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.