July 26, 2018 § 2 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.
March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lost 5-3. The Canadiens are having a miserable year, this loss, their 48th of the year (including regulation and overtime losses), officially eliminated them from playoff contention. The mood in the city is dour and angry. Fans are upset at management for mismanaging the Franchise, Carey Price. He had some mystery ailment he said was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bothering him earlier in the year. It wasn’t team doctors who noticed it; it was his wife, Angela. Big defenceman Shea Weber played through a nasty foot injury before being shut down for the season and having surgery.
Then there’s the mistakes General Manager Marc Bergevin made in the off-season. He traded away promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for moody, sulky, but very talented forward Jonathan Drouin. And then the team put Drouin at centre, a position he hadn’t played for years. Why? Because the Habs haven’t had a #1 centre since the peak of Saku Koivu’s career in the late 90s/early 00s. Drouin, not surprisingly, has been a bust. Bergevin also let iconic defenceman Andrei Markov walk after he insulted Markov in contract negotiations. Bergevin then had the gall to tell us that the defence was better this year than last. I could go on and on.
Something stinks in the City of Montreal and it is the hockey team. It is a laughing stock.
And, not surprisingly, the Twitter wars have been epic. During last Thursday’s game, a prominent Montreal sportswriter made an idiot of himself. This is also not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to the Habs. He was in a discussion with a blogger, who noted that we Habs fans forget that the team has had 3-100 point seasons in the past 5. This sportswriter noted in response that “Germany had three really strong military years in WWII.”
And then all hell broke loose, as it should. When his interlocutor noted this stupidity, he dug in deeper, noting that “They [meaning Nazi Germany] were winning until they weren’t. It’s not that deep.” Another Twitter user called him out, and our intrepid journalist got his shovel out again: “Notice I said military. Only an idiot would stretch that into anything more.”
Well, maybe I am an idiot. As the second interlocutor noted, this is Nazi Germany we’re talking about. Not some random war. This is a régime that murdered 6 million Jews in cold blood, to say nothing of Roma, LGBT, and disabled victims. The Holocaust is, to paraphrase Elie Weisel, an event that cannot be understood, but must be remembered. There have been other genocides, particularly in the last half of the 20th century (after we, the West, declared “Never Again!”). But, the Holocaust remains beyond the pale in our collective consciousness.
And when this was pointed out to our journalist, that he essentially compared the management of the Montreal Canadiens to the Nazis, he got out his shovel and kept on digging: “No, not every soldier was a Nazi, not every German believed the Nazi ideology. But that’s beside the point, because we all know what I was saying, and it had nothing to do with Nazis.”
To put it bluntly, this is epic stupidity. According to the United States Holocaust Museum,
The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.
The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.
And sure, maybe the journalist didn’t mean to bring up the Nazis. But words have meanings, and someone who works with words on a daily basis should know better. The Wehrmacht was by-and-large Nazified. Period. And his comparison of the Habs 3-100 point seasons with the Wehrmacht includes the Nazis, whether he meant it or not. And he should know better. I did hit the unfollow button, by the way.
February 1, 2018 § 4 Comments
The Canadian Football League has long sought to add a 10th team in the Maritimes. To do so would be to make the CFL actually national. But, the CFL has also had to deal with some serious instability with its franchises in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, especially, over the past 30 years. Ottawa is currently on its third (as far as I can count) franchise since the 1980s. The Rough Riders folded in 1996. They were replaced by Ottawa Renegades; this franchise only lasted from 2002 to 2006. Currently, the REDBLACKS play in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, down the 417 in Montreal, the original Alouettes folded in 1982; they were replaced by the Concordes, who only lasted until 1986. After that, Montreal was devoid of Canadian football until the Baltimore Stallions were forced out of that city by the relocation of the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1995. The Baltimore team moved to Montreal. Meanwhile, the Argonauts have never ceased operations, but they have been a basket case in terms of stability and presence in the city most of my adult life. So, in other words, expansion to the Maritimes has not exactly been on the front burner. But that’s changed recently, and reports state that not only is there an ownership group in Halifax, but there is will at CFL headquarters.
Personally, I’d love to see a Halifax CFL team. This would both make the league truly national, it would also speak to the deep popularity of Canadian football in the Maritimes. The universities of the Maritimes have a long and deep tradition of Canadian football. And just like the Alouettes and the REDBLACKS (in French, the ROUGENOIRS) have offered a professional career to many French-Canadian football players emerging from Quebec’s college teams, a Halifax team could do the same.
It is unclear what the team would be called, and so, social media (as well as Halifax’s media in general) is full of speculation, and a bevy of names have been proposed. Last week, a fan art Twitter account, dedicated to this proposed team, suggested that perhaps the team could be called the Explosions, in a tweet:
Uh, yeah. No. The Halifax Explosion occurred on the morning of 6 December 1917, when a Norwegian ship collided with a French cargo ship, the Mont-Blanc, in the Halifax Harbour. The French ship was carrying explosives and war munitions (this was the middle of the First World War, after all) and caught fire after the collision. The fire ignited the cargo, which then exploded. It devastated a large chunk of Halifax. Nearly every building within a kilometre radius was destroyed. A pressure wave accompanying the explosion snapped tress, grounded vessels in the harbour, and devastated iron rails. The remnants of the Mont-Blanc were found several kilometres away. Nearly every window in the city was broken. The city of Dartmouth lies across the harbour from Halifax. It suffered extensive damage. The Mi’kmaq First Nation, near Dartmouth, was destroyed by a tsunami caused by the explosion.
The blast was the largest human-made explosion prior to the advent of nuclear weapons. It released the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT. Think about that for a second. Of all the blasts of bombs and munitions in war prior to 6 and 9 August 1945, the Halifax Explosion was the greatest one ever caused by humans. It killed over 2,000 people and injured nearly 10,000 more, out of a population of around 95,000.
In short, the Halifax Explosion destroyed the City of Halifax. So suggesting a CFL team be called the Explosions is flat out disrespectful and idiotic. Shame on @CFLinHalifax for even suggesting it. Since this initial tweet on Monday, the people behind the account have doubled down in their idiocy.
Meanwhile, the CFL and the proposed Halifax ownership group have had to put out press releases distancing themselves from @CFLinHalifax.
November 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
One of the wonderful things about growing up in Canada was official bilingualism. This meant, for example, that growing up in Vancouver, I could see my beloved Habs every Saturday night on La Soirée du Hockey on Radio-Canada. It also meant that the French-language version of MuchMusic, MusiquePlus, was broadcast across cable in Vancouver, direct from Montréal.
For the adventuresome young music fan, there was this whole other world out there from France, Belgium, Québec, and French Africa. Musiqueplus is how I first heard a whole raft of great French artists, from Youssou N’Dour to Noir Désire to Jean Leloup to Niagara to Serge Gainsbourg, and beyond. It is also how I first heard Céline Dion, so there’s that to take into account. But it is also how I first came across the great Parisienne band, Les Négresses Vertes.
In high school, French music wasn’t exactly something I could share with my friends. Sure, I was part of the alternative music crowd, but that only extended to the Anglophone world. I hunt out with some of the theatre kids, but this was a bridge too far even for them. It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa, with its proximity to Montréal, that I found the freedom to enjoy French music publicly.
Most of the Anglo world first came across Les Négresses Vertes through their presence on the Red Hot + Blue album in 1990. They covered Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris.’ But, by then, I had already dug on their début album, Mlah, which came out in 1988. They were unlike anything I had ever heard in English. They mixed French traditional music with world beat and punk. They were complicated. Their melodies and beats owed more to the French Empire than France. And they had a strong sense of musicality, which bubbled up to the surface in surprising ways sometimes. Front man Noël Rota, better known as Helno, sounded a bit like Joe Strummer of the Clash, at least sometimes (this also made Strummer’s late life foray into acoustic punks and Latin beats somewhat bizarre to me, since it sounded more like Helno fronting Mano Negra).
The Vertes were a collection of misfits and punks from Paris, originating around Les Halles. They were a united nation of the former French empire; their name came from an insult hurled at them at one of their earliest. I don’t get romantic about the past and locations often, but, c’mon, this is Paris. Paris in the 80s must’ve been an amazing place. And Les Négresses Vertes arose out of this, the cosmopolitan nature of the French metropole, plus the distinct French qualities of the city, and the inner city at that. And the music! Aside from Les Négresses Vertes there was Noir Désir, Bérurier Noir, Mano Negra, amongst others.
Their first two albums, Mlah and Famille Nombreuse, teetered on complete chaos, an eight-piece orchestra. Helno was this tiny, kind of funny looking freak. He had a pompadour and looked like something that stepped out of the 1950s. But, in front of his band, he became something else. He held this chaos together. He was both the primary song writer and the vocalist. He sounded a bit like Strummer, yes, but he also sounded world-weary. All of this when he was in his late 20s. He’d done copious amounts of drugs, but he still more or less lived in his mother’s flat in a poor part of northern Paris. People all around him were dying, of suicide, drug overdoses, and AIDs. He once told a journalist that he through that if there was a Hell, it was on Earth. He also claimed that he wrote his lyrics whilst riding his bike around Paris, singing out loud as he rode. Hindsight says he was damned from the getgo. But I doubt it looked that way at the time.
His lyrics were riddled with slang and dark humour, stories of love and the gritty city (”Zobi La Mouche‘ and ‘Voila l’été‘) mixed with the occasional beautiful love song (‘Homme de marais‘, seriously one of my favourite songs ever) and dirge (‘Face à la mer‘). ‘Face à la mer’ was remixed by Massive Attack and became a huge club hit after Helno’s death (perhaps the most unlikely club raver ever).
It’s been a long time since I listened to the Vertes, probably close to a decade. But for some reason, I put them on last weekend. Nothing has changed, even though their first album was released almost 30 years ago. Helno himself has been dead for almost 25 years; he died of a heroin overdose in January 1993, at the age of 29. Their music is still immediate, still that beautiful concoction of chaos, danger, and beauty.
Les Négresses Vertes carried on after Helno’s death, eventually evolving more into a dub fusion band. But something was lost. Helno seemed to be the one who kept the chaos from falling off the rails, from ensuring the danger remained in the background. After his death, the band was never as exuberant and full of life again. They mellowed. And as much as I like the post-Helno era, for me, Les Négresses Vertes were at their best between 1987 and 1993.
As far as I know, they’ve never broken up, but they haven’t released any new music since 2001. They don’t have a web page. They don’t have a Twitter or a Facebook page. And career-spanning retrospectives were released in the early 2000s.
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.
July 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
The running joke in Montreal is that a traffic cone should be our municipal symbol. From May to November or so annually, the streets of the metropole are a sea of traffic cones as workers frantically try to patch up roads thrashed by winter, and occasionally build something new. And annually, Montrealers kvetch about construction. As if it didn’t happen last summer and won’t happen next summer.
I was home last week, and it was the usual. Actually it’s beyond the usual. The city is awash in the orange beacons. Roads are dug up everywhere. But, something else occurred to me. This is not the status quo, this is not business as usual for my city. Instead, this is something new. This year, 2017, marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1642. It is also Canada’s 150th anniversary since Confederation in 1867. This means that Montreal is seeing an infrastructural (re-)construction not seen since the late 1960s, in conjunction with Expo ’67, on Canada’s 100th anniversary. That boon saw the highway complex around the city built, as well as the Pont Champlain. Montreal also got its wonderful métro system out of that. But this infrastructural boom coincided with deindustrialization and the decline of the urban core of the city. Thus, what looked beautiful and shiny in 1967 had, by 2007, become decrepit and dodgy. There was no money for proper upkeep, so things were patched together.
Take, for example, the Turcot Interchange in the west end of the city. Chunks of concrete fell off it regularly, so there were these rather dodgy looking repair patches all over it. The Pont Champlain had outlived its expected lifespan of about 50 years. And the métro. Wow. While the trains still ran on time, more or less, and regularly, they were ancient.
But now, all this money is being showered on the city. The Turcot is being taken down and replaced with a level interchange. Work is on-going 24/7 on this. The old McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), which had been jerry rigged in a collection of century old buildings on avenue des Pins on the side of Mont-Royal, has a beautiful new campus on the location of the old Glen Rail Yards in NDG. The Pont Champlain is being replaced. Meanwhile, on the ride downtown on the Autoroute Bonaventure, on the A20 from the airport, one will find access to the downtown core blocked. The Bonaventure, a raised highway that bisects Griffintown (buy my book!) is being knocked down to be replaced with an urban boulevard. And while I am not entirely clear what the plans are for the Autoroute Ville-Marie under the downtown core, construction continues apace there. Meanwhile, the Société de transport de Montréal has new cars on the métro! At least on the Orange line. And, while they don’t actually feel air conditioned, they do have an effective air circulation system that, if you’ve ever experienced Montreal in the summer, you will appreciate.
So, for once, Montreal is not just being patched up. It is being rebuilt. For once, the powers-that-be have planned for the future of the city. And one day, who knows when, the city will be radically rebuilt and will have perhaps the most modern infrastructure in Canada, if not North America.
Go figure. No longer is my city a dilapidated, crumbling metropolis.
June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
At long last, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out from UBC Press. It is available in hardcover at present, though the paperback is coming in the fall.
I am particularly pleased with the cover and design of the book. The artwork on the cover come from my good friend and co-conspirator in Griff, G. Scott MacLeod. He and I have worked on The Death and Life of Griffintown: 21 Stories over the past few years.
Griffintown has long fascinated me not so much for the history of the neighbourhood, but the conscious effort by a group of former residents to reclaim it, starting in the late 1990s. I identified three men who were central to this process, all of whom have left this mortal coil in recent years: The Rev. Fr. Tom McEntee, Don Pidgeon, and Denis Delaney. These men worked very hard to make the rest of Montreal remember what was then an abandoned, decrepit, sad-sack inner-city neighbourhood. That Griff is known historically for its Irishness is a tribute to these men and many other former residents, most notably Sharon Doyle Driedger and David O’Neill, who worked tirelessly over the late 1990s and 2000s to reclaim their former home. The re-Irishification of Griffintown is the central story in my book. But I also look at the construction of Irish identity there over the 20th century, and the ways in which the Irish there performed every-day memory work to claim and re-claim their Irishness as they confronted their exclusion from Anglo-Montreal due to their poverty and Catholicism.
The Irish of Griffintown were fighters, they were insistent on claiming Home, even as that home disintegrated around them, due to deindustrialization and the infrastructural onslaught wrought by the Ville de Montréal, the Canadian National Railway, and the Corporation for Expo ’67. But, at the same time, they also left, seeking more commodious accommodations in newer neighbourhoods in the sud-ouest of the city, and NDG.
That these former residents could reclaim this abandoned, forgotten neighbourhood as their own speaks to the power of these people. These people were working- and middle- class men and women, ordinary folk from all walks of life, who were determined their Home not be forgotten. They re-cast Griff in their memories without the help of the state, without the help, to a large degree, of institutional Montreal.
I cannot over-state the impressive feat of these ex-Griffintowners. It has been a lot of fun to both study this process and work with and talk with many of those involved in this symbolic re-creation of Griff, drawing on an imagined history of Ireland and their own Irishness in the diaspora. And I am mostly relieved that the book is, finally, out.