Reflections on Occupy Montréal

A couple of weeks ago I took a walk with my roommate down to Square Victoria in the middle of a downpour to see if the police had taken any precautions, set up barriers or were otherwise surveilling the area in preparation for the confrontation I was fairly certain I would witness the following day, when Montréalers from all walks of life would participate in an international day of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. I think I was legitimately concerned the SPVM would take a cue from the OPP/SQ/TPS G8/G20 playbook and we’d have a repeat of any anti-police brutality march in this city (that is to say, mass police brutality). Instead I found nothing, no precautions. I was surprised.

The next day the weather was generally cooperative, though at times unsure of itself, non-committal. It provided a hallucinatory experience as I crossed René-Lévesque to make my way to a late lunch with some friends, looking West along the boulevard into a sea of golden raindrops filling the cavernous corporate trench with a universe of temporary stars. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen lately.

My first experience with Occupy Montréal had been earlier that day when it was just getting going. It was so typically Canadian, so typically Montréal – overt contrasts, peaceful cohabitation, clean, neat, orderly, pleasant. There were very few police officers, though an unfortunate number of individuals who felt compelled to look like an anarchist stereotype ripped from the pages of a hysterical RCMP training manual from the last Red Scare. My previous concerns about the possibility of any real aggression from police were mitigated when I observed a grandfatherly police captain making gooney faces with a toddler, the child’s mother, a demonstrator, was laughing warmly. We had nothing to worry about.

I returned later in the afternoon to find myself involved in a march that tore through the retail heart of the city, blocking traffic and effectively stopping all activity on Ste-Catherine’s as we barrelled down towards Concordia. Then we looped on Mackay back onto Ste-Catherine’s, made our way down past the Place des Arts, into the Old Financial Quarter on St. James and finally back to the Square. If I didn’t know any better I could swear that the SPVM planned for this and let it happen in order to let the crowd diffuse its frustrations. I’m almost certain it had a police escort come to think of it. What I found curious and clever was how they managed to keep the demonstrators and the Habs fans separate. The numerous people I saw walking around the tent city earlier with head-sets must have had something to do with this very peculiar march. I smell smart, subtle policing, if such a thing can exist.

From what I’ve seen since, I would suspect local authorities are under the impression once Winter sets in most will clear out, as that is without a doubt the path of least resistance. As I walked around on the 15th and since, I’ve noticed that the membership of the MPQ were eager to set-up camp – part of me wondered whether or not it was just exceptionally opportunistic. The MPQ isn’t much more than an army surplus store owner and his merry band of grown-up toy soldiers. The RRQ was around, as were a bunch of unilingual Anglophone student activists missing out on a real opportunity to get to know their new Francophone brothers and sisters. Perhaps things have changed since then, I’ve only passed by a few times since. I was put-off by some drunk shmuck I encountered in the formidable tent-city who was wondering (aloud) why there was gender segregation in the tents. I didn’t want to acknowledge him, so I just looked directly in his eyes and gave him a ‘move along’ look. Hard to resist. It’s part of a common theme I saw throughout my time there – it was almost as if pot consumption was about to become a death-penalty offence, and everyone was doing their utmost to consume as much as they could before the law went into effect. My personal philosophy with regards to the consumption and distribution of narcotics notwithstanding, there was far more consumption than demonstration; I suppose we can just lump antiquated laws regarding marijuana consumption in with the very new laws that make corporations people and allow governments to play fast and loose with the People’s money as just another injustice against the working man by the hypocritical elites, but I’d prefer to stay more focused.

Yes, it’s been said before ad nauseum, but let’s face it – lack of focus is an easy problem to pick at by the mainstream media. If the direction was in place the collective would ensure it had both a list of short and long term demands, in addition to an exit strategy.

Without an exit strategy, there are only two options, one of which you can almost bank on. Either the authorities let it fizzle out on its own (which will be very demoralizing for the movement and the youth), or they clean house. Without an exit strategy, demands, and a cohesive (though, probably multi-faceted) argument, this movement, regardless of where it finds itself, is doomed to fail.

We are fortunate we have been spared the violence that has befallen Oakland, Rome and New York City. Its too early to say what will happen here.

There is something worthwhile in this local version of the Occupy Wall Street protest; it unites youth, it allows the frustrated public a chance to vent. People learn, people teach, people work together. Pass by Square-Victoria and see a veritable self-supporting community in the midst of a commercial no-man’s land. Witness the industrious 99%, backbone of the modern, stable social-democracy. Times are tough and the tent-cities are doing a good job providing. Let the example shine.

I feel compelled to end on a cautionary note, however. It is fundamentally important that the demonstrators, the protesters and occupiers out there know why they personally are participating. It’s all you need to know. Don’t speak of vague notions, don’t list all the problems with the world from a progressive-socialist perspective, just know your own personal reason. You will doubtless find many people who share your point of view and can relate, but to each his own. What is important next is maintaining the media’s focus. Let us show ourselves to the media, to show our personal reasons for protest, and let us go forth and tell them precisely we, as a collective of individuals, would go out and live in a tent city in solidarity with this growing and impressive social movement.

There can be no question we have a legitimate right to protest our current conditions here in Canada. Government is both corrupt and repressive, civil liberties are squashed in the name of public security, our economy is too reliant on corrosive American investment and trade, we allow social policy to be dictated to us like children by Washington and frankly, the less said about what we’ve allowed to happen to our once world-class healthcare and public education services, the better. It is only within the last few years that I have begun feeling ashamed of my country and my people. We’re better than what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

I’m also less than convinced Stephen Harper is the economic mastermind he purports to be. The middle class is disappearing faster here than South of the 49th, and our elites have a far greater stranglehold on our political and economic machine than I think we care to admit. Our media has been taking cues from the worst shlock you’d find on Fox News; in sum, there’s plenty to complain about, plenty that requires urgent and dramatic action.

But this movement will go nowhere unless those already mobilized can effectively articulate their own messages of protest, justified in media-savvy terms designed for maximal political impact. We have to play the game better than those who are already the established experts.

More on this later.

On the Métro Impasse

2009 AMT proposal for Métro extensions - not the work of the author

There’s been a fair bit of talk about extending the Montréal Métro of late in the English Press. Typical; now removed from the halls of power the English media spends its time twiddling their thumbs and dreaming about what could be, while Angryphones come out of the woodwork to demand Métro access to the West Island. I’ve said it before and I’ll say a million more times – no West Island residents should expect Métro extensions until there’s a West Island city, one with a tax-base as large as the cities of Laval or Longueuil. That or the West Island communities seek voluntary annexation from the City of Montréal. Then, and only then would the citizens out there be in a position to demand Métro access. I personally think a Highway 40 corridor Métro line from De la Savanne station to Fairview (and possibly as far as Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue) would be an excellent way to cut back significantly on vehicular traffic on our major highways. However, such a new line should be mirrored on the eastern side of the island, such as with the recommended Blue Line extension to Anjou. That said, residential development on the eastern side is oriented on a more North-South axis than on the West Island, and thus the proposed Pie-IX line (running from Laval or Montréal-North south to the Centre-Sud/HoMa district) would likely handle more passengers than any West Island extension (but only if it in turn were connected to East-West lines at multiple points).

While an unfortunate number of people have complained the 2009 MTQ proposal (above) is ‘too focused on the East End’, I look at it as focused primarily on where the population density seems to be high and increasing. There are more than 400,000 people living in Laval and another 700,000 people living on the South Shore (spread out over several municipalities, with an estimated 230,000 people living in Longueuil alone). Moreover, there are 85,000 people living in Saint-Laurent borough and another 125,000 people living in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough. In total, the proposed extensions as demonstrated above could potentially serve almost 1 million people directly and indirectly.

So while it is nice to dream about ideal systems that serve the entire metropolitan region, or at least serve the City better, we need to consider what the government is proposing seriously.

What’s unfortunate is that this plan now seems to be in jeopardy, given that the respective mayors of Longueuil, Laval and Montréal had to take out full page advertisements in the local press some months ago announcing why their city should benefit from expansion. I’ve said it before – sicking the mayors against each other isn’t going to achieve much. The entire system needs to be expanded until the whole region is eventually covered. In essence, we need to follow the same planning philosophy used to design the Paris, New York, London or Moscow subway systems, wherein the project is considered incomplete until near-total coverage is achieved. We won’t grow nearly as quickly unless the Métro develops in such a fashion so as to increase transit efficiency within the region. Montréal’s successful urban communities wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they are if it weren’t for the fact that they have Métro access. It is crucial for expansion and development.

In sum, we need to start planning as a unified metropolitan region wherein the interests of all citizens are considered simultaneously. Métro line development cannot be a reward for political loyalty. We’ve come a long way from the nepotism of the dark ages under Maurice Duplessis, so when the provincial government finks out and pits the suburbs of Montréal against the City for an individual line extension, the citizens of all communities must demand an end to such ridiculous partisanship. We can’t continue on like this. This is why our city is broken.

And just a reminder – completing the project illustrated above is pegged at 4 billion dollars. Cost of the new Champlain Bridge has been estimated at 5 billion dollars. Is it me or would it not be smarter to use that money to complete the proposed Métro expansion, and then spend a billion dollars renovating and improving the existing Champlain Bridge? A new Champlain Bridge will accommodate about 156,000 vehicle crossings per day. With this expansion, the Métro would be able to accommodate over 1.5 million passengers per day, which in turn will free up space on the highways, bridges, tunnels, buses and commuter trains, possibly even allowing some buses to be re-purposed to new routes, further improving the public transit system here in Montréal. To me it’s a no-brainer. What do you think?

Update: Three Competing Métro Proposals

Neither of these are of my own design; judge for yourselves:

I found this one a while back, seems like an interesting idea. It incorporates three rapid-bus systems plus a Parc Avenue light rail system, with a considerably larger Métro system in general, though with considerable focus on the higher-density regions closer to the downtown core.

The following proposal for system improvement doesn’t involve any non-Métro systems, but has considerably more lines and stations. Also notice how all three airports are connected, and how the downtown would be connected by four parallel East-West lines and seems to indicate a type of network-sharing system where multiple lines would use the same track. Further, consider the number of junction stations:

I also like this proposal because it very clearly allows access to all four corners of the Metropolitan region. Keep it in mind Рthis system is nothing more than a dream, though its always encouraging to see random people envisioning their ideal M̩tro system. If only our elected officials would get the picture and pursue a more ambitious expansion program. Imagine what could be if we were building at a rate of 26 stations every 4 years. We did it without blinking between 1962 and 1966.

October 27th update:

Another find!

Looking at this plan I can’t help but remark on the similarities in the three designs, as it seems to have borrowed from each in addition to the current MTQ plan and elements of very early designs. Among other things, closing the Orange Line loop, extending further into Laval and Longueuil, following bridges and highways, extending the Blue Line East to Anjou, connecting Ile des Soeurs and additional East-West lines to cover the downtown and a Pie-IX line are all featured in these three designs. The first plan is highly reserved and realistic whereas the second is bold (though less accurate than the others), and the third seems constrained by the dimensions of a Métro map poster. That said – check out that Brown Line – it goes everywhere! What a great idea, a ‘sight-seer’ Métro line running from Brossard through the CBD and onto the airport. I also like the idea, oft repeated, of having additional multi-line hubs East of Berri-UQAM, such as at the Olympic Stadium, and of course the second plan’s design to link all the airports with the urban core. What’s striking is that it doesn’t seem to me like any official plan would even consider the possibility of building entirely new lines and hubs; these plans are realistic given that by 2012-2013, the metropolitan population is going to reach 4 million, and the citizens will no longer be able to rely on their cars to get around the metropolitan region. Public transit will require a massive investment in order for large cities to remain operationally competitive, we just cannot afford the same carbon footprint in the future. Thus, it makes sense to begin a massive development project and wildly expand the Métro, as soon as possible. Any of these designs are feasible as long as we demand it, but we must demonstrate clearly and effectively that we will not stand for anything less than the world’s finest Métro system. It is our responsibility, it is our heritage and a credit to our high-tech industries, but it must be kept at a perpetual ‘state-of-the-art’ status if we’re to make any money off it. The citizens need better than what is currently provided and Métro development needs to become a principle priority for the Mayor. If we were as motivated to build a Métro system today as we were fifty years ago, we could attain total metropolitan coverage within forty years, maybe sooner. That kind of long term steady investment is exactly what we need to keep our economy stable and create real, insurable employment. Public works and infrastructure projects worked in the States with the New Deal, so there’s no reason why we can’t do the same basic thing today on a localized scale. Building a massive new Métro could be money in the bank.

Creating an Alpha World City – II

What’s Montreal going to look like in 2030?

According to StatsCan, the Greater Montreal Area will have a combined population of 5.275 million people, with more than two million living on the island alone.

Just a reminder, this is the projected population by 2030, less than seventeen years from now. How large will we be in twenty-five years? Or fifty?

Greater Montreal is a geographically immense area, one that contains a wide variety of development zones – industrial, commercial, high, low and medium density residential and, currently, still a fair bit of green space, rural or semi-rural areas on the periphery. I believe we’ve achieved a kind of balance in the greater region, but in order to sustain major population growth, we will have to look towards increasing density in the urban core – suburban sprawl has already extended so far in all directions its common for commuters to spend well over an hour in transit between home and office (and that’s not limited to public transit, highway traffic at rush hour won’t get you home much faster.

If we strive to contain sprawl, such as with a moratorium on new housing construction, we can maintain the current balance of developed and natural lands within the greater region of Montreal (not to mention stabilize the real estate market), something that would likely serve to drive up the value of detached suburban homes considerably. The city’s suburban middle class would rather quickly find themselves living in far more valuable homes, and the consequential ‘scarcity’ of new homes will drive demand for alternatives, such as high-density urban or semi-urban areas. Moreover, there would be ample reason to get home-owners to invest significantly in home renovations considering such legislation would establish a more-or-less permanent ‘seller’s market’ concerning suburban real estate.

If we want to get the most bang for our collective buck we can’t afford a city that expands ever outward. It places an unnecessary stress on the lives of far too many citizens, is ludicrously expensive and is getting more and more expensive to maintain. The metro region has a population density of 900 people per square kilometer – over an area of 4,400 square kilometers!

But if we place limits on outward expansion and focus on densification we concentrate the tax-pool to a fixed area, and can potentially enlarge the area that constitutes the City of Montreal, be it through annexation, densification or both. As it stands there is a sizeable enough demand for high-density condominiums in the city centre there are over a dozen projects currently underway, and more to come, all of which are being built on otherwise empty lots. But even though these condos will sell and provide much-needed high-density construction, no services have been provided for. The city needs to adjust to problem quickly if it wishes to secure new long-term city residents.

Montreal has all the potential, the human capital, the cultural and intellectual capital necessary to become an Alpha World City – a city of international economic, cultural and political significance. Broadly speaking I believe we are on the right path towards achieving this goal, though it is largely as a result of decisions made long-ago and becoming poorly understood today. Too little is being done today to insure our future, and thus, if we’re to guarantee ourselves a global role for the bulk of the 21st century, I’d like to suggest we begin putting into place the laws and administrative structures necessary to propel massive growth.

Montreal could be one vote, one referendum away from becoming the largest city in Canada. If we willed it. If the citizens of the region collectively backed the idea that the area we know as Greater Montreal were fused into a single city. What a proud and powerful city that would be.

Whether in one single referendum or a series of individual local votes, the mayor could conceivably ask the citizens of the independent communities within Greater Montreal whether they would like to merge into the City of Montréal proper. It’s called annexation, and whether by provincial dictate or individual plebiscites leading to direct votes, it’s largely how Montreal came to become the size it is today. Places like Pierrefonds, Ahuntsic, Outremont, Cartierville, Saraguay, Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Saint Henri were once all independent communities. Today, they are distinct elements and communities within the larger metropolis. If the City of Montreal were to succeed in convincing a majority of the citizens of all independent communities within the Greater Montreal region to agree to voluntary annexation, we could grow to a city of 3.65 million people almost overnight. That number, incidentally, is expected to crack the four million mark in the next few years.

If we were all Montrealers, we’d be almost twice as large as Canada’s current largest city, the City of Toronto with their population of 2.5 million. This may not seem that impressive at first, but consider the economic and political power wielded by a city with a tax-base of four million people. That’s where things start getting very interesting in my opinion, as the City of Montreal would have a residential tax-base similar to Alberta or British Columbia. At this point, the City would have to take on a greater portion of the provincial administrative and services burden (such as with regards to healthcare, social services and education – the city would have to establish its own departments to handle local administration of the hospitals and schools, according to mega-city needs and constraints. In a sense, this would be similar to the relationship between New York City and New York State with regards to the administration, organization and operation of key social services). Now while this would, by necessity, make the government of the City of Montréal grow to a considerably larger size, it also means we’ll have a greater degree of operational autonomy, and can better organize services to suit our needs.

I’ll tell you this much. We could build as we needed without turning to the provincial or federal governments for hand-outs. We’d be economically sovereign.

There’s a lot of potential power there. That tax revenue could fund excellent public schools, expand access to post-secondary education, provide rehabilitative homeless shelters, Métro expansions, you name it. If Montreal can’t grow out any further and low-density residential development is constrained, the rise in land value could result in greater personal wealth on a large scale, not to mention a potentially significant local generational wealth transfer. Urbanites desperately seeking suburban homes and neighbourhoods will have to pay more for homes, meaning the extant middle class middle-aged generation (which missed the long promised major wealth transfer of the 2000s) may in turn be able to provide their children with a considerable degree of wealth at some point in the future. Containing that wealth may serve, in time, to lessen the burden of taxation.

Talk of merger isn’t likely to win anyone over any time soon, given former Premier Bernard Landry royally fucked public perception of the word by forcing all communities on the Island of Montreal into a single city back in 2002 with the forced merger. I wouldn’t propose forcing anyone to do anything, especially not when they could be asked and convinced its the right thing to do first. And taking this necessary first step really has nothing to do with Toronto, though I could imagine this might be just the rallying-cry to unite voters around. It has everything to do with taking control of our destiny, of running our own affairs and working towards an attainable goal.

You see this map? It’s not really what the Montréal Métro map looks like, and it’s not even entirely based on STM plans and predictions. Rather, it’s based on the idea that the entirety of the metropolitan region should be connected via a common high-capacity public transit system, as one might see in any Alpha World City. We have an excellent public transit system by any set of standards, but its not growing fast enough. We’re above and beyond most North American cities, but are falling behind internationally. The stigmas attached to public transit need to be eliminated, and the system needs to be expanded to levels comparable with Tokyo or Paris. Granted we don’t have their population, but major growth can only be obtained if key pieces of infrastructure are already in place.

You may be asking why we need to get bigger, why we need to start thinking on a bigger scale? For me its rather simple – I’d like to see a veritable utopia, a city that takes complete care of its citizens and vice-versa. A city which is invaluable on a global scale, with the resources to be at the forefront of the arts and sciences. In order to live like kings we will require a larger population, and in turn will have the resources to employ the latest technologies to improve life for all citizens across the board. You might think this is crazy, that achieving any kind of utopia is futile. I politely disagree.

But I will say this. It is exceptionally disconcerting to see just how many people have a general ‘that can’t be accomplished because other people have tried and failed in the past’ mentality. I’ve heard with regards to the Big O (it was so expensive we should demolish it), the Olympics in general (again, it was so expensive we should never do it again, despite now having paid for all the infrastructure), and even the possibility of Montréal re-gaining its position of global prominence. Hell, I was once told we can’t have trams here because there would be too much snow in the winter (we had year-round tram service from the 1880s to 1959, worked just fine).

The fact of the matter is, if we looked no further than our own recent history, we would find all the missing keys to re-gaining our national primacy. We would find the projects that once focused development and international attention, and find all the failures we could turn into success stories. We could be a city of Universal Expositions, International Olympiads and a seat of international governance (don’t forget – it was recently proposed that the UN move its headquarters to Montréal; this can be an issue as long as we insist on it, and let’s face it, of all places, the UN certainly belongs here). All of this can be ours again, insofar as we decide not only that it is possible, but more importantly, that it is vital to achieve a minimum standard as an Alpha World City. The initial investment must be made by the citizens of an expanded single-entity super-metropolis, though their tax-dollars, into building the components necessary for large-scale growth and development. Then follows the infrastructure and services development, the creation of expansion of city departments and agencies into a foundation of steady, well-paying jobs to facilitate the development of a proud and prosperous local middle class. And from this strong foundation we will attract and produce the commercial and industrial interests necessary to achieve this coveted status. An Alpha City can lead by the examples created by the R&D they can support, and they maintain their appeal by experimentation. Let our city become the new experiment in modern urbanism, it is high-time we lead by example.

The reasons to build a supercity are many and would appeal to anyone living in the metropolitan region. Consider this my official announcement, I plan on winning a municipal election and becoming mayor, and under my watch we will climb to dizzying heights. Our future is the only thing I’m consistently concerned with, and I can imagine it looking very bright indeed.

On a final note, a short list of projects we may wish to consider if we want to become not only Canada’s first and foremost city, but beyond that, a city of global significance:

1. 24hr public transit access throughout the entire Greater Montreal region, using multiple systems

2. A unified public education system to guarantee French and English spoken and written fluency

3. A multi-airport system capable of handling more than 50 million passengers per year

4. An internationally recognized medical tourism hospital

5. The creation of a new bilingual university and several officially bilingual feeder CEGEPs

6. The development of a full-size version of Moishe Safdie’s subsidized housing project to provide subsidized housing for 100,000 more people

7. A car-free central business district

8. The development of a ‘locavore’ bureau, designed to ensure the new city can sustain its own food requirements. A simultaneous development would place emphasis on creating new centres of urban agriculture in addition to a proliferation of fresh produce markets.

9. Hosting both another Summer Olympic games and another Universal Exposition

(article in development, editing to come)

Kondiaronk Book Review – Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory

Don Bell was what you might consider a kind of boulevardier back in the 1960s and 1970s, keeping abreast of the freaks and geeks which make urban living so goddam enjoyable. He compiled a variety of anecdotes into the aforementioned compendium which became a big local and national hit back in 1972. Though I can imagine almost everyone interviewed by Bell is likely dead by now (save for a few old hippies), the characters are paradoxically products of their era and somehow timeless as well. We don’t have the same calibre of local eccentrics like we used to, in my honest opinion, but we’ll never be short on characters. Bell demonstrates clearly the source of so much creative inspiration in his honest and down-to-earth portrayals of a host of characters from early 70s Montréal, from local big shot showbiz types in their halcyon days to the silent and methodical Greek pool-sharks, from old-money dilettantes to new age gurus and the caffein-addled over-night crew staffing the Mile End bagel shops. Don Bell was looking for what the creatively-inclined see in the people and faces of this city, a never-ending supply of complex reactions and adjustments to the human experience. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, at times ill at ease with those living on the fringes of our society, the stories and scenarios he relates seems to steer away from the pulp curb-side reporting of Al Palmer in his Montreal Confidential as though he was interested principally in offering a societal and cultural almanac.

It’s been something I’ve been looking for for quite some time now – to capture that fleeting feeling of knowing the spirit, hydra-esque though it may be, a location may generate. In another sense I find myself looking for the zeitgeist in the built and natural environment, and by extension how such an environment may impact the people and colour their character. I think Marsan was looking for this, and Richler was certainly aware of it, and yet for some reason I don’t think we care as much about it anymore. That or we have forgotten what we came so close to defining. Either way, the people always seem to be at least able to feel in their spines, and know it to exist if only to know its indelible imprint. Don Bell saw the city in the citizen, and how the city, as a living, breathing super-organism, defines lives and lifestyles for its inhabitants. He demonstrates the beacon-esque qualities of a modern city in its prime, and the seedier elements of the underbelly, the harsh-realities of the lives of the people in the guts of a gigantic machine. Required reading for any boulevardier, urbanist, or Montreal history & literature enthusiast. Also, it caused a fair bit of controversy, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.