Tag Archives: Mélanie Joly

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.

Well that was disappointing…

La Grande Jatte Moderne - Mount Royal, Autumn 2013

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to digest the results, here are some thoughts on the 2013 Montreal municipal election.

Ideas didn’t matter. The election was entirely personality-driven and, once again to our detriment, over-focused on the person who would become mayor of the city, and not the representative at the district or borough level. In four boroughs – Outremont, Anjou, LaSalle and Lachine – parties that were borough-focused swept both the councillor and borough mayor positions. They have since indicated they will not form any kind of alliance with the mayor-elect. Independent borough parties now represent approx. 185,000 ‘Montrealers’. This represents about 11% of the city’s population who may be, for entirely political reasons, disconnected from the central administration. The three independents are all formerly of Union Montreal (insert obvious joke here…)

Voter participation came in at 43%, or 477,000 people in a city with 1,102,000 eligible voters. This means about 625,000 people who could have voted did not. 57% absolute disengagement (no participation), and an unknown degree of partial disengagement among those who did vote as a consequence of widespread political illiteracy vis-a-vis the design and function of our local electoral system. That the top two candidates managed to gain as many votes as they did, some 273,000 split between them, representing 57% of the votes cast, without any kind of grassroots local representatives or party architecture in place. The two mayoral candidates that represented parties РCot̩ and Bergeron representing a Union-Vision coalition and Projet Montr̩al respectively Рonly took in 178,000 votes between them, or 37% of the 477,000 cast.

Mélanie Joly declared herself to be something of the ‘real winner’, indicating it was “mission accomplished” vis-a-vis her mayoral campaign, this despite the fact that she lost the mayoralty with 129,000 votes to Coderre’s 150,000 (indicating 27% and 32% of the votes cast, respectively, though only 18% and 14% of the voting population). She says she’ll be sticking around and will make a run at the mayoralty in 2017, but I have a strong suspicion this was a test run for an entry into federal politics, likely as a star Quebec candidate designed to appeal broadly to Quebec women, youth, urbanites etc. (and that’s not a half bad mix either – it’s NDP territory, presently). Certainly Alexandre Trudeau’s out-of-nowhere endorsement helped what should be lauded as a truly brilliant campaign, but what kills me is that it may not really have been to lead this city in the first place. I’m not comfortable with the idea that my city’s municipal election, and a crucial one at that, is merely a tool for which political legitimacy can be tested and polling data gathered. What about actually choosing people to solve our problems and make tomorrow brighter than yesterday?

Equally disconcerting was how little the race really changed from day one. Denis Coderre came out ahead in the first poll and it was accepted as a fait-accompli that he would be mayor. Also disturbing, the boroughs with the lowest participation rate (running from 25% to about 42%), which included Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the Sud-Ouest, Ville-Marie, Pierrefonds-Roxboro and Saint-Laurent, represent about 483,000 people, or 29% of the city’s population.

I suspect Coderre’s ultimate appeal is that, perhaps some, feel he’s particularly well-suited to defend our interests against the PQ while maintaining a crucial link to the Federal Liberals. Should Justin Trudeau be elected in 2015, Mr. Coderre’s relationship with the party could come in handy and potentially result is some newfound federal interest and investment in our city.

But that’s a best case scenario.

Mr. Coderre is a career politician and that should be taken into consideration. He goes which way the wind blows.

But he’ll also soon be tested. The imbecilic Parti Québécois has decided to introduce the possibly unconstitutional, draconian, punitive and politically-motivated Charter of Values, ostensibly designed to defend the equality of the sexes and the secularism of the state while in actuality accomplishing nothing more than to sew needless rifts in Quebec society. Coderre said he won’t tolerate the proposed Bill 60, but it remains to be seen what he can and/or will do about it.

The only real light at the end of this mess was that Richard Bergeron would not be the last leader of Projet Montréal, that within one to two years a new party leader will be chosen, and lead the party in the 2017 municipal election. I’m not happy to see him gone, he has every reason to stay on and try again. After all, he built the party from nothing to 28 councillors, and that’s not too shabby, especially given he did it in three elections. But what matters is that Projet Montréal will live to fight again. It’s the most legitimate political organization this city has, and I’m glad it’ll stick around.

Francois Cardinal, an optimist, suggests that Denis Coderre should offer Bergeron the job of STM president (in addition to other interesting job opportunities). I couldn’t agree more.

Final thought: in order to avoid the myriad problems caused by widespread (and politically manipulative) disengagement, we should endeavour to secure a compulsory voting act for the city before the next election. I’d like to see what kind of civic administration we’d have with near 100% participation.

Your City, Your Candidates – Cindy Filiatrault

Cindy_F_hires-620x863

You know the deal – series on Forget the Box. Stay tuned for Sud-Ouest borough mayor candidate Jason Prince and my one-on-one with Richard Bergeron. I’ll try and get a half decent summary going at some point soon. In the meantime, you can have a look at how the candidates responded to questions on their commitment to open data (from Montreal Ouvert). Interesting stuff; definitely worth considering where these people stand on the their commitment to putting knowledge in the hands of the electorate.

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I had a delightful opportunity to meet Cindy Filiatrault recently, Équipe Mélanie Joly’s candidate for borough mayor in the Sud Ouest borough (which, for the uninitiated, includes Saint Henri, Point-St-Charles, Griffintown, Little Burgundy, Ville Émard and Cote-St-Paul). We met up at a crowded café St-Henri, realized there were no seats left as the joint was jam packed with insolent hipsters and then proceeded to walk down a bustling Notre Dame West to the Green Spot Diner.

On our way over, we passed a comic book shop celebrating its one year anniversary and something called the Quebec General Store which seemed to be having a going-out-of-business sale. There were boarded-up storefronts and dive bars next to businesses that are keen to welcome their first clients. Indeed, I couldn’t think of a better place for a stroll.

Notre Dame West is, like many of Montreal’s commercial arteries, a bit hit or miss, though if you continued walking east from where we were (and by that I mean if you cross Atwater) you discover the gentle lapping waves of a different kind of gentrification. For all that the Sud Ouest is, it is a study in contrasts.

Over too many cups of coffee I discovered a borough mayor candidate with some fascinating ideas, but perhaps more importantly, a real sense of attachment and conviction.

What are your plans for the Sud-Ouest?

Oh man, where do I start? Broadly, and I mean this with regards to the whole city, we need to make all pertinent data open to public scrutiny. And I suppose we’d need to hire a few people to compile this data too.

What kind of data are you looking for?

Well, I’d like to know what effect green roof initiatives have on reducing the effects of air pollution, not to mention an air quality break-down by borough too. Add to that list all public contracts so that the public can see where their money is going and how it’s being spent.

Rue_Notre-Dame_Ouest_(Montreal)_22-09-2006
Notre-Dame Ouest in St-Henri (image WikiMedia Commons)

So you don’t just want transparency, but a more engaged and active distribution of information?

Pretty much. Anyone can say they are being transparent, but I want to have free, unencumbered access to everything I need to make an informed decision on how our elected officials are doing. Currently, we’re all in the dark.

But you know, it goes a lot further than that. The city has to actively promote the services and programs it has that aren’t being used. There are myriad programs available to help small entrepreneurs, but it’s very difficult to find the pertinent information. Why?

A lot of these programs aren’t used simply because there’s no one at city hall making it a priority to get the word out. And perhaps the less I say about the city’s website the better.

Some politicians would argue making all information available for public consumption is going to bog down the political process because they’ll wind up having to explain a lot to people who really only want to kvetch about god knows what and will stick to their guns even if it’s apparent the information or data they have has been incorrectly interpreted or understood

So be it. Politicians are there to communicate openly and directly with their citizens. We can’t afford to keep the citizenry in the dark and the paternalist style of governing, the ‘dumbed-down’ approach has got to go.

I think all Montrealers are sick of being talked down to by a lot of rich, crooked, old white men. Besides which, I work in communications, you work in communications, and we both know that complex information can be made simple to understand.

Either way, look at where we’re at right now. Everything happens behind closed doors, the public is kept in the dark, the people have nearly zero faith in their politicians.

If there’s a reason why we’re pulling ahead in the polls, it’s because we’re the antithesis of the old order. We’re young, vibrant, energetic, connected and placing a strong emphasis on using technology – the technology that unites us in nearly all other aspects of our lives – and apply it to increase civic engagement, stimulate transparency and govern based on a real-time assessment of the people’s interests.

filiatraut joly
Cindy Filiatrault campaigning with Melanie Joly (image via Melanie Joly on Twitter)

Tell me something more concrete, more Sud-Ouest focused. What does this borough need to flourish?

Decontamination and revitalization.

Good answer.

Thanks!

Expand on that, please.

Much of this borough was industrial for a hundred years prior to the major phase of deindustrialization that swept through with the closing of the Lachine Canal. As a result, factories closed, but what they left behind is still in the ground.

As a post-industrial city, we need to keep track of what pollutants are where and in what quantities. We also need a plan to decontaminate the ground to ensure the health of our community.

Much of the borough is built on former industrial land and wedged between what was once an industrial canal on the southern edge and one of the busiest highways in Canada on the northern edge. Is it any wonder life-long residents of the borough have higher respiratory ailments?

Tell me something I don’t know about your borough.

You know Dave McMillan?

Not personally, but he owns Liverpool House and Joe Beef, right?

Right. In the winter he clears the snow from the alleyway behind his restaurants. He clears it by hand because the city doesn’t. And you know what he finds with nearly every shovelful of snow? Needles. That alleyway is littered with them but it’s thanks to Dave McMillan they get cleaned up.

That’s really gross. There’s a park just on the other side of that alleyway and a library and a community centre too

Exactly my point. On Notre-Dame it’s all fixed up, gentrified, you’d never expect that just on the other side is the borough’s reality of poverty and social pathologies related to mental health problems, drug addiction etc. Drug addicts shouldn’t be anywhere near areas used by families and children, even if it is an alleyway.

So what do we do with potentially homeless intravenous drug addicts in the Sud-Ouest?

We need a safe injection site in the borough and I’d push for it. How are drug addicts ever going to overcome their addictions if they’re forced out of sight into the nooks and crannies of the city?

These are people too. They should have a place to go where they can shoot up with clean needles, with supervision and access to help if they want it.

It’ll make our streets safer and we won’t have to worry about kids accidentally sticking themselves with dirty needles on the way to a baseball diamond or the local library. It’s a matter of basic respect for your fellow human beings. Frankly, I’m surprised we don’t already have one here.

Where would you bring tourists to give them a taste of this large, diverse borough?

I’d bring them for a walk along Notre-Dame, so they could see our past, present and future.

***

This Sunday, starting at ten in the morning city-wide. Get up, get into it, get involved.

Until then, Happy Halloween!