Tag Archives: Landmarks of Montreal

Abandoning the Maison Radio-Canada is as unwise as it is unethical

Maison Radio-Canada, shortly after completion in 1973
Maison Radio-Canada, shortly after completion in 1973

So once upon a time there was a large, densely populated working class neighbourhood just east of Old Montreal informally called the ‘Faubourg à m’lasse’.

The estimate is that in the early 1960s roughly 5,000 people lived there occupying 678 residences, and the neighbourhood would have included about two dozen factories and other industrial operations, not to mention a dozen or so restaurants and grocery stores and all the other services one would expect to find in a typical urban neighbourhood.

It’s highly likely some of those residents would have lived and worked much of their lives within the confines of the district, bounded by René-Lévesque, Wolfe, Papineau and Viger. I doubt it would have been very nice living in this area at the time: there were no green spaces to speak of, the housing likely wouldn’t have been terribly modern and, being as it was located immediately adjacent to the largest inland port in all of North America, it would have been noisy and at times smelly too. The apocryphal history of the area’s informal name indicates that there would have been a strong sent of molasses that permeated much of the neighbourhood, though this may have been confused with the sickly-sweet aroma of yeast used at the nearby Molson brewery. Either way, what was originally called the Faubourg Quebec was first home to the city’s French-Canadian bourgeoisie, though this began to change in the latter decades of the 19th century. Much in the same way that that the Anglophone middle class moved northwesterly from the Shaughnessy Village towards NDG and the West End, over the same period of time the Francophone middle class moved northeasterly out of the Faubourg Quebec, with new waves of urban working class occupying their old neighbourhoods.

The Faubourg à m'lasse, razed. Circa. 1964
The Faubourg à m’lasse, razed. Circa. 1964

By the mid-1950s the neighbourhood had been targeted for ‘revitalization’ by the Dozois Report which aimed to eliminate a wide-variety of urban social ills via expropriation and demolition. Large chunks of the city’s urban environment were to be obliterated entirely so as to ‘clean the slate’ and offer new tracts of land on which to build ostensibly more useful structures. It was reasoned evicting the working classes from their urban neighbourhoods was simply a continuance of established patterns in population movement; the new middle class of the 1950s were moving to outlying suburbs of detached single family homes, and so it was assumed their former urban neighbourhoods would receive those displaced by the evictions. Further, the grander scheme was to make land available for new high-density urban housing (partly realized with Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance), government offices (Hydro-Quebec) and an urban public university (UQAM), all of which was justified in the name of progress and sensible land use and leaves us with a tricky legacy. Thousands of poor people were strong-armed out of their neighbourhoods, the city-centre was radically depopulated and entire communities ceased to exist, but in some cases very useful things wound up occupying those spaces (UQAM and Place des Arts come immediately to mind).

The Dozois Plan not only recommended slum-clearance, but also land-use rationalization and the development of concentrations of activities (commercial sectors, housing sectors, institutional sectors etc.); part of this plan included the idea of a ‘media sector’ where the city’s major broadcasters would concentrate their operations. Jean Drapeau was particularly keen on the idea and proposed the Cité-des-Ondes, a large purpose-built broadcasting centre that would have combined all of Radio-Canada and the CBC’s Montreal operations, in addition to serving as the new corporate headquarters of the national broadcaster.

Two languages, two networks, under one roof.

As it happened, the SRC/CBC was looking to do the same; they had an internal team of architects and planners working on the project at roughly the same time.

Drapeau favoured a location close to the new central business district rising around Gare Central and Windsor Station, but it was during the brief interregnum of Mayor Sarto Fournier that an alternative location further east was decided upon to become the new home of the national broadcaster in Montreal.

Unfortunately, Fournier’s plan called for the expropriation and demolition of the Faubourg à m’lasse in its entirety. At the time I suppose they thought this was progress, though perhaps today we know a little better. From the detailed photographic archives available, it’s clear that though the area may have been poor, it’s hard to believe it was a slum beyond repair and rehabilitation. The ‘slum clearance’ was completed in 1963, with construction of the Maison Radio-Canada taking a decade to complete.

Maison Radio-Canada ca. 1973

It is for precisely this reason I believe both the national broadcaster and the current heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, have an ethical responsibility not only to maintain ownership of the Maison Radio-Canada building, but further to develop the vast parking lots into affordable urban housing.

And wouldn’t you believe it? A plan to do just that was developed a decade ago.

Right now the argument is that there’s a surplus of available space and the building is essentially beyond repair or renovation. The SRC is currently exploring their options, which include: selling the building but continuing to lease space in it, selling it and building a new facility on the same site, selling it and building a new facility elsewhere in the city, or doing the latter but leasing space in an existing building. You’ll notice the common thread and that they’re being quite thorough in considering their options. According to Radio-Canada executive vice-president Louis Lalande, ‘the national broadcaster shouldn’t be in the real-estate business.’

Perhaps… but I’m not convinced building something new or leasing space will ultimately be that cost-effective. The national broadcaster has had its budget slashed repeatedly for years; had this not been the case it’s reasonable to suspect there might not be a $170 million renovation deficit nor the surplus of space. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a building that was built to last with broadcasting in mind and further to serve as a major pole of attraction for the city’s media industry (and on that note, job well done).

In any event, the thought had occurred to me that if the Maison Radio-Canada has a surplus of space, why not go back to the original plan and concentrate the whole SRC/CBC operation in Montreal?

In my eyes this would be the most sensible solution, not to mention potentially the most rewarding. For one, we’d end the senseless linguistic segregation of the national broadcaster. Two, Canadian media would subsequently be less Toronto-centric. Three, the CBC could sell its broadcast centre in Toronto and corporate office in Ottawa, which if I had to guess are both sitting on land far more valuable than the Maison Radio-Canada. Montreal’s cost of living is lower than Toronto’s, which would be a boon to the broadcaster’s employees, and Montreal further benefits from some of the nation’s premier journalism, communications and media production programs.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

I reached out to Radio-Canada with a variety of questions and got a reply from the SRC’s PR director, Marc Pichette.

According to him, combining the CBC and SRC under one roof at the Maison Radio-Canada has “never been an option.”

The rest of the email exchange was disappointing and at times seemed contradictory. I asked if the SRC felt it had a responsibility to the public to maintain the site for public use, and the response was that “…in 2009, following an extensive public consultation, CBC/Radio-Canada signed an agreement with the City of Montréal for the development of the site currently occupied by (the Maison Radio-Canada). This agreement, which lays out the City’s expectation for social and community housing, green spaces and public transit (to name but a few), is still in effect today.”

But in response to a question concerning an old plan to develop mixed-use housing on the site, and whether this was still on the books, Pichette replied that “…this option has been considered in the past. However, the property can hardly be developed without approval of a master development plan for the entire site.”

Okay…

So what’s this then?

Daoust Lestage proposal for MRC, photo-montage ca. 2006
Daoust Lestage proposal for MRC, photo-montage ca. 2006

It seems as though the SRC did come up with a plan to revitalize the Maison Radio-Canada and the parking lots around it about a decade ago. This plan called for the development of the parking lots into mixed-use housing and selling off the tower (for conversion into condominiums) while retaining the base of the structure with all its recently renovated and culturally significant studios.

As François Cardinal writes in this impassioned ‘open letter to Mélanie Joly’, the plan developed by architects Daoust Lestage (and pictured above) would have accomplished several goals, namely: integrate the structure into the surrounding residential area, build new housing on the parking lots, keep the SRC in the same spot and do all this while also selling the surplus tower.

The sale of the tower would in turn pay for the construction of a new office space better integrated into its surroundings and in accordance with their now smaller space requirements.

As Cardinal notes in his La Presse report, the Daoust Lestage proposal would have led to the creation of a large new urban neighbourhood and would have become the ‘eastern door’ to Montreal’s central business district.

It should be noted that the Daoust Lestage plan dates from 2006; the entire Faubourg Quebec has seen nothing but growth since then. Consider the new CHUM superhospital, the successful rehabilitation of the Gare Viger or the reclamation of former port lands for new medium density residential housing. The Daoust Lestage plan for the Maison Radio-Canada could add housing for thousands more in a part of town that has suffered from depopulation for far too long (see their presentation here).

And yet, despite this, the SRC is sticking to its guns. Pichette replied to Cardinals’ open letter by indicating that years of budget cuts, the 2008-09 economic collapse and the digitization of media has contributed to the SRC reviewing their space requirements and that the Daoust Lestage plan was far, far larger than what they currently need.

And that’s unfortunately quite myopic. From Pichette’s reply to Cardinal (and myself), it would seem that the Société Radio-Canada is more concerned with the per annum bottom line than any bold plan to make good use of its real-estate assets, or what future space requirements might look like if the Fed were to invest some serious coin and bring the national broadcaster back to the ‘glory days’ of the 1960s and 1970s.

Which is what brings this all back to Mélanie Joly. Her predecessors under the Harper administration were always quick to mention the national broadcaster was an ‘arms-length crown corporation’ and therefore not the responsibility of the ministry. There’s hope the Trudeauites may actually take some responsibility for their ministerial portfolios. As heritage minister, Joly is directly responsible for Canadian heritage, media, arts and culture.

And the Maison Radio-Canada is an indelible part of all those things.

There are other options than simply walking away from a purpose-built broadcasting centre and abandoning it to the free-market, and the SRC has already spent millions of taxpayers dollars coming up with a sensible plan to breathe new life into an ascendant sector of the city. Joly should consider that option at the very least.

Walking away from the Maison Radio-Canada is thoroughly unethical given 5,000 people lost their community in order to see it built, and it doesn’t matter that the obliteration of the Faubourg à m’lasse happened more than fifty years ago. As far as I’m concerned, if land is expropriated for public purposes, then it should remain in the public’s hands.

Nothing succeeds like excess

The City of Montreal has announced plans to renovate the northernmost section of Dorchester Square at an estimated cost of $4.2 million. A $700,000 contract was awarded to noted local landscape architect Claude Cormier to prepare the design and tender specifications.

The section of Dorchester Square to be renovated runs between Peel and Metcalfe from the south entrance to the Dominion Square Building to the ‘camilienne‘ (also known as a vespasienne, it’s the small stone octagonal building with a café in it, identical to the similarly-purposed building in Carré Saint-Louis) and would include extending the green ‘footprint’ of the city square by reducing the number of lanes on the street that runs between the square and the building. Additionally, land around the entrance and exit to the underground parking lot would be reclaimed, somewhat, and pedestrian bridges are to be built over them.

As Andy Riga puts it in the Gazette “Under the current layout, pedestrians must contend with cars entering and leaving an underground parking garage adjacent to the square.”

Contend seems like an odd choice of words to me, as it gives the impression of a taxing struggle. We’re talking about cars slowly moving in to and out of a parking garage in a space that naturally attracts large numbers of pedestrians and has a posted speed limit of 10 km per hour. I no more have to ‘contend’ with the difficulties of navigating vehicular traffic here than any other intersection in the city, but I digress.

Perspective from Dominion Square Building looking 'Montreal South'
Perspective from Dominion Square Building looking ‘Montreal South’

What slays me is the bridges over the parking garage access ramps; talk about an over-engineered solution to a non-existent problem.

I can’t recall any serious incident involving a pedestrian struck by a car or a bus on either the side-street or the garage ramps, such that it requires physically segregating one from the other. That said, it might be neat to have a vantage point on the square from several feet above the ground.

But the cost… $4.2 million is a lot of money to be spending on parks beautification in an uncertain economy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like that the city is spending money on our parks and public spaces, I just wonder if we’re really going about this in the most efficient way possible. It seems that all too often the city waits for major renovations and redesigns when better year-to-year maintenance would make that unnecessary.

For your consideration: the Mordecai Richler Memorial Gazebo, Viger Square, Cabot Square up until about half a year ago…

The other thing to consider is that, as far as Dorchester Square/ Place du Canada is concerned, this would be the third phase of a project that stretches back about seven years and has so far cost $15.4 million. The third phase would increase the total to just under $20 million, assuming the new project’s current estimate is accurate.

It’s worth noting that the plan is to have the renovation completed by August of 2017, after one year of work.

I can imagine at least part of the $4.2 million project cost is related to this unusually rapid turn-around time. The first phase of Dorchester Square’s renovation, completed after about two years of work in 2010, cost $5.4 million and the southern section, Place du Canada, opened in November of last year after being worked on for about the same amount of time, at a cost of $10 million.

Consider that we’re spending $4.2 million to renovate a section of park roughly one-third the size of the space renovated six years ago at a cost of $5.4 million.

In other words, we’re spending a lot more per square meter to renovate a much smaller space.

So perhaps we need to reconsider the expensive novelties – like the pedestrian bridges and the half-fountain.

Bird's eye rendering of new Dorchester Square; note the pedestrian bridges
Bird’s eye rendering of new Dorchester Square; note the pedestrian bridges

The Future of Institutional Space in the Mountain Domain

Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal - circa 1895
Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal – circa 1895

An important public forum will take place at the Maison Smith up on Mount Royal Thursday night beginning at 18h00 and dealing with the future of the soon to be vacated hospitals within the ‘Mountain Domain’.

The forum will be presented by Les Amis de la Montagne and will feature three presentations, one on the mountain itself, another on the Plateau Mont Royal’s plan for the Hotel Dieu and another concerning McGill’s plans for the Royal Victoria Hospital. Presenters will include municipal councillor Alex Norris, McGill University external relations VP Olivier Marcil and Marie-Odile Trépanier, urbanism professor from the Université de Montréal.

I’ll write more on the specifics later, but for the time being it seems like the Royal Victoria Hospital will be annexed by McGill University.

Not the worst idea in the world. McGill apparently needs the space and annexing the Vic makes a lot of sense given that the university has grown up all around it, not to mention that the hospital is part of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

In other words – this was expected.

The hospital was a gift from two prominent figures in our city’s history, the cousins Donald Smith and George Stephen (later the Lords Strathcona and Mount Stephen). They were the men principally responsible for the creation of the nation’s first transcontinental rail line, but it is the Royal Victoria which is arguably the greater legacy. For as central and important as rail has been in our city’s economic development, I don’t believe it equals the global significance of the medical innovations that have come from this institution, nor the building’s role as a local ‘lieux de mémoire’ for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Montreal moms.

Though the deed to the land initially stated the land be used in perpetuity in the service of the public as a medical institution, the remaining heirs have relinquished this requirement. Instead, they have simply requested that the soon-to-be former hospital be used to serve the public interest.

Enter McGill University. If the choice is between handing these buildings over to the university or developing the land into luxury condominiums I’d be the first to rig up and hoist the Martlet flag from the turrets of this masterpiece of late-Victorian Scottish Baronial institutional architecture.

That said, I’m concerned McGill will use this space for dormitories and not classrooms.

I’m also concerned the new MUHC Glen Yards campus will not be able to fully replace all the hospital beds it currently operates. The MUHC has acknowledged the new superhospital will indeed provide fewer beds than currently available in the extant hospital system.

So, with this in mind, is it really wise to eliminate all hospital operations from the Vic?

Is it not possible to keep at least one pavilion open for public medical purposes while handing over the rest to the university?

The hospital has a particularly strong link with the women of our city, principally owing to the strength of their maternity ward. Why not keep the main pavilion operating as a maternity and women’s hospital? It’ll ensure more beds are available and permit at least part of the building to retain its original function.

As to the Hotel Dieu, I’ve heard murmurings that at least one proposal would seek to have the rather expansive facility converted for the purposes of becoming an old age home.

This isn’t an altogether bad idea either given our aging population and the shrinking retirement assets of the working and middle classes. Private elder care is outrageously expensive and public facilities leave a lot to be desired as is, so converting a hospital into a massive retirement home seems opportune. It’ll certainly cost less than building a new structure and you can make the argument that, as far as institutional buildings are concerned, it’s well suited and well situated for the purpose.

But what of the old Shriner’s hospital, or the Montreal General? What of Hopital Notre Dame facing Parc Lafontaine, or the Thoracic Institute, or the Children’s?

Not all of these facilities are strictly speaking within the ‘Mountain Domain’, but they do represent the entirety of institutional space that will become available for repurposing over the next few years.

Which is why limiting the public conversation to those hospitals closest to Mount Royal Park seems illogical. All these spaces need to be considered in terms of the broad demands for public institutional space in our city.

We need more space to teach and to heal. We could use a lot more space to create and to exhibit our creations. We badly need space for the elderly, but not nearly as bad as we do for the homeless.

In any event, if we had a municipal institutional space oversight and coordinating committee I think our city would be able to strategize more effectively, respond more appropriately to public demand and ensure these prized properties serve the public interest to the best of their abilities.

Unfortunately, such is not currently the case.

What a Night it Was

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6:15 pm on a Friday night and Lionel-Groulx is busier than I’d expect. Throwback jerseys abound. Suburban knuckleheads on pilgrimage, smiles and high spirits all around.

The train arrives packed and we press ourselves in tightly, as though compelled by some invisible Tokyo subway platform attendant at rush hour. Squeezed in I find myself face to face with old friends and a common agenda.

Baseball. Lost opportunities. Nostalgia. Hope. Rebirth. Novelty.

Being there…

The Métro took it’s sweet time snaking it’s way through the tunnels of the city centre to Pie-Ix, pausing longer and longer as we slowly crossed the city, each time an increasingly agitated brakeman telling us, for the love of god, to let go of the antique mechanical doors that not a week ago nearly halved the head of some old woman.

It was slow and uncomfortable and no one cared. For the first time in a decade there was a baseball game to attend and that’s all that mattered.

Disembarking at Pie-IX I quickly lost track of my friends in the absolutely massive crowd surging its way to the stadium entrance. I had never seen the station ever look quite so busy, and a line stretched from the M̩tro turnstiles to the stadium and back again, pulsing to the beat of the Bucket Drummer. My heart sank Рwas this the line to get in?

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We quickly learned that this was the now infamous will-call wait line, thousands strong and perhaps the single longest line of human beings I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My pace quickened. Tickets in hand we’d waltz right on in.

Walking into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is very much like stepping back in time. Almost immediately I noticed my cellphone reception was shot, and that the seething mass of vendor kiosks and food carts reminded me not so much of baseball as it did a kind of food court you’d find in the middle of an epically massive 1980s video game arcade. Pink and baby clue neon lights and harsh overhead lighting stands out in my mind. Oddly appropriate and cacophonous Techno music was playing in the background as an assorted gaggle of sports fans – many of whom wearing Alouettes and Montreal Canadiens jerseys and caps – slurped down overpriced poutine and pizza slices from carts seemingly shipped over from La Ronde.

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Security guards and staff were decked out in clothing that must have been designed in the late-1980s and stored in boxes since the Expos’ folded. This, in conjunction with the overall retro aesthetic and lack of technology (no cellphone reception, no Interac, too few and generally outdated ATMs, antique scoreboards etc.) only re-enforced the strangeness of the situation. It was utterly bizarre.

I overcame the bewildering scene and propelled myself towards the upper deck seats behind home plate with my name on them. Moving swiftly through the bowels of the Big O comes naturally enough – the shape and size of the immense structure compels movement, the ramps almost make you want to run – it was apparent enough to all the children racing around.

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When I get to the upper deck with my date we discussed whether we should grab our seats or get something to nosh on. We both had an admittedly absurd craving for a ballpark frank we knew we’d gladly pay a hefty sum for just to say we’ve had the experience of doing so. Eating a hotdog while watching an MLB game in the Big O.

Strike that off the ‘things to do in Montreal’ checklist…

Such occurrences are rare these days.

We decided to take our seats imagining there would be vendors working the bleachers, and besides, the game had already began. That’s why we came here after-all.

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And not a moment later there I was watching something that hadn’t been seen in our city in just about a decade and I personally hadn’t witnessed in twenty-seven years. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan growing up, I preferred hockey, and later rugby. My interest in and appreciation of baseball came much later, and is nearly entirely as a consequence of the saga of the Montreal Expos as a franchise and the lasting impression the club (and to a greater extent the sport and the stadium) has had on our city.

Baseball in Montreal isn’t entirely about baseball. It’s about the city and its people.

Baseball is symbolic. Baseball is metaphor.

And resurrecting the Expos, long shot though it may be, has everything to do with people power and nothing to do with baseball as a business.

And yet, sitting there, one of 46,000 fans who filled the Big O on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think Warren Cromartie and the Montreal Baseball Project had succeeded at least in rounding first base as far as they’re own business case was concerned. They had proved that, ten years after the loss of the Expos, professional baseball could still draw significant interest in Montreal. Then they proved it again Saturday afternoon when 50,000 people showed up to the second part of the Jays-Mets pre-season double-header.

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Think about it – what kind of a game was this? An exhibition game between the Jays and the Mets, with the ground crew sponsored by the Quebec Egg Council, at the stadium that’s always been ‘too far away’ to be of any use? A total no-frills affair of no real consequence for either ‘away’ team? Just this first step alone was a bit of a long-shot in its own right. The stadium looked like it had just been re-opened after being completely shuttered for the last decade; the back bleachers were dusty with old cigarette butts still lying where they had been extinguished underfoot decades past.

But none of these minor and major inconveniences mattered. Everyone was happy to be watching a ball game. The stadium was nearly full, and it has more than twice the capacity of any of the other major sports venues in our city. No one was bitching about politics, or even this year’s endless winter. The crowd was as diverse as the city, with fans cheering both teams despite the assumption we’d be rooting for the Blue Jays out of some kind of misguided patriotism. The most awkward moment of the night was doubtless the half-hearted attempt to get a bunch of Montrealers to sing the Blue Jays’ version of ‘take me out to the ball game’ but even though I find group sing-alongs fascistic in nature and couldn’t possibly cooperate the crowd was in one of those typically Montreal ‘anything goes’ moods and saved face by joining in at the end.

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The game itself was great and provided plenty of excitement, but I can’t help but wonder how many spectators were thinking to themselves, pretty much all night, ‘how long will we have to wait until this happens again?’

After all, we don’t want to be teased, and Montrealers are sensitive enough as is.

What I saw on Friday night was step in the right direction and proof not only of baseball’s viability, but of the Olympic Stadium’s utility as well. I imagine the next step for Cromartie and the MBP will be to secure one or more regular season games to see if they can replicate their recent successes. From there planning would shift to next year and a set of exhibition and regular season games played at the Big O on a set schedule, say eight games over the span of four months to see if baseball can be sustained past the novelty stage. If all that works they’ll have much of their business case already made and all the evidence they need to support it before seriously starting the MLB-courtship, franchise-development and stadium design and financing stages.

So we shouldn’t get our hopes up we’ll see the Expos return any time soon, but I think it’s a safe bet we’ll see more baseball at the Big O in general.

My personal hope and desire is that the people in charge over at the RIO (Olympic installations board) get funding for minor aesthetic and functional improvements and do all they can to secure more sporting events at the Big O generally speaking. In a really ideal world some kind of a deal would be worked out to secure a set number of CFL and MLS games (with anticipated over-sized crowds), in addition to more exhibition and/or regular season MLB games and maybe even an NFL exhibition match too. Why not? It’s a sports venue, the people in charge of it should be in the business of ensuring it’s used for large-capacity sporting events.

The experience made me think the Big O could be the kind of ‘people’s stadium’ with local teams playing a few games each season at the Big O with heavily discounted tickets for the upper deck sections so as to encourage high attendance (and further ensure pro sports remains accessible to the people who have helped subsidize their development, both directly and indirectly.

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On a closing note, two other things worth mentioning. First, when I ordered my franks I concluded the transaction in French, my mother tongue. The vendor, upon hearing my Anglophone accent decided to switch to English. I continue speaking French, to which he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you spoke English’.

I said I do, and that I speak French as well and I typically just go with whatever’s most instinctive at a given moment. I told him he should never apologize for being so accommodating, it’s far too stereotypically Canadian.

We shared a laugh.

Much later on, travelling back home on the Métro, I noticed the determined stride and Lupine-blue eyes of Gilles Duceppe leaving the crowded Métro train in a huff. I said, rather too excitedly, ‘hey look it’s Gilles Duceppe!’ to which the crowd responded with ‘ooohs’ and ‘awwws’, such as it is when local aristocracy tread too close to subterranean common-folk.

What a night it was…