Category Archives: Political commentary

In search of the Fat Damned English Ladies from Eaton’s

Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 - credit to the Montreal Gazette
Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 – credit to the Montreal Gazette

Here’s an example of a contemporary Quebecois myth you’ve likely heard before:

At some point in the past Quebec Anglophones were openly hostile to Francophones and insisted that Francophones speak English whilst conducting business transactions. This supposedly widespread phenomenon was illustrated with the image of a rotund middle-aged woman working behind the counter at Eaton’s, speaking the Queen’s English and insisting anyone who wants her service should do the same.

I’ve heard this story and variations of it for as long as I’ve cared to have an opinion on Quebec independence. The story is often brought up to suit various purposes, either as demonstrative of the ‘Westmount Rhodesian’ stereotype of old-school Anglophones, or to demonstrate the relative success of Bill 101 in ensuring Francophone dominance in our day-to-day lives.

Some, including Mathieu Bock-Coté of the Journal de Montréal, refer to the ‘grosses madames de chez Eatons’ not only as though this racist, sexist, characterization were an evident historical fact, but additionally claim the phenomenon of Anglophones refusing to do business in the language of the local majority is alive and well today.

If you have any common sense, you’ve doubtless thought this story was a touch far fetched.

It certainly never made any sense to me. Why on Earth would a business of any size prohibit their staff from speaking both official languages? Doing so would be a disastrous policy. Moreover, why would any business openly antagonize Francophones by hiring people such as this aforementioned stereotype? If I ran a business and discovered one of my staff was conducting themselves as such, they would promptly be fired. Any manager or business owner with a modicum of common sense would do the same today inasmuch as fifty, seventy or one-hundred years ago.

Let’s keep something in mind: Montreal has been a primarily Francophone city since before Confederation. The last time the relative populations of Anglophones and Francophones in Montreal were even close to parity was back before the Rebellions of the late 1830s. In the last 100 years, the largest the Anglophone population ever was (in all of Quebec), was 880,000 in 1971.

It is entirely unrealistic to imagine at any point in time in the last 100 years of our city’s history that saleswomen working in the city’s major department stores were instructed to not speak French or were hired specifically because they were unilingual Anglophones. It goes against the very nature of capitalism and basic customer service practices. It’s even more unrealistic to imagine there was some kind of concerted effort amongst the Anglophone minority to snub Francophones and/or antagonize the majority population to prevent them from shopping on Sainte-Catherine.

And yet, despite the fact that the stereotype of the fat unilingual Anglophone lady doesn’t jibe well with reality, there’s the very real fact that it is taken as historical truth and that the entire story is utter bullshit.

Here’s what really happened:

In January 1989 then provincial industry and commerce minister Pierre MacDonald granted a La Presse journalist an hour-long interview, during which time the reporter asked what MacDonald thought of the language debate. At the time the Quebec Liberal government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to uphold its ban on bilingual signs, and linguistic and nationalist/federalist tensions were running high.

MacDonald replied candidly that he was sick of the debate.

As it was reported in the Montreal Gazette shortly thereafter, and again in the May 1st 1989 issue, MacDonald was said to have called some Eaton’s clerks “fat, damned English ladies who can’t speak a word of French” (for those unaware, Eaton’s was a major national department store chain that went under around 1999-2000; in 1989 their Montreal flagship store was located at University and Sainte-Catherine and was one of the premier shopping destinations in the city). The Gazette article was itself referring to comments made by MacDonald in the La Presse interview from earlier that year. An opinion piece in La Presse dated to January 17th 1989 by Lysiane Gagnon excoriates the minister for having repeated the ‘sentiments of his colleagues who, evidently were wise enough not to repeat the racist and sexist statements of some their own constituents.’

In the context of the question “what do you think of the language debate?” MacDonald had answered that he was personally sick of it and that the phrase “fat, damned English ladies from Eaton’s who can’t speak a word of French” was an example of the language used by extremists on both sides of the debate (meaning both the Francophone and Anglophone communities had linguistic extremists who were either unwilling to speak with the other camp and/or felt excluded by them).

The Gazette’s ombudswoman in 1989, Stephanie Whittaker, felt it was necessary to clear the air on June 26th 1989 when she pointed out the inconsistency in the Gazette’s own narrative in an article entitled “Small inaccuracies can gravely distort news stories”.

Tell me about it.

What’s embarrassing for the Gazette is that they reported the inaccuracy, as fact, in MacDonald’s obituary, published on July 10th of this year.

The same mistake was repeated by La Presse writer Émilie Nault-Simard in her October 25th 2013 article “Les grosses Anglaises de chez Eaton.”

Too bad for Pierre MacDonald. Not only was he often misquoted as the source of a statement that did not reflect his own views, but by referring to this clichéd stereotype wound up inadvertently solidifying its place in our common memory. So much ink was spilled attacking the minister for his remark the fact that he wasn’t speaking of his own experience, nor even of any kind of recorded experience, somehow became unimportant.

And now, for some people, it’s accepted as a historical fact. Nault-Simard, writing for La Presse, even attempts to bring the mythological fat English ladies into the fold of Quebec history by arguing the Quiet Revolution was in part a reaction against them (and in additional historical revisionism, Ms. Nault-Simard refers to the Fédération des femmes du Québec, founded by Thérèse Casgrain and critical of the minister’s alleged comments on the grounds of the inherent sexism, as an Anglophone women’s group!)

I say again, there were no fat unilingual Anglos at Eaton’s. The Gazette reported it couldn’t find any on January 15th 1989, and letters published in La Presse on January 26th 1989 indicated at least three Montrealers who, by their own admission, couldn’t find any either and had always been served in French when shopping at Eaton’s.

Both Pierre MacDonald and Lysiane Gagnon were referring to a cliché, a stereotype, a mischaracterization and a fabrication that existed before MacDonald’s 1989 La Presse interview.

But a cliché isn’t a historical fact no matter how many people believe it.

What’s interesting to me is how local media dealt with the obvious miscommunication. For La Presse the problem was that an important cabinet minister felt such an obviously racist and sexist comment would in any way be representative of mainstream Quebecois sentiment. Gagnon objected to the sexist and racist stereotype on the one hand, then attacked MacDonald for not realizing there’s demonstrable proof French was the overwhelming language of commerce in Montreal, as it was then and as it is now. According to Gagnon, the same day MacDonald referred to the ‘fat damned English ladies’, the Conseil de la langue française issued a report indicating French was first in the shopping malls, department stores and small businesses across the city. It should be noted that Gagnon’s piece, entitled ‘La vendeuse et le ministre’, defends Anglophone linguistic rights, attacks the Bourassa government’s Bill 178 as being unnecessarily damaging and further adds that Bill 101 was more flexible in terms of the languages used on commercial signs.

Gagnon is a noted promoter of Quebec’s language laws.

For their part, the Gazette seemed incapable of choosing a narrative. At first they reported MacDonald as having made the remarks himself as an indication of his own opinion, seemingly approving of Bill 178 as necessary to protect the French language against Anglophone linguistic extremists under the employ of the T. Eaton Company. Then the Gazette corrected their earlier story and appropriately explained MacDonald was not expressing his own views. Then, inexplicably, the Gazette returned back to their original story, and continued reporting it as fact and as demonstrative of MacDonald’s personal views until the minister corrected them in May of 1989. It would take until June of 1989 for the Gazette to get their story straight, and only after the paper’s ombudswoman went to the extraordinary step of issuing a fairly comprehensive explanation of the prolonged communication breakdown.

And even once this was done, the story had been so widely taken out of context it even made its way into Mordecai Richler’s controversial ‘Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!’ as, you guessed it, an indication of MacDonald’s personal feelings.

So to recap: there were never any ‘fat damned English ladies at Eaton’s who couldn’t speak a word of French’, it was all one big game of broken telephone.

And it’s unfortunately become an indelible stain on the historical record, accepted as a real example of things used to be.

Special thanks to Kevin Areson for helping with the research.

Politically Motivated Memory

Victims of Communism monument original design conceptual rendering

Generally speaking I’m in favour of building monuments and creating new public spaces, particularly when said space reflects the nation’s history, culture and society. However, two projects with federal backing have been making the news lately and for good reason – there’s a lot of very public opposition to the final designs and, in both cases, the rationale behind the very purpose of these monuments has also been questioned. On top of it all, these projects seem to be politically motivated and specifically intended to appeal to Conservative voters.

The projects include Tribute to Liberty, a memorial to the victims of communism (the name alone is problematic, conflating a political ideology with the acts of tyrannical dictators. Communism is not inherently tyrannical, humans are, but I digress) and Mother Canada, centrepiece of the Never Forgotten National Memorial. The organizations formed to direct the projects are charitable organizations, though in the case of the former the Heritage Ministry is involved, and in the latter case the monument is to be ‘gifted’ to Parks Canada. In the case of the communism memorial, the land in question sits adjacent to the Supreme Court of Canada owned by the National Capital Commission, and was for a long time considered for development into a new government office building. Mother Canada is supposed to open her arms to the war dead up the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. So even though the organizations may be nominally independent registered charities, both projects require direct interaction with government agencies.

The Never Forgotten National Memorial is projected to cost $25 million and has recently lost some high-profile supporters.

Tribute to Liberty is estimated to cost $5.5 million, roughly $400,000 over budget and on land currently valued at $16 million.

Ostensibly the funds are to be raised by the charities tasked with developing these projects, but as it stands both groups seem to be far from their fundraising goals (this despite the fact that the NCC has begun soil-decontamination work at the communism memorial site).

Financial matters aside, there’s the question of why build these particular projects at all.

Tribute to Liberty was intended to occupy much of the prime real estate in question in downtown Ottawa, though the project has since been downsized (and may shrink even further), with several features of the original plan either proportionally shrunk or axed outright (such as the lighting and the downward-facing faceless victim of communism, centrepiece of the original design). It’s bad when monuments are imposed upon the urban landscape; it’s worse when the artistic vision is altered by committee.

The revisions seem to indicate the committee was paying attention, at least in part, to some of the most immediate criticisms of the project – namely that it was imposing, looming, inappropriately violent (etc).

Here’s a fantastic piece of propaganda that looks like it belongs in the introduction of some post Cold War scenario video game; it shows what the original monument was to look like. The folded section was to generate a an image when viewed from the top of the chevron-staircase arrangement, apparently one of a row of dead bodies in a forest. The image would be created by 100 million ‘memory cubes’ representing the 100 million people ‘killed by communism’.

The figure of 100 million killed by communism is meaningless and intended uniquely for shock value. Yes, communist, Marxist and Maoist states have all demonstrated authoritarian if not totalitarian and genocidal tendencies throughout the 20th century. So have a number of capitalist democratic states during the same period of time. Germany invaded and occupied much of Europe in the early 1940s specifically to defend ‘freedom, liberty and capitalism’ from ‘godless communism’. The United States kickstarted wars and supported dictatorships all over the world that killed off millions of people throughout the 20th century, either directly (such as in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) or indirectly (the first Persian Gulf War, the Bush Wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, civil wars throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, etc.)

You could further make the argument that capitalism is just as destructive – just about everything there is to buy in capitalist, liberal democratic countries today is manufactured in impoverished nations all too often mismanaged by kleptocrats. The computer I’m using was made by people who work in near slave-like conditions, the factory dormitories they live in is lined with nets to catch workers if they attempt suicide. The clothing there is to buy is all too often sewn together by children. Where is the monument to those capitalism has killed and enslaved?

The project is entirely politically motivated to serve the interests of the Conservative party of Canada, obviously intended to secure support from the nation’s comparatively sizeable Ukrainian, Polish, German, Czech, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. If there is a desire to inform the public about the atrocities of the Cold War or otherwise honour all the Canadians who escaped persecution and totalitarianism abroad, fine, that has my support, but those stories can’t be summed up in a monument, especially not this one. Develop a new permanent exhibit at the war museum, create a graduate program at a university… anything but this.

Tribute to Liberty is anything but: it is ludicrously facile and demonstrative of a profound ignorance of the reality of contemporary geopolitics and recent history. Apt that it would have the backing of the Harperites…

The great irony of the Tribute to Liberty and Mother Canada monuments lies in their obvious similarities, in form and function, to the kinds of monuments erected by the very totalitarian dictators Canada ostensibly stands in opposition to. Both monuments are overbearing, cold, fundamentally unnecessary and intended to secure support for a particular political party. In the case of the former, it arguably attempts historical revisionism.

Mother Canada conceptual rendering

Mother Canada is intended to secure what I call the ‘military enthusiast’ vote – a subsection of the Tory support base that believes, despite mounting and damning evidence to the contrary, that the Tories are pro-military and all other parties are anti-military, and that Canada will only ever be safe under the watchful eye of a Conservative government. Supporters of the monument are chiefly former and current high-ranking officers in the Canadian Forces.

The monument is to be a 24-metre tall female form with arms outstretched, facing the Atlantic Ocean as though the welcome the souls of the dearly departed, all those killed in foreign wars, again, ostensibly in defence of liberty, freedom and the nation. As if we didn’t have enough goddamned cenotaphs in this country to the war dead, now a proposed allegorical representation of Canada is to stand with it’s back to the nation…

Supporters argue it will be a boon to Cape Breton tourism, but I can’t fathom many Canadians trekking out to Cape Breton just to look at the backside of a somewhat diminutive statue. Again, much like Tribute to Liberty, this monument serves no real purpose and provides no additional information or perspective. Parks Canada is reviewing 6,000 ‘comments’ (I have a feeling they’re mostly complaints) and there’s opposition to the project on ecological grounds, arguing the monument’s location in a national park is inappropriate and that the environmental impact of creating this tourist trap is being ignored outright.

Worse of all, it’s just so boring. Is this the very best we can come up with to represent the nation, or it’s war dead? There’s nothing inspired nor attractive about the monument. I’m all for a ‘Canadian Statue of Liberty’ but this isn’t it, this looks like the kinds of monuments erected all over Central Europe during the Cold War and subsequently destroyed during the Spring of Nations a quarter-century ago.


Combined, these projects require something like $30 million to complete, and the funds are to come principally from charitable donations secured through fundraising activities by the federally-backed charities organized to complete the projects.

This is not the best use of $30 million in charitable donations, nor the best use of federal support for fundraising initiatives. Imagine what good that money could do if used for other purposes.

$30 million could certainly help ensure fewer Canadian children go to bed hungry, could support numerous soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or used to send medicine and food to impoverished nations abroad. Are these not better examples of what Canada ultimately stands for?

A tasteless, jingoistic, paramilitary embarrassment…

Lord what’s become of the RCMP Musical Ride?

The title of this post is a quote from former CBC journalist Frank Koller; you can read his blog post here.

The paramilitary demonstration in question, according to the RCMP, has been a part of the Musical Ride for roughly a decade (or roughly as long as Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, but that’s just a coincidence… right?).

Koller’s reaction echoed that of many in attendance who were shocked to see this military display at a Canadian institution that’s been described in the past as ‘ballet with horses’.

The RCMP in turn responded by down-playing the demonstration, arguing that it’s only a part of the Ottawa-based sunset ceremony and not the touring Musical Ride. They also mentioned it was just a few minutes in a two-hour presentation, and re-iterated the supposed longevity of the display to make it seem as though it’s a perfectly normal component of the Musical Ride (the Emergency Response Team or ERT has existed since 1977, and the Musical Ride has been going on since the late 19th century, but it’s only in the last decade that these ‘long-standing’ displays have popped up).

Also – mass citizenship oath? When did that become part of the ceremony? One of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy is not being compelled to demonstrate your citizenship in mass recitations. That’s more of a North Korea type of thing…

Some took issue with Koller’s use of the term ‘paramilitary’, as the RCMP was, in a sense, a paramilitary organization. I’d argue this hasn’t been the case for much of the organization’s recent history, as the 19th century need for a paramilitary police force has disappeared. The RCMP are not tasked with defending Canadian territorial sovereignty, this is the job of the military. The ERT is indeed the paramilitary component of the RCMP, intended to be used as an aid to the civil power in extreme circumstances warranting the use of military-grade equipment and tactics.

My question is what precisely they’re trying to demonstrate. I know the ERT exists, I have an idea about what it would be used for, but I just can’t fathom what this has to do with the Musical Ride, or why this component of the RCMP should be demonstrated at any public event in the first place.

Think about it: wouldn’t it be odd for Montreal’s SWAT team to put on public displays during Jazz Fest?

What are they trying to show us? A forceful traffic stop? This isn’t what an RCMP take-down of suspected terrorists would look like at all… it’s unrealistic to the point of being comedic, and if this is in any way comparable to an actual RCMP training operation we should all be very worried.

And this is aside from the fact that we still haven’t produced ‘home grown’ terrorists since the October Crisis, and even then the FLQ was really little more than a loose association of politically-motivated bank robbers. Zehaf-Bibeault was a habitual offender with mental problems who somehow got himself an old winchester dual action. He was only ‘radicalized’ by his own sick mind, not a Canadian based Islamic fundamentalist terrorism network. On a day to day basis the RCMP spends a lot more time and effort responding to domestic disputes and highway code violations than combating domestic terrorism.

So again, what is this idiotic spectacle supposed to demonstrate?

When are RCMP tactical units going to be cruising around the neighbourhood searching for slow-moving pickups with shirtless terrorist drivers?

Furthermore… as a patriot I feel compelled to explain that the Tragically Hip song Three Pistols references the community of Trois-Pistoles, Quebec (pistoles were an old French currency, not a gun), and that the song itself is a kind of interpretive biography of the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson.

So there’s that… on top of this being nearly Monty Python-esque in its asinine absurdity, this demonstration was set to an inappropriate musical choice, one that indicates a superficiality and lack of general awareness again, I would hope is not actually indicative of the RCMP.

A display like this doesn’t make me feel any safer, and knowing that I’d be subjected to this kind of tastelessness gives me every reason to avoid paying money to see the Musical Ride. This spectacle reminds me of the evident Americanization of Canadian police and this in turn is of no benefit to anyone but chiefly American arms dealers. The fact is crime has been falling for decades not as a result of this recent trend, but rather the result of sound public policy enacted by democratically elected responsible governments. Buying armoured trucks and flash bangs for the RCMP is of no particular strategic advantage, and it would be in our strategic security interest not to demonstrate how the ERT actually operates at public functions. If anything, we should treat the ERT much like JTF2, keeping them out of the public eye until absolutely necessary.

This demonstration is a farce we should be embarrassed of.

The Royalmount Project and 24hr Shopping

An artist's rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)
An artist’s rendering of an aerial view of Royalmount shopping complex in Town of Mount Royal at the junction of the 15 and 40 highway in Montreal. (Credit: Courtesy of Carbonleo)

Two big retail related stories from the past week. I’ll discuss in reverse order from the title above.

First, the province of Quebec will now allow retail businesses in Montreal’s downtown core to set their own hours, the idea being that there’s some kind of late night shopping potential retailers have been missing out on.

Second, a colossal shopping/entertainment/office/hotel complex intended for the former Town of Mount Royal industrial sector at the intersection of the Decarie Expressway and Highway 40. From the people who brought the Dix-30 development to Brossard come it’s much larger on-island counterpart. Carbonleo, the firm behind the Royalmount project, explains that Montrealers currently have to go to Brossard or Laval to get the same experience, though for the life of me I can’t think of too many people I know who will drive to Laval to buy some slacks…


On the subject of businesses being able to set their own hours – brilliant. Why wasn’t this already the case?

And why does the city of Montreal need to province’s permission to grant businesses this right?

This aside, the plan essentially allows businesses in the ‘tourism districts’ of the Central Business District to operate on a twenty-four schedule, should they choose to do so. If this means more restaurants and cafés will be open late, great. If there’s potential to increase retail sales, I suppose this is great too, though I doubt this means we’ll be able to shop at Simons or Ogilvy at 3:00 AM anytime soon (and I doubt late night shopping opportunities in Old Montreal or Chinatown will make much of a difference either).

Either way, at it’s core this is a good move if for no other reason than it gives a number of small enterprises a greater degree of operational freedom. Couple it with loosened restrictions on drinking hours and who knows, maybe we’ll create a trend of drunken impulse clothes shopping (note: the measure specifically excludes bars… vive la laicité…)

But let’s not kid ourselves, extended shopping and won’t solve the Central Business District’s late night lifelessness, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what’s missing.

Live entertainment is the key, and it’s what’s principally missing from too much of downtown Montreal. I can’t help but think this might be a consequence of an over-emphasis on branding certain geographic areas as ‘entertainment and tourist zones’ that wind up attracting Sergakis-style sports bars, tacky nightclubs and American-style theme restaurants.

The great irony is that the neighbourhoods that really come to life at night are just that, neighbourhoods. The first ring urban residential areas on the CBD’s periphery have many of the city’s best nightspots, restaurants and venues. If anything we should be trying to figure out better methods of getting tourists out of the CBD and into the ‘real’ Montreal of the Plateau, Mile End, Saint Henri (etc.), but I digress.

One thing to consider: when you look at old photos of Saint Catherine Street in its heyday of the 1940s through to the 1970s, you notice a lot of theatres, cocktail lounges, show-bars (etc.) lining the street. Entertainment ‘anchors’ brought Montrealers to this street, in turn supporting restaurants and bars for generations. Losing the theatres (a process that began in the mid-1970s) and introducing self-contained downtown shopping malls (which began in earnest in the mid-1980s) sucked a lot of the life out of the street. Lack of commercial rental controls and our unnatural, nearly inconceivable interest in American chain stores and restaurants ultimately conspired to produce the situation we’re currently faced with… a retail and entertainment thoroughfare that’s lost the charm and appeal that made it so famous. For tourists, a bit of a let-down… most of our ‘tourist zones’ offer little better than what you’d expect to find in just about any large North American city.

As to the Royalmount project, same problem. It’s inauthentic and doesn’t actually offer anything particularly novel or interesting. Though the current plan is a kind of ‘shoot for the moon’ proposal, including a massive green roof, a performance venue, hotel, office space and about eight times as much rentable retail space as the entirety of the Eaton’s Centre, I have a suspicion the end result (if it does indeed get built) won’t be quite as grandiose. Performance venue will become multiplex cinema, hotel will become luxury old folks home etc etc etc.

If Montreal’s retailers are having a tough time now, it likely won’t get any easier with this behemoth. Add an estimated 20,000 cars per day to the already congested intersection of highways 15 and 40 and the situation gets worse all around.

What I find truly unfortunate is that if this project gets the green light we’ll lose an important industrial zone in exchange for will likely be a retail white elephant. The TMR industrial zone is well situated, not only at the intersection of the aforementioned highways, but also within close proximity of both the Taschereau and Cote Saint Luc rail yards and the airport. The industrial zone further benefits from rail line spurs that in most cases go right up to the loading docks of the large industrial properties. Sure, our industrial economy isn’t doing great right now, but who knows what the future might hold? It’s not like we have an abundance of railway connected, airport adjacent industrial zoning… especially what with all the old industrial zones close to the city proper having been converted into loft condos.

Industrial jobs is where we need growth, not retail jobs.

In any event, the Carbonleo proposal is so big it’s hard to imagine it’s realistic. On top of 2.25 million square feet of retail space, they envision 1.4 million square feet of office space – roughly equivalent to Place Ville Marie. And then there’s a 3,000 seat performance venue…

I have my doubts. What’s also distressing is that the plan will require infrastructure to be re-designed (i.e. highway on and off ramps), not to mention a planned bridge to link De la Savanne Métro station with the mega project over the Decarie Expressway trench. There’s no mention on what Transport Quebec or the STM have to say about this, though I really don’t like the idea of any public money being used on a private venture I honestly don’t think has been thoroughly thought through. It seems to me that just about every shopping mall in the city proper is struggling, and the already existing shopping malls within proximity of the planned Royalmount project are all barely hanging on.

Just another reason why this city needs a more sophisticated master plan and why ‘One Island, One City’ ought to be seriously reconsidered. TMR can likely proceed on this project by itself, perhaps to Montreal’s detriment, and that’s everyone’s concern.

The Agence métropolitaine de transport to be abolished

AMT Commuter Rail Logo

When you want news to get buried over the weekend, you deliver it on Friday afternoons.

The Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) will be abolished as of Monday. The provincial government agency is currently responsible for all transit planning in Greater Montreal, as well as the the inter-city commuter rail network.

The Couillard government will make the announcement on Monday (okay, so maybe they’re not really trying to bury the story, still, odd time to issue a press release teasing such a major change…)

Apparently the AMT is to be replaced by two new organizations: the Réseau des transports métropolitain (RTM) and the Agence régionale de transport (ART).

The new RTM will be responsible for running the commuter rail system and apparently all public transit agencies except the STM, STL and RTL (the latter two STM equivalents in Laval and Longueuil respectively).

Of note, the other organization (ART) will be the regional transit planning body, and will be run by the ‘elected officials of Montreal and government experts’.

It’s not clear whether that means city proper or agglomeration council, though I believe it’s the latter case.

It’ll be interesting to find out what precisely this all means on Monday, though perhaps we have reason to be optimistic. Local transit needs to be planned locally, though the maintenance of three independent transit agencies (in the form of the STM, STL and RTL) within this new plan is still problematic. The cost to ride the Métro should be standard regardless of where you get on. Similarly, the bus network should have a single common fare at least for Montreal, Laval and Longueuil.

That said, I wonder whether the new regional transit planning authority will continue to push the Blue Line’s eastern extension, or whether it will prioritize developing a tram system.

A lot more to come on this file I imagine. Stay tuned!

Accessibility & Public Transit: RAPLIQ Requests Class Action Suit

Inclines and man-made caves...
Inclines and man-made caves…

Interesting story from last week. The organization that represents Quebec’s mobility-impaired population, RAPLIQ, has filed a request for a class action suit of $100 million against the Montreal transit commission (STM), the provincial Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT – which is responsible for the city’s commuter rail service, in addition to expanding the Métro) in addition to the City of Montreal and the province’s transport ministry.

They’re arguing the lack of access to public transit in Montreal infringes on their basic human rights and the transit agencies haven’t done enough to remedy the problem, nor have the city or province provided sufficient resources to improving accessibility.

If successful this would award about $5,000 to each of 20,000 plaintiffs. It would also be the first such class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

You could argue it would also take $100 million out of government coffers, money which could otherwise be put to use building the infrastructure necessary to make our city’s public transit system more accessible, but therein lies the point. Government would have to pay if the suit were successful, but so far hasn’t earmarked much money (and more importantly hasn’t been terribly enthusiastic) to improve public transit accessibility in our city.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the Métro was not designed from the outset to handle people with limited mobility. Only the three newest stations, those in Laval and completed about a decade ago, were designed with elevators in mind. In total, only eight out of 68 Métro stations have elevators, and only five out of 64 AMT train stations are equipped to handle wheelchairs.

And that’s just for wheelchairs. When you consider accessibility in the broader sense – that is to include everyone whose mobility is any way handicapped – you realize there are other parts of the accessibility puzzle which are missing. I would argue there’s not enough seating generally speaking at either the train or Métro stations, especially in the tunnels connecting to Métro stations, and that I’ve never actually seen anyone use the ‘rest bars’ the STM installed in lieu of more practical benches.

It astounds me the Métro was built without considering the needs of the mobility impaired in the first place (you’d figure elevators would have been installed simply because they’re efficient and immensely useful generally speaking), but it’s even more astounding that both the most recent expansions of the Métro (notably the western Orange Line branch and the entirety of the Blue Line, completed in the 1980s) and the re-development of Montreal’s commuter rail system under the AMT (which occurred in the mid-1990s) omitted the necessary infrastructure to ensure greater accessibility. Of the latest AMT commuter line to be built, the Train de l’Est, completed just last year, only four of thirteen stations are wheelchair accessible.

RAPLIQ says they’re tired of waiting for the various agencies and levels of government to get their act together and take them seriously. I can sympathize with their frustration.

For many years our city’s transit agency boasted it’s commitment to accessibility by instituting one of the earliest para-transit systems in the world. When the STM opted for the new Novabus design in the late 1980s it pointed out these buses would have special ramps that could be operated automatically by the driver, permitting a greater degree of autonomy to people living with disabilities. Well, we all know the story there. The ramps never lived up to expectations, mechanical issues plagued the fleet for years after they were introduced to regular service, and ever since we all too often hear stories of the wheelchair bound left on the curb because either the bus was too full or the ramps weren’t working that particular day.

In sum, it’s a shitty situation, because even though there’s really no good reason for a modern city such as ours to be so inaccessible, there’s zero political will to do anything about it. Retrofitting Métro stations with elevators is costly and the STM is going about it at a painfully slow pace, a pace further retarded by budget cuts and the fact that anything needing to be built outside (and connecting to) any given Métro station falls under the jurisdiction (and budget) of the AMT. This is why Bonaventure station, as an example, has an elevator leading from the mezzanine to the station platform, but nothing to connect the mezzanine with the street above. The AMT has been negotiating with the owners of 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest for years, and is expected to issue a call for tenders later this year.

With regards to Vendome Métro station, situated next to the new MUHC super hospital, there is neither a tunnel linking the station with the hospital, nor an elevator to make the station accessible, and that station just completed a renovation intended to help deal with increased traffic once the super hospital opens. The Université de Montréal super hospital is also located next to a Métro station, one which has both an elevator and direct tunnel access. I’m not sure why it was thought necessary for one and not the other…

It’s too bad it has come to a class action suit. On the one hand, it may lead to promises of concrete action by government if the suit is approved, as those parties named in it would probably prefer not to have to argue the case against accessibility. On the other hand, it would be difficult for RAPLIQ to get much public support as the individual gains would be so modest and it’s understood (probably by RAPLIQ better than anyone else) that the money really would be better spent if earmarked specifically for infrastructure improvements to the system (e.g. it could likely pay for about half of the remaining Métro stations to be retrofitted with elevators).

As I said, it’s a shitty situation. If the class action suit is successful, all the accessibility problems will still exist, but there’ll be $100 million less to spend fixing them.

My hope is that the focus shifts a bit… accessibility, as I see it, goes hand in hand with overall quality of experience, and in my opinion the entirety of our public transit system, impressive on paper though it might be, could stand for a major investment just to make it more comfortable. Yes, we need elevators. Ramps could also be implemented, but there’s room for so much more. Better lighting, wifi access, more seating, public restrooms, more shelters at bus stops and train stations, adding solar-powered space heaters to the latter, and a crash course on manners and customer service best practices for every single STM employee… these are just a few examples of how the overall customer experience could be improved in parallel with making the system more accessible.

To close, making the system more comfortable and more accessible only increases the number of potential customers, in turn increasing yearly revenue, and this isn’t just good for the transit agencies, but for our local environment as well. We in part base our claim to a high quality of life in this city because of the excellent public transit coverage, but this is too much a top-down perspective. We need a more human-centric system, one that focuses on the convenience and comfort of the journey itself, and not just the points connected.