Part of an on-going series I’m contributing to. Mary Ann was a joy to interview. The original, as with a lot of other things I’ve written, can be found on Forget the Box.
Mary Ann Davis has lived in Verdun for over twenty years, having moved to Montreal as soon as she could get out of Thetford Mines. As a child, her father had taken her to Montreal on a business trip and in Phillips Square together they sat munching on ice cream cones. She vividly recalls taking in all that was around her, enjoying the comings and goings of so many people and deciding that this was the city for her.
What’s the big issue, for you and the people you wish to represent, that will define this election?
Nun’s Island needs a new school. The current primary school on the predominantly residential and upper-middle class island is the largest in the province with over 900 students. A new school has been officially required since 2007 but there’s been too little movement on the issue.
The biggest problem is that there’s little available land left on the island and all of it is in private hands waiting to be developed into townhouses and condo complexes. With more than 22 000 residents living on the island, we believe a new school is a major priority.
The current borough government wants to place the school in a park, adjacent to two of the island’s major thoroughfares. The site is too small to accommodate the large new school which is required to serve residents’ needs, meaning if the current plan goes ahead, we’ll be right back where we started, needing another school, in but a few years’ time.
We think this is profoundly irresponsible. Moreover, Nun’s island will soon need a secondary school as well, given current demographic trends. We feel it’s far better we plan for those future realities now rather than deal with the consequences later on.
What has the current administration done about this issue?
The current Union Montreal borough administration has not handled this well. They made it a needlessly divisive issue; people are being harassed, tires have been slashed. Keep in mind that the Verdun borough mayor’s office has been raided by UPAC three times; it’s clear to me someone may have some significant real estate interests.
It’s ridiculous to put a too small school in the middle of a park. Other lots have been offered by private developers, so we’d really like to know why the current Union Montreal government is so insistent on the location the OCPM deemed insufficient.
How has Verdun changed since you moved here?
Well, the first week I lived here there was an arsonist on the loose.
So it has improved?
Ha! Yes, by leaps and bounds. There were parts of Verdun you simply didn’t walk around late at night by yourself back then, today Verdun’s nothing like that. Real estate speculators keep indicating it’s one of many ‘next Plateaus’ in our city. There’s certainly been some gentrification, but this has been problematic as well. Verdun is an affordable inner-ring suburb and I’d like to keep it that way.
Tell me about the community you wish to represent, what are their needs?
Verdun is now a very multi-cultural community, with large Chinese, Haitian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Rwandan communities. We also have a surprisingly large Latino community.
But all too often I find these diverse communities living in silos – I’ve been walking around visiting apartment buildings where only one ethnic group can take up an entire building. That needs to change.
Further, many immigrants feel completely disengaged from civic politics, some have even been incredulous when I told them that they had the right to vote in our municipal elections. Can you believe it?
What do you want to accomplish if elected borough mayor?
Aside from solving the public school problem in Nun’s Island, I want to revitalize our main commercial arteries with more locally-owned small businesses. We also need to avoid a ‘condo ghettoization’ of Verdun and secure low-cost housing.
I’d also like to get citizen committees up and running on specific issues, be it new schools or what our needs are vis-a-vis the Champlain Bridge replacement. Ultimately, we need a far more engaged citizenry, so that we can resuscitate Verdun’s greatest single characteristic – its community spirit.
But we absolutely must remember that, even as recently as twenty years ago, gay-bashings were far more frequent and the Montreal police even had a ‘morality squad’ which was all too often employed in raiding underground gay clubs, beating the shit out of people, and/or patrolling Mount Royal ticketing men for ‘cruising.’ It’s probably very surprising for young people today to hear such things.
What changed on a local level?
About twenty years ago the gay community in Montreal got organized and began pushing for reforms. It helped that there was a human rights commission set up to investigate anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, not to mention all the bad press the Sex Garage raid produced. But things really picked up when the gay community began concentrating in what is today the Gay Village and local politicians realized that the LGBTQ community as a whole was increasingly wealthy and far better connected.
Once politicians realized we were organized and resourceful (not to mention swimming in disposable income), they became sincerely interested in ‘the gay vote.’ The rest, as they say, is history.
It is a demonstration of the incredible contrasts of our city, and the juxtaposition of so much diversity in a part of town you could walk across in half an hour makes it a fascinating place to want to represent.
Consider the district has a very high median income â€“ over $70,000 per annum in 2009, yet also a significant homeless problem, at about 10% of the local population in 2006 (and Iâ€™m assuming both these figures have increased since). Moreover, an incredible 45% of the districtâ€™s residents live below the poverty line (many of which are students). Though only 22% of residents speak French at home 63% are bilingual in both official languages. Immigrants represent 44% of the local population, the majority of them Chinese, though immigrants from Lebanon, Morocco and France are also well represented in the district. Whatâ€™s curious about Peter-McGill, is, first, that small-scale enterprises seem to thrive near the large residential sectors of the district, and second that the district has large depopulated areas â€“ notably in the central business and retail district towards the eastern edge of Peter-McGill. Suffice it to say there are a lot of competing interests here, and it will be a difficult task for any potential candidate.
Whereâ€™s your favourite place to bring tourists to the city?
First, Iâ€™d take them to Mount Royal, the lookout, Lac des Castors etc, so that they can see the jewel we protected. Itâ€™s hard to believe fifty years ago Jean Drapeau had half the trees cut down to â€˜prevent immoralityâ€™, as they used to say. But today weâ€™re smarter, we value our green space, especially a park of such quality design, so universally enjoyed by all Montrealers. I think I would bring an eager tourist to see Montrealers using something they cherish and love very much. But after that, weâ€™d go to the market, Jean Talon, Atwater, just to enjoy the experience, have a bite, watch people go by. I know it sounds odd, but I think we can all appreciate it, thereâ€™s something calming and refreshing about a market place. I wouldnâ€™t mind seeing more of them, I think theyâ€™re a hit with an increasingly food-conscious population.
Youâ€™re a small businessman and weâ€™ve spoken before of your thoughts concerning the necessity for a better business climate for small-scale entrepreneurs; what can the city do to improve the situation?
What do you like the most and what do you like the least about living in your district?
Like? Well, for one thing the nightlife. Itâ€™s not just Crescent Street, on the whole weâ€™re well equipped with a wide variety of restaurants, bars, bistros, nightclubs to suit all tastes. Itâ€™s the part of town that seems to be on all the time, and I donâ€™t mind that. For a lot of Montrealers this is an exciting, entertaining district. As to what I like least, itâ€™s the class extremes, too much obscene wealth next to abject poverty. We have about 2,000 homeless in this district, thatâ€™s a problem thatâ€™s been ignored for far too long.
What do you propose to fix it?
The city should take the lead, partner with established charities like Acceuil Bonneau, and work to increase their capacity, possibly by securing abandoned residential and institutional properties that havenâ€™t sold in many years. Coincidentally, thereâ€™s an abandoned old folks home across from the CCA that hasnâ€™t sold in over a decade. No doubt we should definitely collaborate with established charities and see if we can help them help others better.
Getting the message from one end of the island to the other. Weâ€™re a big, complex city with a lot of moving parts, so itâ€™s definitely going to be a challenge not only to get the message out, but to make people care enough to listen in the first place. Weâ€™re dealing with a local population thatâ€™s already fed up with local politicians and it shows, only 40% of citizens voted in the 2009 municipal election. Thatâ€™s pathetically low, but to me it seems like some people are getting turned off by local politics and politicians. Suffice it to say, this only makes the job of the honest politician that much more difficult.
What would you like to see wiped off the map or otherwise expelled from Montreal?
What a question! Ha! Well, Iâ€™ll tell you what, Iâ€™ll answer it in two parts. For one, Iâ€™d like to officially banish Jeff Loria (chuckles all around, Jeff Loria is the art collector who ran the Expos into the ground). Iâ€™d put up a sign telling him to go back home to Florida (more laughs).
As to what Iâ€™d like to see disappear, definitely the big gaping hole where the Ville-Marie Expressway divides Old Montreal from the rest of the city. It has to be covered. Even if nothingâ€™s put on top of it and we leave a big open field of grass, it would be a major improvement over how it currently stands. My understanding is that the Palais des CongrÃ¨s is looking to expand on the western edge of the remaining trench, and the CHUM will expand on the eastern edge, the city should step in and cover the rest. We need to stitch this city back up, itâ€™s been divided â€“ physically, culturally â€“ for far too long. Projet has a plan to change all that.
Well, the first post on this site from someone other than myself. My first contributor!
And he’d prefer to remain anonymous…
Perhaps it’s best. He’s been working for the city for a while now, and has the pulse of the city like few people I know (though, given his job, it’s not surprising he’s so knowledgeable, few would care to ask his opinion. There are many people invisible to politicians). We got into a conversation about the merits of Louise Harel as mayor, and he lent me an earful about her and Vision Montreal.
I asked if he’d write an article to express himself and he obliged under the condition of anonymity.
So without further adieu, may I present you l’Heptade du Sainte Louise Harel…