief.

This was not the prime minister the majority of Canadians wanted. Elected on promises to end a decade of self-congratulatory and self-serving Liberal government, the Harper Conservatives quickly degenerated into precisely what they had claimed to oppose. In the end, they were far worse than that which they had replaced. Patronage was rampant, the party could barely go a month without being embroiled in scandal, and the leader, his party and his band of raving sycophants treated the Canadian public, and the institutions which have helped unite a cosmopolitan and continental country, with utter contempt.

For nearly a decade a disorganized, disunited yet nonetheless vocal majority of Canadians opposed Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party he commanded, and just about every decision they made. This opposition rallied around the NDP’s Jack Layton in 2011, and found a new hope in the third-place Liberals under the apparent leadership qualities of Justin Trudeau in 2015.

Justin Trudeau, heir to the Liberal crown, is now prime minister, and he promises great change.

The problem of course is that this is not great change at all.

Canadians have been following a cycle stretching back to the Second World War at least. We get fed up with the Tories and replace them with the Grits, then get fed up with the Grits and replace them with the Tories. Each promises to move the nation forward and eliminate the wasteful ways of the predecessor, and then each winds up essentially committing the same crimes, further diminishing the public’s confidence in what the federal government is capable of accomplishing (and this here is the greatest crime ever perpetrated on the Canadian people; the idea that government is more hindrance than help has, and will continue to, set us back developmentally-speaking).

So let’s be real for a moment.

Our last truly great prime minister was Lester B. Pearson. In five years (and with two back-to-back minority governments no less) the man managed to eliminate the death penalty, establish universal health care, created the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan and brought in a student loan program to increase access to post-secondary education. He gave us our flag, the Order of Canada, kept us out of the Vietnam War (and was assaulted by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson for having the ‘temerity’ to tell American students precisely why) and established the bilingualism and biculturalism commission to better integrate the ‘two solitudes’.

And on top of all this he won the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing peacekeeping and was elected in 1963 at least in part because he insisted Canada should acquire nuclear weapons!

Pearson should have served as a model for all of his predecessors. A natural diplomat, he not only invested heavily in the establishment of a comprehensive and effective foreign service, he also fought hard to achieve consensus here at home. Neither Harper, nor Chretien nor Mulroney were able to accomplish half as much as Pearson during their twice-as-long-lasting reigns as prime minister, and with every passing decade it seems we’ve elected chief executives who have demonstrated a progressively decreasing interest in working with anyone other than their own partisans.

That this is taken for granted is terribly problematic. Our elected ‘leaders’ ought to work for the benefit of all Canadians, regardless of who those Canadians voted for or what region of the country they live in.

In the 148 years of this nation’s modern history, no prime minister has been as divisive as Stephen Harper. We are fortunate he has decided to exit federal politics and will allow new blood to run the Conservative Party. Whoever replaces him has an immense task at hand to regain public confidence and re-define the party. Given that the Trudeau Liberals have won a majority of seats in Parliament, the Tories have a while to rebrand themselves.

That being said, we have every reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Justin Trudeau has proven himself a very effective politician, and he ran a very successful campaign. In terms of how the Liberal Party presented itself to the public, they championed a kind of pragmatic progressivism which has characterized the Liberals for over fifty years, albeit delicately and without being overly precise.

Mr. Trudeau is Canada’s first Gen-X prime minister, and at the age of 43 one of the youngest in Canadian history (though we do tend to elect PMs in their mid-40s). He is also, of course, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s eldest son, born on Christmas Day 1971 to Canada’s enthusiastic and professorial prime minister and the flower child he met on the beaches of Tahiti. The American President Richard Nixon famously prophesized that Justin would one day walk in the shoes of his father when he was still a toddler. When the elder Trudeau passed in the Millennial Year, Trudeau the Younger’s eulogy from the pulpit of Montreal’s Notre Dame Cathedral turned heads: a nation heard the voice of a future leader.

We must not make a false idol out of Justin Trudeau.

There’s temptation to do so: our democracy isn’t that strong, and historically-speaking the people of this nation have, time-and-again, created a kind of local aristocracy out of our political class. If we despised the Tories for any one particular reason over the last decade, it is because they so frequently acted as though they were not beholden to the citizenry of the nation, not even to those who supported them most fervently. The Tories turned their backs on veterans and the military, their economic record was abysmal and a total lack of federal command over strategic resource exploitation has not only turned much of Northern Alberta into a environmental wasteland, it has further sapped Western Canada of its primary economic driver. Thirty years after the National Energy Program sank the Trudeau/Turner Liberals, we now wonder whether a degree of protectionism in the oil and natural gas sector might not be to our advantage in a world of unstable geo-politics, itself a product of un-stable oil prices.

Laissez faire, the unspoken motto of the Harper Decade on far too many matters of national importance, doesn’t seem to work anymore.

But inasmuch as Canadians seemingly voted to end ‘hands-off’ federal government, I can’t help but wonder if we also voted, even if we won’t openly admit it, for Justin’s father, and a notion of political genetics. I fear some of us may have.

The 42nd election was quite unlike any other in Canadian history, as it was so clearly an executive election in a parliamentary system that doesn’t directly elect executive leaders. This was not a three-way fight between three national parties, it was Justin vs. Stephen vs. Thomas, with Lizzie and Gilles off on the sidelines providing colour commentary. And so, this election was also a demonstration of just how broken our democracy really is. What we were supposed to do was collectively choose 338 legislators to replace a remarkably dysfunctional parliament. Instead, only 67% of us chose between one of two prospective national leaders (after taking a principled, socially-liberal and fundamentally Canadian position on the issue of the niqab, Mulcair paid for it by losing much of the early support he had acquired; for the last month of the election at least, it was a two-way race).

While the voter participation rate in 2015 was about five percentage points higher than in 2011, 67% participation still puts us squarely in C minus territory vis-a-vis democratic participation. A third of Canadians could not be bothered to execute their primary democratic responsibility. As far as I’m concerned, this is as much the fault of the ‘leaders’ and their parties as it is the system in which we operate. Even as bad as things have gotten, a third of those eligible still felt no particular need or utility in expressing themselves as citizens in a democracy.

Mr. Trudeau has indicated several times that 2015 will be the last federal election in Canada to use the ‘first past the post’ method, and that the next election will utilize a proportional system wherein the composition of parliament directly reflects the wishes and will of the people. He must be held to this. Canada cannot consider itself a true democracy when so many votes wind up not counting for anything at all.

Ultimately there’s a broader idea here – the chief executive of the nation must be held accountable at all times, not just during our quadrennial attempt at democracy. Unfortunately, given Mr. Trudeau’s majority government, he won’t be required to achieve consensus in Parliament to get anything done. He should try to nonetheless; he should govern more like Pearson than even his own father. We should not want Pierre Trudeau reborn.

There’s much Trudeau the Younger must do. He should repeal bills C-51 and C-24 in their entirety, make the TPP document public and even consider a national referendum on further free trade pacts. He needs to ensure next year’s census is long-form and mandatory, and I wouldn’t mind mandatory voting in addition to a new proportional voting system as well. November 11th (Remembrance Day) and February 15th (Flag Day) ought to be statutory national holidays, door to door mail delivery needs to be maintained and the CBC, NFB and NRC should all get major funding increases too.

And we also need a proper inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (and men) that results in a serious commitment and plan to end the endemic inequity, mistreatment and generally lower quality of life experienced by an unfortunate number of Aboriginal Canadians.

I could go on with a wishlist but I won’t, it would take far too much time and I’m certain there are other more talented writers currently drafting outlined for large tomes aimed at dissecting the nation’s most recent ‘decade of darkness’ and all we want our prime minister-designate to accomplish.

Rather, I’ll end it on this point here. François Cardinal at La Presse already neatly summarized an idea that’s now quite clear to Montrealers – the holy trinity of liberals at the helm nationally, provincially and municipally will likely benefit our city immensely, especially given the forthcoming sesquicentennial of Confederation and Montreal’s 375th anniversary in two years.

Cardinal argues that Montreal voted for the right team, and that this will benefit us. Not only is the Prime Minister a Montrealer, there’s a good possibility a number of cabinet members will be as well (and it should be pointed out that Canada’s largest cities not only rejected the Tories outright, but their mayors were far more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper, another national ‘first’).

At the very least this means our city’s unique perspective will be well represented. But what underlies Cardinal’s article is the notion we’ll benefit more directly in terms of federal money flowing into our city, perhaps in part as a kind of reward for electing so many Liberals, or to help stave off separatist rumblings. Either way, if the new government benefits Montreal in particular, it will be no better than its predecessors. We should not want a federal government that rewards cities or regions because of who they voted for, as this is precisely what we didn’t like about Stephen Harper.

Or Maurice Duplessis for that matter…

It’s natural that the new government and our new chief executive will likely favour our city in various ways, but it can’t come at anyone else’s expense. We can’t accept more patronage and favouritism simply because the guy doing it is young and handsome.

That being said, it is most definitely the right time for a new political arrangement between Canada’s largest cities and the federal government, one that gives Canada’s major cities greater local control over how tax dollars are spent, over how key services are administered, and in particular how our great cities are to move forward and develop.

If there’s a particular reason to be cautiously optimistic, this would be it.