Category Archives: Social commentary

Cabot Square Redux: not quite paradise, kind of a parking lot…

This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt
This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt

After about a year’s worth of work, Cabot Square re-opened to the public on Wednesday July 8th.

The major improvement involves two outreach workers who will now use the square’s renovated stone kiosk (vespasienne) as home base to provide services to the primarily Aboriginal homeless community that (up until the renovations began) called Cabot Square home. Whether this homeless population returns to spend their time in Cabot Square remains to be seen, but the mere fact that these outreach workers have their own workspace within the square is in and of itself a progressive step in the right direction. From what I’ve read, the kiosk will also serve as a café where the proceeds will support the homeless (or the outreach program that helps the homeless). This is also good – Montreal is well known for its dearth of coffee-purchasing opportunities…

Other improvements: apparently there’s daily programming (music, dance, theatre) organized throughout the summer, and free wifi. I have a greater interest in the latter rather than the former, but again, glad to see it and I hope these activities are well-attended.

However, as you can see in the above photo, much of the square has been covered over in a slick ‘water-permeable ground covering’ that looks an awful lot like asphalt and for that reason looks awful.

Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs
Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs

This is not to say that the square was completely paved over – just that too much of it was. The paved portion flows around ‘green islands’ – there are now several such ‘islands’ in the newly renovated square, sharply divided from the walking paths with large curbs that integrate a few benches and subtle anti-skateboarding dimples. Within the green islands, plants surrounding the bases of several trees. Elsewhere in the square, younger trees planted to replace those removed during the renovation are surrounded by small circles of wood chips.

The division between green and grey isn’t subtle – it’s very clear where you’re supposed to walk and where you’re not.

There’s almost no grass per se, no flowerbeds either. In its previous incarnation, there were patches of grass and no physical barrier between the somewhat symmetrical paving-stone walking paths and the green space.

The new arrangement reminds me of a trip to the Biodome; nature in the new Cabot Square is ‘grade-separated’ – look, but don’t touch seems to be the overriding design philosophy, which is ironic given how Aboriginal politics often involves efforts to sustain our interactions with the natural environment (i.e. preservation with an aim towards common appreciation etc.)

While there’s no doubt the new Cabot Square is slick, clean and modern, it’s also much less of a park. It feels more like a transit point than an urban refuge, and this is odd given that there’s so much less going on around Cabot Square these days (i.e. the Forum closed in 1996, the Children’s Hospital just relocated and the square isn’t the major bus terminus it once was). Considering there are plans to increase residential density in the area by building more condo towers and apartment buildings, I figured city planners would have gone in a different direction, aiming to provide an urban refuge instead of a kind of shaded crossroads.

It occurred to me that the paved surface will certainly make the space easier to clean, and further allows city vehicles to drive around inside the square without ripping up the ground and grass. Except that these posts have been installed at every entrance and seem pretty solid. I’m not entirely sure what their purpose is… I think it’s to slow down cyclists.

Questionable Purpose

There’s a greater irony here: before the renovation Montreal police would regularly drive directly into the square and either park their cruiser near the statue or do a quick lap before heading back out. Tactics such as these are intended to intimidate and drive people away. It also destroyed the paths and and the grass. Municipal workers would do the same when they were ostensibly working at maintaining the square.

Now the square has a paved interior with wide paths and large curbs to ensure the division between green space and walking space, but these posts make it impossible for any car or truck to enter the square (and Montreal police pledged somewhat to treat homeless Aboriginals more like human beings).

One thing I noticed when visiting recently was the removal of shrubs, decorative fences and bus shelters that once ran around the square’s periphery. I completely approve of this, and wrote about the necessity of opening up sight lines in the past. The former arrangement of bus shelters and shrubs made it impossible to see across the space and for this reason made it an ideal location for homeless people to congregate (Place Emilie-Gamelin and Viger Square suffer from the same problem).

So that being the case, it makes me wonder if the homeless Aboriginal community (or any members of the broader homeless community for that matter) will return to the square.

The picnic tables have been removed, as have a number of park benches. Garbage and recycling has been moved to the periphery, largely at the entrances (in a move I could only assume was based on a recent STM decision to do the same with Métro stations, wherein garbage and recycling has been removed from platform level and relocated to receptacles located up near the ticket kiosks). This is one of those ideas that’s good in theory but rarely in practice (i.e. people have about a 30-second tolerance limit to carrying garbage; if a garbage bin isn’t immediately available, they tend to just drop it on the ground).

And as to those anti-skateboarding dimples on the curbs? Again, useful in theory, but given that the entire square has been paved over, the whole square is now far more inviting to skateboarders than it was previously. Moreover, on all sections of the curbs that ramp up from ground level, there doesn’t seem to be any dimples at all.

Put it another way, when I visited the square last week, it was a group of skateboarders who were making best use of the space. I don’t think this is what the city had in mind.

Underwhelming

Here we see an example of one of the myriad ‘activities’ slated to take place in the square. I think this was for a caricaturist. Elsewhere there was a small group of somewhat depressed looking ‘street performers’ dressed like pirate-clowns; I’m assuming this was entertainment intended for children…

Again, more good stuff in theory, but only time will tell whether this actually leads to a major vocational change for the square. There seemed to be a lot of people working (ostensibly) for the city that day, and supporting this over the long term may prove problematic what with austerity budgets.

Renovated Vespasienne

And here’s the renovated vespasienne. It looks great, but it didn’t look like the café component was fully operational. It’s unfortunate there’s no landscaping around the base of the edifice (no flowers or plants), as this gives the impression the vespasienne grew out of the pavement.

Perhaps the single biggest lost opportunity was the Métro entrance kiosk located at the northwest corner of the square, in that what is arguably the most problematic structure in the square was left as-is. The Métro entrance in the square was once very useful indeed – keep in mind Atwater was the western terminus of the Green Line for about a decade, and up until 20 years ago the Forum was the city’s primary sporting and concert venue. Thus, it was useful to have a large Métro entrance located directly across from the Forum to help manage the crowds. Ever since the Forum stopped being a important venue this Métro entrance hasn’t been particularly useful. It, and the long tunnel that connects it with the Alexis Nihon complex diagonally across the street, hasn’t been very well maintained and all too often stinks of piss.

And as such it will remain – I suppose getting the city’s parks department and the STM to cooperate on a city beautification project may have been a little too difficult to coordinate. Thus, the STM kiosk remains an oversized, underused and aesthetically disconnected element of the square. Had they removed it the square could have had an entrance from arguably its highest traffic corner. Instead, the structure remains as a lasting visual obstruction to what’s going on inside the square and will likely continue to serve as something of a homeless shelter in its own right.

At the end of the day it begs the question – is this really the best our city can do?

The Tragic Mayorality of Jean Doré

Jean Doré and Nelson Mandela - July, 1990
Jean Dor̩ and Nelson Mandela РJuly, 1990

Former mayor Jean Doré passed away on Monday, June 15th, after a seven month battle with pancreatic cancer.

From 1986 to 1994 he was our geeky young mayor with the Magnum P.I. moustache and something of a breath of fresh air after twenty-six uninterrupted years of Jean Drapeau. He led the the opposition Montreal Citizens’ Movement to a landslide victory in the 1986 municipal election and will be remembered for a number of modest accomplishments, many of which revolve around the 1992 celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary.

Under his administration the city got its first computers and adopted its first urban master plan. The Pointe-a-Calliere archeological museum, Place Charles de Gaulle and Place Emilie-Gamelin were all inaugurated. Major investments were made in renovating and beautifying Old Montreal, the Old Port and the park islands, not to mention turning the Champs de Mars from a parking lot into an open green space. Saint Catherine Street was renovated and beautified, McGill College was redeveloped to take its present form. Several tall buildings were completed, significantly increasing available class-A office space available in the city (this includes 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest, 1250 Boul. René Lévesque Ouest, the Laurentian Bank building, the Montreal Trust building, Tour de la Cathedrale etc).

Despite these significant developments and the relative success of the 350th anniversary renewal and beautification initiatives, Doré lost the 1994 municipal elections to Pierre Bourque, the guy who had previously run the Botanical Gardens and was responsible for the vastly unpopular megacity merger of 2002-2006.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to explain how Doré could lose to Bourque. Doré was the first of three recent mayors who served roughly equal amounts of time, started with a lot of promise and ended their term unpopular and considered something of a ‘do-nothing’ mayor. That said, in terms of his individual accomplishments I would still rank Doré head and shoulders above Pierre Bourque and Gerald Tremblay.

Conflicts arose within the Montreal Citizens’ Movement soon after Doré was first elected in 1986. The major scandal of his administration being the Overdale fiasco, in which a small though vibrant community was expropriated and bulldozed to make way for a massive downtown condo project that never materialized (the location is currently being developed into the ambitious YUL condo and townhouse project). This led to the MCM losing some of its more prominent Anglophone members and support from the urban Anglophone community (a fact which was compounded by Doré’s insistence of a strict interpretation of Bill 101 as it pertained to outdoor commercial signage, not to mention renaming Dorchester after René Lévesque when the former premier passed away in 1987). Later still, his administration would be criticized for not paying down the massive debt left by the Drapeau administration, and was subject to enhanced scrutiny on public spending as a result of his predecessor’s lax attitude to keeping balanced local books.

Other economic and political factors handicapped Doré. During the 1986-1994 period there was a global recession tied to the end of the Cold War and localized restructuring as a consequence of NAFTA and the privatization of numerous crown corporations, many of which had been located in Montreal. The local manufacturing and civil engineering sectors took a heavy hit, as did textiles and food processing, areas of industry that were once foundational. All of these factors were well beyond the influence of the mayor of Montreal. The national question that resurfaced at the time certainly didn’t help, as Montreal, Quebec and Canada’s future was perhaps at its most uncertain point roughly during the same time period as Doré’s mayoralty (consider the failures of the Meech Lake (1987) and Charlottetown Accords (1992), the Oka Crisis (1990) and the re-election of the Parti Quebecois (in 1994, leading to the referendum the following year).

Call it a matter of bad timing – I think Doré would have been an exceptional mayor had he come to power a decade earlier and maintained closer ties with the activist/grassroots foundation of the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. And yet, conversely, the main problem with his administration lied in a lack of political maturity. He only shone compared to Drapeau for the latter’s long political demise over the course of a decade after the Olympics, and yet would ultimately be judged as inferior to man who saddled us with billions in debt and a depopulated urban core.

Personally, I think Doré shone brightest hosting Nelson Mandela in July of 1990 (click here for Mandela’s speech), shortly after Mandela’s release from a South African prison. He wasn’t supposed to stop in Montreal on his international tour, but Doré made it happen with less than 24 hours to organize a large public ceremony at the Champs de Mars. 15,000 turned up to see Mandela thank Montreal in its efforts to combat Apartheid. He then visited Union United Church, arguably the historic epicentre of Montreal’s Black community (on a tangential note, I’m very happy to see the UUC’s congregation returned home on Sunday June 14th to their historic church on Delisle Street in Saint Henri. The congregation had been forced out in 2011 after an inspection revealed the building was in danger of structural failure and required extensive renovations, renovations which have since been completed).

Mandela’s visit was a high point in an administration consistently beset by circumstances and events well beyond the individual control of the mayor but that nonetheless contributed to an overall sense of malaise that became somewhat entrenched in the character of Montrealers at the time (and which I’d argue we’re only beginning to really emerge from). Consider six months prior to the visit the city endured the horror of the Polytechnique Massacre, and a month after the visit we’d be contending with the Oka Crisis.

All things considered, he did a good job and the city benefitted (for the most part) from his administration, though situation and circumstances being what they were, he probably did as much and as best anyone could do.

The Royalmount Project and 24hr Shopping

An artist's rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)
An artist’s rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)

Two big retail related stories from the past week. I’ll discuss in reverse order from the title above.

First, the province of Quebec will now allow retail businesses in Montreal’s downtown core to set their own hours, the idea being that there’s some kind of late night shopping potential retailers have been missing out on.

Second, a colossal shopping/entertainment/office/hotel complex intended for the former Town of Mount Royal industrial sector at the intersection of the Decarie Expressway and Highway 40. From the people who brought the Dix-30 development to Brossard come it’s much larger on-island counterpart. Carbonleo, the firm behind the Royalmount project, explains that Montrealers currently have to go to Brossard or Laval to get the same experience, though for the life of me I can’t think of too many people I know who will drive to Laval to buy some slacks…

Thoughts:

On the subject of businesses being able to set their own hours – brilliant. Why wasn’t this already the case?

And why does the city of Montreal need to province’s permission to grant businesses this right?

This aside, the plan essentially allows businesses in the ‘tourism districts’ of the Central Business District to operate on a twenty-four schedule, should they choose to do so. If this means more restaurants and cafés will be open late, great. If there’s potential to increase retail sales, I suppose this is great too, though I doubt this means we’ll be able to shop at Simons or Ogilvy at 3:00 AM anytime soon (and I doubt late night shopping opportunities in Old Montreal or Chinatown will make much of a difference either).

Either way, at it’s core this is a good move if for no other reason than it gives a number of small enterprises a greater degree of operational freedom. Couple it with loosened restrictions on drinking hours and who knows, maybe we’ll create a trend of drunken impulse clothes shopping (note: the measure specifically excludes bars… vive la laicité…)

But let’s not kid ourselves, extended shopping and won’t solve the Central Business District’s late night lifelessness, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what’s missing.

Live entertainment is the key, and it’s what’s principally missing from too much of downtown Montreal. I can’t help but think this might be a consequence of an over-emphasis on branding certain geographic areas as ‘entertainment and tourist zones’ that wind up attracting Sergakis-style sports bars, tacky nightclubs and American-style theme restaurants.

The great irony is that the neighbourhoods that really come to life at night are just that, neighbourhoods. The first ring urban residential areas on the CBD’s periphery have many of the city’s best nightspots, restaurants and venues. If anything we should be trying to figure out better methods of getting tourists out of the CBD and into the ‘real’ Montreal of the Plateau, Mile End, Saint Henri (etc.), but I digress.

One thing to consider: when you look at old photos of Saint Catherine Street in its heyday of the 1940s through to the 1970s, you notice a lot of theatres, cocktail lounges, show-bars (etc.) lining the street. Entertainment ‘anchors’ brought Montrealers to this street, in turn supporting restaurants and bars for generations. Losing the theatres (a process that began in the mid-1970s) and introducing self-contained downtown shopping malls (which began in earnest in the mid-1980s) sucked a lot of the life out of the street. Lack of commercial rental controls and our unnatural, nearly inconceivable interest in American chain stores and restaurants ultimately conspired to produce the situation we’re currently faced with… a retail and entertainment thoroughfare that’s lost the charm and appeal that made it so famous. For tourists, a bit of a let-down… most of our ‘tourist zones’ offer little better than what you’d expect to find in just about any large North American city.

As to the Royalmount project, same problem. It’s inauthentic and doesn’t actually offer anything particularly novel or interesting. Though the current plan is a kind of ‘shoot for the moon’ proposal, including a massive green roof, a performance venue, hotel, office space and about eight times as much rentable retail space as the entirety of the Eaton’s Centre, I have a suspicion the end result (if it does indeed get built) won’t be quite as grandiose. Performance venue will become multiplex cinema, hotel will become luxury old folks home etc etc etc.

If Montreal’s retailers are having a tough time now, it likely won’t get any easier with this behemoth. Add an estimated 20,000 cars per day to the already congested intersection of highways 15 and 40 and the situation gets worse all around.

What I find truly unfortunate is that if this project gets the green light we’ll lose an important industrial zone in exchange for will likely be a retail white elephant. The TMR industrial zone is well situated, not only at the intersection of the aforementioned highways, but also within close proximity of both the Taschereau and Cote Saint Luc rail yards and the airport. The industrial zone further benefits from rail line spurs that in most cases go right up to the loading docks of the large industrial properties. Sure, our industrial economy isn’t doing great right now, but who knows what the future might hold? It’s not like we have an abundance of railway connected, airport adjacent industrial zoning… especially what with all the old industrial zones close to the city proper having been converted into loft condos.

Industrial jobs is where we need growth, not retail jobs.

In any event, the Carbonleo proposal is so big it’s hard to imagine it’s realistic. On top of 2.25 million square feet of retail space, they envision 1.4 million square feet of office space – roughly equivalent to Place Ville Marie. And then there’s a 3,000 seat performance venue…

I have my doubts. What’s also distressing is that the plan will require infrastructure to be re-designed (i.e. highway on and off ramps), not to mention a planned bridge to link De la Savanne Métro station with the mega project over the Decarie Expressway trench. There’s no mention on what Transport Quebec or the STM have to say about this, though I really don’t like the idea of any public money being used on a private venture I honestly don’t think has been thoroughly thought through. It seems to me that just about every shopping mall in the city proper is struggling, and the already existing shopping malls within proximity of the planned Royalmount project are all barely hanging on.

Just another reason why this city needs a more sophisticated master plan and why ‘One Island, One City’ ought to be seriously reconsidered. TMR can likely proceed on this project by itself, perhaps to Montreal’s detriment, and that’s everyone’s concern.

Mehta, Mahler and the Maison Symphonique de Montréal

Not Mehta or the OSM, but Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Close enough…

Confession: I was neither familiar with Mahler’s Third Symphony, nor the city’s new concert hall, until last night. I know… for shame.*

First off, seeing Zubin Mehta conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was a treat in and of itself (read Claude Gingras’ spot-on review in La Presse). Mehta was the conductor of the OSM from 1960 to 1967, at the time a major step in his early career and a coup for our city. Mehta then went on to become the musical director and chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and later became Musical Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic. He is one of the greatest and most renown living conductors, and the thrill of the experience was palpable amongst concert-goers and musicians alike.

Second, the OSM, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the OSM’s women’s choir and Montreal and McGill children’s choirs did a superb job performing such a demanding and complex piece. The choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony was brilliant, especially given that this was a benefit concert, as (in my opinion) it allowed the OSM to demonstrate its versatility, not to mention the excellent acoustic qualities of the new concert hall. Further, as The Gazette’s Arthur Kaptainis points out, it’s the kind of piece that will appeal to the critical and impress the unfamiliar. I fall in the latter category, though I’ve been developing a greater appreciation for classical music of late.

Third, if the purpose of Tuesday night’s performance was to encourage locals to go to the symphony more often, mission accomplished… you won’t have to tell me twice. What I saw was a world-class orchestra eager to impress a living legend, and in so doing brought the house to its feet. The performance concluded with what felt like a ten minute standing ovation.

That said…

This was my first experience with the new concert hall and I’m feeling a bit let down.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine building; it’s comfortable, modern, well-lit and sounds fantastic too.

However, on the outside it’s dull to the point of being insulting to the OSM and citizens alike. Put it another way, the building’s overall aesthetic qualities don’t match the quality of the orchestra performing within. To me it looks more like Place des Arts’ music school, or a UQAM pavilion, than the home of a major symphony orchestra.

The interior of the concert hall is elegant though the ornamentation seems to me to be trying too hard to be postmodern and ‘fun’. The general aesthetic of the whole construction is of stripped down minimalism common to most projects involving Quebec government funding of late, and while it fits within the greater scheme of both Place des Arts and the Quartier des Spectacles, I still feel it’s too much of the same thing.

Perhaps my discomfort with the new concert hall is in the vein of medium and message being less than congruent; I can’t imagine a tourist would happen upon the concert hall without prompting (i.e. the location isn’t evident, being somewhat on the backside of Place des Arts) and there’s little about the building which says unequivocally what purpose it serves. It doesn’t invite the spontaneous engagement with the city’s culture, and doesn’t say anything about our own cultural values either. This is not to say that all buildings should necessarily be so explicit, but I don’t think it would hurt in this particular case.

After all, we want the OSM (and the other classical music ensembles who makes use of the space) to be cherished by the citizenry and further want a concert hall that is both distinct and recognizable for citizens and tourists alike.

It would also be nice for the most successful elements of Place des Arts to be eventually ‘unpackaged’ and re-distributed elsewhere in the city. The Quartier des Spectacles is without a doubt a successful (though somewhat contrived) urban branding initiative, but it would be unwise to distinguish one particular neighbourhood as cultural nucleus. Disingenuous too. Most of the housing within immediate proximity of Place des Arts isn’t exactly within the price range of most local artists.

In any event, I think it’s just a matter of time before the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal seeks out a new location, and there’s been talk of building an opera house since the Drapeau Era. Perhaps a larger and more distinct concert hall would follow. Were this to happen, new venues should go up outside the Quartier des Spectacles, though not outside the central core of the city.

Incidentally, I think the old Forum site at Atwater would be a great location for a large performance venue… although you’d run into the same problem trying to balance out the various requirements of what would need to be a multi-faceted, somewhat multi-purpose facility. But I don’t know enough to argue whether an opera hall could easily double as home to the OSM and serve the needs of touring Broadway productions simultaneously.

Closing notes: the interior aesthetic of the concert hall, from the audience’s perspective, is marred by the red neon emergency exit signs. It clashes with the woodwork and seems almost like an afterthought designed and installed by hurried bureaucrats. I know it’s absolutely necessary to have emergency signage, but surely it could have been a bit more subtle?

On the other side of the spectrum, the artist’s entrance at the corner of Boul. de Maisonneuve and St. Urbain has all the charm and intimacy of a loading dock office at a pharmaceutical company’s distribution warehouse. This is where the stars of the show enter the building, yet again, their entrance seems like an afterthought, far removed from the main entrance and wholly inappropriate in context given just how unimaginative it actually is.

* (In truth, now that I think about it, I had heard the symphony before, though had forgotten. I won’t forget it now and encourage you to take a listen. It’s well worth it.)

Irony is Dead

These two men are protesting the same thing.
These two men are protesting the same thing.

I’m not sure who snapped this photo from a student anti-austerity demo a few days back, but in any case, chapeau Monsieur, whoever you are, for capturing the innate irony and hypocrisy of protest in Quebec.

The cop and the student with his hands up are essentially protesting the exact same thing – cuts to government services.

In the case of the cop, government’s desire to increase fiscal efficiency has manifested as proposed pension reform.

In the case of the student, government cuts to education and proposed increases to the cost of tuition are two parts of the same issue – government is transferring debt onto the backs of students, asking them to pay more for the accreditation and training only universities can provide and that are fundamental to entering and competing in our local job market.

In both cases you can argue the government’s efforts to get back in the green are being done in a manner which is unfair to civil servants and students alike. It’s unfair to ask police, firefighters and other municipal workers to contribute vastly more to their own pensions than was previously the case because at one point in time pensions were mismanaged. Moreover, almost by necessity municipal pensions should focus more on a defined benefit rather than a defined contribution. That’s always been the trade-off for the civil workforce, what you don’t get in pay you make up for afterwards with a generous pension.

This photograph is striking to me because it shows two people who should be united in a common cause, yet one is permitted to protest and the other is not.

Perhaps it’s an indication of what we as a society are willing to tolerate, but that leaves even more questions.

Why is it okay for police and firefighters to play dress up and vandalize public property (let’s call it for what it is) and not okay for students to assemble in public and demonstrate?

Why do we assume students will be violent when time and time again it’s the police that instigate violence?

Why do we give the police carte-blanche to disrupt student demonstrations when they themselves are actively demonstrating their opposition to austerity measures?

And if the students were to adopt the tactics of the police, firefighters and transit employees – such as vandalizing public property with propaganda, dressing in camouflage, starting fires in front of City Hall and then ransacking a city council meeting (etc) – would we tolerate that?

I think not.

Frankly, if the students were to apply any of the tactics used by municipal employees, we’d likely have P-6 amendments to limit the wearing of camouflage in public.

And any effort by the students to congregate in front of City Hall, let alone entering the building, would be resisted with force by the same people who allowed their firefighter friends to do just that.

It’s hypocritical, unfair, illogical and many other things too, but the bottom line is this – as a society, we tolerate strikes and various protest actions by established unions with actual political clout, and do the exact opposite with regards to students.

So with that in mind the students need to change their tactics. They have no hope of repeating the Printemps Erable, and shouldn’t want to go down that route anyways. While protests did allow for a maintenance of the tuition freeze, it did not result in any major changes to benefit the provincial economy, nor did it do much of anything to get austerity measures off the table. Jean Charest did not lose the 2012 election because of how he handled the student strike, but more because of the perceived corruption of his administration. In the end a PQ minority government was formed that lasted about 18 months and ended with the Quebec Liberals returning to power, albeit with a majority government and a presumed mandate to do what was necessary to get Quebec back in the green. The Marois administration did nothing of consequence for Quebec, and after a year and a half of gaffes and poorly thought-out social policies were thrown out of office.

Hope and change may have been the ideal of 2012, but it was far from reality.

Fast forward to today and the students have an even greater battle before them. Couillard is premier until 2018 and doesn’t have the Charbonneau Commission into corruption and collusion in the construction industry dogging him. People don’t want to pay any more taxes and increasingly view the students as entitled if not hopelessly unrealistic.

I don’t necessarily share this view, and personally believe the cost of education should be lower than it is today by a considerable margin. I also believe education access, standards and funding should be nationalized and not an issue of provincial control.

That said, the case needs to be made in a different way. Street battles with police do not and will not change public perception in favour of the students.

Whereas once upon a time a photo like the one above would shock people out of their stupor and propel societal change, the videos and photos of police brutality are now shrugged at. Too many people in this province applaud the police for ‘teaching the brats a lesson’. Too many people in this city see street protests as an inexcusable inconvenience. And too many students seem to believe Paris ’68 is a fait accomplit, waiting just around the corner to happen here.

Dare I say it, it seems too many Quebec students are beginning to view protesting as a legitimate component of the student experience, something no university education is complete without.

Obviously this should not be the case; street protests should be a last resort, not the only card to be played.

I would welcome news from the student associations that they’ll make their case in a different way, one that doesn’t resort to the same tired tactics that basically boil down to disorganized street theatre and opportunities to deploy a ludicrously expensive riot squad. By protesting, students are actively adding to provincial and municipal debt – all those cops on the riot squad are paid bonuses, overtime, danger pay etc.

And they most definitely will be paid. Their unions are stronger than the student unions by a considerable margin.

As was the case in 2012, the students’ grievance is not self-evident and there seems to be a lack of cohesive planning and purpose. If the public doesn’t even understand why students are protesting, or what they’re proposing in lieu of austerity, there’s no hope the students will ever be able to change public opinion in their favour.

The few people who will change their minds after seeing a photo like the one above won’t make waves and won’t result in societal change. If there’s a case to be made against austerity (and there is), it should be clear, concise and to the point.

It also shouldn’t prevent students from attending class.

When trying to educate the public about an alternative way forward, it seems remarkably foolish to me to begin by making enemies first on campus (by disrupting classes, such as we witnessed at Concordia this week) and then with logical potential allies.

How much do you want to bet ASSÉ never reached out to the SPVM or their union?

Operation Gamescan 76

Operation Gamescan 76 by Michael Brun, National Film Board of Canada

Operation Gamescan 76.

Roll that around on your tongue for a moment.

It was a thing. It happened here.

And if you find the name as intriguing as I do, you’re in luck. Operation Gamescan 76 is damned fascinating, especially when you consider it within the context of how we do large scale security operations nowadays, not to mention the actual capabilities of our current military. I say this because I believe Gamescan 76 was a demonstration of a high water mark attained by the Canadian military, at a time many today think it was ill equipped and purposeless.

And if you don’t give a damn about military propaganda, that’s fine too. It’s not exactly a propaganda piece to begin with. If you like archival footage of Montreal in the ‘good old days’ of the mid-1970s, then this video’s for you. The city looked good that summer.

But on to the issue at hand – what was Gamescan 76?

Simply put, during the 1976 Summer Olympics and for several months before it, this city of Montreal was a veritable fortress or modern citadel.

16,000 personnel were deployed just to Montreal and the affiliated sites of the Olympic Games, providing not only security, but communications, logistics, medical and even protocol services for the Olympics. They had combat fighter aircraft at their immediate disposal, in addition to various transports and surveillance aircraft, not to mention a considerable number of helicopters. Several large warships were deployed to provide additional support and elements of the Airborne Regiment, precursor to today’s JTF-2 and Canadian Special Operations Regiment, were on standby, ready to rappel or parachute into anywhere in and around Montreal in a moment’s notice.

Operation Gamescan 76 was and likely still is the single largest peacetime Canadian military operation, ever. What’s particularly interesting to me is that it was done without withdrawing forces deployed in West Germany (Canada had a mechanized brigade deployed in support of NATO, supported by its own air wing and occupying two bases at the time, representing about 5,000 personnel), the Sinai, Golan Heights or Cyprus (three large peacekeeping deployments we were involved in at the time, representing several thousand more troops and their equipment). At the time the bulk of our local air force was operating in support of NORAD and most of our Navy was Atlantic-centric and almost exclusively focused on hunting Soviet submarines. And yet despite this absolutely massive deployment of Canadian Forces personnel and major equipment assets, we could still manage to pull together 16,000 military personnel and provide them all the equipment they needed to ensure Canada’s first Olympic Games would not suffer the same fate as Munich four years earlier.

Munich. The brutal murder of Israeli athletes by masked terrorists, captured live by television cameras and broadcast into tranquil living rooms the world over. What was supposed to be a triumph for liberal, reformed post-war West Germany became a spectacle so tragic and awful some commentators honestly thought the Olympics as an institution would crumble. Who would risk hosting a Games if terrorists could slaughter athletes on the six o’clock news? Who would pay for the security that would be required to prevent such a thing from happening again, who had the expertise to handle such an immense project scope, and who could be reasonably expected to deliver on all fronts?

It was obvious at the time that the Canadian Forces would take on the job so as not to overburden local law enforcement, leaving the bulk of the Montreal police and Sureté du Québec to focus on their day to day affairs.

The military would secure the city, the island, the key nodes of transport, command and communications, and most importantly the Olympic Park and its affiliated sites. The out of town troops took up residence in public schools closed for the summer, the depot at Longue Pointe housed all Games-related equipment and was humming along twenty-four hours a day. The military was deployed to all the airports in the region at that time (there were five by my count, including Mirabel, Dorval, St. Hubert, the Victoria STOLport and the old Cartierville airport, the latter two no longer exist), and patrolled the highways and port as well. Throughout the documentary I marvelled at the fact that the overwhelming bulk of work was carried out by soldiers armed only with walkie-talkies, binoculars and metal detectors.

We had several thousand people employed to literally ‘keep an eye on things’, and several thousand more coordinating and communicating everything they saw.

What really strikes me is how few guns you see in this documentary. When you do see Canadian soldiers well equipped with the latest fighting gear, it’s principally when deployed abroad. Throughout the doc the Canadian Forces look pretty geeky – it seems as though the bulk of the security apparatus in 1976 were lanky young men in their late teens or early twenties, in their dress uniforms (no camouflage), without any prominently displayed guns or offensive fighting equipment.

In other words, it was discrete. Subtle security. The documentary points this out several times.

Quite a contrast to security at the most recent Canadian Olympiad. Fewer than 5,000 Canadian Forces were deployed to two sites at the 2010 Vancouver Games, backed up by 5,000 law enforcement and about the same number of private security contractors. Security was armed, armoured and obvious. I would argue the collective whole of modern public security is menacing and invasive, and based on the video evidence offered here, it seems efforts were made to make the military look and behave truly as an aid to the civil power. It seems that they were keen to demonstrate the military being used differently, and to not offend the public by appearing overly menacing. The images of armed soldiers patrolling city streets during the October Crisis were still quite fresh in people’s collective memory.

So what we have here is archival footage of how they struck a balance. Yes, a massive amount of Canadian military strength was available and operational in Montreal at the time, controlling a security, communications and logistics operation of epic proportions we’d have trouble, I’d argue, doing again today. It just wasn’t particularly intrusive given its size.

It was the era of less is more I suppose. Government didn’t want images of men with rifles in newspapers or on television. Today the opposite is true; remember the G8/G20 Summit in Toronto? That would have been unfathomable in any Canadian city in 1976.

Today our government wants to empower a formerly outward facing spy agency to turn inwards with all the power of your local police force, and quite possibly make dissent a crime worthy of prosecution. Protesting may be considered terrorism, for your security (as the mitten-wearing class in Ottawa tells us day after day – limitations to our freedoms and liberties are always being done for our security…)

Forty years ago the military could provide security with binoculars and radios. Today the police has become militarized while the military and the state’s intelligence services are being used for police purposes. We are told constantly that we are not secure, not safe, and that an attack is eminent. We are even told that recent attacks in Ottawa and Saint Jean sur Richelieu were terrorist attacks, though the culprits in both cases had no ties to international terrorism and both were known to have suffered from severe mental illness.

In 1976 government spent no amount of time trying to convince the people we were threatened by terrorism. They spent their time coming up with films like this to show the discrete and sophisticated ways by which they assisted in actually providing high level security to the nation’s gleaming metropolis.

As I mentioned above I find this film infinitely fascinating, at least in part because it seems to be evidence of a far better use of government resources to achieve a superior end result.

And it wasn’t even that long ago either… how far have we let things go since then?