The LaFontaine House – Another Landmark in Ruin

John Ralston Saul at the LaFontaine House – credit to Gabrielle Cauchy of Dimedia

The house above is all that remains of the once residential Overdale block, which was torn down in the 1980s in the name of urban renewal. You’ll likely know it better as a parking lot with kebab stand adjacent to Con-U’s fine arts pavilion. Thankfully this house wasn’t destroyed outright, though after years of neglect I can’t imagine there’s much left to save.

The reason eminent Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul is standing in front of this house is because it was once the home of Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, a man of national importance to any self-respecting Canadian and Québecois. This is the man who, along with Robert Baldwin, helped establish responsible government in the 1840s, becoming the de facto Prime Minister of United Canada in 1848.

That’s right; nineteen years before John A. Macdonald became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, LaFontaine the passionate and zealous Patriote, follower of Papineau, was running things at a proto-federal level. If he and his accomplishments were better known in this country, by Canadians of any socio-cultural background, I’d argue we would at the very least feel a bit more comfortable with ourselves, and maybe have a bit more pride too. LaFontaine was a great man who overcame many obstacles and fought viciously to establish a Canada in which the only nationalism was pan-national, open to all minorities, in every sense a post-modern nation. He insisted on speaking French in the assembly and worked tirelessly with Robert Baldwin to establish a new nation of diverse peoples. We owe the country we have today in part to this man. He was one of our distinguished founding fathers.

And we, the citizens of Montréal, have let his house fall into disrepair.

Granted, a park and a tunnel are named after him, but neither will tell you anything about the man, his era or ideas.

The house has been on Héritage Montréal’s threatened list for some time, and city officials have been exceptionally slow to act. The lot has been purchased for $28 million and there are plans to develop a 40-floor condo tower, though a city spokesperson suggests its nothing more than an idea for the moment. One of the partners has suggested that he would like to convert it into a museum, but further stated it must turn a profit.

A for-profit, private museum dedicated to one of Canada’s most important historical figures eh?

For some reason it just doesn’t jive well in my noggin – maybe I’m too closed-minded.

In any event – for the time being the house is still standing and the Overdale block remains a big gaping hole in the urban fabric. It’s been this way so long people just assume it’s how it’s always been. Hard to think there was once a neat little community there.

But it still bothers me that we simply don’t try harder, and that our city officials have been all too interested in not getting involved for almost thirty years.

What will it take for people to recognize and promote their proud heritage? And why are we always so inclined to ‘let the market handle things’, especially the physical remains of our shared history, culture and identity. Some voice in the back of my head is telling me capitalism and the housing market really doesn’t care much for the life and times of one of our finest early leaders.

Food for thought; for a nation so chronically convinced it lacks a character, I wonder why we’ve never endeavoured to protect, preserve and promote the very real links we have to our past.

I’ll be keeping my eyes on this one.

Don’t Believe the Hype – Student’s Have the Right to Strike

This article is a somewhat longer version of the one I published on the Forget the Box news-collective’s website. The original can be found here.

If you find the very concept of an unpaid internship thoroughly degrading an exploitative, you’re my target audience.

In my opinion, access to free education ought to be a fundamental human right. Across Canada, students have almost free public education up to the end of the secondary cycle, with some provinces offer subsidized options for post-secondary studies. Because we are a consumerist nation, because we believe paying for something is innately better than not, our society feels it would be inappropriate not to pay, something, for post-secondary education. After all, we paid nothing to go to the public primary and secondary sector, and that got us nothing. Over the years, our universities have ballooned in population while twenty-somethings enrolled live the high-consumption lifestyles of the modern student. The universities expand and market themselves aggressively so as to stimulate growth, in turn providing self-sustaining economic engines. Ask yourself what four years in university will get you, aside from the debt. The modern corporate university is as much a pyramid scheme as it is an odd kind of casino.

These days, an undergraduate degree isn’t likely to get you very far by itself. And the university has no obligation to provide you with the skills to go out and get precisely what you want career-wise. At the same time, corporations and conglomerates have no obligation to invest any amount of time or money in training you for a career in the establishment, as this is now more or less what a BA signifies in the professional world. It isn’t your specific discipline that matters, not nearly as much as the university degree simply states you have a basic level of professional competency. This is what a high-school diploma used to mean in our society. Thirty years ago universities had significantly smaller student populations, with tuition and book costs (for full time studies) not exceeding $1,000 per year. Associated costs have not kept pace with inflation and the university degree, for a variety of reasons, has largely been de-valued during this time. Compounding the issue is the fact that the current workforce has little choice but to continue working longer, as a result of the major economic crisis, so recent graduates and current student have even fewer options. And with regards to our collective debt, well, we’re told not to worry about, that we’ll eventually get good jobs to pay it off.

So is there reason, justification, for Québec students to strike, demonstrate, protest etc – yes, absolutely, but the movement would be wise to consider all its options before utilizing what I view as last ditch options to force negotiations. Public-education in Canada has been generally neglected, both by successive provincial and federal gov’ts and our society is no longer willing to appropriately fund the primary and secondary sectors. This is true across Canada. As an example: in order to pay down the massive debt and deficit of the Mulroney administration, Chretien & Martin cancelled federal transfer payments intended to be used by provincial education and healthcare ministries. As such, hospitals across Canada became overcrowded and the public sector education system took a major beating in terms of funding. Private schools and school boards have been growing in number ever since 1993, as the public lost faith in the public system. Loss of faith in the public system, which is supposed to set the social standard for education, in turn led to a nation-wide net loss of faith in what a high-school diploma could provide. This is an untenable, financially unsound situation for a nation wishing to maintain its high living standards.

Québec figured out a solution to the problem of how to provide ‘free’ social advancement for all citizens, regardless of class or region of birth, back in the late 1960s & early 1970s. As part of the Quiet Revolution, the Quebec Liberal Party established the University of Québec system – a series of public post-secondary institutions throughout the province providing low-cost, highly accessible university education. In addition, the CEGEP system was created, providing a college diploma in general or professional studies. These two public, province-wide systems were intended to do two things. First, provide a public, low-cost alternative to private or for-profit post-secondary educational institutions. Second, to assist in transforming Quebec society to build a much larger middle class, encourage our culture and ultimately to build a better society. I think the plan worked very well. The corporatization of the campus and commercializiation of the student class, in Québec inasmuch as anywhere in Canada, is a direct threat to the publicly funded means to social advancement our post-secondary system is designed to provide.

So do students in Québec have every right to be upset with any increase to tuition costs, absolutely – it is a threat to a major societal achievement that has helped build our very society. We’re more progressively minded as a direct result of our investment in education, and this benefits our society on the whole. And we should be more sensitive to the needs of students, because they are generally living on the margins of society as is, and aren’t being adequately prepared to enter the workforce. What does this say about our society as a whole?

In the end, it is the public primary and secondary sector that needs to greatest investment. We should ensure that the basic level of education is higher, and thus should endeavour to make the high-school diploma more valuable. We should also seek to increase the value of the CEGEP diploma and increase the number of vocational and professional programs offered at these institutions. Doing so would decrease the number of people flooding into the university system, which in turn would allow for a general decrease in the cost of tuition. Not to mention that we desperately need to ensure the sanctity and high societal value placed on university degrees, and by extension get people out of universities if they have no reason to be there other than the notion that it is a social expectation. We cannot allow the modern university to become a daycare for twenty-somethings.

And the Québec student movement would be wise to utilize strikes, demonstrations and the like as a last-resort measure, because such action is otherwise overly disruptive and secures no additional public support. What I’ve seen over the last ten years is a degeneration of public manifestations of social discontent into an overly aggressive and anti-social free-for-all of street theatre. More discipline ought to be exercised, and the student leadership needs to seek broad public, perhaps even pan-Canadian support. The students of Québec should not try to fight this battle by themselves, but unless the leadership is willing to look for national solidarity they won’t be able to make the case that this is an issue of significant societal importance. Blocking bridges and traffic is something you do when negotiations have proven completely fruitless, and then the movement needs to depend on public support for their aggressive actions (and yes, blocking traffic and bridges is aggressive, it is not passive).