Another Neat Idea from Yesteryear

So way back in the day you could rent rowboats, canoes and gondolas at the lagoon at Parc Lafontaine.

Today you can rent over-priced plastic pedal boats at Beaver Lake and Lac des Dauphins.

As you can see above, some of these modest river craft featured canopies, advertisements. In some cases you could even get someone to row you around.

And if I’m not mistaken, many of our parks had lagoons filled with swans. Why did we get rid of the swans?

Not too shabby eh?

Today no such luxuries exist, nor do the ornately designed boat houses (as you can see above) which once housed the boats and offered citizens and tourists alike a variety of services. Instead, the pedal boats are accessed via an exposed impermanent deck. The people responsible have a folding table.

It looks cheap.

What you see above does not (in my eyes, feel free to disagree).

I believe parks and public spaces have a variety of important societal and economic functions which must be encouraged through direct city involvement. I’m certainly not saying we’re not doing this today – Montreal’s parks and recreation department does good work. Our parks are clean and generally well used throughout the year. We are a city that still adores its parks and generally integrates park usage into our day to day lives, whether for recreation, a pleasant stroll, to let the dog out, whatever. This is not particular to Montréal, but there is a significant portion of the urban city which was designed with parks playing crucial roles in traffic diffusion and societal cohesion. We benefit immensely by having many first-ring suburbs oriented on parks, squares, plazas etc, providing exceptional amounts of public green space. As intended in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Montreal’s urban parks have become fully integrated into the urban tapestry and our way of life.

But what I find fascinating is how four of our most important urban parks (the nature parks; Maisonneuve, Jean Drapeau, Lafontaine and Mount Royal) are generally not visited by tourists; they are used chiefly by locals. By contrast, the smaller urban squares (Place d’Armes, Dorchester, Place du Canada, Square Victoria etc) are overloaded with tourists and too few citizens.

It might be time to end our voluntary park segregation. Admittedly, you can indeed do a lot more in the nature parks and the urban squares are closer to the major hotels (so as to account for this distribution of users), but we should consider that the urban squares have for the most part received significant upgrades of late, whereas most of our nature parks are beginning to look worn-out.

We might want to consider a significant investment in our larger nature parks, and further seek to extend our best foot forward. If we wanted an international audience to discover our mega-parks, we’d still have the swans, still have gondolas in lagoons, not to mention impressively clean public washrooms and other public facilities. Today our biggest parks, which ought to rank highly among the major tourist destinations of our city, are instead largely hidden.

And if you’ve ever had to use the washroom at Parc Jeanne Mance, you know why.

Getting Smarter About Public Education in Montréal

Once again, Montréal parents are caught fighting each other to keep their children’s respective schools open. This time, the parents of St. John Bosco and St. Gabriel schools, located in the working class neighbourhoods of Ville Emard and Pte. St. Charles respectively, are trying to convince the English Montréal School Board each should be saved at the other’s potential closure. How sick.

Parents should not ever be forced to fight each other for access to schooling near their homes, and unfortunately, you see this sort of thing happen frequently in the first rung suburbs of Montréal – there are and have been cases in Ville Emard, St-Leonard, Cote-des-Neiges etc over the years. Under no circumstances do I personally feel this is right or justifiable, the school board should have more sense than to do this to hard-working people who need small community schools for their children. It’s unnecessarily traumatic, can disrupt family and neighbourhood life and cohesion, and in no way serves the interests of the People it is supposed to serve. The positive public effect of small public schools intimately tied to the surrounding neighbourhood is quite simply a necessity for modern urban living, and the benefit of small class sizes is particularly desirable in situations where the majority of parents work full time in potentially unstable work environments. Children in working class neighbourhoods need strong schools integrated into the local community – ideally with teachers and staff who live in the same neighbourhood so that a fuller sense of community attachment can be established, and the apparent transition of authority from inside the home to inside the school is maintained. This is difficult to do when the children have to go to another neighbourhood entirely, and potentially never see the teachers or classmates outside of school. Moreover, by forcing these two schools to merge, it doubtless means class sizes will grow. This is far from ideal. And more often than not residents of these communities find themselves without the resources to fight the school board and save their schools. The EMSB ought to be ashamed of itself.

This is not news – Montréal parents have been fighting each other and the government (physically, figuratively, rhetorically) for more than forty years, stretching all the way back to the St-Leonard Riots of 1969-70. You’d think we would have learned something since then.

The problem is supposed to be declining enrolment and funding for the EMSB, but I’m very suspicious. The EMSB has been caught up in hot water pretty much since it was created, it is hardly a pillar of stability in the Anglo-Québecois community, not like the old PSBGM. What I fail to comprehend is why the EMSB would ever consider closing a school, which is very much a nail in the coffin of a community – and it flies in the face of most modern education theory, which stresses small class sizes as being ideal. Seriously, what are they thinking?

I don’t think we’re being very smart w/r/t to public education here in Montréal, here’s why:

For one, whereas Montréal once benefitted from public education facilities and programs that could easily compete with private schools, today incompetence, corruption and the appearance of instability have led many parents to pursue private alternatives to the weakened public system, which has led to a proliferation of private schools. This in turn has had a deleterious effect on the public system and has further led to many school closings. As such, urban neighbourhoods which have undergone substantial gentrification in the past decades are now without schools, libraries or churches (not that I’m religious in any way, but churches do make for excellent community and cultural centres) given that many have been turned into condos.

For two, we still have a linguistic divide in education, as though we were purposely underselling our real level of bilingualism and multi-culturalism. So why do we still have multiple independent linguistic boards serving a single region – it’s inefficient. If all boards were united into a single operation we’d be in a better position to keep schools open (as overflow from the French sector could be placed in what was once an ‘English’ school), and thus could mitigate the need to build new schools and pay for expensive bussing in the urban core. We could also stabilize class sizes. And all of this would still be secondary to the fact that we would finally be in position to educate bilingually, a necessity for this city. If the City of Montréal were to undertake creating a single, bi-lingual, multi-cultural school board (run as a city department), it would not only allow us to guarantee full bilingualism of generations of children, it would also provide the necessary means and operational efficiency to once again make public education the preferred option for Montréal residents. I would encourage a 75/25 linguistic instruction split for all students regardless of mother tongue, with the majority of classroom instruction talking place in French to counter the dominance of English in North American media. Ultimately, we need to fill our schools with teachers who are comfortable switching languages and can speak both with full fluency. This should be what we want for our children, who will certainly live in a world where both are fundamentally useful. Why even attempt anything less?

Finally, third point, our city needs to run private schools out of business, but this won’t happen unless we have the business sense to plan for long-term development in a city-run school board.

For me, it boils down to this. A child can’t choose the circumstances they’re born in to, and yet the school they go to will be decided by factors well beyond the child’s grasp. If current trends continue poor kids will end up in underfunded public schools while rich kids and the remaining children of the middle class will end up in various private schools, operating beyond the regulatory reach of the government. As far as I’m concerned, all elements of society, rich or poor, would benefit from future generations educated equitably, and private schools should thus be minimized and rendered obsolete by heavily investing in a renewed public system.

Education is basic human right, and I would expect the leaders of my city would do everything they could to ensure our city offered the very finest in public education. But such is not the case, and we close schools to later be recycled into condominiums, leaving neighbourhoods without the societal anchors necessary to build healthy communities and healthier families. By refusing to acknowledge some of the realities of our city, we hold ourselves back, and we’re not doing our kids any favours either.

So, let’s smarten up and try something different. It is the very definition of insanity to expect a different result after repeating an action, and it further leaves people in a rut that may seem impossible to get out of. Plus, we’re Canadian, so everyone’s too embarrassed to propose anything too radically hors-du-commun.

It’s costing us the money we can’t generally see. We could do much better.

If at first you don’t succeed…

This is the front cover of the ‘bid-book’ published by the City of Montréal when it was angling for the 1972 Summer Olympics (notice it says XX Olympiad), which would eventually go to Munich and be highlighted by the triumphs of Mark Spitz and the horrors of Black September. Mayor Drapeau, being the tenacious individual that he was, continued pushing for a Summer Games to be held here, despite the terrorism that marred the Munich Games. He would ultimately succeed in 1976 with an Olympic Games that helped restore faith in the games as an instrument of global diplomacy and peace, but it came at the cost of what can only be described as massive cost overruns as a result of corruption in the construction industry (sounds familiar?)

Ultimately, the legacy of the XXI Olympiad was its crippling long-run costs, though we often overlook the work done on infrastructure, the development of high density residential towers in the urban core, the boon to the tourism and hospitality industry and the publicity it generated for city & citizen alike.

The Games were not bad for business Рif anything the cronyism and cost-throttling were great for private enterprises. But as far as running an Olympiad for the cost-benefits to the city, Montr̩al stands head and shoulders above all others as the biggest loser. So much so that the planning committee of the 1984 Los Angeles games studied Montr̩al specifically, in effect trying to be as much the opposite of our games as possible. Los Angeles `84 stands as the most financially profitable games of all time.

So if Peter Ueberroth (the head of the LA-84 Olympic Committee) could use our example to plan for massive success, certainly we can do the same, no? Let’s take advantage of all we’ve built and maintained since – I can imagine another Montréal games could turn a massive profit given how little would have to be built, we can simply use existing facilities. Moreover, with three airports, an expanded public and inter-city transit capability and a significantly larger number of hotel rooms, we might be able to break attendance records inasmuch as we could break revenue records.

So if the City comes to ask what I’d like for our 375th Anniversary, I can only ask for an Olympic organizing committee with a serious bid and a promise to doggedly pursue another Summer Games until we get one. 2024 isn’t that far away.

Are there deer in Mount Royal Park?

So a couple days ago I’m hanging out with my roommate and his buddy says to me, he says, “y’all wouldn’t believe this shit but I saw a deer up on the Mountain.”

Straight up hand to god he swears side to side he seen a living, breathing deer somewhere’s about the Mountain and I casually ask ‘wheres’?

He replies he doesn’t remember exactly, but it was ‘somewheres on the North Face up behind U-de-M’, and he was absolutely certain of what he saw. I protested this point vehemently, and the situation degenerated quickly into a Mexican stand-off of mutual incredulity. I, incredulous that there would be deer in a two-hundred hectare park. And he, incredulous that there wouldn’t. I find it highly suspicious given the extent of urbanization around the Mountain, the numerous roads, fences and trails that bisect the Mountain. Certainly the deer would get hit by cars, and how many could possibly survive on the Mountain without being seen? I’ve never heard of anyone spotting a live deer on the Mountain, and I’ve lived here my whole life.

Am I nuts?

I’ve tried to imagine what may have led my associate to believe there is at least one live deer on the Mountain. Perhaps the staff at the Biodome bring the deer out for a romp in the woods once in a while. Maybe the Biosphere has introduced the species covertly as part of some mis-guided ‘urban-reforestation plan’. There are endless possibilities really.

Did he see a horse? The SPVM has a stable up there and the police regularly patrol the Mountain on horseback in the summertime. I doubt he’d confuse one for the other though.

Maybe it was back during the strike at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery back a few Summers ago. The cemeteries take up about two thirds of the central and eastern parts of what we know as Mount Royal. This is a considerable amount of space that was almost entirely fenced off and completely unmaintained for several months. Perhaps the Eco-Musée at the Morgan Arboretum let their deer out for a stretch.

Or perhaps there is some small pocket of natural Montréal wilderness, largely inaccessible to most park visitors and away from major roads in which a small group of deer have been able to sustain themselves for multiple generations. Perhaps it is an isolated gully, or perhaps they have simply adapted to urban living, and stick to a very small territory. There are plenty of deer living in the region, indeed, I’ve seen a whole family feeding in a swamp in July of 2004 just off of Chemin Ste-Marie near the Anse-a-Lorme Trail. But I really can’t imagine them living inside the most densely populated city in Canada.

Unless someone caught a deer somehow and decided to introduce them to the park all by themselves. Why someone would do this I don’t know.

So many unanswered questions!

I’ll do my best to get to the bottom of it.

Grabbing the Bull by the Horns

Remember, Steve Harper is an evangelical Christian, just like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Mel Gibson

We are becoming the bad guys, and this individual has a lot to do with it.

We have turned our backs on the non-aligned, or Third World, nations we once lead. We have secured unpopular and aggressive allies, some of them threats to world peace and global economic stability, while turning away from the peacekeeping initiatives we were once internationally lauded for. Because of a mass inferiority complex, we’ve decided to support killing as opposed to making lives better, worth living. And we call the poor who die for our national vanity heroes, or worse, warriors. Stephen Harper and the Tories want you to be proud of your warriors, your heroes – proud of what is all I can ask.

We have a federal government that claims a majority and ‘mandate to govern’ though it was elected by scarcely 24% of the eligible voters. We have a government that rejects facts and empirical research for its ‘gut’ instincts and faith in faith alone operating procedure. We elect ‘conservatives’ who conserve nothing, and waste as though it was their right to do so by birth. Our elected ‘leaders’ lack vision, lack leadership, lack competence. We prioritize engine-less fighters designed to fight someone else’s wars over preventing hunger, disease and unemployment. We call ourselves a developed nation, yet refuse to take an active role in development. We reward criminals for screwing the People, and give them life-long Senate appointments. Worse still, because we are lazy, because we refuse to be responsible for ourselves, we live lives of peace and tranquility at the cost of other people’s happiness. We deny others what we take for granted, and for the most part, we have the gall to ask them why they don’t get their shit together? Our pride is a dangerous self-delusion.

And perhaps the less said about human rights, civil liberties and the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech and assembly, the better. The Harper Administration’s brutal repression of dissent since 2006 is shameful for a nation founded on social-democratic principles, such as our own lest Mr. Harper forgot about that. Never before have our fundamental human rights been so consistently violated as they’ve been for the past few years. Police and security forces have been given carte-blanche to abuse while the appointed care-taker federal government introduces bill after bill designed to repress Canadian progressivism and sew greater divisions between the diverse elements of Canadian society. They must be stopped at all costs. How much longer can we afford to be governed by such myopic and self-indulgent swine as this?

I thought the title was apt given its multiple uses. For one, we need to get a grip on the bullshit machine in Ottawa, Toronto and Montréal which has been pumping out regressive, repressive propaganda on behalf of the Tories (and in the name of media balance, which is a whole other steaming pile of BS anyways), inasmuch as we need to grab our economy by the horns and reign it in. We’re far too dependent on foreign investment and non-renewable resource extraction because its a quick buck, but it leaves nothing for ourselves, nor for future generations. Where is our industry? Where are the infrastructure mega projects? These tend not to happen under Tory governments, because they don’t want the responsibility of actually creating and developing a strong, planned economy. No, no – they’d prefer it was dictated by greed, apathy and foreign resource speculation. Well excuse me if I’m not convinced this is the best way to go. No nation has evolved with this as their economic foundation, not at all. Instead, nations like this inevitably fail, with kleptocrats flying high on the taxpayer’s buck before a popular revolution throws them out of power. Is this the path we’d like to go down? I fear we may have gone too far down this road already, as cabinet ministers were rewarded with lucrative government contracts (see Tony Clement’s cash-grab during the 2010 G8/G20 Summit in his Muskoka riding), and defence ministers use search-and-rescue helicopters to pick them up from their vacations.

We’ve dropped the ball and allowed the bottom-feeders into the halls of power. They must be removed, we must take control of our nation, to ensure our future prosperity, to eliminate corruption and graft and to ensure our nation is renown internationally for the good deeds it does. Accepting anything less is frankly unpatriotic, I dare say perhaps even treasonous.

Perhaps it will be the grand moment of self-realization and awakening we are looking for, but Canada’s youth have a responsibility, to themselves and for posterity, to ensure an autocrat like Stephen Harper never has a chance to mis-manage our nation’s affairs again. We deserve better and must demand more from ourselves. Let this be our clarion call.

A Sensible Approach to Redeveloping Griffintown

Let me make myself perfectly clear; being in favour of enhanced local government involvement in residential and commercial planning is not, in any way shape or form, anti-business. Nor is it necessarily going to lead to nepotism or otherwise create a conflict of interest. I need to stress this as a necessity, because we may otherwise spoil a golden opportunity to breathe new life into a dormant sector of the city by being fearful of the appearance of collusion. The city, by necessity, must be intimately involved in all manner of urban zoning planning – leaving it up to developers uniquely is simply irresponsible. The role of the city is to plan the necessary constraints placed on development and provide the requisite infrastructure to secure long-term growth and socio-economic stability within its boundaries. It is the private sector’s responsibility to adhere to these constraints and deliver a bankable product, on time and under budget, to their investors. A key issue to consider is this however; who are the investors? With regards to residential development projects, especially those of the size and calibre to potentially stimulate the rebirth of an entire residential zone, it is not merely the banks and the development company; all citizens who pay taxes to the municipal government are also paying for the city’s involvement in urban redevelopment, such as by rehabilitating old sewer systems, re-paving roads, building parks etc. Thus, in an indirect though significant fashion, the citizens are also investors, and their interests ought to considered as though the citizens are the financial backers of the city, in the same fashion that the banks and investment firms back the contractors, speculators and developers.

The plans to redevelop Griffintown caused a considerable uproar a few years back amongst citizens inclined towards a certain preferred urbanism. Indeed, the Devimco plan was seen as an uninspired condo-tropolis reminiscent of recent construction in Toronto or Vancouver and, though the project was officially put on hiatus as a result of the global economic meltdown, one can’t deny it was also very poorly received. Smaller projects have been implemented instead, and large-scale planning for the area doesn’t seem to have much if any involvement from the City. Perhaps it’s just hard to gauge, but the Montréal2025 plan, the Devimco plan, the scaled-back Devimco plan and the Canada Lands Corporation plan (along with a proposed Cité-du-Havre redevelopment scheme) all seem to be little more than ideas, proposals. Perhaps they are in accordance with a master plan somewhere in the city’s planning department, but publicly, it doesn’t seem that the Tremblay administration is making much headway. I can only wonder why Griffintown’s redevelopment isn’t the focal point of a major campaign on the part of the City to win the confidence of the tax-payers and potential investors, though I think it may have something to do with the number of strategic partners involved and the fluidity of Griffintown’s potential borders.

The region bounded by Highways 720, 20 and 10 looks like a backwards comma and is referred to as the Sud-Ouest. It includes the communities of Griffintown, Little Burgundy, St-Henri, Lower Westmount, Village des Tanneries, Pointe-St-Charles and the former Goose Village. Given the City’s plan to demolish the Bonaventure viaduct, this region will soon include the Cité-du-Havre, the Faubourg-des-Récollets and the proposed Quartier Bonaventure as well. The Sud-Ouest borough also counts the neighbourhoods of Cote-St-Paul and Ville-Emard further West and has a total population of about 70,000 people. This region is served by about a dozen Métro stations either within the boundary or on its periphery and has been going through a partial gentrification for about fifteen years. It is extremely convenient to live in this sector, apartments are generally quite affordable and you are in the immediately vicinity of the Central Business District. New construction is taking place and the borough has already established itself as an up-and-coming alternative to the Plateau. It’s hip and chic to live here. So why aren’t we planning for the area as a whole?

I can imagine it’s in all of our best interests to attempt increasing the residential population in this area – perhaps by significant margin given the availability of open, largely under-used land. But if this is to be the case, we must further ensure an appropriate mix of incomes and living arrangements. For one, there are a great deal of heritage properties which must be protected. An excellent way to go about this is to have the City acquire said properties and keep them rent-controlled. Other initiatives should include mandatory construction of rent-subsidized apartments and middle-income condo/apartments in all new large-scale residential development projects. Further, the city will have to construct new schools and rehabilitate old civic properties to support the new population increase (as an example, the area in question has old community centres, churches, fire stations, schools etc, many of which could be renovated and re-used), while further investing in a massive, sector-wide city beautification project. For too long it seems as though the City has focused uniquely on beautifying areas within the sector that have received significant private investment – this has given the area a very uneven look. Finally, new small-business initiatives would have to created (and backed by the City) to foster a stable local economic foundation. We can accomplish all of this, but it will require greater City involvement and a bird’s eye perspective. If the population could be doubled in this sector and a new Plateau result, it’s worth the investment. The City should use the opportunity to create a massive new residential zone built according to the interests of the citizens and our urban planning experts.