Tag Archives: Canadian History

Montreal at the Crossroads: 1758

A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758
A perspective of Montreal circa. 1758

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a trip back in time.

The year is 1758 and the ‘Seven Years’ War‘ had entered its fourth year in North America. The conflict was the largest international conflagration since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, and involved every ‘great power’ (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire) of the era. It was a contest between two grand coalitions, one led by Great Britain, the other by Bourbon France, and was fought throughout Europe, the Americas, West Africa and even as far afield as the Philippines. By its end, Britain would be the predominant global power, a position it would retain until the mid-20th century. But it would come at a cost for the British: within a decade of the war’s conclusion thirteen British colonies would rebel to form the United States, the nation that would ultimately replace Britain as the predominant world power a little under two centuries later. And even more importantly, some of the more immediate consequences of the Seven Years’ War would contribute to the French Revolution, arguably one of the most important events in human history. This in turn leads to the rise of Napoleon (and coming full circle here, we have Napoleon’s t-shirt. It’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the story behind why we have it is the subject of another article).

As it would happen, a key event in this geopolitical crisis would take place in Montreal. Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, the last Governor General of New France, would surrender the town and all of New France to the British on September 8th, 1760, a little under a year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Though this moment has been characterized as a devastating blow for the nascent community, because the town of Montreal escaped the fate of Quebec City it quickly became the new seat of British military, economic and political power in what would just over a century later become Canada. In so doing, Governor Vaudreuil and the Chevalier de Lévis exercised sound judgement and common sense that not only saved the community, but would further guarantee the long-term survival of the French Canadian people, as the Old World’s ‘rules of war’ would be thoroughly respected: property rights and deeds were upheld; religion, customs, laws, language and culture were all retained and the British guaranteed the right of safe-passage back home for anyone who so desired. The French colonial administrators and military personnel packed-up and sailed back to France, leaving behind them a distinct society over a century in the making.

The map above is entitled ‘Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montreal or Ville Marie in Canada‘ and dates back to January 30th, 1758. It was engraved by Thomas Jefferys, a London cartographer also known as the ‘Geographer to King George III’, and would have been used by the British as they prepared for a potential attack. This is Montreal at the time of the Conquest. Jean-Claude Marsan has indicated that this map was likely based off a previous French example, though in most respects it is an accurate depiction of what Montreal looked like.

At the time Montreal was one of the largest settlements in France’s North American possessions: the population of the town of Montreal in 1760 was roughly 5,000, with perhaps 8,300 in total living on-island (the island’s total population was about the same as Quebec City in 1758, though these population figures would have changed during the course of the conflict, especially after the Siege of Quebec). In all of New France there were but 65,000 inhabitants, this compared to an estimated 1.5 million people living in the English colonies along the Atlantic Coast. France’s loss of its North American possessions to the British is hardly surprising, given this severe population imbalance. In his seminal study of the evolution of Montreal’s urban environment, Marsan points out that the Bourbon monarchs of France spent about as much on their colonial efforts as they did on their recreation at Versailles, and indebted the community of Montreal to pay for its own defences.

In 1758, Montreal was a metropolis by French North American standards, though it wasn’t particularly impressive when compared to British American cities like Boston (with an estimated population of 16,000 in 1742) or Philadelphia (13,000 the same year). Montreal was still chiefly a fortified frontier town, but given its position at the confluence of the Outaouais and Saint Lawrence rivers, not to mention its geographic attributes, was of remarkable strategic importance.

Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)
Model of Montreal around 1760 (not my own work)

At the very end of the Ancien Régime period of Montreal’s early history, the 8,300 or so citizens who lived on-island would have occupied some familiar territory. There would have been several other smaller settlements dotted around the island, including Sault-au-Récollets (at the Back River), Pointe-Claire, Lachine, Senneville (along with its fort) and Pointe-aux-Trembles, as well as the Sulpician Fort, the towers of which remain standing at the top of Fort Street on the grounds of the Grand Seminary. The main settlement where the majority of the population lived would have occupied much of what we today call Old Montreal. The town pictured above would have run west to east from McGill to Saint-Hubert running from the northern wall (along today’s Saint-Antoine) down to the riverfront. There would have been just five roads leading out of the fortified town, each with small clusters of houses lining the streets outside the walls. The roadway heading northwest (and perpendicular to the river) is none other than The Main, Boul. Saint-Laurent, arguably Montreal’s most storied street.

Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672
Montreal street plan by Francois Dollier de Casson, 1672

The two main east-west arteries, Rue Saint-Paul and Rue Notre-Dame, haven’t changed since they were laid out by François Dollier de Casson in 1672, as were the smaller intersecting north-south streets, like Rue Saint-Francis-Xavier, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Jean and Saint-Pierre. The wall that surrounded Montreal in 1758 would have been constructed in 1717 by the famed military engineer Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, and it’s within the confines of these protective walls that Montreal began to grow in earnest.

The 1758 map details the city’s most important buildings, some of which exist to this day. First and foremost is the Sulpician Seminary on Place d’Armes, whose construction dates back to 1687. The seminary’s clock, installed in 1701, as well as its gardens, are the oldest of their kind on the continent. The second oldest extant building pictured here is the central section of the former Grey Nuns’ Hospital, called the Freres Charron General Hospital at the time. This building, located outside the protective walls but south of the Rivière Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.

Place d'Armes - 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.
Place d’Armes – 1828, with the Parish Church and Notre-Dame Basilica standing side-by-side.

Montreal’s other important buildings in 1758 would have included the parish church of Notre-Dame, located in the middle of Place d’Armes and adjacent to the Sulpician Seminary. Notre-Dame Basilica would replace the parish church in 1829, with the church’s bell tower razed upon the completion of the basilica’s bell towers in 1843. Across Rue Saint-Sulpice was the convent of the Congregation Notre-Dame and the Hotel-Dieu, the town’s principal hospital, which they ran. The Hotel-Dieu was established on that site in 1688, and would have burned and been rebuilt three times by 1758.

Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier
Plan of the Chateau Vaudreuil; this would later become Place Jacques-Cartier

Further east (and identified by the letter C) is the Chateau Vaudreuil, also designed by Chaussegros de Léry, which served as Governor General Vaudreuil’s official residence and was destroyed by fire in 1803. Subsequently, the land was bought by local merchants and turned over to the city on the grounds it became a public market. Place Jacques-Cartier has stood on the site ever since. Just north, at the intersection of Rue Notre-Dame, stood the Jesuit Church, Convent and Gardens, with the church located at what is now Place Vauquelin, and Montreal City Hall occupying what was once the Jesuit’s gardens. A little further east and we come across a interesting note: ‘a small chapel burnt down’. The chapel that burned was the very first erected in the colony at the behest of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1655. That chapel burned in 1754, four years before this map was made. The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel that stands on the very same location today dates back to 1771.

Artist's rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 - credit: Omar Bakar
Artist’s rendering of the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel, circa 1680 – credit: Omar Bakar

At the far eastern edge of the town (at the letter E) stood a ‘cavalier’, which is a type of fort built inside a fort and on much higher ground, though as is indicated in the legend, it lacked a parapet. This is where Montreal’s few artillery pieces would have been located: close to the river’s edge and the eastern gate, defending the town’s arsenal and boat yard.

And if you’ve read this far you’re in for a treat: here’s the above map superimposed over a contemporary satellite image. Use the fader in the top-right corner (under link to this page) to transition between the images.

The links between the fortified frontier outpost of 1758 and the modern metropolis of today are at times difficult to discern. We know the city is old because there are parts that look and feel old, but the superficial antique aesthetic is misleading. Much of Old Montreal only dates back to the mid-late 19th century and some of the best-preserved examples of local Ancien Régime architecture are located, in some cases, a fair distance from the original settlement. One of the principle reasons why so little is leftover from the French colonial period is in part due to the numerous fires that swept through and destroyed parts of the town (and some of the more important buildings) throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s ironic that the protective walls that surrounded the town exacerbated the danger of large fires given the increase of population density within its walls. It also didn’t help that timber was the still the preferred construction material well into the mid-late 18th century.

By 1758 the danger of fire was far more threatening than attack by the Iroquois, and so small villages had begun to appear outside the town walls along the established ‘chemins du roy’. These roadways, much like the street grid of Old Montreal, are the most important and enduring elements of Montreal’s first urban planners. Life outside the protective walls would have had some serious benefits, namely a breath of fresh air. As the colonial era town lacked a sewage system, waste of all kinds were simply thrown into the street. Moreover, there was a fair bit of agriculture and all manner of farm animals inside the gates, often free to move about as they pleased. So the urban-suburban rivalry of Montreal is about as old as the city itself. In 1758, about 40% of the island’s population lived outside the walls.

Montreal in 1758 would have been positively medieval; the basic layout of the fortified town mimicked examples in the Southwest of France and on the English borders with Wales and Scotland from roughly four or five centuries earlier. The basic housing design, examples of which have survived in the form of traditional Quebecois architecture, are also medieval in nature, similar examples being found in Normandy. One particular element of the town’s early design was that it had two principle open spaces – one in front of the parish church (today’s Place d’Armes) and another, a market place, closer to the river and with its own gate (today called Place Royale). Here we find another urban design element that has survived to this day: the lower town, closer to the river, is the most densely populated and would have been home to the town’s merchant class. The upper part featured the town’s major religious buildings, all of which featured stately gardens. This layout also recalls that Montreal was initially conceived as a religious mission, and so those buildings occupied the higher ground of the Coteau Saint-Louis. The grade separation of the classes for the most part remains intact; the wealthiest neighbourhoods of modern Montreal are at the base of Mount Royal, the working class neighbourhoods are still ‘down the hill’ and located within proximity of the river.

Some things really never change. Individual buildings dating back to the heroic colonial era may be in short supply, but the impression of the village illustrated above is our most enduring link to Europe. You can still see the Montreal of 1758, you just have to know where – and where not – to look. Or perhaps ‘how not to look’ as it’s more often than not the spaces between the buildings, the roads and squares, that provide the greatest wealth of clues to the town that once was. This is where we discover that the roots of Old Montreal in Old Europe, and an urban aesthetic which reaches back nearly a millennium.

Montreal: a modern medieval city…


Author’s note: thanks to Alan Hustak for some corrections. First, technically Montreal never surrendered, but rather capitulated what with the overwhelming odds stacked against the town and its people in 1760. Doing so allowed the terms of surrender to be negotiated and as such facilitated Montreal’s successful, peaceful transition from one empire to another. In addition, Montreal was not the largest settlement in New France at the time, as I incorrectly stated in this article’s first draft. The population of Quebec City would have been roughly 9,000, and Trois-Rivières at about 8,000, with Montreal’s town population at 5,000 and the island’s population at roughly 8,300. These figures would have been precise up to around the time of the Seven Years’ War, though likely changed after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Siege of Quebec.

Kyoto, not Kippahs

Before anything else, something funny.

Rick Mercer, as per usual, nails it. The Parti Québécois is completely delusional.

I’m not completely sold on the divorce analogy, unless Confederation is a kind of political polygamy. Ours is not a nation of two solitudes. At least not anymore.

I think the proof lies in the fact that Canada is very much aware of the Québec provincial election, the key issues, the leaders etc. It’s in the papers, on the airwaves and on the nightly news.

I would argue Canada pays more attention to a Québec provincial election more than any other province, something which strikes me as odd given another referendum is unrealistic at this time and the economic and social direction of provinces like Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are arguably far more significant on a national scale.

As long as the delusion that ‘sovereignty solves everything’ is maintained Québec cannot expect to develop in any meaningful way. We will continue treading water, expending energy and resources without going anywhere.

This is not the time for more consultations, more studies, more constitutional debates. We need action. Steps must be taken to ensure we reduce CO2 emissions and protect our environment.

We need a provincial government that is going to prioritize Kyoto, not Kippahs.

Steps must be taken to address government waste. We are the highest taxed Canadians, and yet our debt and deficit continue to grow. Austerity isn’t helping because we haven’t addressed the root cause of our inefficiencies, and cuts to social services like education and healthcare are both unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful. The imbalance between high taxation and a low return on services and ballooning costs all point to a fundamentally mismanaged state.

There are only two concerns for any government these days – the environment and the economy.

Unless we take immediate steps to address and correct environmental degradation and economic inequity at every level of government there is no hope for any of us.

Think about how Mercer opens his rant – he talks about complacence.

Civilizations fall, and when they do, the whole Earth shakes.

A NASA-funded study has made the point as clear as day – unless political action is taken the world-over to address the key environmental and economic problems of our time we’re condemning our species to extinction.

The environment and the economy is all our provincial election should be about. Successful programs to cut carbon emissions and develop well-functioning social-safety nets are already the norm in some Scandinavian nations, and if there truly is a sovereign way of thinking in our province then we ought to be free of the bondage of nationalism, so that we can address the crucial issues that effect all of humanity.

Cutting our carbon emissions to Kyoto standards (or better) and ensuring a more egalitarian distribution of wealth in our province has the potential to be copied and improved upon by other provinces. If Québec chooses to lead, the other provinces will follow – this is a fundamental truth about Canadian political evolution.

Québec leads.

Which is why I’m so fundamentally disappointed in our current election. There is a palpable poverty of politics in our province. We pollute our political discourse with hate and fear and become so emotionally exhausted we have no time or patience to pursue vital social interests.

It’s terrifying really. How much longer do we really have to continue beating this dead horse?

For all the PQ’s talk of the ‘future of Québec’ it seems they are ignorant of the potential future of the world.

The people know what the real issues are, but are blinded by the manufactured existential crisis of sovereignty. It prevents union, it conjures up unnecessary divisions. It holds us back – all of us, regardless of race, religion or language.

It delegitimizes us and as long as it remains the focal point of our provincial elections will only continue to delegitimize us.

We have all the potential to effect positive change Canada wide.

But in order to do so we must first recognize that those who play upon societal divisions for political gain have no one’s interest at heart but their own.

So who will be the first to enter into the political discourse, the Parti Québécois is fundamentally illegitimate.


Coming haphazardly to a neighbourhood near you!
Coming haphazardly to a neighbourhood near you!

This article was originally published by Forget the Box and can be read here.

There’s really no other way to put it; Canada Post is being sabotaged. It’s politically expedient for the Tories to do so as recently announced cutbacks to door-to-door mail delivery can be spun as a government effort to modernize an ineffective old crown corporation. Lisa Raitt, the minister responsible for Canada Post, has even gone as far as telling opposition MPs critical of the announced cuts that they need to ‘get with reality’ and then sarcastically welcomed honourable members ‘to the 21st century’.

The Tories are pitching this as a sensible method to cut costs and return Canada Post to profitability. They further argue that the elimination of mail carriers won’t have any dire effects on Canada Post’s customer service and that community mailboxes are already the norm in most of the country anyways. Further still, the head of Canada Post, a Tory appointee who scrapped previous revenue-generating schemes developed by his Liberal-appointed predecessor, has referred to market research of dubious quality to back up the decision.

It’s ironic.

The social-media surveys used to justify the government’s position excluded precisely the people who would interact with mail couriers the most. The data’s flawed – Canada Post’s express parcel delivery service is doing just fine. Moreover, the argument that community mailboxes are already the norm is heavily biased towards those living in small communities and rural areas. Of course door-to-door delivery isn’t practical when neighbours live more than a kilometre away from one another. Cities are a different story altogether. Mail couriers play an important social role in large urban areas. It’s not just outreach to seniors and shut-ins; home mail delivery puts a mass of proud government employees on our city streets throughout the day. Eyes and ears walking past your home while you’re off at work. Call it a kind of social security.

We should question the need of our government agencies and corporations from time to time, and the Conservative argument is an enticing one, no doubt, because it has the appearance of modernity, of cost-effective progress. I would argue it’s the Tory approach to nation-building, but rather than giving us something to work towards, the Harper administration is instead telling us what we no longer need or what appears to be impractical. The promise is paradoxical – economic growth by a thousand social cuts.

But here’s the problem. Cuts don’t lead to growth. Reducing government services serves no one better than before. And waste is almost exclusively gathered at the top, rather than the bottom, of these organizations. It’s not the thousands of unionized jobs that need to be eliminated, it’s corporate-level severance packages and executive compensation schemes for the all-too-often unimaginative and incompetent people chosen by equally unimaginative and incompetent government officials to run our government revenue generators and essential services.

The post office is an essential service, even if less mail is being delivered. If less mail is being delivered then perhaps we don’t need quite as many mail couriers, or perhaps they could work less, but eliminating all home mail delivery (and thousands of jobs) without any plan in place to replace them is so unbelievably careless and unnecessary it leads to believe, sincerely, that we are witnessing an act of sabotage.

Canada Post isn’t failing, it’s being set up to fail.

The purported reason for the cuts, that the post office it needs to be ‘returned’ to profitability is a bit of a stretch. It recorded 16 years of profitability before recording one of loss in 2011. The service could afford to cut overhead costs, but could further stand to develop new revenue generation streams. Again, it’s ironic that Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra once stated that his plan was to develop e-commerce solutions for small business as a new Canada Post business venture, yet scrapped a plan to re-develop postal banking in Canada. Many nations (including the UK, France, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, Korea etc.) have postal banking services which can serve to generate revenue for the postal system, in addition to providing a kind of ‘no-frills’ banking service for people who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t use private banking services. Crucially, postal banking has been used to promote savings among the poor. Instituting a postal banking scheme in this country would be immensely beneficial not only because it would enshrine access to ‘cheap’ banking as an essential service, but would likely further serve to put predatory pay-day loan operations out of business. Who knows, maybe it would serve to get the banks to lower their fees too. A little bit of competition is good for the economy, especially our banking sector.

There are other ways to make the post office more useful to the public and avert the potentially destabilizing effects of eliminating home delivery in urban areas. Why not partner with Service Canada to include passport services at post offices? Why not develop a scheme to share the costs of home delivery with the cities that need the service the most? If one province wants home delivery in its cities and another doesn’t, shouldn’t they each get a chance to negotiate with Canada Post one-on-one?

Unfortunately this isn’t part of the Tory strategy because it’s not congruent with their overall political beliefs. The Conservative Part of Canada and its forebears have followed a strict program designed to eliminate or transfer responsibility of the nation’s essential services, whether via a series of fatal cuts or through privatization. In their opinion government is completely incapable of running a for-profit company and that such crown corporations only serve to undermine the government’s efforts to eliminate debt and deficit. Thus, since the first efforts in this respect by the Mulroney administration, we’ve lost our national airline, our state oil company, our national aircraft manufacturers, our national railway, our uranium mines and have hacked away mercilessly at just about every other service provided by the federal government – including our military, despite all the rhetoric. In almost all cases taxpayer-funded state assets were sold off at a loss with no real return on investment. Worse still, we lost all the intellectual capital that went with it.

Today many of these former crowns continue to exist as private entities, but their current success would never have come about if it weren’t for the incredible investment made by so many Liberal governments of the last century. Though these firms continue to contribute to the Canadian economy, profits aren’t returned to the state. We’ve sold off the former assets of our state oil firm to foreign state oil firms, Canadian National Railways is now officially known as CN for marketing purposes in the United States and Air Canada has a near total monopoly on air travel in Canada. Privatization is always spun as being beneficial to the taxpayer, but winds up hitting the consumer especially hard. It astounds me how often Tories don’t realize taxpayers and consumers are all the same people.

Gutting the state’s ability to sustain essential services and operate an economic foundation of crown corporations has been Tory policy for a very long time, and it contrasts strongly with the economic theories and models put forth by both the NDP and federal Liberals for most of our post-Second World War history. The effects of this policy have only ever been negative. Vital jobs are lost, and the wealth generated by unionized pension plans disappears entirely as it’s not in the private sector’s interest (or ability) to provide anything as competitive in the long-term. Our oil industry isn’t as well regulated, accidents happen and profits go anywhere but here.

In many ways the greatest damage has already been done.

Perhaps this might explain the lack of public outrage at the proposed cuts. We’ve already lost so much of what we invested in, who cares about the post office? We’ve been conditioned into believing the government is incapable of successfully running a business, and yet our economy was considerably stronger, our dollar more valuable and we were far more politically sovereign when our government not only ran multiple, massive crown corporations, but planned and regulated the national economy.

On a closing note, I mentioned earlier that Canada Post provides an unintended social service in that letter carriers provide a kind of a ‘lifeline’ to people living in urban areas who may, for one reason or another, have limited access to the outside world. Letter carriers are responsible government employees with access to trucks and cell phones and they spend most of their time walking around quiet residential areas while residents are off at work. Their presence alone is enough to deter a thief from committing a ‘B&E’. If someone’s calling for help they’ll likely hear it. If they see smoke, they can put in an emergency call and prevent a whole house (or block) from going up in flames. And though the data isn’t available, I wonder how many lost dogs and cats (and even children) have been found by postal workers simply because they happen to be walking the streets of our neighbourhoods. It’s the kind of responsibility, of going the extra mile, that we associate with government employees. The private sector doesn’t have the same social responsibility. Consider the Lac Mégantic disaster (or any other recent derailment or pipeline explosion). There’s a reason this didn’t happen nearly as often (or as severely) back when pipelines and the railway was a strategic federal government interest. The Fed paid for inspections, the Fed organized and operated a better delivery system. Its employees were paid to make absolutely sure there would be no fuck-ups and we got precisely what we paid for. When privatized, the first cuts are always to safety standards and inspections. And when an accident happens, it is the taxpayers who must attend to the bill.

It’s not fair, it’s not right, and the Tories would like you to believe it helps the economy. The announced cuts to Canada Post are unnecessary and overkill considering the nature of the problem and are quite simply a transparent effort to eliminate public sector unions in a misguided sense of ‘getting even’ with people who generally don’t vote Tory. It’s sad, petty and juvenile, and for those reasons an excellent example of the character of our nation’s befuddled government.

You get what you pay for…

Which Catherine is Ste-Catherine Street Named After?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** Update ***

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

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

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

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

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

*** Update II ***

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

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

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

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

My Country Isn’t An Accident

I wrote this a couple weeks ago for Forget the Box, an excellent local blog you should definitely check out.

I was asked to write a piece on the significance of Pauline Marois’ decision to remove the Canadian flag from her cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony. I see no significance in the decision, other than something I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in this province for all the many years I’ve lived here, for all the epochs and eras of our collective history I’ve studied.

What significance? It’s posturing. It’s theatre. It’s about as much as the péquistes can do at the moment to distance themselves from Canada. That may be significant in itself, but I can’t help but feel it’s little more than noise.

We forget that this was not a permanent move (apparently the flag was returned the next day), it’s been done before by other péquiste governments in the past, and they still had to swear allegiance to the Queen with hand set upon the Bible.

It’s these last two that struck me as odd, as somewhat scandal-worthy.

Haven’t we evolved past this? What was 1982 all about if the apparently secular and sovereign Premier of Québec still has to swear allegiance to an old woman in a foreign country, by placing her hand on an at best incomplete and heavily politicized book of history and moral judgments mixed in with outright nonsense?

I’m a federalist to the core and I wouldn’t do either. But I wouldn’t do either because I’m a federalist to the core. The Constitution and Charter of Canada and the political theory that led to their creation grant me greater freedoms than any other political theory developed in this country’s history, and the fault of those other theories lay chiefly in their incompatibility with the profoundly Canadian values of restraint, complexity and individual sovereignty.

A federalist has no need for a foreign monarch, let alone one for whom allegiance must be sworn. I have nothing in common with royalty, and as a Canadian I have the individual sovereignty necessary to reject allegiance to anyone, especially foreign monarchs. Why? Because Canada is a collection of sovereign individuals entered into a social contract that seeks to support and sustain our collective sovereignty. That’s what 1982 was all about…

Moreover, my Charter Rights protect my right to exist in a default secular society, where government is the great equalizer because it refrains from any particular religious orientation. I refuse to acknowledge any deity as proof of my ability to govern and conduct myself appropriately. This ability lies within me. Official state secularism is the only way to go. Québec was once leading the pack in this respect, but in this neo-evangelical era of ours, we too have fallen victim of tying culture too closely to an absurd notion of ‘oppressed Christianity’. In a superhuman effort of logical gymnastics, the new saviour of Québec’s culture endeavours to create a secular state not by promoting the advantages of atheism, but once again by lashing out at minority groups in such a manner so as to prevent better societal integration. How many orthodox Jews or Muslims do you see working at the SAQ, SAAQ or the Revenue Québec office? Do you think they’ll feel more or less welcome to apply for such jobs when an ‘officially secular’ province decides a yarmulke or hijab is an affront to our collective values?

But an illuminated Roman-era torture device atop a mountain in our country’s second-to-none city that can be programmed to flash bleu, blanc et rouge during the playoffs? Well – that’s just a part of our heritage…

The symbols of the most oppressive and destructive forces in our province, nation and country’s history – British Imperialism and the Catholic Church – are the very emblems that Pauline Marois still feels obliged to supplicate herself before. They are, apparently, those with which we cannot do without.

I can do without them, and so can you.

Let’s not forget who else in Canada has been pushing an antiquated and historically inaccurate vision of our collective heritage. The Tories have been taking down great oeuvres of Canadian folk art and replacing them with photographs of the Queen throughout our federal buildings for some time. We close down embassies and consulates in places where they’re needed most, but re-decorate those in the upscale neighbourhoods of our richest allies with the symbols of an empire that no longer exists in any tangible sense. We adorn our foreign service with the symbols of something we’re not; as if to prove our legitimacy by resurrecting the notion we’re an extension of Old Europe. And recent news is out that Canada and the United Kingdom will have joint embassies, ostensibly to save money. Are we soon to share a common military and foreign policy? This is federal sovereignty? Moreover, Stephen Harper hasn’t delivered on a single major military acquisition promised during various election campaigns, but he made damn sure to resurrect the royal prefix of our armed services! And while we continue scratching our heads over the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Libyan Mission, Harper and his crew of Bay Street marketing gurus shamelessly over-embellish the significance of the War of 1812 in a thoroughly misguided effort to establish Canada’s ‘warrior-society’ street cred.

Its all so manipulative and cynical, inappropriately Republican-esque, an awful homage to the most profane depths of American populist politics. Marois and Harper, unlikely peas in a pod, both taking lessons from the Tea Party in an albeit slightly more nuanced fashion. Both pushers of a twisted and delusional pop-nationalism where societal sovereignty is tied to imported notions of legitimacy. How pathetically unpatriotic.

I refuse to believe, for even a fraction of a second, that my country is an accident. That our society and culture are mere imports of something broken from beyond. That we must supplicate ourselves before foreign and antiquated means of social and economic control that appeal to our basest instincts as a society. We forget that monarchy and religion are intimately associated, that nobility is demagoguery, and that though both played a role in our creation, we also decided to reject them. Our rejection of that which created us, in favour of homegrown solutions, marked the first step in our evolution.

We are a Métis society. We are the integration of the Americas, Imperial Europe and the shared socio-democratic value that is openness to immigration that has characterized the nation since its inception. Our country has Founding Fathers, and many of their ideas, their values, form the backbone of Canadian social-liberalism today. Our nation has been evolving for one hundred forty-five years, and neither Pauline Marois nor Stephen Harper wishes to acknowledge it. They both fear the socio-political identity that developed out of the ashes of the Rebellions of 1837 and led quite directly to Confederation, and then for another hundred thirty-five or so years after that. They turn their back on our own symbols of strength through unity for the preference of symbols of dominion-from-afar and spiritual bondage.

It seems as though the evolution of my people, my nation, has been on hiatus ever since Stephen Harper took office. He, much like Pauline Marois, is blind to the truth that is Canada, to the greatness we could achieve as a more unified nation. Each wants to further decentralize and marginalize the legacy of Canadian federalism, and each are going about it in their own way. Harper hacks away at the budgets and scope of the census, scientific and ecological research and the national archives, while Marois proceeds to govern by decree without any debate. Neither care much for Canadian democracy, they view it as an inconvenience to accomplishing their own myopic goals.

And we let them get away with it, because we falsely believe we are nothing but an accident.

What is a Nation Without Goals?

Maybe it’s me, but he’s always struck me as a somewhat lethargic individual…

This article was originally posted to the blog of the Association for Canadian Studies, and can be accessed back there where you see the hyperlink.


When will Canada build a bullet-train network?

Will the first sesquicentenarian be Canadian?

Will Canada solve global warming?

Will Canada prevent the next genocide?

Isn’t Canada a more suitable nation to host the UN General Assembly than the United States?

When will Canada develop its own independent space launch capability?

When will we finally fully ratify the Constitution?

And when will we finally get down to business and enter into negotiations for the acquisition (or voluntary integration) of the Turks & Caicos?

None of these have to be national goals, there just examples of things we’ve pondered, issues we’re concerned about and various initiatives that we’re once considered but in which there’s been no follow through. We’re remarkably good at dreaming, but of late haven’t been great at creating. One without the other is rather pointless isn’t it? But really, would it kill us to start thinking, sincerely, about who we’re going to be and we’ll be doing twenty, forty, sixty years from now?

We have no goals, and I sincerely feel this may be our ultimate undoing. A nation without any definable goals is a listless one, and this is inherently unstable.

To say we have no goals doesn’t mean we haven’t been working – all of us, as individuals, have certainly been diligently performing our duties. Our economy is strong, our resource sector is booming, as is the value of our dollar. Canadian banks and corporations are doing well despite myriad potential threats to their stability. All in all, though there is a high level of popular discontent amongst certain key demographics (namely youth, creative & intellectual capitalists and primary cultural minorities), the vast majority of Canadians are still relatively content and appropriately compensated. None of us are overwhelmingly rich, and, for the moment, too few of us are sufficiently poor so as to effect broad societal change.

That being the case, why not utilize the general social stability to further stabilize the economy of the future? Why not secure a booming resource-based economy with a new foundation of major infrastructure projects to further unite the nation? Why not capitalize on security by thinking big and implementing long-term nation-building projects?

It’s what we’ve done historically, and we know that it works.

From the construction of the Canadian Pacific in 1885 to the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, Canada has always been a nation of great national projects. The Canadarm, the Arrow, Alouette I, Medicare, Peacekeeping, the Charter – we have done so many great things it’s ridiculous to try and list them in a single blog post – the point is ultimately that national aspirations are a worthwhile endeavour, as it gives all of us, in no uncertain terms, something which we know we all can work towards, regardless of whatever function we happen to have. It’s the dream which pulls you out from your specific task and insists that you are actively contributing to a project greater than every individual, simply by going above and beyond every day. in order to produce a hyper effective, efficient workforce, we need dreams with just this much reach.

Without a driving force, we’ll invariably wind up circling the drain. Nothing exists uniquely in stasis – we must have social propulsion, drive, movement.

Today there is discontent in Canada – it’s palpable. Yet we also have security and, perhaps for the first time, real immediate wealth. We can’t afford to squander it. Let us find balance between these poles and seek to define what we want for the future and how we can better utilize our relative current riches into multi-generational, self-perpetuating wealth. We need to craft a wish-list to determine exactly what kind of future nation we want, now. And if we can go a step further, and identify key investments we wish to characterize as having a particular Canadian accent, then we can position ourselves to be, conceptually, the nation at the state of its respective arts. Whether it’s the best transportation network, the highest quality of life, the finest schools or global leadership in terms of eradicating poverty, disease, war or exploring outer space, whatever we choose as our national dreams, let it ultimately reflect who we wish to become.

The single greatest tool for economic stability and real growth is a society committed to achieving national goals for the greater good. As long as there’s a national dream that is driven by the wants and needs of the people themselves, and the people understand that these goals go to benefit the whole inasmuch as the individual, they’ll work harder, work better and save to live peacefully in the future ideal they wish to create.

And the best thing about living in the 21st century? Not only is this doable, but we have the communications technologies and media techniques to keep everyone focused on whatever goals we come up with. Heck, we could turn it into a very real, very addictive, game. Hard work can be infectiously enjoyable.