On Missing Home

July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

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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.

Equalization Payments in Canada

July 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the weekend on Twitter, I was caught up in a discussion with an Albertan who didn’t believe that the province, along with British Columbia, is forecast to lead Canada in economic growth.

She argued that the province is still hurting, that big American gas companies had pulled out, and that people were leaving Alberta.  Indeed, in June, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 7.4%, but even then, that was an improvement of 0.4% from May.  But, economic growth does not mean that one can necessarily see the signs of a booming economy.  Alberta’s economy, however, shows signs of recovery, and this 2.9% economic growth, as well as a decline in unemployment rates, shows that.

She also expressed a pretty common bitterness from Albertans about Equalization payments in Canada.  These payments might be the most mis-understood aspect of Canadian federalism.  The common belief in Alberta, which is usually a ‘have’ province (meaning it doesn’t receive equalization payments), is that its money, from oil and gas and everything else, is taken from it and given to the ‘have-not’ provinces (those who receive equalization payments).  This is made all the more galling to Albertans because Quebec is the greatest recipient of equalization payments.

This argument, though, is based on a fundamental mis-understanding of how equalization payments work in Canada.  Equalization payments date back to Canadian Confederation in 1867, as most taxation powers accrued to the federal government.  The formal system of equalization payments dates from 1957, largely to help the Atlantic provinces.  At that time, the two wealthiest provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, were the only two ‘have’ provinces.  And this formal system was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982. Section 36, subsection (2) of the Constitution Act reads:

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

The general idea behind equalization payments is, of course, that there are economic disparities across the nation.  There is any number of reasons for these disparities, which are calculated on a provincial level.  These can include the geographic size of a province, population, the physical geography, or economic activity.

Quebec is a traditional ‘have not’, which seems incongruous with the size and economy of the province.  Montreal, after a generation-long economic decline from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, has more or less recovered.  If Quebec were a nation of its own (as separatists desire), it would be the 44th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway. It contributes 19.65% of Canada’s GDP.  But Quebec’s economy is marked by massive inequalities.  This is true in terms of Montreal versus much of the rest of the province.  But it is also true within Montreal itself.  Montreal is home to both the richest neighbourhood in the nation, as well as two of the poorest.  Westmount has a median family income of $220,578.  But Downtown Montreal ($32,841) and Parc Ex ($34,211) are the fourth and fifth poorest, respectively, in Canada.

The formula by which equalization payments are made is based on averages across the country.  Here, we’re talking about taxation rates and revenue-generation, based on the national averages of Canada.  Provinces that fall below these averages are ‘have not’ provinces.  Those who fall above it are ‘have’ provinces.  The three wealthiest provinces are usually Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta.  But all three of these provinces have fallen into ‘have not’ status at various points. In 2017-18, in order of amounts received, the have-nots are: Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island.  Quebec, it should be noted, will receive more than the other ‘have-nots’ combined.  The ‘have’ provinces this year are Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Saskatchewan.

The equalization payments, though, are not a case of taking money from Alberta to pay for Quebec’s social programs.  The funds are not based on how much one province pays for its health care system, or for a universal child care system, or cheap tuition at the province’s universities (Quebec has both universal child care and cheap tuition for in-province students).  Rather, the funds come out of the same general revenue stream that Ottawa has to fund ALL of its programmes and services.  And, each and every Canadian contributes to this revenue stream.  Thus, the fine people of Westmount contribute more to equalization payments (and general revenue) than the middle-class residents of suburban Calgary, or a person in a lower income bracket in Saskatchewan.  And, because there are more Quebecers than there are Albertans, Quebec actually contributes more to the equalization payment scheme.

It is not just angry Albertans who believe they are getting hosed by the federal government.  Many Quebecers will rail against their province’s funding priorities and point to the province’s status as a ‘have not’ as to why it should not have these programmes.  Both positions are factually wrong, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Canada’s equalization payments.

The Centre Of The Universe?

December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments

An interesting thing has occurred in the realm of Canadian sports journalism in the past few weeks.  For those of you who don’t know, the English-language Canadian media is centred in Toronto, which every media outlet will remind you is “Canada’s largest city.”  The much smaller French-language media is centred in Montréal, which is Canada’s second largest city.  Toronto’s got a population of around 4.7 million, compared to Montréal’s 3.8 million.  Vancouver is third, closing in on 2 million.  And Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa are all around 1 million.  So we’re not looking at the situation in the UK, where London is the largest city and about 5 times larger than the second city, Birmingham.

But, reading Canadian sports media these days, and you’d be convinced that Toronto is the only city in Canada and that its sports teams are all wondrous, virtuous conquering heroes.  Never mind the fact that Toronto teams don’t really win much of anything ever.  The basketball Raptors and soccer Toronto FC have never won anything.  The hockey Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  And the Blue Jays last won in 1993.  The Argonauts of the Canadian Football League are the really the only continually successful Toronto sports team, having last won the Grey Cup in 2012 (but, the CFL is a 9-team league, so law of averages…).

Toronto FC was engaged in a tense two-leg Eastern Conference final in the MLS Cup Playoffs against the Impact de Montréal, or IMFC.  An all-Canadian conference final should be one of those things that grip the nation, or at least get the media to recognize its import.  And while Sportsnet, the second of Canada’s sports networks, largely has, TSN, the largest sports network and MLS rights holder, has not.  It has openly and blatantly cheered for a TFC victory, and its coverage has exclusively treated IMFC as an interloper in TFC’s eventual, wondrous assent to the top of the North American soccer world.  On Wednesday afternoon, in advance of the second leg of the series, to be played at BMO Field in Toronto, TSN posted this article about the five keys to the match as its headline on TSN.ca.  Note that it’s all about what TFC needs to do to win.  This is just the most egregious example.  The rest of the coverage on TSN.ca Wednesday afternoon was all slanted towards TFC: its mindset heading into the match, which players it needs to excel, and so on.  Not a word from IMFC’s perspective, except for a feel-good story about the club’s 38-year old captain, and Montréal native, Patrice Bernier.

In the aftermath of the TFC’s victory Wednesday night, in a tense 5-2 match that went to Extra Time, allowing TFC to advance 7-5 on aggregate, TSN’s homepage was a torrent of TFC.  And while this is a good thing, and deserved, TFC won, it’s also still one-sided.  This was especially true of the headline that said “TFC MAKES CANADIAN SOCCER HISTORY.”  Factually, yes, it did.  It made the finals of the MLS Cup for the first time and is the first Canadian club to do so.  But, it did so after making history in an all-Canadian conference final.  And there was not a single story about IMFC and its own very improbable run to the conference finals.  TSN has continually picked against IMFC all season.  It predicted the Montréal side would miss the playoffs.  Then it wouldn’t get past DC United in the first round, or New York Red Bulls in the second round.  And so on.

On Thursday morning, TSN.ca’s home page featured no fewer than 12 features and stories about TFC out of the 28 in total.  Of the remaining 16 stories and features, 10 were about the Maples Leafs (7), Raptors (2), and Blue Jays (1).  One story was about how the Calgary Flames pummeled the Maple Leafs Wednesday night and another mocked Montréal Canadiens winger Andrew Shaw and his bad temper.  There’s a reason why Canadians in the Rest of Canada tend to dismiss TSN as Toronto’s Sports Network.

Meanwhile: Hockey.  The top team in the NHL right now is the Montréal Canadiens.  But, TSN’s coverage is almost exclusively about the amazing, wondrous Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a collection of burgeoning young stars and actually look like they might be a good team again one day.  There are also, you might note, five more Canadian teams in the NHL.  Sucks to be a fan of one of them: TSN just doesn’t care, other than to note the ways in which they’re failing.

And then Sportsnet.  Sportsnet is the rights holder for the NHL in Canada.  And while its coverage tends to be more national in nature, in that it notes that there are indeed teams in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montréal, besides Toronto, how about them kids in the T-Dot, y’all?  But Sportsnet can even out-do TSN.  On Wednesday, the American-based Forbes published its annual list of NHL teams ranked by value.  As always, the New York Rangers are the most valuable hockey team.  The Rangers are worth $1.25 billion USD.  But Sportsnet’s headline reads: “Maple Leafs Rank Third in Forbes’ Annual Most Valuable Team List.”  So, you think, well, that makes sense.  But, wait, what’s the second most valuable team in the National Hockey League?  Chicago?  Los Angeles?  The New York Islanders?  Nope.  It’s the Montréal Canadiens.

Now, I know we Quebecers had ourselves a couple of referenda on leaving the country, and we still harbour a pretty strong separatist movement; at any given time, around 35% of us want out of Canada.  But, in both 1980 and 1995, we chose to stay.  And 65% of us at any given time want to stick around in Canada.  And we keep giving Canada Prime Ministers.  In my lifetime, five of 9 prime ministers have been Quebecers.

So, in other words, my dear TSN and Sportsnet, Québec is part of Canada.  And Montréal remains one of the largest cities in North America, and also remains a major centre of global commerce.  And its soccer team isn’t that bad, even if its appearance in the Conference Finals is a surprise.  And its hockey team, which is, after all, the most decorated hockey team in the world, is the most valuable Canadian team.

And, if you just so happen to be one of those provincials from the rest of the country, well, as we say back home, tant pis.

The Civil War and the Atlanta Flames

February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Last week, I was watching the Calgary Flames play, I can’t remember who they were playing; I watch a lot of hockey.  I’ve never liked the Flames.  They were arch rivals of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s and, as much as I have never cheered for the Canucks (who wore the ugliest uniforms in NHL history in that era), I never cheered for their rivals either (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary), with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings.  The Flames also committed the venial sin of defeating the Montréal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup in 1989 (to this day, the last time two Canadian teams played for Lord Stanley of Preston’s mug).

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

The Calgary Flames came into existence in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames packed up shop and moved to the much smaller Canadian city (in a wonderful twist of fate, Atlanta’s next chance at an NHL team, the Thrashers, packed up and moved the much smaller Canadian city of Winnipeg in 2011, where they became the Jets, Version 2.0, the original Jets having moved to Phoenix in 1996, becoming the Coyotes).

When I was a kid, the Atlanta Flames were this team that no one ever thought about.  The only real time they entered my consciousness was in 1977 or 1978, when my parents were considering moving from Montréal to Atlanta.  We moved to Toronto instead.  But, due to the snow storm that hit Atlanta last week and the fact that it was in the news, I was thinking about the old Atlanta Flames whilst watching the Calgary Flames.

I may be slow on the uptake, but the reason why the Atlanta NHL team was called the Flames was a Civil War reference.  After Atlanta fell to the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman in July 1864, Sherman, a vindictive sort, ordered the civilian population out, and then proceeded to sack the city old school, by burning it (though he was persuaded to save the city’s churches by Fr. Thomas O’Reilly of the Church of the Immaculate Conception).  The city was devastated.

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

Calgary Flames star Kent Nilsson, c. 1984

When Atlanta was awarded an NHL expansion franchise for the 1972-3 season, Tom Cousins, the owner, chose the name to commemorate the burning of Atlanta.  When the Flames relocated to Calgary eight years later, Nelson Skalbania, the new owner, decided to keep the name, thinking it a fitting name for an oil town.  The uniforms remained the same, except that the flaming A was replaced by a flaming C.

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