Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tremblay lost my vote...

It is very hard to try and stay calm and mature in the face of Tremblay and the current municipal administration ramming the name change of Avenue du Parc to Avenue Robert-Bourassa. For those of you not in Montreal, Avenue du Parc runs along side Parc Mont-Royal (thus the name). The south side of the park on Parc is sort of oriented around McGill and has lots of cheap restaurants and cafés for students as well as the irreplaceable Cinema du Parc (the last rep theatre, recently ressurected). North of the park, avenue du Parc is a historically rich, diverse neighbourhood, a rough border between Outremont and Mile End. At the very top, it touches the bottom of Parc Extension, one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Montreal and home to large West Indian and South Asian populations. Parc Avenue, historically, has been the center of the waves of immigration that came to Montreal. Currently, there is a strong Hassidic influx. They are the most visible people on a Saturday with their traditional outfits and crazy hats.

For whatever combination of pride, graft and politics, Mayor Tremblay suddenly announced a couple months ago that he was going to change the name to Avenue de Robert Bourassa. He was a long-running and popular Premier here, in the 50s I think (I am woefully ignorant of the details of Quebec provincial history). Though some people really disliked him, from what I can gather, he does sound like a decent man who did a good job. Probably should be honored.

But the name change, preceded by no studies, no public consultation, created an outcry. Business owners on Parc, residents, immigrants connected to the history of the street and young hipsters started protesting the change. Borough Mayor Helen Fotopoulos received enough pressure that she decided not to support the name change. (In a typically cynical and adroit political maneuver, she managed to walk a thin line between not going against her constituency and not really defying her boss.) A petition was put up that eventually generated 40,000 names against the change.

As a result of all this pressure, Tremblay decided to put the name change to a vote of City councillors. That went down today and it passed. Only 22 of the 40 councillors needed voted against the name change.

Tremblay said yesterday that this was a democratic process since all the councillors were voted for by the citizens.

I have several questions:

1) How much will the actual implementation (street signs, subway maps, communication) cost the city?

2) Who gets the contracts to implement these changes? How much will they be getting paid? Will this information be made public?

3) How much will it cost business owners? Will there be any sort of subsidies to offset the costs?

4) Why Parc? What was the process behind which street got the name change?

5) Why does a City Councillor from Laval's vote weigh as much as one who represents the district where the street in question actually exists?

And now for my opinion:

This is a total outrage. It is a waste of taxpayers' money. It is a complete flaunting of the democratic process. It is a slap in the face to all the immigrants who made Avenue du Parc what it is today. I am infuriated. I am against all name changes in general, but Montreal (and probably Quebec) is just disgusting with its city full of self-conscious and righteous hommages to n'importe qui. If you are such a humble and self-effacing servant of the people, why the hell does your goddamn name have to be all over the place? It is so bad that half the streets actually change their names at many points in the city, so giving directions is a nightmare (Parc actually becomes Bleury south of Sherbrooke). Why does some man whom I have never seen once (despite being heavily involved in many community projects) has the power to just change the name of a street my great-grandparents went shopping on long before he and his family ever came to Montreal?

Fair warning: when the leaders abandon the democratic process, the citizens will do the same. Do not expect the new signs to last long...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Two wongs...

[excuse the bad pun]

I should have posted this a month ago, when the editorial cartoons first came out. P. Lee's comment to my post on Jan Wong spurred me to respond. My position still holds on the Jan Wong and her editorial. After hearing her interviewed, where she said that her editor pushed her to add a thesis, and after seeing the Globe and Mail's lame response to the criticism of the article, my opinion of that publication only sinks deeper.

However, the editorial cartoons that showed up in Le Devoir and Le Journal were just as bad and completely substantiated Wong's later explanations of what she wrote. The link between language laws and Quebec culture to the alienation of those psychos is preposterous. But there is a level of racial ignorance and insensitivity in Quebec. With the growth (and encouragement) of immigration and some efforts in the media and government, it is getting slightly better. But for someone from western Canada, I am sometimes quite shocked by the things that pass as acceptable here.

The editorial cartoons depicted a caricatured Jan Wong going through fortune cookies to learn about Quebec (in the Le Devoir version) or reading aphorisms about good journalism (in the Le Journal version). The one in the tabloid Le Journal was the first one I saw and the portrayal of Jan Wong was frankly offensive. Buck teeth, super slanty eyes. The one in Le Devoir (pictured above) is not as extreme. Their defense was that it is a caricature and that the point is to exaggerate features. They have absolutely no sense that honing in on the stereotypical ethnic differences (the fortune cookies) is racist. I am pretty sure an image like that would not fly in english Canada.

Now I am not saying that somehow english and western Canada is any less racist than Quebec. I have seen some of the ugliest incidents of racism in my life in Vancouver. Growing up in Nanaimo, chink and paki were the standard way for many people to refer to the few Vietnamese or Sikh students in our school. But I think there is an ignorance in Quebec based on the homogeneity of the population. Outside of Montreal, there just aren't many people who aren't french-speaking and white. And they cling to an older world where those kinds of distinctions are important. At my french school, one of the teachers was referred to as "the Belgian". He had moved to Quebec from Belgium when he was 9 in the '50s!

I can relate to numerous instances of that kind of classification and ignorance that I have seen happen here. My girlfriend is of chinese descent and she is constantly remarking on how white it seems here. A security guard said "konichiwa" to her when taking our tickets at a museum. When I was in the lineup for Fantasia tickets, I got in a conversation with a guy. We talked for quite a while and when my girlfriend showed up he seemed visibly embarrassed. After she left, he got all weird and asked me all these questions about where she was from. I had a realtor who was recommending me a banker say, "I should tell you he is asiatic". One of my friends thought it was acceptable in english to say "Red Indian". Whenever Le Journal reports upon crime, it always mentions the race of the criminals if they are black, but doesn't if they are white.

All of these incidents are awkward and disturbing, but they are marked by a naiveté rather than any malice. I touched upon this in an earlier post and someone pointed out that this is a society that only opened its doors a generation ago. It is a beat behind the rest of Canada in the assimilation of immigrants and other cultures. So it is understandable, especially at the individual level. But when the major newspapers stoop to ethnic stereotyping to respond to insults against their culture, then we are moving from ignorance into outright racism. And it does nothing to address the problem.

This is what is so frustrating about this whole incident. Instead of using this as an opportunity to accept a bit of criticism and find ways to improve, both parties just got defensive and dug in. The Globe and Mail refuses to admit there is anything wrong with running an exploitative, badly-researched and judgemental article on their front page. Jan Wong acts all wounded and innocent. The Quebecois media reacts to criticisms of their culture by throwing out racist cartoons and then saying they are just caricatures. Come on, Canada. We can do a lot better.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Has Jan Wong ever been to Montreal?

If you want to read the kind of garbage that the Globe & Mail seems more and more inclined to print these days, then I send you to the entire column by Jan Wong on the Dawson shootings.

However, if you would like to avoid speculative, prurient, sensationalist journalism that should be left to the tabloids (and is done much, much better by them anyways), I will just pull out the most ignorant of her quotes so we can all tear them apart here. Previously, I never had a strong opinion of Jan Wong. Her backstory is quite interesting and she has done some intrepid journalism. I don't know what arrogance or editorial pressures drove her to try to come to some kind of conclusion about the social reasons for Kimveer's attack on students at Dawson. It is clear, in any case, that she doesn't have the faintest clue about Montreal or life in this city. Why is she allowed to have the front page?

Erroneous statement #1:
What many outsiders don't realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn't just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it's affected immigrants, too. To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a "pure" francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial "purity" is repugnant. Not in Quebec.

Okay, what? She is trying to blame the attack on Bill 101? This is just pure insanity and total ignorance. How does this kind of uninformed bullshit even make it TO the editor's desk, let alone past it. I love how she writes as if she's an insider. There is certainly a strain of cultural ignorance in Quebec that slips into racism from time to time, but overall it is no worse here than any other province and the immigration and assimilation policies here are far superior than the rest of the country. I did a 10-month french program where the student body was entirely immigrants from all over the world, learning french, learning Quebec culture and finding their place in the society and economy here. I also love how she is so proud that she knows what pure laine means. Excellent on the ground reporting, Jan!

And the nasty little "once-cosmopolitan". Ouch. Though I'll take that over Toronto's "never-cosmopolitan". (Okay, I'll be fair and give Toronto "once-a-year-cosmopolitan" when they have their film festival, if you consider a bunch of short guys in pressed jeans and blazers flying in from LA and acting self-important on their cell phones cosmpolitan.)

Mr. Gill's rampage has resonated through the anglophone community. Although Montreal is a big city, English-speaking Montreal is not. It is more like a small town, where everyone knows everyone else.

Uh, what? Is this really what people from Toronto think of Montreal? This just floors me, the complete lack of knowledge. To even call the anglophone society a minority here is a mistake. There is such a gradient now from old school hardcore west islanders to their bilingual children to the many newcomers like me living and working in french and a jazillion little subsets (italian bilinguals; portugues bilinguels; asian bilinguels, anglophones of french descent).

You almost get the feeling that Jan Wong wants there to be a deep schism between the french and the english, that she has some kind of hidden resentment towards the french (though where that comes from, I have no idea). I am outraged by the dis to Montreal and the unfounded and erroneous social analysis. But what really, really kills me as a Canadian when I read garbage like this is that it is on the front page of our national newspaper! When I was younger, I always considered the Globe and Mail to be a bit dry, but full of integrity and character. Now it is hard to tell if it is any worse than the Post. I have long since stopped reading Christie "Cornelius" Blatchford and her self-aggrandizing and warmongering "corrrespondence". And their terrible habit of starting a story with some sensationalist hook that they then contradict when you go to the continuation is absolutely inexcusable. Now I guess I'll add Jan Wong to her list. Maybe I'll run into her on the main so I can dump a plate of hot poutine on her ignorant head.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bon Cop Bad Cop

I got to see the premier of this much-anticipated film last night. It was the final show of the incredible Fantasia Film Festival. The crowd was totally pumped and even more so that the director (Eric Canuel), producer (Kevin Tierny [thanks Martine!]) and stars (Patrick Huard, Lucie Laurier) were all there.

Bon Cop Bad Cop is the classic buddy cop picture. This time the conceit is that a body is found hanging halfway across the Welcome to Ontario sign exactly on the border of Québec and Ontario. Colin Feore plays the straight-edge, by-the-books Toronto cop and Patrick Huard, the smoking, swearing rogue Montreal cop. They hate each other immediately, though, of course, both have similar family problems of spending too much time on the job.

I'm not going to write a whole review of this movie, because as a Canadian it is your national duty to see this movie. I will say that it is pretty classic buddy cop picture, done quite well, but with some particularily hilarious scenes.

I would just like to applaud the producer and Patrick Huard (whose initial idea this was) who all seemed totally committed to making a movie that put the two solitudes together and made them have fun. This is exactly what this country needs. We need to recognize that we have incredible party potential.

No more of these boring violin movies, please. Let's have french and english speakers hanging out together, getting high, punching out suspects, blowing up cars, teaching each other how their language works, etc. Judging by the crowd's reaction, which was bursting out laughing at every joke, applauding many of them and ending with a standing ovation, the national will is there. This is a pretty bilingual crowd, probably 65% francophone mother tongue. After, there was a Q&A (which was pretty entertaining in and of itself) and it was clear that the production team was fundamentally driven by the idea that this movie would be made for all Canadians. They wanted every scene to have french and english in it. It will be released with sub-titles in both languages and they promised to produce the DVD with a non-subtitled option for the truly bilingual. Anytime any kind of pro-bilingual idea was mentioned, the crowd cheered. Perhaps the Fantasia crowd is particularly pro-Canadian because they have to read so many subtitles in english, but I got the distinctive feel that the vibe was for a united Canada.

I am pretty sure that Bon Cop, Bad Cop is going to be a guaranteed success here in Quebec. Patrick Huard is a huge star and it's been a while since a decent action-movie crowd pleaser has come out. English Canada now needs to make it's effort. If this movie does well, it will mean a renewed interest in Quebec cinema, which will mean they may release some of their awesome TV series and movies with english subtitles (Omerta for instance). It may also mean that some english directors will look to Quebec to make some movies that might appeal to this audience. All in all, a good thing. Popular culture drives change. The snotty asses at Tele-Film Canada and the Globe and Mail need to wake up to this.

So what should be next? I'm hoping for a Bon Cop Bad Cop sequel where Ward and Bouchard travel to B.C. to team up with a crunchy west coast redneck cop, and then a third one in the maritimes. Also, let's not forget the Bougons teaming up with the Trailer Park Boyz. Tabernac that, eh!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Mis à jour

Well I'm deep in it now! I got a job as an office manager for a non-profit organization. It's national and international (our "head" office is in Toronto) but the workplace here is entirely done in french. I have so much material for this blog! The problem has been sorting it out (plus my finals and grad school apps that I just got all done). Now that I will have some time and tons of information and ideas to share, I will be back on a more regular posting schedule. So stay tuned!

As for the ripped up sidewalk out front, they actually came and repaired it! I was quite pleasantly surprised. Of course, they didn't do a proper repair, filling it with asphalt instead of concrete. But it is level now and it makes a big difference when you are coming off the last step, especially when carrying a bike. One thing, the day it was done, two different people walked right through it, a man and a woman, at different times, leaving their shoeprints permanently embedded in the black surface. And then the day after that, someone let their dog leave a nice steaming turd right in the middle of it. That actually went on quite regularily for days until I put a sign up. Discouraging.

Finally, I am doing a research project on francophone comic books and chronicling it in what was my 50 books blog. So if you are interested in learning a bit about that incredible world, take a look.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Les Cols Bleus

Montreal is an old-school town. I love listening to the local news here. Guy grabbed in a barber shop in St. Leonard, bundled into a van and driven away. Another guy kidnapped and held in Île des Soeurs for a ransom. Good old school craziness. But today's news about the cols bleus was just the best.

The city employees who are responsible for snowplowing, repairing potholes, putting up street signs and all of those other municipal responsibiilites are known as the Cols Bleus. This literally means Blue Collars. They actually wear shirts with that name on it. They are part of a powerful union and, judging by the media, seem to be constantly at war with the mayor's office. Montreal is famous for its potholes and a lot of the anger about the bad streets is directed towards the cols bleus. Every winter, as well, there is always some section of town that isn't getting properly plowed. The mayor goes out to the city yards with a bunch of security guards and confronts the workers.

I sympathize with the working people whose physical labour allows the rest of us to live our lives in comfort. I think they should be paid well, at least as well as a mid-level executive who works in an office, and they should be treated with respect. I'm envious especially of the ones who drive the mini-plows that clear the sidewalk. I always give them the thumbs-up and would love to invite the plowers in for a beer after they've cleared my street.

I don't know any cols bleus personally, and I wish I did because I'd love to hear their position from one of them directly rather than from the union spokesperson. Because more and more, I am losing respect for them. It's always lame to watch government work in action, but it is ridiculous here. Whenever the Ville de Montréal trucks are parked around a job, there are almost always two or three guys just sitting there, smoking. And acting like they should be doing that. How did that culture develop? People work hard in Quebec and they always have. The original french settlers worked famously hard to build a nation. The waves of immigrants since then have all been hard-working. How do the cols bleus become so justified in doing a half-assed job? Especially one that directly benefits the city they live in.

Here is a specific example. The sidewalk at the base of the stairs outside our building was torn up at some point in the past. There is a two meter wide strip that is just gravel and dirt. Probably it's the result of a gas line being put to the building. One day, early last spring, I came out to see a bunch of orange lines spraypainted around the edges of the gap in the sidewalk. Cool, I thought to myself, they are going to repair this. It wasn't a big deal, but it did get muddy in the spring and icy in the winter. The spray paint marks stayed there through the spring and the summer. One day in early September, there was an incredible screeching and grinding noises. I came outside to see a guy with a concrete cutter, slicing into the sidewalk just outside the gap. It was 6 months later, but at least they were going to do the job. Wrong. They cut the concrete and that's it. I'm still waiting.

There is an episode of the Bougons where the uncle, who really does want to work, gets a job with the Cols Bleus. He's so psyched when he gets the job, and is disappointed when they spend the whole day driving around, going to strip clubs and taking naps in the city trucks.

The news that I was so psyched about today was that the city spied on a cols bleus pot-hole team. They punched in, got their trucks, drove directly to a coffee shop, had breakfast for an hour then drove around "aimlessly" for another hour. So good. So busted. How do they feel? Probably resentful and finding some defensive excuse for their behaviour. Already, the union is asking why was management spying on them instead of supervising them. Now that's spin.

Hopefully this will kick those goldbrickers among the cols bleus (because I'm sure there are many hardworking ones - I sure hope so) in the ass and start them doing their jobs. C'mon guys, you've got the greatest city in North America to keep in repair. Go out and do your job!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Encore à la scène!

Okay, un peu de réussit! I'm climbing back up the ladder of french again. I've had several job interviews and even landed two small part-time jobs dans un milieu francophone! I'm un accompagnateur in an after-school homework help program. Along with about 15 other people, I pick up 3 2nd graders from an elementary school and walk them to a church across the street. In the basement there, I help them with their homework, play games, talk and try to keep them from fighting and climbing all over the tables.

From that job, I came to the attention of the school itself, who needed a temporary replacement for their lunchtime monitor (moniteur à service de diner). I went in today for the first day and a bit of training. Wow! I know you're thinking lunch time monitor, what, you just stand around in the cafeteria and keep an eye on the kids. That's basically it, but this is an amazingly well-run school. There's a whole, tightly-organized system.

The kids come out of their class, go to the bathroom where they was their hands. Their lunches have already been wheeled in on these wooden carts where they deposited them when they came in in the morning. They get their lunch and go to their assigned seats in the gym, where tables have been set up. They are divided by age and there is one monitor for 4 tables. The kids are not allowed to leave their seats and they have to speak quietly. When they need something, they raise their hands. When they have finished their lunch, there are games (mainly cards and Uno) they can play. They are not allowed to eat any chips, candy or soda.

After 45 minutes, the lights are turned off and the kids are supposed to stop talking. When all the tables are quiet, the tables are let out one by one to go get their jackets, gloves, toques, et al. and come back. Then they are led to the bathroom one more time. Finally, we release them into the yard and they go nuts.

It's cold here and there are large patches of ice which they love to slide on. Because a bunch of kids got hurt yesterday, the teachers designated one area with cones where the kids could slide. On the rest of the ice, they weren't allowed to stand up. So you had all these kids wrestling, sliding on their knees, or just lying on their stomachs wriggling around or being dragged by their friends. They get about a half an hour outside, unless the weather is really bad (raining hard in the muddy spring or below -30!) of "unstructured play."

I share this detail with you because it was totally unfamiliar to me. I was really impressed. I taught for four years in the New York City public school system and most schools don't even have an outside, let alone this kind of supervised lunch hour. The school I worked at today is a public school in one of the lower income sections of the city. A majority of the children are immigrants. I came away feeling that this is a society that cares about its children. Equipment, time, structure, attention and lots of people are there for the kids of this school. I don't know if this is the same across the province, but if this is at all indicative of the state of primary education here, I am heartened. No wonder young french-canadians are feeling bullish again about an independent Québec!

An interesting aside, during the training the woman in charge of the service de diner said to me that as an anglophone--and here I thought she was going to say that I might have trouble communicating with the children--I might be tempted to speak english with some of the students. But I must not. If they speak to me in english, I must respond in french. They are only allowed to speak french in the school, except during english class.

I think a lot of Americans would bristle at that idea and the one about what kind of food they are allowed to eat. Personally, I prefer the kind of freedom that comes from giving all children an opportunity to learn. They don't have much of that in the U.S. anymore