Griffintown: Keegan House Saved. Really?

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Montreal is a strange place.  The city basically works in completely counter-intuitive ways.  Last week, the Comité consultatif d’urbanisme (CCU) of the arrondissement sud-ouest of the Ville de Montréal denied permission to developer, Maitre-Carré, to tear down the oldest building in Griffintown, a grotty old house that stands at 175, rue de la Montagne.  The Keegan House, as it is now known, was built sometime between 1825 and 1835, on Murray Street, a block over from its present state.  It was moved to what was then McCord Street in 1865, around the same time that the handsome row of townhouses was constructed up the block.

When Maitre Carré’s plans were first made public, I was apprehensive, but also thought that perhaps the developer deserved our benefit of the doubt, insofar as it had, at least, made some nod to heritage in Griff when Hugo Girard-Beauchamp, the company’s president, bought the Horse Palace and has at least nodded to the idea of maintaining the Palace as a working stable going forward (whether this will happen in practice is a whole different kettle of fish).  Indeed, as my friend, G. Scott MacLeod, a film-maker interested in Griff, said, Maitre-Carré is the only developer that has at least acknowledged the history and heritage of the neighbourhood.  Indeed, other condo developers, most notably Devimco and Préval have been more interested in stuffing ugly, neo-brutalist blocks of condos down on the Griffintown landscape, completely destroying the streetscape (such as it existed) and dwarfing the original buildings.

Having said all that, at this point anyway (because one never knows in Montreal), this is an optimistic sign.  Anne-Marie Sigouin, the city councillor for Saint-Paul/Émard, and the chair of the CCU, said (according to The Gazette) “We have sent the architects back to the drawing board.  We want to send a clear message on heritage protection.”  This is rather surprising, since the CCU and the Ville de Montréal as a whole have not demonstrated much in the way of leadership up to now in Griff.

Alienation and Belonging

March 28, 2014 § 2 Comments

An old friend visited us this weekend, and as he and I drove up the Massachusetts coast to hunt down the best pizza in the Commonwealth (Riverview in Ipswich, if you’re wondering), we got to talking about New England.  Despite having lived in New England, he always feels like he could never penetrate the insularity of New England culture, and he always feels alienated here.  I found that interesting, given I don’t feel that way at all, despite obviously being a transplant.

This might be the advantage of being an Anglo from Montréal. Anglo Montrealers are always at least slightly alienated from the city and dominant culture.  We are a (small) minority, and we speak a minority language.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

I’ve always felt alienated from my surroundings. I grew up in British Columbia, very aware of the fact I didn’t belong, which came out in everything from my distaste of the wet, soggy climate to continuing to cheer for the Montréal Canadiens, Expos, and, when they existed, the Concorde or Alouettes of the CFL, as opposed to my friends who cheered for the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and either the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners.  I felt similarly alienated in Ottawa.  It was only when I moved back to Montréal I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings.  But I still felt alienated from the larger culture, mostly due to language, even as my French language skills improved.

But, as with all things Montréal, it was never this simple.  My Anglo friends and family dismissed any suggestion I might be a Montrealer, by continually reminding me I grew up out west.  On the other hand, my francophone and allophone friends made no such distinction, and this is also true of my separatist friends.  Go figure.  Anglo mythology would have it the other way round.  One of the most amazing moments of my life in Montréal came during the 2000 federal election campaign when I answered a knock on my door and found Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc québécois, with Amir Khadir, who was the BQ’s candidate in my riding (Khadir has since gone on to be the co-leader of the sovereigntist provincial party, Québec solidaire, and is currently the MNA for the Montréal riding of Mercier).  Duceppe, Khadir, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes talking about place, identity, and belonging in Québec.  Largely in English.  Even the leader of a separatist party and the candidate for my riding didn’t dispute my bona fides as a Montrealer and a Quebecer (maybe, in part, because I assured them the BQ had my vote).

Since 2006, I have spent a lot of time in New England, before moving here in 2012, on account of my wife being American.  She lived in Western Massachusetts when we met, so we did our best to split our time between Montréal and Western Mass.  After all those years spending time out there, I came to feel like it was Home.  Sure, I was never going to fully fit in, be a part of the scenery, but that was ok by me.  And, even now, living at the other end of the Commonwealth, in the massive urban sprawl that is Boston, I feel similarly at home.  The ways I feel alienated here are mostly due being Canadian.  But I don’t find myself feeling excluded by New Englanders, or, really, Americans as a whole. In other words, I can deal with my alienation, it has kind of become my default way of being.

No doubt this is due to being an Anglo Montrealer and experiencing some degree of discomfort and alienation my entire life in my hometown and anywhere else I lived in Canada, tainted as I was, so to speak, by being from Montréal.

Dear Boston: Reflecting on the Marathon Memorial at the Boston Public Library

March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Back in July, when the insta-memorial for the Boston Bombing of 15 April 2013 was taken down, I wrote this piece at the National Council of Public History’s history@work blog.  In it, I expressed my cynicism of what happens to the items of the memorial when they are removed from the site and put in storage, or even brought out again for a more permanent exhibition.  I also argued in favour of insta-memorials such as this, seeing some value in our hyper-mediated lives, watching the world through the screens of our iPhones.  What resulted, from the piece on history@work, as a notification here on this site, as well as Rainy Tisdale’s blog, was a rather robust discussion, especially between myself and Rainy, a Boston-based independent curator about authenticity and memorials.

IMG_1530To sum up the discussion, we debated whether or not Boston needed an exhibition on the first anniversary of the attack.  I argued that the running of the 118th Boston Marathon, as well as the traditional Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, would serve as a chance for Bostonians to reclaim Boylston Street and Copley Square one year later.  Rainy, on the other hand, argued that an exhibition was necessary in order to prevent the kind of frenzy that began to emerge surrounding the #BostonStrong rallying cry when the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring (and lost. I hate the Bruins).

IMG_1528In the time since, I have come around more to Rainy’s argument than my own, though I still worry about questions of authenticity and memorial mediation on the part of the curatorial hand (though, of course, that spontaneous memorial, first on Boylston Street and then at Copley Square was also curated, in part).  Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to Rainy’s exhibit at the main branch of the Boston Public Library on Copley Square.  Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial opens on 7 April, and will run to 11 May.  It is a tri-partite exhibit: the first part will encompass the immediate responses to the bombing, the second will be people’s reflections on the bombs, and the final part will be the hopeful part, messages of hope and healing.

IMG_1529I appreciate the exhibit’s title perhaps more than anything at this point, as it makes direct references to the curatorial hand at work here, as the exhibit will deliver messages from the memorial.  In July last year, I worried about the loss of meaning of the individual artefacts when they were boxed up and stored in the Boston Archives.  A running shoe had a very poignant and powerful meaning when displayed at the memorial, and in a box in the archives, it’s a running shoe.  Restored to the public eye, however, attached with a symbolic meaning that no one in Boston, or anyone visiting the exhibit, will miss, the shoe regains its poignancy.

What struck me in my discussion with Rainy last summer was how she intended to approach the exhibit, and her sensitivity to the very issues that concerned me.  I am very much looking forward to what she comes up with.

Half of Québec Anglos want out. Why this isn’t news

February 25, 2014 § 8 Comments

So the CBC is reporting that 51% of Anglos and 49% of Allophones in Québec have pondered leaving in the past year (compared to 11% of francophones) But, SURPRISE, it’s not because of language.  It’s the economy, stupid.  And Québec’s is sinking apparently.  Another report I saw today said that Montréal’s economy is lagging behind the Rest of Canada’s major cities.  In the past decade, Montréal’s GDP has grown by 37 per cent.  Sounds impressive, no?  Well. not really, since the five major cities in the Rest of Canada (Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa) have seen their cumulative GPD grow 59 per cent.  As well, Montréal’s unemployment rate hovers around 8.5 per cent, compared with TVCEO’s (I think I just invented an acronym!) 6.3 per cent.  Says Jacques Ménard, chair of BMO Nesbitt Burns and President of the Bank of Montréal in Québec, “Montreal has been slowly decelerating for 15 years, and now it shows. Another 10 years of this and we will be in clear and present danger.”

A decade ago, however, Montréal had the fastest growing economy amongst Canada’s major cities, from 1999-2004, as Montréal was, for all intents and purposes, a post-conflict society.  Montréal was healing from the long constitutional battles that erupted in the 1960s and seemed to have been finally put to bed with the divisive 1995 Referendum on Québec sovereignty.  Certainly, Québec was by-and-large still represented by the separatist Bloc Québécois in Ottawa, but the Parti Québécois government of Lucien Bouchard and André Boisclair, and then the Liberals of Jean Charest, turned attention away from the ethnic nationalist debates that had divided Québec for so long.  Instead, Bouchard, Gilles Duceppe and most of the leadership of the nationalist movement began thinking in terms of civic nationalism, but the largest issue was put on the back burner.  And, as a result, Montréal recovered.

I remember walking back across downtown after Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s funeral in the spring of 2000.  As I passed Square Victoria, a little boy was pointing at a crane on the skyline, asking his father, “Ce quoi ça, Papa?”  He was about 5 or 6, and it hit me that he probably hadn’t seen a crane in downtown Montréal.  But, in the first decade of the 2000s, Montréal underwent a construction boom, and prosperity returned to the city (and it slowly began to lose its unique character, at least in the downtown core and much of the Anglophone parts of the city as global culture took hold).

But in the wake of the 2008 Global Economic Meltdown, all bets are off.  Québec is now governed by a tribalist Parti Québécois, led by the incredibly uninspiring Pauline Marois (and let me be clear, despite being an Anglo, I voted for the PQ 2003, 2007, and 2008, and for the sovereigntist Québec Solidaire in 2012 and I voted for the Bloc Québécois federally in every election), who seems determined to play to her base, whipping up a frenzy amongst the “bluenecks” outside of the metropole.  And now Diane de Courcy, Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities, says that if the PQ wins a majority in the election everyone knows is coming this spring, well, then we can expect Bill 101 to be toughened.  Oh boy.

I would like to point out, however, that when de Courcy says “Montreal is not a bilingual city. Quebec is not a bilingual Quebec,” she is right.  The metropole is a multilingual city at this point.  But, it is the metropole of Québec, which is, at least officially, unilingually French.

BUT: I would also like to point out that had anyone thought about polling the Allo- and Anglo- phones about their thoughts on leaving Québec at any time in the past decade, my guess is that the numbers wouldn’t be all that different.  Most diasporic groups in Montréal have connections to similar ethnic communities in other Canadian and American cities.  And Anglophones have a long tradition of driving up the 401 to Toronto and beyond, or heading to the United States (hi, there).  This is not news.

In conjunction with the depressing state of the economy in Montréal and Québec, and the struggles of thereof, it’s not surprising to see so much unrest in the province.  Usually when the economy tanks, people at least give some thought to moving.  And the years since 2008 have seen a fair amount of mobility in North America.  Since Ireland’s economy collapsed at the same time, the Irish have been leaving home in search of new opportunities.  What would make this real news is if even a fraction of those who claim to have thought about leaving did pack up and leave Québec.  Then we would see something akin to the Flight of the Anglos from Québec in the late 1970s.  Until then, this really should be filed under “Interesting, but not news.”

Montréal’s Griffintown Redevelopment #FAIL

February 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

The Gazette this morning reports news that the Keegan House just around the corner on rue de la Montagne from Wellington, and across from where St. Ann’s Church once stood, is under threat of demolition from Maitre-Carré, the developer responsible for the condo tower at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa.  The Keegan House was built sometime between 1825 and 1835 on Murray Street, a block over.  In 1865, it was moved to its current site.

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The house was moved because of the development around Griff.  Unlike many other urban neighbourhoods, and unlike the current redevelopment, Griffintown was developed on a lot-by-lot basis.  There were not block long, or multi-lot developments as a rule.  So as Murray Street was developed, Andrew Keegan, a school teacher, moved his house to a  more prestigious locale, across the street from St. Ann’s Church.  As David Hanna, an urban studies professor at UQÀM, notes, the block across the street from St. Ann’s was where the nicest housing in Griff was.  But that is still a relative statement.  Even the nicest homes in Griffintown could not compare with even the swankier locales across the canal in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

In recent years, the Keegan House has fallen into disrepair.  I was in the building 7 or 8 years ago, and it was in rough shape.   Maitre-Carré have bought the lots from 161-75 de la Montagne for redevelopment.  Also slated to be demolished is the building that housed what used to be the Coffee Pot, a hangout for Griffintowners across the street from the Church.  After the Coffee Pot closed in the early 1960s, the building was split in two, with a dépanneur and a tavern operating there.  The tavern limped to its death about a decade ago.  Both the Coffee Pot building and the Keegan House were given an unfortunate renovation in the 1950s or 60s, with their outer walls encased in concrete, which greatly diminished their aesthetic appeal.

Now what makes this story interesting and oh-so Montréal is that Hugo Girard-Beauchamp, the president of Maitre-Carré, claims that his company has no intention of destroying the Keegan House and, in fact, wishes to incorporate it into the new development.  You know what? I believe him.  Maitre-Carré and Girard-Beauchamp are the ones were worked with through the Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation.  And while he remains a businessman, Girard-Beauchamp was also more than willing to listen to us and even help us preserve the Horse Palace.  In fact, I would go so far as to say, at least when I was on the Board of the GHPF, that we would not have succeeded without his help.

However.  This is Montréal.  The borough isn’t sharing the plans for this development.  Julie Nadon, the chief of planning for the borough, says they’re “confidential.”  They shouldn’t be.  Too much of the redevelopment of Griffintown has been done this way.  The Ville de Montréal has operated in Star Chamber secrecy, refusing to divulge its plans to anyone other than the developers until it’s too late.  A couple of years ago, the Ville de Montréal held a public session at the ÉTS to show off its plans for Griff.  It’s plans had already been made with 0 public input.  None.  At all.

Montréal’s Star Chamber secrecy violates the very principles of democracy and the things that Montréal likes to pride itself on, which is an open city, with a creative class proud of its civic engagement.  In Griffintown, the Ville de Montréal stonewalls civic engagement at each and every turn.  It’s embarrassing and it’s no way to run a city.  #fail

Changes in Griffintown, 2011-2014

February 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

I got an email from Dave Flavell the other day.  I’ve known Dave for a few years; he contacted me awhile back for some help on a project he was doing on Griffintown.  He was collecting oral histories of the community and its diaspora, with a view towards publishing a book.  Last time we talked about it, he said the book was on its way to publication.  This email contained photos of Griff, in particular of the Horse Palace on Ottawa street, taken in 2011, 2013, and 2014.  The changes are stunning.

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2011. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2011. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

In the first photo, we look down Eleanor street at the Horse Palace, built in 1862, standing at the end of the block on Ottawa, surrounded by huge trees.  Time was these were amongst the only trees in Griffintown a hundred years ago.  The old St. Ann’s Kindergarten is on the left, now the headquarters of King’s Transfer, a moving company that’s been based in the neighbourhood for almost a century.  It’s also where I conducted the majority of the oral history interviews for House of the Irish, thanks to the generosity of Bill O’Donell, the president of King’s.  In this picture, the Horse Palace looks much as it has for the past thirty-forty years.  But a closer look shows that it’s already under transformation.  Leo Leonard, the legendary proprietor of the Horse Palace, and his wife Hugeuette, had already sold and moved to a retirement home.  Leo, though, did not get much of an opportunity to enjoy retirement, he died in in July 2012 at the age of 87. Already, the building is under renovation, new windows have been put in on the second floor.  But the actual stable, which is just out of sight, behind those moving trucks, was still in full working order.

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2013. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

Griffintown Horse Palace, 2013. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

The next picture was taken last year.  From the exact same spot.  Now the Horse Palace residence is dwarfed by an 8-story condo built next door and behind it, fronting on rue de la Montagne.  This building was under construction in 2011, but had not yet risen to dwarf the Horse Palace.  The Horse Palace building looks tiny and insignificant in the shadow of the condo, which stretches across at least three lots on de la Montagne.

New condo tower and the Griffintown Horse Palace, January 2014. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

New condo tower and the Griffintown Horse Palace, January 2014. Photo courtesy of Dave Flavell

The final picture was taken a couple of weeks ago, from the corner of Ottawa and de la Montagne, looking east. The shop fronts on Ottawa in the new building remain empty, but looking down the block, after the Horse Palace residence is the old paddock of the stable, which was bought last year by the Ville de Montréal for purposes of turning it into a park to provide access to the actual stables, which the Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation has done yeoman’s work to preserve and save. (Full disclosure: I was a board member of the GHPF from 2008 until I left Montréal in 2012).  Continuing on past the paddock, another mid-19th century residence still stands.  And then, at the corner of Ottawa and Murray, another, shorter, 4-story condo stands.  It was built in 2011.  The crane is on the site of Devimco’s massive “District Griffin” development on Peel street.

Even though I have seen this view down Ottawa from de la Montagne, I was still shocked by Dave’s photo.  The entire landscape of Griffintown is massively changed.  The condo at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa is representative of the redevelopment.  The streets of Griffintown are narrow, the buildings have always been hard up against the sidewalk. This has contributed to a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere, at least on those blocks where enough buildings still remain.  But these old buildings were 2 floors, at most 3.  The stacking of 4, 6, 8, 10-story condos, lining these narrow streets only enhances this claustrophobia.  It devastates the urban environment.

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.

The Upside to Gentrification?

January 22, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification.  Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one.  In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming.  Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence.  But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.

Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others.  In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open.  There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down.  However, it is also obvious that people stay.  In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing.  And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.

Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish.  Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.

What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie.  And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones.  However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons.  The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.”  The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.

At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us.  We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.

 

The English Language and Montreal

January 8, 2014 § 8 Comments

An interesting oped appeared in the Montreal Gazette today.  It was written by a guy, Nicholas Robinson, who teaches Japanese in Montreal, an expat American who has been there for the past 30 years.  He is critical of the Anglo community of Quebec when they kvetch about not getting service in English, whether at the hospital or on the STM.  He says that learning French is just as essential to living in Montreal as learning Japanese is to living in Kyoto.

I tend to agree, the fact of the matter is that Quebec is a French province and Montreal is a French city.  Last time I looked at census data, just a shade under 600,000 Quebecers identified as Anglos, as defined by speaking English as their mother tongue.  That’s 7.7% of the population of Quebec.  The largest group of Anglos live in and around Montreal, where 16.8% of the population is Anglo.  Statistically, that’s a sizeable minority.  And yet, most Anglos, at least in Montreal are at least functionally bilingual.

Robinson goes on to argue that “the French speakers of Quebec have been incredibly tolerant of the anglophone “community,” and a vast swath of them have gone to the immense trouble of learning English — when they don’t have to at all.”  I also tend to agree here, though I will note something based on my experience of teaching CÉGEP for 6 years.  I would say that somewhere between 40-45% of our students at my Anglophone CÉGEP were francophone, some of whom did not have great English-language skills upon entering the school.  But their reason for wanting to go to CÉGEP in English (they often went onto French-language universities) was simple: English is the dominant language in the world today, and is the lingua franca of global business (I would also add that about 70% of my students wanted to get degrees in business or related fields).  So there are practical reasons for Quebec’s francophones to learn and speak English.

But, as you might expect, the comments in response to Robinson’s missive are, well, predictable. And vitriolic.  They include exhortations that he remove himself from Quebec and “go home.”  But the first comment I saw was perhaps the most instructive of all.  The commentator lambasts Robinson and notes that Canada is a bilingual nation.  And Quebec is a province of that bilingual nation.  That much is true.

But.  Quebec is not bilingual.  In fact, there is only one officially bilingual province in Canada: New Brunswick, though Ontario and Manitoba will also provide services in French to their population.  Moreover, despite the fact that, say, British Columbia is a province in a bilingual nation, good luck getting anyone to speak French to you in Vancouver.  Canadian bilingualism functions in reality a lot more along the Belgian model: insofar as it exists, it’s regional.  Canada has something called a “bilingual belt” that stretches from New Brunswick along the St. Lawrence River valley to Eastern Ontario.  Within this belt, you will find a sizeable amount of the populace that can speak both English and French, and you’ll also find some bilinguality in Manitoba.  Aside from that, though, forget it.

So, in reality, the Anglophone population of Quebec and Montreal, as Robinson notes, has it relatively good.  An Anglophone in Montreal can get an education in English, and healthcare in English, and there is a robust Anglo media in the city. And, I might add, while I can speak French, when I had to deal with the government of Quebec, I tended to at least try to get service in English, in large part because I, like many Anglos, don’t trust my French all that much.  This was especially the case when dealing with Revenu Québec or the Ministère de la Santé et les services sociaux.  Much to my surprise, this was never a problem. I always got responses in English.  A francophone in Toronto gets none of that.

Having said that, Montreal has a robust Anglophone community because it has jealously protected itself and its “rights”, especially since the rise of the Parti québécois’ first government in 1976 and Bill 101 in 1977.  But that doesn’t mean that Robinson doesn’t have a point.

 

The Death of the Artist

December 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman spends some time discussing the consequences of the lost imagination, for both the individual and society as a whole.  What struck me is her discussion of what existed on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s in terms of culture and art.  It also got me thinking about my own experiences in the punk scenes of Montréal, and Vancouver in the early 1990s, and the creativity of the artists in those scenes.  Schulman also pointed out that the artists in New York City, like the ones I knew in Canada, lived in poverty, scraping to get by, sometimes begging, borrowing, and/or stealing, or even turning tricks, in order to make rent.  We also threw rent parties, where our friends would all give us a few bucks to help us cover the rent for the month.

I used to sit amongst these scenes pondering individuality.  What initially attracted me to the punk scenes was that: individuality.  Growing up in suburbia, I felt an intense pressure to conform, and punk offered me a way out.  But, from the inside of the scene, I began to grow somewhat disenchanted, in that we all looked the same, the bands all sounded the same.  Sort of, anyway.  In 1994, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, released their epic album, Live Through This, which ended with the dystopian punk song, “Olympia.” Yes, there was once a time when Courtney Love was a musician, and not the butt of a joke.  Love sang:

When I went to school in Olympia
Everyone’s the same
And so are you in Olympia
Everyone is the same
We look the same, we talk the same, yeah
We even fuck the same
When I went to school in Olympia!

And that was kind of it, but we were also so far out of the mainstream it didn’t matter.  We may have been the same, but we were different than everyone else.  I have a feeling it wasn’t that different in New York City in the 1980s.  Schulman’s friends, mostly gay artists, stood out from society due to their vocation and their sexuality.  We stood out due to our fashion and our aesthetic.

But now, it’s 20-30 years later.  What was then the fringe is now the mainstream. Hell, for that matter the various Fringe Festivals in North America and Western Europe are mainstream.  Punk exploded into the suburbs around the time I was down and out on the Eastside of Vancouver.  As Schulman notes, being gay has gone mainstream (though she has a blistering critique of this, and I would note that LGBT people remain essentialised and discriminated against in the mainstream of society).

Our society has become corporate and cookie cutter.  This isn’t s surprise to anyone reading this blog, I’m sure.  Schulman blames this on the rise of lifestyle magazines.  These magazines sell a lifestyle and a design ethos.  We shop at Crate & Barrel or Ikea or Anthropologie for our home furnishings.  When I look at all the urban hipsters in whatever city I am in, whether it’s Montréal or Portland or Seattle or Vancouver or Denver of Indianapolis or Boston or Pittsburgh, they all look the same.  They wear the same ironic glasses, the same ironic clothes, and adopt the same ironic poses.  And their older counterparts are pretty much the same, the women in yoga wear and the men in North Face wear.

Schulman bemoans the younger artists she meets who are corporatised and, as a result, larger uncreative, or their creativity is sucked up by a corporate mindset.  I wish I could disagree with her.  But I can’t.  As a culture, we’ve lost our creativity in so many ways because we can’t really escape the corporate world.  So it turns out I still have a little punk in me.  Who knew?

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