June 28, 2022 § Leave a comment
The government of Québec has passed Loi 96, an insanely restrictive language law designed to incapacitate Montréal. Montréal has, in recent years, been Anglicized, or at least it seems that way. Anecdotally, I hear more English across the city in the past few years than I ever have, and not just in the traditional areas of downtown, the sud-ouest, or NDG, but also in Rosemont-Petite Patrie, Parc Ex, Villeray. But it’s not just French and English you hear on the streets of Montréal. In all reality, the city has become incredibly diverse in recent years, and now it is common to hear pretty much any language you can imagine on the streets of the metropole. And this is concerning to the rest of the province, clearly. As it is, the relationship between Montréal and Québec is uncertain; roughly half of the province/nation’s 8.5 million people live in the Montréal sprawl. It is a very large, multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual city. The rest of Québec, not so much. It is more than predominately French-speaking and white. Immigrants tend to flock to the big city, or the suburbs of Ottawa, as this is where economic opportunity is greatest.
Montréal, though, has nearly died before. In the wake of the Parti Québécois winning power for the first time in 1976, Anglos and business left Montréal in a terrifying wave. For most of Canada’s history, Montréal had been the predominant city, and while it was already fading by 1970, with Toronto assuming the mantle, the wake of 1976 saw an exodus. Corporations left for Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver. So did the people. My own family was part of this exodus. We left for, first, Toronto, in winter 1978 before ultimately making our way west to British Columbia in 1980. The result for Montréal was devastating. A walk down rue Sainte-Catherine or the rue Saint-Denis in the 80s was depressing in that every other store front had an ‘À Louer’ sign on it, and it was no different on other arteries and side streets. Montréal had the highest unemployment rate for an urban centre in Canada for most of the 1980s and 1990s.
Meanwhile, there was a massive amount of instability in the province/nation, provoked by fears of the intentions of the openly separatist PQ government. The first referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980 ended in a defeat for the aspirations of Premier René Levésque and the PQ. But this ushered in a decade-and-a-half of language laws (most notably Loi 101) and constitutional wrangling between the UK, Canada, its provinces, and its population. Canada’s constitution was patriated from the UK in 1982, but Québec never ratified it. An attempt at a conciliation in 1990, the Meech Lake Accord, was doomed to failure due to an inability of the framers to account for the indigenous. A second attempt in 1992, the Charlottetown Accord, went down to defeat in a national referendum. And then the second referendum on Québec sovereignty was held in 1995, which resulted in a much narrower defeat for Premier Jacques Parizeau and the PQ. In the aftermath of the defeat, Parizeau declared that the sovereigntists lost due to ‘money and the ethnic vote,’ making clear that he felt Anglos and Allophones (as those who are neither Anglo or French are called in Québec) did not belong.
In the aftermath of that second referendum, some certainty returned to Québec, as the PQ refused to consider another referendum under successive premiers Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry, and Pauline Marois. As a result, Montréal came back to life, and at one point in the early 21st century was the fastest growing city in Canada. The economy has come roaring back, the ‘À Louer’ signs disappeared and Montréal was once again a vibrant multicultural city.
But, at the same time, the sovereigntist movement, which had begun on the left in the 1960s, began drifting right, and try as Landry and Marois might, they could not, ultimately, stem the tide of the right, and the PQ faded into irrelevance at the same time it was attacked on the left by the ride of Québec Solidaire (which is still a tiny party). Indeed, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, or CAQ, led by former PQ cabinet member, François Legault, stormed to power in 2018 in a landslide victory, signalling the completion of the right-ward turn of the sovereigntist movement.
In the wake of 1995, sovereigntists made an attempt to rebrand themselves to make their vision of Québec more inclusive, welcome to Anglos and Allophones. Those days are over. Legault and the CAQ are very clear who their constituents are and who they govern for. Loi 96 is an obvious example of this.
Interestingly, the CAQ does not have a lot of support on the Île de Montréal, nor in the larger Montréal sprawl in general. On the island, only the two most eastern ridings, Pointe-aux-Trembles and Bourget, swung CAQ, and only one riding in Laval, Sainte-Rose, and one on the south shore, Taillon followed suite. Indeed, Montréal and its sprawl are the power bases of both the federalist Parti Libérale and Québec Solidaire.
So it is interesting that Legault’s Loi 96 is designed to strangle the English language. I am an Anglo, yes. But I do not tend to side with Anglos in the language politics of Québec. Montréal is a French city. Québec is a French province/nation. I argued myself into a nationalist (though not separatist) position in reading for my comprehensive exams for my Phd, I have been unable to escape that spot). There are roughly 400,000 Anglos in the city of 4.25 million. You can do the math.
But. Loi 96 is different. Its attacks on English-language government services, education, and health care are a very real threat. Its insistence that immigrants will get all of six months to learn French before all services are in that language is also a very real threat. But even more than that, what Loi 96 will do is kill Montréal. Already employers are talking of pulling out. I was back home last week, and even Le Devoir, the nationalist Montréal newspaper, was attacking the government for this law, which it sees as going too far. The CBC reports today that Montréal’s vibrant video-game industry is at risk, this despite the fact that the largest of these employers, Ubisoft, is French. It is only going to get worse, as Legault seeks to destroy the city.
There will be a provincial election this fall. But I don’t see many reasons to be optimistic. The CAQ is running around 40% in the polls, which is up 3% from 2018. The Liberals are below 20%, and now the Conservatives are in the running as well, around 17%. And, of course, due to the genius of the men who created the Canadian Constitution in 1982, we have the notwithstanding clause, which allows governments to override the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Loi 96 violates both, but Legault has enacted the notwithstanding clause.
Of course, what he also seems to be risking is in killing Montréal, he will kill Québec’s economy, which will hurt everyone. Politics. A zero sum game.
May 24, 2022 § Leave a comment
Cathal Coughlan has died. You probably don’t know who he was. Coughlan was the frontman of a criminally underrated band in the late 80s/early 90s, The Fatima Mansions. They were an Irish band, from Cork, but they took their name from a housing estate/project in Dublin. They were wild.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the late 80s, it was very hard to get access to what was then called alternative rock. This was especially true in the suburbs of Vancouver, which were pretty bland and boring in those days. Vancouver was going through this massive change, evolving from a backwater outpost of the British Empire into the modern, cosmopolitan city it is today. Part of this was due to Expo 86, part of it was due to global politics. Vancouver had always been a disembarkation point for immigrants from South and East Asia, that much is true. But in the late 80s/early 90s, with the impending handover of Kong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, there was a massive influx of East Asian immigration to the city, which, combined with the already extant East and South Asian populations, changed the city massively. This had not yet filtered out to the far eastern suburbs of Vancouver.
The cultural shift of the city meant many things, including me being confused c. 2004 watching the NHL playoffs and an Air Canada ad that showed a city that looked like Vancouver, all these tall, angular glass towers, and the mountains behind them. It took me awhile to realize this was Hong Kong, not Vancouver. But the other thing that happened is that Vancouver emerged from its cocoon and became the international city it is today.
But all of that was still to come. I had read about The Fatima Mansions in The NME, they counted U2 amongst their supporters and fans. They eventually opened for U2 during one leg of the Zoo TV tour in 1992 in Europe (Pixies were the openers in North America). But it was damn near impossible to get their 1990 album, Viva Dead Ponies. I went to all the usual suspects on Seymour St. downtown (Sam the Record Man, A&A Records and Tapes, A&B Sound, and the indie store, Track Records). No dice. The guy at Track suggested I try Zulu Records on W. 4th in Kitsilano. I didn’t know anything about Kitsilano, but the guy was nice enough to tell me how to get there, the #4 bus. But they woman at Zulu, whilst she had heard of The Fatima Mansions, they didn’t have anything by them.
I did eventually find joy a few months later. Columbia House. Maybe it was a scam, but I sure as hell didn’t think so. Yeah, you could get your Brian Adams and Aerosmith this way. But Columbia House had all this random underground music. I found so much amazing alternative, hip hop, and techno music this way, everything from They Might Be Giants to Living Colour to Public Enemy to Boogie Down Productions to The Sundays and The Stone Roses. And The Fatima Mansions. Viva Dead Ponies was in the catalogue. I ordered it. It was glorious.
Things got a bit easier, music-wise, when I moved to Ottawa for undergrad, as Ottawa had The Record Runner on Rideau St., and they had damn near everything. Including their 1992 album, which actually charted in the UK, Valhalla Avenue. The Fatima Mansions were amazing, they weren’t any one thing in an era when record labels encouraged artists to be one thing. Coughlin was mezmerizing as a front man in their videos, tall, angular, Nordic-looking, and rather intimidating. Their music ranged from vicious industrial-inspired grinding guitars and shouted vocals to the tenderness of their cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘A Singer Must Die,’ on the brilliant 1992 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan.
I don’t think The Fatima Mansions ever came to North America, at least not anywhere near Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, or Vancouver. Maybe they went to New York or Los Angeles. But not Canada. And these were the days, the early 90s, when Vancouver was the starting or end point of most major tours. This led to some amazing shows, when the artist(s) were fresh and stoked for the road trip, or when they were exhausted and drained at the end of it and they dug down for some amazing shit to end it all.
I obsessed over Viva Dead Ponies for a long while after I found it in the Columbia House catalogue. I can’t remember exactly when I got my hands on it, though my memories have me listening to the album, which was supposed to be called Bugs Fucking Bunny (I think it’s kind of obvious why that didn’t happen), over the Christmas break that year. None of my friends liked it, which was interesting, even the ones who liked synth-pop (which also features on Viva Dead Ponies) or industrial. I guess The Fatima Mansions were too many things to be anything. And I suppose this is why they remained obscure, at least in North America. It always felt to me in those days that the Europeans could handle their musical artists being more diverse in their sounds than we could.
I lost track of them after about 1992, and they broke up in 1995, Wikipedia tells me. Coughlan died on 18 May after a long illness. He was only 61. Before Mansions, he had been in Microdisney, who scored a few hit singles in the UK, and after Mansions split, he released a raft of solo music, his last album coming out in 2020.
May he rest in peace.
February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago. It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary. The United States was founded upon slavery. Fact. The Founding Fathers included slave owners. Face. The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution. Fact. The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery. Fact. The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. Fact. Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court. Fact.
But. None of this is a Southern thing. Slavery initially existed in the North as well. But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery. The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton. The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves. The North countenanced slavery.
After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation. The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country. And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.
But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away. Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis. The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000. Only 15% of those students were white. As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white. Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white. White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.
As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated. Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.
Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.
Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism. So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.
November 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
There is a disturbing trend in Toronto sports for the franchises of the self-proclaimed ‘Centre of the Universe’ to brand themselves as the ultimate Canadian franchise. Of course, this should not be surprising, since Toronto hasn’t realized there is a huge country out there, and that, in reality, it only makes up around 16% of the population of the nation. But don’t tell Toronto that.
The Toronto media has a long history of denigrating the rest of the country. I stopped reading the Globe and Mail about 10 years ago when I realized that about the only time there was news about Vancouver, Calgary, or Montréal was when it was bad news or something to mock the cities about (this, of course, coming from a city that once called out the military to deal with a bit of snow and had Rob Ford as mayor).
But to suggest the Toronto sporting franchises as the Canadian teams is, well, ridiculous and insulting. The NBA Raptors a few years ago used the slogan #WeTheNorth as part of its marketing campaign. This, though, feels the least insulting to me in that the Raptors are the only Canadian NBA team, and the only other Canadian NBA team, the Vancouver Grizzlies died an ignominious death in 2001.
And, to be fair, the CFL Argonauts and MLS TFC haven’t seemed to get the memo, but that’s probably because no one cares about either one anyway.
But it’s the MLB Blue Jays and the NHL Maple Leafs who take the cake. The Blue Jays have created a cap that features nothing but the Canadian maple leaf on it. The message here is that any good Canadian must cheer for the Blue Jays. But the thing is, it’s not this simple. Until 2004, Montréal had its Expos. The Expos were killed off by MLB and moved to Washington, DC., so this remains somewhat of a sore spot. But Down East, Canadians are just as likely, if not more so, to cheer for the Boston Red Sox than the Jays. And out West, the Seattle Mariners and the Bay Area teams are also popular. And in Montréal, the Red Sox are the most popular team.
Then there’s the Maple Leafs. Sure, their name and their logo. But those go back nearly 90 years. So they get a pass on that (as an aside, the Canadiens de Montréal are so-known because the peasants of French-era Québec were called Canadiens, or Habitants, thus, the Habs). But EA Sports, Adidas (which makes NHL uniforms) and all of the so-called Original Six teams created interesting new jerseys for EA Sports’ NHL ’19.
They almost all suck and are pointless, but you just know that they will eventually be the third jerseys of the teams, though the Chicago Blackhawks jersey looks like their third jersey already. The Maple Leafs’ however, is a blatant rip off of the legendary Team Canada jersey, made famous by the victorious Canadians in the 1972 Summit Series.
The difference, of course, is that the Maple Leafs’ version is blue instead of red:
So, yeah, this is for a video game and it’s not realty. Yet. And sure you’re thinking I’m getting worked up about something that isn’t important. The thing is, it is. Jerseys, caps, hoodies, etc., these are all part of the marketing campaigns of the franchises and the leagues they play in.
And when Toronto clubs monopolize and capitalize on Canadian images and icons for their marketing campaigns, they are doing several things. First, they are cheapening our national symbols and icons (as an aside, remember when the RCMP licensed its images to Disney for marketing purposes and the outcry it created?). Second, they are changing the national discourse about what it means to be Canadian, just as Molson attempted to in the 90s with the Joe Canada commercials, which suggested to drink Molson Canadian was to make oneself Canadian. That’s what the Raptors, Jays, and Leafs are doing here: to cheer for them is to be Canadian.
In the case of baseball, again, we have divided loyalties. We do for basketball, too. All my friends in Montréal cheer for the Boston Celtics, and out in Vancouver, it’s the LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors. But hockey is something else. There are seven NHL franchises in Canada. Three of them have variations on Canada and our nationality in their names (Canucks, Maple Leafs, Canadiens). One shamelessly ripped of the Royal Canadian Air Force in its marketing and logo (Winnipeg Jets). But none of this reaches the ridiculousness of the EA Sports Maple Leafs’ jersey.
And so we’re back to the idea that to be in Toronto is to be Canadian and to hell with the rest of the nation, you know, the 84% of us who don’t live in Toronto.
July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments
Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal. ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters. Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band. A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.
There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are. But I was in Montreal. But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.
I never did. He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation. I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago. It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer. It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him. We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way. I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.
Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America. Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers. It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion. It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs. I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.
Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid. I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so. But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city. My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped. Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens. Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul. I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that. And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era. Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.
And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years. In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:
The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?
In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward. As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently. This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times. Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home. Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’ And so we never do really fully leave.
July 20, 2018 § 4 Comments
News has erupted in the United Kingdom that Scotland Yard has been using children as spies for criminal cases. Not surprisingly, most British are sickened and appalled by this, as are the usual array of human rights groups. There can be no defence of this. None. This is one of the most morally repugnant things I have ever come across in my life.
The children are pulled from a database about gang members, apparently. And certainly, some have already decided that they’re criminals and therefore forfeit their civil rights. It’s not that simple. First, they’re children. Second, being in this database is not necessarily an indication of criminality. Third, even if they are, that is not an excuse to curtail someone’s civil rights. To do so is inhumane. It says that someone is less of a human due to past behaviour.
The House of Lords committee that revealed the existence of this programme is sickened. Even David Davis, one of the most self-serving British politicians of our era (he resigned from PM Theresa May’s cabinet a couple of weeks ago) is appalled. I wonder what Boris Johnson thinks?
And yet, here is May’s spokesperson defending this practice:
Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and they’re only used when it is very necessary and proportionate, for example helping to prevent gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. The use is governed by a very strict legal framework.
In other words, we don’t care about the rights of children, we think they are there to serve the needs of the police, and if you’ve got a problem with this, it is frankly because you are a bleeding heart. This is disgusting. And immoral.
And this is moral relativism at the root. Doing something immoral, disgusting, and wrong can be explained away as just another policy in the Met’s crime-fighting tool kit. We have reached the point where in one of the wealthiest, most powerful Western democracies in the world, exploiting children is seen as an acceptable practice by a circle of the government and the police.
June 14, 2018 § 1 Comment
At the end of May, at the annual Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, SK, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, won a CLIO Award from the Canadian Historical Association. I wrote the best book in Québec history last year. I was stunned and surprised when I found out about this award in early April and I remain just as gobsmacked today.
It is very humbling to be recognized by your peers for your work, I have to say. It has also been humbling to see the response to the book as a whole. Last September, I hosted a book launch back home in Montreal at Hurley’s Irish Pub. It was an amazing night, as new and old friends came out, well over 100 people in all, spilling out of our main room into the bar area. In April, to celebrate the American launch of the book, I hosted another launch at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA. It was another gratifying evening, as more people than I could count came out, including friends, colleagues, and even students. We sold out the stock of the book in short order.
I am proud of this book. I think it’s a good book. But that’s only part of the story. The book is also beautifully packaged, designed by the team at University of British Columbia Press, using the art of my good friend and colleague, G. Scott MacLeod. Scott’s art makes my book cover look so stunning.
Working with UBC Press was wonderful. I had excellent editors in Darcy Cullen, the acquisitions editor, and Ann Macklem, the production editor. I enjoyed working with Darcy so much that I was sad when she passed me off to Ann. But Ann was also amazing to work with. Darcy and Ann made the often Byzantine process of academic publishing easier and more sensible to me.
And my anonymous reviewers; I know who they are now. But I will respect their anonymity. All I can say is that they both were incredibly encouraging. They found the holes in the manuscript I knew existed, they found some I didn’t realize. But they both also offered many options and possibilities to fill those gaps in the research, the theory, and so on. I learned a lot about writing a book and about history, theory, and method from them.
My book is, obviously, better for the experience with UBC Press, and my anonymous reviewers. And for that, I am eternally grateful. I am also grateful to the committee that determined the CLIO Awards, and to everyone else along the way, both before and after publication, who was supportive and encouraging.
June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario. Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say. The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid. Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message. The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.
It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country. And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America. And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.
Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments. But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have. Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole. The reasons for this are for another post.
The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.
But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past. It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada. Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn. But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.
Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995. In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990. Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light. Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution. Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics. This went about as well as you’d imagine.
Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce. He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders. Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.
Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario. The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000. There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system. Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died. Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.
And then there was Kimberly Rogers. Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud. Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school. This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year. Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest. And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000. She was also pregnant at the time. Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree. The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity. She committed suicide in August 2001.
An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications. Rogers had the first, but not the other two. And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went. And this was due to Harris’ reforms. Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.
Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices. The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city. Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.
But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter. Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone. He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto. During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic). And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Lastman told a reporter:
What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.
Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother. Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism. He wasn’t qualified for the job. But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning. The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse. He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine. He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him. And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members. Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.
So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as. He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.
November 30, 2017 § 4 Comments
Gentrification is a topic I have written a lot about here (for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and, finally, here). And, of course, I wrote a book about Griffintown, Montreal. In other words, I think about gentrification a lot, occasionally curious about it, occasionally appalled by it.
Last week, a Denver coffee chain found itself in the midst of a firestorm over a really stupid sandwich board sign outside of its outlet in Five Points neighbourhood. Of course, the name Five Points carries with it various derogatory ideas, largely connected to the original Five Points in Manhattan, so the gentrifiers of Denver’s Five Points have re-christened it RiNo (or, River North Arts District). The Five Points ink! coffee shop placed this sandwich board outside its shop:
Ok, then. A few things to note. First, the sign is on dirt/gravel, next to what looks like a new(-ish) sidewalk). So clearly, gentrification is apace here. Second, Five Points is historically home to pretty much the entirety of Denver’s African American population. And, as anyone who knows anything about urban history will tell you, this also means that the congregation of the black population of the city here was not entirely always by choice. And, of course, who loses in the gentrification of traditionally African American neighbourhoods? African Americans, of course.
Third, the gentrifiers want this neighbourhood to be a centre for the arts. Not surprisingly, the arts that are native to Five Points are not all that welcome in the newly re-imagined RiNo. Why? Because hip hop is still seen as a black art form, and that makes a lot of white people uneasy, even today after hip hop has gone global.
And while the people at ink!’s Five Points shop may have thought they were being edgy and funny, they were not. They were being stupid. And offensive. Yes, gentrification usually means you can get good coffee in your neighbourhood, but at what cost? And who benefits from gentrification in the US? The answer to the latter question is predominately white, young, urbanites with well-paying jobs.
And that means that those who lose from gentrification are people who do not look like them, these urban explorers. Gentrification is, I think, as close to an inevitable process as we have. But, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be brainless and lead to the displacement of the residents, and it doesn’t need to mean a whitewashing of neighbourhoods traditionally of colour.
And to joke about this whitewashing? Well, that’s frankly offensive and stupid. And Keith Herbert, the founder of ink!, comes across as especially daft in his Twitter statement, but at least he’s trying. That’s something, I guess:
August 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
The opioid crisis that has taken root across North America exposes several ugly truths. The first is racial. The use of drugs is treated differently in the United States, depending on the race of the victims of addiction. When they are African American and/or Latinx, they are criminalized. But when it is white people using drugs, it becomes a crisis. To a degree. The important disclaimer here is class. When poor white people are using, it remains a criminal issue. But when middle- or upper- class white people are using, it becomes a public health issue. Thus, this is the second truth: class.
I think of all the jokes I have heard about ‘white trash’ and meth labs in trailer homes since I moved to the South. But, on the flip side, there is the criminalization and demonization of poor white people, and nearly all African American and Latinx drug addicts. Addiction, I remind, is a public health issue. Addiction is a question of psychology. It is not a matter of criminality.
Addiction is something very real in my world. It is something I grew up with in my family. When I was a university student in Vancouver in the early-to-mid-90s, the city was in the midst of a heroin epidemic. Walking through the fringes of the Downtown Eastside one afternoon, I passed the back alley on Carrall St., between East Hastings and East Pender, and saw a young woman, around my age, with a needle in her arm, foaming at the mouth and her fingertips going blue. There was no one around. And she was dying. I went into the alley, she was unresponsive, and her pulse was very faint. There was no one around. No police, no other pedestrians on Carrall St. All the doors in the back alley were closed, some of them barred from the outside. There was no one looking out the windows onto the alley. She was completely alone. And then she died. I don’t know how many people died in Vancouver of heroin overdoses in 1997. But I know she was someone’s daughter, sister, grand-daughter, girlfriend. I did find a police patrol on East Pender about two blocks away, and I told them. I told them everything I saw. I was very shaken, of course. I went home, they went to the back alley to deal with her body.
Vancouver is the site of a long-term heroin crisis. This crisis has been made worse by the addition of fetanyl to nearly every drug on the market on the West Coast. My mother is an addictions counsellor in Vancouver. Every time I talk to her, she says that her recovery centre has lost 2, 3, 4, 5, or more, guys in the past week or however long it has been since I last talked to her. Nonetheless, at least Vancouver has engaged in harm-reduction, which at the very least, makes it safer for heroin addicts, in terms of needle exchanges and safe-places for injection.
Vancouver is home to the only heroin-injection clinic in North America. It has been in operation for eight years now, operates at capacity (130 people, only a fraction of the addicts on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of the city), and is controversial, not surprisingly. In 2013, the then-Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, tried to shut it down, claiming that it enabled addicts. But it survived.
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a sea-side town about an hour north of Boston, police there decided to begin treating the opioid crisis as a public health issue in May 2015. Police Chief Leonard Campanello notes, as many others have, that there has been a failure to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country (be it Canada or the US), and that, ultimately, we have lost the war on drugs. Campanello thinks, rather, that it’s a war on addiction.
The important thing to note in both Vancouver and Gloucester is that the police and other agencies there treat addicts as human beings in crisis. And they treat all addicts as such, class and race are not part of the calculus. And Vancouver and Gloucester are just two examples of many across both the United States and Canada where jurisdictions have sought to treat addiction as a public health issue in order to engage in harm reduction.
Last month, in Philadelphia, news broke that the staff at the public library branch on McPherson Square in the Kensington neighbourhood had become first-line responders to heroin overdoses in the park. Several times a day, librarians were rushing out to administer Narcan to people overdosing. Volunteers scoured the park daily for used needles and other paraphernalia of addiction. Librarians referred to the addicts out in the park as ‘drug tourists,’ as Philadelphia, as a port city, has a particularly pure form of heroin on its streets.
But, within a couple of weeks, McPherson Square was nearly devoid of addicts. The police had descended onto the park and pushed them away. Thus, the addicts were back in the shadows, living and shooting up in abandoned homes, in back alleys, hiding in the dark corners of the city. And while some community organizations continued their work of trying to help the addicts, it appears that the police in Philadelphia have not turned to a new model, but, rather, to the old model of scaring off drug addicts, criminalizing them and sending them into the shadows.
I don’t think there is anything new or revelatory in what I’ve said here. Drug addiction is a public health crisis, first and foremost. Harm reduction in locations like Vancouver and Gloucester have made a difference, they have made positive changes in addicts’ lives, including saving lives and getting people off the streets. And harm reduction programmes have got addicts into rehab and off drugs entirely. The criminalization of drug addicts does not have such results.
More to the point, society’s response to drug addiction amongst marginal populations (poor white people) and ethnic and racial minorities (marginalized in their own ways) speaks to how we see some people as disposable. The morality of such a view is beyond my comprehension, it is something I just fundamentally do not understand.