J’Accuse Mme Marois

April 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

Last night’s Québec election was about the worst outcome imaginable, as far as I’m concerned.  The Parti libéral du Québec won a majority, with 70 seats in the National Assembly.  The PLQ also took 42% of the popular vote.  The Parti québécois got the clock cleaning it deserved, reduced to 30 seats and a scant 25% of the popular vote.  Pauline Marois also lost her seat.  The third place finisher was the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, with 22 seats and 23% of the popular vote.  And finally, Québec solidaire is bringing up the rear with 3 seats and 8% of the popular vote.

The upside is the contemptible Marois is out of office and out of the National Assembly. But that’s about as far as it goes for me.  Two years ago, Montréal streets were full of hundreds of thousands of protesters.  The protests began when then-PLQ Premier Jean Charest declared he would lift the tuition freeze in Québec and let tuition rise.  Students protested.  I felt, as a professor, it was my duty to join them, to ensure that they would continue to enjoy first class education at an affordable price.  A generation ago, it was my generation fighting for the right to an affordable education, this was their turn.  But they needed help.  But then Charest went whole hog on the protesters, and began denying their civil rights, declaring it illegal for protesters to cover their faces, amongst other things.  And the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal weren’t exactly excited about allowing citizens their right to protest, quickly declaring protests illegal as an excuse to kettle, arrest, and otherwise abuse protesters.  This was the tipping point, however.  This is when something beautiful happened in Québec: the people came out to join the students. Not just professors, but the average Quebecer was out there, appalled at M. Charest for denying the students their rights.

This movement got dubbed the Printemps erable, a play on the Arab Spring across the world.  There are all kinds of problems with this appellation, of course.  Quebecers weren’t getting shot in the streets, our lives were not in danger, we were not a stifled populace under a brutal dictatorship, as in Egypt and other places.

There was a provincial election campaign in the midst of all of this.  Pauline Marois got out there on the streets, wearing the carré rouge, the sign of protest, promising to undo Charest’s sins.  One of the students’ leaders, Léo Bureau-Blouin, ran for the PQ in a Montréal area riding.  Marois rode the tide of protest to office, though with a minority government.  And almost immediately, she changed her tone.  Amongst her greatest sins was the Charte des valeurs, which was to impose la laïcité on Québec, which, as I noted yesterday, in and of itself is not a bad thing. But when it’s used to target Jews and Muslims, well, then there is a problem.  And in the wake of Marois’ declaration of the charte, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim activity increased in Québec, especially in and around Montréal.  Ugly times had returned.

Marois staked her case for re-election on the charte.  She thought that by denigrating every single Quebecer, by appealing to the lowest common denominator, by loudly declaring that Québec is an intolerant society, she could win a majority.  Happily her cynical move failed.  And now she is just another failed politician.  I hope she loses sleep over this.

What many Québec Anglophones fail to recognise is a degree of difference in the sovereignty movement.  Thus, the PLQ can rely upon Anglo votes.  For example, in the Wesmount-Saint Louis riding of Montréal, which is a predominately Anglophone riding, the PLQ member, Jacques Chagnon, was re-elected was 83.2% of the vote.  The sovereignty movement has never been built on a push to get rid of Anglos, or to otherwise strip them of their rights.  René Lévesque, the founder of the PQ and the modern sovereignty movement, was always clear on that, as has been pretty much every leader of the PQ, with the exceptions of the noted Anglophile Jacques Parizeau and Marois.  In the 2000s, the sovereignty movement attempted to move more explicitly to a civic nationalism, one that was meant to include all Quebecers, irrespective of skin colour, mother tongue, or religion.  But it failed.

It failed because of small-minded provincialists of the likes of Marois, Mathieu Bock-Côté, and opportunists like Bureau-Blouin.  They thought they could fall back on exclusionary politics to achieve their goal of an independent Québec.  Happily, they failed miserably.

But the outcome might be even worse.  With Marois gone, candidates for leadership of the PQ have emerged, the early frontrunners are the detestable Pierre-Karl Péledeau and Jean-François Lisée.  Péladeau is filthy stinking rich, a member of the 1% if ever there was one.  Before entering politics last month, he ran Quebecor, one of the world’s largest printers, which had recently branched into media.  It publishes the vile Sun chain of newspapers across Canada, as well as owning Sun TV.  In Québec, he owned about 2/3 of the private broadcasters, as well as the Journal newspaper chain.  Lysée is a small-minded academic.

And then there’s the CAQ.  A right-wing sovereigntist party.  Frankly, given the current situation, the only way I see forward is for the CAQ and the PQ to merge.  The CAQ and its leader, François Legault, are mostly former PQ members anyway. And if Péledeau or Lysée are going to continue to push the PQ further to the right, there is no difference between the two parties.

In other words, the sovereigntist movement, which has long been based on a model of social justice, has abandoned that in recent years.  It is this belief in social justice which led me to support sovereigntist parties in Québec more than anything.  The PLQ isn’t exactly noted for its progressivism.  In short, the PLQ is just another right-wing, pro-business, anti-labour, anti-social justice party.  So now Québec will have three of those, which together garnered 90% of the vote last night.

And that, frankly, depresses me.  And I see Pauline Marois as at the fault of this.

The Distinct Culture of Anglo Quebecers

April 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have been on this listserv of policy wonks and academics in Canada since sometime in the late 90s.  Most of the time, I’m not entirely sure why I remain on it, a small handful of the approximately 100 people on it post, and some use it to beat their hobby horses to many, many deaths.  But, occasionally, it serves its purpose and intelligent discussion breaks out about various world events, Canadian politics, and the like.  Over the past couple of weeks, one of those broke out over the Québec election, which is underway right now.

This has been the most divisive provincial election I’ve seen in Québec in my lifetime, though, admittedly, the bar was set very low with the ruling Parti québécois’ ridiculous, offensive, and racist charte des valeurs, a sad attempt at laïcité. That in and of itself, is fine, and is perfectly consistent with the Euro-francophone world, but the way it was introduced in Québec, and the manner in which it targeted minorities,  most notably Arabs and other Muslims, was appalling.  And since then, it’s been a raise to the bottom between the PQ, the Parti libéral du Québec, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, and the 4th party, Québec solidaire.  For the uninitiated, the PQ is a former leftist, sovereigntist party; the PLQ is a rightist, federalist party, the CAQ is a right-wing, sovereigntist party, and QS is a largely irrelevant leftist sovereigntist party.  For the record, I voted QS in 2012 and would’ve again this year if I was still living in Québec.

So, to return to this discussion on the listserv.  It was between an Anglo political scientist in Montréal, a Québec sovereigntist, a lawyer in Vancouver, and myself.  Three Quebecers and an Anglo Canadian.  The discussion largely centred around the PQ and its fitness for government, though, interestingly, the major issue of the election campaign, the charte was largely ignored by three of the four in this discussion (I was the fourth).  The political scientist advocated the continuation of the status quo, a PQ minority, the separatist wished for a PQ majority (and a subsequent third referendum on sovereignty), I suggested the PQ was not fit for government based on the charte, and the lawyer ridiculed the entire idea of sovereignty.  Other issues raised included protection of the French language and culture of Québec, as well as the fading generation of sovereigntists.

Pauline Marois, the current leader of the PQ and (at least until later tonight) the premier of Québec, is 65 years old.  This puts her at the younger end of the baby boomers, who were the ones who really carried the idea of sovereignty in Québec.  Interestingly, support for sovereignty is much lower amongst my generation (Gen X) and the millennials.  The political scientist noted this, the need for younger blood in the PQ.

I argued that to simply dismiss the PLQ as incapable of defending the French language and culture in Québec is simple-minded, and I mocked the PQ for the charte and also pointed out QS’ near irrelevance.  This led the political scientist to assume I voted PLQ.  My guess, though, is that my name had more to do with that than anything.  I found this rather disappointing, given nearly everything I’ve ever said about Canada/Québec on this listserv has made it clear I am not a knee-jerk Anglo Montrealer (like one I got into an argument with on Twitter this weekend who seemed to be suggesting Anglo Quebecers are a deeply oppressed minority).

But the real silliness emerged with the lawyer, who appears to be of the opinion that Anglo Montrealers and Anglo Quebecers do not have anything distinct about their language and culture, as compared with the Rest of Canada.  He opined that in leaving Montréal for Boston, I did not give up much, as opposed to a francophone who would give up nearly everything.  I find this argument both fatuous and depressing.

Anglo Montreal, at the least, has a distinct culture, specific to location.  Anglo Montreal is often regarded as a large village, as it seems that all Anglos are no more than 3 or 4 degrees of separation from each other.  But, more concretely, as McGill linguist Charles Boberg has discovered, Anglo Montrealers speak a dialect of English that is heavily influenced by French and is rather distinct from the Canadian English dialect.  This makes sense.  English is the mother tongue of about 650,000 people in Québec as a whole.  This out of a total population of over 8 million.  Within Montréal, out of a total population of nearly 4 million, about 420,000 people are native English-speakers.  In other words, Anglos are a small island in a sea of francophone culture (to borrow the metaphor about Québec adrift in the North American sea of Anglos).  As such, Anglo Montreal and Anglo Quebec have their own distinct culture and history, shaped as it was by the simple demographic fact of minority.  This is very different than the plight of Anglophones in the rest of most of North America (except for Mexico and the American Southwest).

In other words, despite what a lawyer in Vancouver believes, Anglo Montrealers have their own distinct culture, language and identity, one that is separate and distinct from Anglo Canadians in the rest of the country.  There are both positives and negatives to this, of course.

But, my Vancouver lawyer isn’t unique.  He represents and all-too-common view of Anglo Canadians.  Quebecers are perceived to either be beyond the pale of the Rest of Canada (if we’re francophones, I once got told in southwest Ontario that I speak “good English”), or we’re just like everyone else (if we’re Anglos).

So look at that, Québec is a distinct culture all around (Allophones, or immigrants and their descendants also have their own distinct culture in Québec).  It might even be a nation unto itself.

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.

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.”

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.

An Alternative America

January 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

A couple of days ago, an interesting article appeared in the Des Moines Register.  I knew of it because my social media friend, and a geographer at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, Andy Shears, had a map published with the article.  Andy’s map is an alternative United States, based on historically proposed states, none of which came into existence.  He created the map 2 1/2 years ago for his own blog.  The Register also mis-identifies Andy’s map as one of what the country would look like if all the separatist movements in history had actually worked.  But, either way, it’s actually a really interesting map, put together in what I image was after agonising research, Andy came up with an alternative United States based on a country of 124 separate states, all based on proposals that never came to be.  In the case of Massachusetts, there would actually be two states: Massachusetts and Boston.  Of course, anyone who lives outside the Hub, especially in Western Mass, would say there already ARE two Massachusetts.  Cascadia, in this version, is a state that straddles the mountains of eastern Washington and Oregon.  And then there’s a wonderful little state called Forgottonia carved into what is today the border between Illinois and Missouri, just north of the hypothetical state of St. Louis.

The America That Never Was, map courtesy of AndrewShears.com

The America That Never Was, map courtesy of AndrewShears.com

But I digress.  The column in the Register was written by Steffan Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State.  In it, Schmidt ruminates on an apparent proposal in California to split the state into six smaller states, based on a proposal from Silicon Valley.  Schmidt notes that this would give the general California region 12 senators compared to the 2 it has now, which means that it would have much greater power in Washington.  Schmidt, though, seems to assume that the 6 Californias would all elect Democratic senators, which is incredibly unlikely.

Schmidt’s larger point is about the apparent immutability of the United States, that Americans consider the national boundaries to be sacrosanct.  He ties that back to the Civil War, just another legacy of that war in American life.  But then he goes on to note that countries fracture into newer ones continually, pointing to various examples from Slovakia to Scotland to South Sudan.  Interestingly, he does not mention Québec and Canada.  But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish (though, interestingly, both Canadians and Quebecers consider their national borders to be sacrosanct).  But it is a point well worth considering, at least to a degree.

The difference between, say, Scotland and the United States is simple.  Scotland was annexed by England to create Britain in 1707.  The United States is comprised of states that all chose to be part of the Union.  By that I mean the European settlers of the territory that is now the United States of America all petitioned to Congress to be admitted to the Union.  And even if the Confederate States were defeated and then had to be re-admitted to the Union, they also did so willingly (or at least as willingly as they could).  In contrast, Scotland was annexed.  Slovakia was annexed.  We all know how Yugoslavia was formed and what happened when that came apart.

So there is a huge difference between the American model and those Schmidt offers in comparison.  Similarly, Canada was formed in a manner very similar to the United States.  But Schmidt is correct to note that it is remarkable how resilient the American state has been since 1776.  I was recently thinking about this when I saw news that the population shift in the United States, based on recent census data, will make the South and the West stronger politically, at least in the House.  This led me to think about my current research, of course (The far right of American politics and history), and I began to wonder if the relative decline of New England and the Northwest in favour of greater power in the South and Southwest would lead to separatist movements throughout the nation.  Not that I think they’d ever be successful, any more than I think Québec will ever separate.  But it’s fun to have such idle thoughts.

And then I got one of the great classics of punk rock in my head, “Alternative Ulster,” by Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers.  The song dates from 1978, the height of the Troubles, and the Stiffies, two Catholics and two Protestants, simply wanted a different future for themselves.

The Making of the Historian

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of my favourite history books is Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary.  The book, published in 2001, tells the story of Bridget Cleary’s death at the hands of her husband, Michael, and a mixture of extended family, in Ballyvadlea, Co. Tipperary in Ireland in March 1895.  As Bourke unravels the story, the murder of Bridget Cleary is an opportunity for the historian (or folklorist, in her case) to examine the collision between modern culture and folkways.  Ballyvadlea in 1895 was essentially the boondocks of Ireland, far removed from the encroaching modern world, people there still lived according to old Irish ways, with beliefs in fairies, banshees, and the like.  Whether or not Michael Cleary and his cohorts actually believed in this is neither here nor there, argues Bourke, what matters is that the belief system still existed and was still accessible to Cleary and his co-conspirators. 

When I was in graduate school, I was fascinated by the collision between modernity and ancient folkways.  In particular, I was interested in charivari, a means of community policing in pre-modern societies in Europe and amongst settler societies in North America.  In fact, I was so interested in this, I set out to do my Master’s degree on this topic in Québec.  What fascinated me then, and still does today, and why I enjoy Bourke’s book so much (I usually assign it when I teach Irish History) is the way in which modern legal culture intersects with traditional folkways. 

Societies have traditionally been able to police themselves.  Today, we live in a society where the state is omnipresent, whether in the form of of our driver’s licenses, or the regulation of education, and various other means.  When someone breaks the law, we expect the police to make an arrest, the prosecutor to secure a conviction, and the jail to secure the lawbreaker until her debt to society is paid.  But it hasn’t always been that way. 

In October 1855, Robert Corrigan was beaten to death in Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, a remote agricultural community, some fifty miles south of Québec City, in the foothills of the Appalachians.  He was beaten by a gang of his neighbours for stepping out of line.  They did not mean to kill him, they meant to discipline him for his bullying, aggressive behaviour.  That Corrigan was an Irish Protestant and his murderers Irish Catholics was secondary (at least in Saint-Sylvestre, for the rest of Canada, that was the most important detail in the highly sectarian mid-19th century).  When the state attempted to arrest the accused men, they were easily able to elude the police forces sent in from Montréal and Québec, aided by their neighbours.  When they did finally turn themselves in in January 1856, they did so on their own terms.  They were also able to rig the jury when they went to trial in February so that they were acquitted. 

The Corrigan Affair, in this light, was entirely about a local community maintaining its right to police itself in the face of the power of the state.  The mid-19th century in Canada was a time of massive state formation and expansion.  The same period in Québec saw a spate of construction projects around the province of courthouses and jails and other such buildings.  The buildings were all the same down to the shade of paint used on them.  Why?  Because the state was attempting to establish its control across the province and it was attempting to do so with the message that the state was indifferent to local contingencies.  Not surprisingly, the people of Québec rebelled against this.  The mid-19th century in Canada offers endless examples of local communities rebelling against the state in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. 

The Wild West in the United States is another such example.  The West has a reputation for violence that is only partly deserved.  Much of the legends of the Wild West are just that: legends.  But violence there was.  Much of it was about the same thing as charivari in England or The Corrigan Affair in Québec: community policing.  Disputes were settled between the belligerents for several reasons, most importantly, the state did not have the power yet to mediate between its citizens. 

Historians have been studying this collision between folkways and the rise of modernity since the 1960s.  During that era, that great generation of English historians (E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Dorothy Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm) became fascinated by this collision.  I always find it interesting when I see the influence of the historians I read in graduate school still on me today, all these years later. 

Last semester, our favourite work study student, Alvaro, graduated.  Alvaro had worked in our departmental office since we both (as in my wife and I) arrived here in the fall of 2012.  For his graduation, we decided to buy him the books that had the greatest impact on us in our development as historians, as Alvaro is planning on going on to graduate school.  I got him E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.  I first read this book in 1996, my first semester of graduate school.  It was one of the few books I read in graduate school where I just couldn’t put it down.  Meticulously research, and brilliantly insightful, Thompson crafted an historical study that could stand on its own on its literary merits.  I re-read it a couple of years ago.  It remains one of my favourite books of all time. 

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.


OMG! Seriously?: On Language and Swearing

October 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

In today’s Boston Globe, I read a column that I thought had been printed by mistake.  Or maybe it was a leftover from 1976.  Jennifer Graham, a columnist for the venerable (and quite good) Boston daily, is upset that OMG and it’s more offensive variety, “Oh my God!” are lingua franca in our culture today.  She’s upset that blasphemy is everyday language.  To which I say, where have you been for the past 40 years, lady?

I am from a culture where all the choice swear words are religious-based.  French Canadians have a whole range of blasphemous and offensive words for all situations, the worst of which is “Tabarnak!” That literally means “tabernacle.”  Other highlights are “câlisse!” and “osti!” (chalice and the holy host, respectively).  If you really wanna set grandma’s wig on fire: “osti de tabarnak câlisse” will do the trick.  Once more, in English, that’s “holy host of the tabernacle, chalice!”  Sounds much better in québécois French, trust me.  When I was a kid, these were very bad words (even Anglos in Québec swear in French, it’s much more fun), respectable people did not use them.  But, by the time I was an adult, they were everywhere, even in polite company, including in newspapers, on TV, and even my dear great aunt once said “tabarnak!” (I nearly fell over).

It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that the ramping up of swearing is due to the general breakdown of authority in western culture as a whole in the past 40 years.  Sometimes even I am stunned by what I hear coming out of the mouths of my students in the hallways and around campus.  Some of the names they call each other, even in jest, would flip the wig of my grandmothers, I can tell you that much.

But. Oh my god? Seriously?  Graham is upset by this one because she thinks it insults people’s value systems.  Oddly, I learned this particular gem within my Catholic family as a kid.  For that matter, my memory of this gem of a swear is that I have tended to hear it from the mouths of Catholics, especially devout ones.  Sacrilegious? Oh, heck yes.  But spend an hour watching Irish TV and you’ll see what I mean.

It seems to me that Jennifer Graham is about a generation or two late in her hand-wringing over the use of oh my god in pop culture.

On Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood, Pt. V

October 2, 2013 § 6 Comments

[I thought I was done with this series (parts I, II, III, and IV and the prequel) when I left Pointe-Saint-Charles last summer and moved to New England. Apparently not.]

In the mid-1980s in Vancouver, the BC provincial government built the SkyTrain, a new light-rail system connecting the western suburbs of New Westminster and Burnaby to the City of Vancouver.  SkyTrain caused a lot of disruption when it was built, as you might expect for a brand new system. When it finally opened, just in time for Expo ’86, people were excited.  Vancouver finally got rapid trasit!  But some people weren’t so happy, the people who lived along the line in New West, Burnaby, and East Vancouver (it’s worth noting the SkyTrain went primarily through working-class neighbourhoods).  I recall a news segment that investigated the claims of the noise.  In particular, I remember a glass of water on a counter next to an open window as the SkyTrain went by.  The water didn’t move.  At all.

Nonetheless, I can understand in the inconvenience of the SkyTrain for those whose day-to-day lives were affected by it.  They were there before SkyTrain, it moved into their neighbourhood.

But let us now consider Pointe-Saint-Charles.  The Pointe has been home to a train yard since the Grand Trunk Railway built its yards there in 1853.  For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s 160 years ago.  In other words, the trains have been in the Pointe for a long, long time.  And for much of its history, the trains were part and parcel of the experience of living in the Pointe.  There was a train yard there.  Life goes on.

But, as I’ve been noting in this series, the Pointe is undergoing redevelopment and gentrification.  And nowhere is this clearer than in that part of the southern part of the Pointe which, even a decade ago, was a pretty dodgy part of town.  Here, people have been snapping up cheap housing, both the 19th century stock and hideous new condos, and movingin.  The Pointe, ever-so-slowly has become a more happening place because of this gentrification and that closer to the north end of the neighbourhood, near the Canal and the Nordelec building (which is in the process of being condofied now).   In short, the yuppies (of whom I was obviously one when I lived there) are moving in.

For the most part, the process of gentrification has been more or less smooth in the Pointe, but, then again, I’m not one of the people being priced out of the neighbourhood.  But the tension that exists in Saint-Henri was lacking in the Pointe. But, there were subtle changes in the culture of the neighbourhood when I lived there.  This was seen most obviously to me in the case of the community garden at the end of our block.  A couple of years ago, the arrivistes took control of it and essentially pushed the old-timers out of the garden. Not cool.

So, today I was reading the news on CBC Montréal, and I came across this little gem.  Some of the yuppies who’ve moved into that southern part of the Pointe (taking advantage of cheap housing and pushing the poor out) are crying foul over the sound of the trains at all hours of the day.  Yup.  Imagine that! Trains! In a train yard!  One resident hears the trains and he gets afraid of what might happen.  Others complain sound like The Grinch, complaining about the noise, noise, noise!

Certainly, some of this is in response to the disaster in Lac Mégantic.  But, it is worth noting that in all my years in the sud-ouest, I cannot recall a single accident involving trains in Pointe-Saint-Charles or Saint-Henri.  Accidents between cars, bikes, and peoples, certainly.  But not trains.

So, these people want Canadian National to reduce the trains and the noise they make.  This is not unprecedented.  There is a condo building on rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri, right where the CN tracks go through Saint-Henri.  When it was first opened up, the people who bought in there respectfully asked that the Canadian National STOP running trains through their backyards.  That line, which is connected to the largely disused yards in the Pointe, remains one of the busiest train tracks in North America, used by CN and ViaRail between Montréal and Ottawa and Toronto.  I’m not making that up.

It would seem to me that one of the basic facts of living in a city is that there is noise.  And if you are on the market for a new condo, you would look at what’s around you in your new neighbourhood and consider the inconvenience of the noise factor, or other things that might upset you.  And, if you move into a condo near a train yard, you might want to consider the fact that it’s going to get loud occasionally. Trains are like that, they’re loud (I can hear the Commuter Rail train from my house here at all hours of the day and night, in fact, one is going by right now!).  It is asinine and selfish to move into a neighbourhood with a train yard in and then act surprised when there are trains that make lots of noise.  It is the height of idiocy, quite frankly.  If you don’t like the noise, then go live somewhere else.  It’s that simple.  And so, that is my solution for these fine people in the Pointe.  Sell.  Move elsewhere.

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