Leonard Cohen, one of Montreal’s most beloved sons, once said, “beware of what comes out of Montreal, especially during winter.”
While it remains to be seen whom exactly Mr. Cohen was warning, judging by how the city’s brazenly impassionate student protests and incessantly transmissible corruption scandals appear to be monopolising headlines at home and abroad, it seems that this winter will be no different in North America’s most stimulating cosmopolis.
I recently spent some time in the city, and let me tell you, Montreal can be rather taxing on the senses. Corporate suits and taxi drivers the like flip-flop between French and English for their own amusement. What’s more, the quintessential friendliness that has come to define a Canadian city persistently clatters against the backdrop of an icy ascendancy born out of a pastorally entrenched Francophone heritage.
Banging pots and pans
The heart of defiance beats stronger than ever in “La belle province.” Many Canadians elsewhere mocked Quebec students who had taken to the streets since February 13, 2012 in order to protest former Liberal Premier Jean Charest’s proposal to raise university tuition.
When the Quebec government passed Bill 78 in mid-May, an emergency law which attempted to redefine the rules regarding assembly and protest in the province, half a million people took to the streets in downtown Montreal in what many have called “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian History.”
These acts of civil disobedience, later designated as the “Casseroles” movement, (inspired by the “cacerolazos” of Chile in the early 70s’), paid off for the students when the newly elected Parti Québécois cancelled tuition hikes and repealed what some rightfully called an anti-protest bill that curbed basic freedoms of expression and assembly.
Instead of merely ridiculing the student’s actions and criticising their results, perhaps Anglophones could learn a thing or two from a Francophone resolve which questions what has been apathetically incorporated into other parts of the country. After all, fundamental rights such as healthcare, collective bargaining, freedom of speech, and public education are not gifts from politicians. Rather, they are the spoils of decades of struggles by ordinary citizens against governments who’ve always tried to cut corners.
So perhaps there is some sense coming out of this messy part of the country. When the Toronto-based Globe and Mail calls the Casseroles’ movement “irrational,” it makes it easier to distract from the feasibility of its nation-wide proposal to fund free university education nationwide by placing a tiny tax on bank transactions.
But I’m sure the market will take care of everyone instead, corporations do have a reputation for serving as the quintessential champions of social justice… Cynicism aside, if perspective really is everything, or even anything, then this city is a great place from which to view the increasingly banal state of things in our entrenched dominion.
Combating greased-up governance
But things are nowhere close to perfect. If Montreal’s student population rising up against their government to keep tuition lowest in the country is an legitimising victory for grassroots activism, than the corruption investigation known as the Charbonneau Commission currently unraveling on the taxpayers’ dime could be its polar opposite.
Recently, Montreal and Laval mayors Gérald Tremblay and Gilles Vaillancourt have been forced to resign due to increasing examinations by the aforementioned corruption committee. Tremblay clung to claims of innocence until the bitter end, but offered to step aside nonetheless for what he called “the greater good of the city.”
A city which, thanks to frozen construction contracts and a largely discredited municipal budget, is now politically paralysed until the next municipal election a year from now. In the meantime, Tremblay’s increasingly unscrupulous political party, Union Montréal, will continue to run the city via recently appointed intern mayor Michael Applebaum.
Yet mayor-less Montrealers aren’t taking these indignities sitting down. As soon as the Commission began uncovering hints of municipal mismanagement and wrongdoing, work began on organising an anti-corruption conference titled “Hackons la corruption.”
Instead of simply groaning about the problems with their municipal governance, citizens decided to inform themselves on how to do something about it. And the turnout was outstanding. Workshops by academics, titans of industry, cultural icons, and former and current city executives were rounded out by innovative new Twitter apps and anti-corruption websites which serve to make citizens personal watchdogs in their own city.
Websites such as contrats.net, meant to simplify investigative research regarding the awarding of municipal construction costs, seaoo.ca, a new tool that allows journalists and researchers to better monitor public works projects, fqcil.org, a site that tracks fiscal contributions to provincial parties, and donspolitiques.co, which matches private donors up with their personal LinkedIn profiles in order to monitor their political dispositions.
Montréal ne démissionne pas
Endeavours such as these show that when an exceptional city (made so by its citizens) is faced with crippling problems such as corruption at the highest levels and hundreds of thousands of students protesting rising costs of education in the streets, the municipality will find a solution. Hence the city’s adoption of a new unofficial slogan, a play on the recent departure of two mayors, “Montréal ne démissionne pas.”
The expression, meaning, “Montreal does not resign,” perfectly encapsulates a city which is currently wavering yet another storm of instability. Fraud, corruption, organised crime, infamous ice storms, half a million enraged young people, or the British Empire, whatever is thrown their way, Montrealers not only seem to endure, but do so with a reserved resoluteness that seems to challenge fate by asking “what’s next?”
If Cohen was right, as the season is still very young, than many more challenges lie ahead this winter for the city which holds steadfast on the St. Lawrence. However, if past stubbornness, ingenuity, and that “je ne sais quoi,” which as kept this city shining as a cultural beacon for so long stand as any indications, I’ve got a feeling that she’ll be just fine. After all, Montréal ne démissionne pas.