Happy Halloween Everybody...

This guy was one hard-to-find item on Halloween Night...
SOMETHING that Americans like myself take for granted all the time is the ubiquity of consumption. In the United States you can buy almost anything, almost anywhere, at almost any time of day. You need a zebra costume for the school play tomorrow? No problem. You want to buy an aquarium built into a Ms. Pac-Man console? That's easy. Do you need an AMC Eagle station wagon equipped with a flamethrower? I guarantee you you can find that for sale in the USA. And not just in Montana, either.
So one of the rules I learned in Montreal last year was that, if you see something that looks useful in a store but isn't quite in season, buy it anyway. There's a good chance it won't be there anymore the next time around. I learned that last year with Christmas trees. This year, the week before Halloween, that lesson kept ringing in my ears as I bounced all over my neighbourhood in search of a pumpkin. Today, after my run, I made a deliberate effort walking down Mont-Royal to find a pumpkin to carve. No dice at the chain supermarkets -- including the huge Provigo at the corner of St-Urbain. The market at the Mont-Royal Metro stop wasn't open that day. I had already checked the produce markets near my apartment with no luck...
In the window of a small map shop I noticed a beautifully formed round pumpkin. I could tell it was real, and it was the perfect size. I stopped and peered in the store. No one there but a kind-looking older woman. I love gawking at maps anyway. What the hell could it hurt?
Having spent a fair bit of time in Latin America, I've learned that quite a few things are negotiable. Even things that aren't supposed to be negotiable. It often depends largely on the attitude of the participants. And so I put as much candlepower as I could into my smile and asked the shopkeeper, "Je voudrais acheter la citrouille que vous avez dans la fenêtre..." 
She didn't know she had a pumpkin in her window, and after I showed it to her, she asked me if I could donate money to a youth cause that had a changebox in the store. I said that I could definitely do that, but I only had my debit card on me. 
We hadn't agreed on a price, and I suggested 10 piastres, which struck her as high, but after all, I noted, it was for the children. She could ring that up on my card, and then put 10 loonies in the box for the kids, and I'd get the pumpkin I had been looking for the past week. 
Walking down the block with an enormous grin and a fat orange pumpkin in my sweats, I could see I wasn't the only one who didn't have jack. People kept stopping me on the street asking where I got my big round gourde. I don't think I was ever more careful walking down the street than I was walking home today. And I carved it up (albeit with one false tooth this year), put  a candle inside and put it outside the door. 
We didn't get any trick-or-treaters last year. We probably won't get one this year. But thanks to a kind woman in a map store (and an apparently deserving charity), I still have a beauty of a jack-o-lantern outside my door. 

Happy Halloween Everybody


Media Accreditation, the Pentagon Papers and the Sponsorship Scandal

I had another emergency trip to the states and it seems like when I got back to Montreal the topic of licensing the media had exploded while I was gone.

Previously the idea was an insider issue – something that affected journalists that was being discussed or proposed by journalists (which is why it galled me more than a bit). When Quebec Minister of Culture and Communication Christine St-Pierre mentioned public consultation as thegovernment moved forward with its implementation of regulations, people suddenly began to take serious notice.

The National Post wrote about it, and media personality Ezra Levant compared this sort of behaviour by a government as the sort of thing the Soviet Union would do, and attacked the CBC (for whom Dominique Payette worked -- she is the author of the report that originally proposed accreditation) as indoctrinating these sorts of ideas. Montreal media blog staple Steve Faguy, who weighed in on it long before I ever did, was interviewed by Levant, .

As a native of the United States, I have to say these reactions are fascinating. The regulation of the press is a constant topic of discussion – but it is generally a bipartisan topic of discussion. Fox News would oppose it the same way the Huffington Post would.

But you can read a lot into Quebec’s unique culture by looking at how this debate is being framed here: the most vehement backlash against press regulation is coming from the right wing. And support for it is coming from the government sector and elements of the left wing, who view it as a way to ensure that their livelihoods aren’t squeezed by the rank amateurs of the blogosphere.

Here are two examples that come to mind that illustrate some of these distinctions:

During the Vietnam War, Harvard-trained economist Daniel Ellsberg did research for the U.S. federal government. A former U.S. Marine, Ellsberg became increasingly disturbed that the federal government wasn’t telling the public the whole story about the war, and he leaked stacks of documents to The New York Times. After an initial story ran, the Nixon administration actually enforced a publication ban that was lifted after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a now-famous decision. The Pentagon Papers scandal led Americans to re-think the war and became Exhibit A in J-school concerning the media’s role as the Fourth Estate. What the government did, stopping the presses, is one of those things that journalism professors point to today as an unconscionable and unforgivable stain on the U.S. legal and media landscape. Ellsberg remains one of the patron saints of the U.S. left wing.

Flip forward to Montreal about 30 years later, where there was an executive scandal of a different variety. The nature of that scandal was fairly straightforward – staring down the barrel of Quebec’s 1995 referendum on sovereignty, Canada's Liberal government secretly allocated millions in public funds to wage a PR campaign in Quebec in an effort to promote federalism. This became known as the SponsorshipScandal. The Sponsorship Scandal included signs of its own time, just as the Pentagon Papers did. As the commission investigating the facts conferred, it embargoed the media present from publishing any of the deliberations. But a conservative blogger in the states caught wind of what was going on in the room and wrote about the proceedings anyway. People were getting its news on the scandal from a blog in a foreign country.

NOTE: I can offer a link to the blog post here, but interestingly enough you won’t be able to view it on a Canadian server because, as my browser informs me, the “page cannot be displayed.” You can view the link on a U.S. server.

Probably more than anything else, the foregoing situations illustrate the difference between the attitudes concerning the media in the two countries: public order is viewed as more of a priority in Canada, and reporters follow government embargoes. Especially in Quebec, the government is viewed as a protective, perhaps even a progressive force in some sectors.

In the states the surest way to get anything into print is for the government to tell a reporter or an editor what they can and can’t print. If the President of the United States called up a journalist at The Big City Paper to say it is prohibited from ever describing the Lost City of Atlantis as the capital of the United States, in the next day’s edition ATLANTIS would be on almost every dateline -- with a profile of Mayor Aquaman in the Life section. 

I just wonder where the Caps would play...

The U.S. press does not generally honour publication bans, as The New York Times demonstrated with the Pentagon Papers (and when it put its imprimatur on information acquired by Wikileaks). Of course, the Canadian government never went to war in Vietnam, either.

In the states the mistrust of the government is something that is worn on the sleeve of almost every journalist – even the ones in public broadcasting – to an extent that doesn’t exist here. It would be naïve to believe that south of the border one political group champions the ideology of an unfettered press over another. In Quebec media this issue is being couched in terms of getting the government involved in protecting society from the Man. In the states an unregulated media is viewed as a way to protect society from the government, who by extension is the Man.

I still retain my opinions on this matter, but I find it’s important to appreciate these ideas in their own contexts. I’ve already said my piece on how I feel about accrediting journalists. Now I get to sit back and watch what unfolds…

Catching Up...

Where I'm from, this outfit is an example of regionalism...

First of all apologies mine for neglecting this blog so long, I’m attending to family responsibilities in my native state of Virginia. So I’ll be filling in the blanks with a few observations that I’ve been making in the interim…

A bizarre facet of Montreal that pervades quite a few slices of life here is just how Quebec’s wavelength modulates differently from the rest of Canada. No earthshattering revelation this, but knowing the fact and experiencing it firsthand are always two different things. In the southern United States where I come from, regional differences are prized as evidence that there’s a bit more civility there than the rest of the country.

In Canada differences from province to province are stark compared with the states, and Montreal is perhaps the most exaggerated example. Take July 1 -- in Montreal July 1 is best known as Moving Day. It even causes a run on moving services. Before I moved here, it was one of the first things someone told me about this town, that everyone moves on the same day in Montreal. The roots of this informal tradition exist in the seasons, the school year and even date back to French colonial times. Everybody seems to be moving. Need a couch? Hit the sidewalk. Walking through the city in glorious weather that also feels transitional, there’s another thought that hits you: wait a minute… isn’t this supposed to be Canada Day?

Happy Canada Day, Montreal...
As I turned on the tube I could see that it was Canada’s birthday celebration. And strangely enough, it was being celebrated by welcoming the royals, who had arrived on their official visit. Growing up in a country that severed its ties to Britain long ago, it struck me as odd that a nation would celebrate its nationhood by welcoming a monarch from another place. It’s one of the nuances of living in a Commonwealth country, having a European monarch on North American money, having a “throne” in a New World legislature, and being autonomous without the need fight a revolution.

I couldn’t help but notice looking at the street-level in Montreal, Canada Day wasn’t so apparent in the country’s second-largest city. After wishing a shopkeeper a happy Canada Day, he laughed and replied “you’re the first person to tell me that all day.” Quebec celebrates its own birthday one week earlier, on St. John the Baptist Day, which sort of served as an opening salvo announcing the Montreal Jazz Festival…


The 5 à 7…

Sure beats working...

One of this city’s most durable institutions is the 5 à 7 – which basically alludes to drinks from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. (at least officially speaking, and it’s NOT the same thing as its counterpart in France). It roughly corresponds to what I would call in the states “happy hour,” except that it’s a bit more of a serious affair. Happy hour in the states has basically evolved into an excuse for bars to soak the customer in cheap beer bought at a bulk rate. Soaked in booze, these patrons usually end up buying hot wings and nachos at the retail price.

Like many other things in the states, what started out as something fun and innocent has been completely repackaged into a commerce-driven mission of advertising-reinforced fun.

But in Montreal the 5 à 7 is more of a working cocktail hour, and you can learn a lot about any town by watching how its workforce handles downtime. One 5 à 7 I attended recently for OpenFile.ca was divvied up into two parts:

Part One – Here is what we do, who we are, and how this works. Here is our role in the national marketplace and here’s how we cover the local one.

Part Two – Let’s watch the Habs in their playoff opener with the Boston Bruins. The best part about this section of the 5 à 7 was that several people who were going to attend the shindig voiced their uneasiness that – despite the presence of free alcoholic beverages – that all the work-talk would cut into the hockey game. So the editor actually arranged for the game to be shown at the event on a big-screen TV.

Other 5 à 7s I’ve attended have been less organized, more intimate, but no less work-related. Exchanging of cards, trading phone numbers, and discussing editorial strategies often ends up going down by the end of the evening. And what would end up being a blowing-off-steam period actually turns into a relaxing way to get a few things done without the tension.

That is, of course, unless the Habs are on.   

Journalism and the Accreditation Issue*

This post originally appeared on The Canadian Journalism Project's site. If you'd like to see the original post, you can find it here.

I used to work as a reporter in the Caribbean about eight years ago. During that time, a circle of journalists in Puerto Rico were batting around the idea of professional licensing. The arguments in support of the move were similar to those being made today in Quebec: licensing, certification, designation, (or whatever other moniker you want to use) will ensure the quality of a journalist’s product.

Fortunately, the idea to license journalists in Puerto Rico remained just that: an idea. Even if it had caught on among journalists, it’s unlikely any such licensing regime would fly under the U.S. constitution on an island that is a U.S. commonwealth. The First Amendment guarantees free speech under the U.S. flag, meaning that to license a journalist to work -- which would implicitly determine who cannot work in the profession -- would be concomitant to limiting free speech. It would regulate a profession that was intended in the States as an unregulated enterprise all along, and would almost certainly violate the very section of the constitution that journalists also happen to rely on for their freedoms.

In Puerto Rico, journalists were essentially contemplating whether to flout an important cornerstone of their own protection for the sake of a plastic card and an honourific title -- a move that’s ironic to the point of absurdism.

On the job circa 2003. You don't need a licence to sweat, either.
Recently, a movement in Quebec has offered up a remarkably similar paradox: a study by a journalist called for the creation of a special status for professional journalists and was warmly embraced by the province’s press club.

Former CBC journalist Dominique Payette completed an exhaustive 134-page report in December that argued for the creation of a special designation for professional journalists. The Fédération professionnelle des journalists du Québec (FPJQ) decided to put it to a vote the first week of April. More than 900 members cast their ballots. Of those, 87 per cent voted in favour of the special title and all it entails.

The study made a whopping 51 recommendations, but five assertions among them stand out:

Government agencies should fast-track designees’ access-to-information requests;

Designees would get special legal privileges concerning protection of sources;

Designees could take a year off work if they felt they were in an unethical work environment;

Designees would receive some legal protections from defamation suits if they followed certain correction practices;

Government advertising should be reserved to Quebec Press Council member organizations;

Certainly the study had a noble aim and made several valid points. It deplored the fact that several journalists -- especially those in the U.S. -- have been cashiered at a time when the number of media outlets have exploded. This is a global and structural trend. Hoping that a special designation can reverse it, however, is wishful thinking.

I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have worked as a journalist in a few different countries and territories. I wrote for a newspaper in Mexico in the late 1990s, I wrote for a daily newspaper and a wire service in the Caribbean in the early 2000s, and I covered courts in Miami afterward. These are areas that encompass a wide gamut of legal and cultural traditions. And the media in some of these areas also have to grapple with issues of cultural isolation, nationwide media vs. local media, and the relationship between the media and the government.

I’ve seen the flip side of some of Payette’s recommendations. Much of what she recommends in this study was either a component of the media landscape in a place where I worked or was something the local press corps was debating. With this in mind, I’ll go through the recommendations one-by-one:

On A-to-I requests: Along with the United States, Canada is fortunate to have rules on the books designed to allow its citizenry to see the workings of its government. This is no pro forma rule – it is a crucial mechanism of a democracy that should exist undiluted.
Public records requests are made so that the public can see the workings of its government in the sunshine. The cranky guy who lives in the library has the same right to a list of defence contractors as the Ottawa beat reporter. The only thing a fast-tracked A-to-I request does is create discrimination. Some members of the public would have a higher priority than others to know how their government works. No free society should work that way.

On protecting sources: Journalists make promises to sources to keep their identities confidential so that they can benefit from the information these well-placed sources have. The deal is usually phrased like this: “I guarantee your confidentiality. I’ll go to jail to protect it.” If as a reporter you can’t keep your end of the bargain without any additional protections, you don’t deserve to work in this business anyway. No amount of card-carrying will change that.

On taking a year-off as an ethical respite: This is another well-intentioned idea whose enforceability would be all but impractical. There are all kinds of ethical dilemmas that appear in the newsroom during a career, I just don’t see how this would solve any of them. Keeping the name of a rape victim out of a story is one thing, but what if someone objected to working on a Sunday? Where would you draw the line? And who would draw it?

On defamation: Defamation suits are the mechanism available to the public to keep reporters honest. The standard that I use when I do investigative work is one an editor handed down to me: “Do the reporting with the assumption someone will file a lawsuit against us after this runs.” Defamation lawsuits are nothing for a true pro to fear – and making it harder for journalists to remain accountable for their work would only goad more people in the profession into veering into the domain of reckless behaviour. Any loophole designed to protect a ‘professional journalist’ from defamation claims will be traversed by the members of the profession who are too sloppy to belong in it in the first place.

On government advertising: If you let the government into the exclusive franchise of advertising in certain approved media outlets, it instantly makes those outlets dependent on government advertising where a free market once existed. That puts the government in the dangerous business of deciding what message gets out there.

This was exactly the situation in Mexico when I worked there during the last days of the PRI’s federal political machine. The government didn’t need to resort to politburo tactics if media outlets put out a critical message; it could cancel its ads. Those lucrative advertisements became the lifeblood of some publications – ones that had unfortunately been forced to develop a symbiosis with elements of the government. This undeniably dampened the coverage of a government that was a rotating dictatorship.

When Mexicans made history by turning that ruling party out of office, even good newspapers ended up in an economic bind. When political currents changed and publications such as El Excélsior of Mexico City (which was once known as Mexico’s “Le Monde”) fell on hard times, it was in no small part because the regime change choked off government advertising.

Guaranteeing government adverts to a publication will do next to nothing to foster a healthy atmosphere of free speech. If anything it will have the diametrically opposite effect -- it will put media outlets at the mercy of politics.

Yet the most important point to remember here is that any journalist submitting to any process seeking to certify, designate or license instantly becomes thrall to those who decide. As soon as it becomes apparent that there will be a gatekeeper to credible information it will only be a matter of time before vested interests take control of the process. A certification regime would eventually and inevitably act as the stooge of every corrupt government, predatory corporation or criminal operator.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the intentions of the FPJQ when it put this to a vote are ostensibly admirable. Payette’s study mainly noted that the economics of the profession were eroding the quality of the product because it made it harder for pros to make a living. The recommendations that she made were aimed at improving both the economy and quality of the profession for the men and women who work in it.

It’s important to note that Payette’s study does not in any way make a “non-titled” journalist ineligible to work; it simply seeks to gain major benefits and incentives to those in the profession who obtain the designation.

But if the old koan about the road to hell ever applied, it would apply here. A special status will do next to nothing to help journalists make a better living. If anything, it would help media companies identify those of us who would cost them more money. And it could create an environment where certified journalists would become beholden to the organization that certifies them.

There’s a reason why the printing press caused such a stir when it started spilling ink. There’s a reason why the Internet is so powerful. There’s a reason why Twitter is cited so often as a major factor in recent regime changes in the Middle East. These are things that dramatically changed the flow of information. More specifically, they dramatically altered who is in control of the information.

There’s no turning back the clock on that now. Rather than concentrating on making their franchise more exclusive, members of the Fourth Estate should be focusing their energies on harnessing the informative power of the new media tools at their disposal.

Journalism is a rare profession. Ideally it gives everyone a voice; it is the original equalizer of public life. To make "professional journalism" the domain of a few cardholders would destroy its most important quality -- its accessibility. It would turn a democracy into an oligarchy.

Journalists provide information. Their work demands evaluation by one party and one party only -- the public. I don’t ask permission for my beliefs: I have a right to them. I don’t ask permission to express myself for the same reason. And I don’t need a card with my name on it to tell me what I already know that I am.

If any of my foregoing experiences isn’t convincing proof enough that this is a bad idea, consider that 70 years ago, a young Quebecker trucked off to Europe as a journalist working for the U.S. military. Working in a relatively new broadcast medium, this young bright star brought thoughtful dispatches from the Allied lines back to North America with a revolver strapped to his hip. He would do more daring and insightful work later on for Radio-Canada in Korea.

Though he worked in several different countries for the service of at least two different government media outlets, he never acquired a special status to be a professional journalist. He didn’t have to -- the quality of his work cemented his reputation among his listeners and viewers. As he continued to work throughout Canada, he eventually left the profession to become Quebec premier.

René Lévesque the journalist never needed a special title. Neither should the rest of us.

*If you wonder what this post has to do with the theme of this blog, consider that this city is a bastion of free expression. That journalists here would recommend a special designation is paradoxical in the extreme, for the foregoing reasons.

Happy Easter...

First off, apologies mine for such a long hiatus on this blog. I had planned a major post that I’ve been working on for the past two weeks on and off. Someone was interested in publishing it, however, and so I had to hold off using this space to host it. That post should be forthcoming on one site or another soon.

One of the subjects that this space has covered on Montreal is the at times contradictory relationship it has with Catholicism. And at Easter mass today, I was privy to one of the better examples of how this plays out in a city that many claim has lost its religion.

I attend mass in French because I don’t see how I’m supposed to be a member of the community otherwise. And Sunday’s mass was standard Easter fare at first – gone were the Lenten doldrums. The good news was here. This was especially true for all the children, as the priest noted that chocolate eggs were there for the public afterward.

It wasn’t just the children who availed themselves.

But when the priest took the microphone (which he didn’t have to use most other days of the calendar) for his sermon, his face darkened. The city, he noted, was out of sorts. The previous night, he watched processions of unhappy Montrealers limp down Ontario Street after the Habs dropped their third straight playoff game (in double overtime no less!) to the hated Boston Bruins.

And as I followed his sermon I sat there and thought that if anyone doubted that this town had religion, here was my proof. A man of the Holy Cloth offering the sacraments to throngs of the faithful; he delivered a powerful sermon on the men of the Holy Cloth. Sure, it might seem that the bleu blanc et rouge might find themselves in dire straits. But it isn’t the end of the world. Certainly contemplating the suffering of Jesus and his resurrection would put things in perspective, the priest noted. Life will go on, thanks to the sacrifices of the Son of God. 

But as I filed out of my neighbourhood church as the mass had ended, it I realized that more than likely the joyful attendees had received the good news in a way the pastor had not intended. Perhaps the Canadiens could resurrect their playoff hopes, win the next two contests, and advance once again over insurmountable odds. It could be that the end of the world was not so near after all. Perhaps the faithful would not have to spend so much time this playoff season on the cross…

And as I trotted down the stone steps of the Gothic church I attend to Ontario Street, it occurred to me that as a Catholic I really am a minority in this town.

As even the priest seemed to acknowledge, the most popular religion here is hockey.   


Election Season

During this time of year in Montreal the distant squeal of seagulls sounds a strange urban alarm clock. The snow finally starts an erratic thaw, something that makes city parks seem like a stew of fermenting grass and animals.

The only thing comparable in the almost eternal summer of Miami that I enjoyed not so long ago was the arrival of vultures every October to signal the end of summer. As you’d walk through the chaos of that city’s bizarre downtown, you’d step over odd bits of pigeon they would fling off the rooftops, and that’s how you knew fall (or what passes for fall in Florida) was coming.

"Let's talk Quebec..."
In the midst of the new season there’s now an election slated for May 2. Suddenly bicycles hitting the streets again have to dodge campaign signs hawking Canada’s political parties. To be sure, Canadian politics is a much more buttoned-up and gentlemanly affair than it is in where I'm from. But one of the most fascinating aspects of the Canadian political spectrum is the hues it takes on through the prism of Montreal.

Just take the following only-in-Montreal scenario: the riding I live in is represented by Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, which is a federal-only party. The party’s long-term objective is to make Quebec independent from the rest of Canada (this is where the Canadians reading this blog go: Riiiight, and your point is???).

This means Duceppe is in the fascinating position of being the leader of a federal-level party whose eventual stated purpose is to leave the government in which it participates.    

Contrast that scenario with that of Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party who represents a riding (district, if you're in the states) in Toronto. Like Duceppe, Layton is a Montrealer. Like Duceppe, Layton grew up in Quebec, where his party currently holds only one seat. Layton’s face is emblazoned on posters all over town, even though voters in Montreal only vote for the MP in their riding, not from the rest of Canada (and the Canadian readers go: duh, stupid!!!). Now I get that he’s trying to marshal votes for the other candidates his party is running here. But I think it’s still interesting, given that in Canada you don’t vote for prime minister, you vote for MPs.  
"Let's Work Together (to keep graffiti off this bike rack)."

It’s a juxtaposition that is perhaps only intriguing to a foreigner; you could say one politician is hyper-local, the other is hyper-national.  

This is a topic I certainly hope to revisit as the election looms closer – because for a foreigner watching national politics from Montreal is sure entertaining.  Especially since what passes for scandal in Canada wouldn't make a nun blush in the states!


If you look at the bracket that I picked before this NCAA tournament started, I picked NONE of the eventual Final Four. The one silver lining for me, however, is that Virginia Commonwealth University out of my hometown of Richmond, Va., is one of those Final Four teams. And Shaka Smart, with whom I attended college, is its coach. The Rams have never gone this far in the tournament, and have felled giants along the way.

This Ain't Havana (Part One)...

 I couldn’t resist putting in a Ramones reference in the title this week, especially since I used a pun on “A Tale of Two Cities” last week.

Something that constantly courses through my head is a compare-and-contrast exercise between Montreal and Miami – where I used to live. Inexplicable floods of traffic, an international vibe and yes, bilingualism all mark congruencies between the two cities. Politically, economically and, um, weatherwise, they could be on different planets.

To wit:

On the international politics front: Everybody knows Montreal has historically been the battleground of the movement to make Quebec a country independent from the rest of Canada. Miami on the other hand has long been the battleground of the movement to make it part of the United States.
I talked to this guy a week before he froze to death. It's just such a shame.

One day, it could happen.   

On the language front: Both cities are known for being bilingual, even though they go about it in completely different ways. Montreal road signs are mostly in French until you get to Westmount, where arrêt becomes stop and suddenly the rue disappears from the street signs.

In Miami the road signs are mostly in English which means that if you speak the language you’d probably know where you’re going except they don’t correspond to anything so it doesn’t matter what you speak. Most of the hours spent travelling by car in Miami are used to devise methods of avoiding construction sites, steering clear of rogue airports and dodging on-ramps that go to places like Honduras.

Speaking of transportation: Montreal has a comprehensive subway system with transferable tickets to bus service and vice versa, meaning you pay one fare to make one trip (I try talking about this when I’m in Florida and people think I’m crazy). As a bonus, there’s a whole other city that somebody put down there, somebody who probably felt his body crack up into little tiny pieces when he walked outside in January. I think it’s also a scientifically proven fact that the Underground City has more women’s footwear per square metre than anywhere except the Marcos Family Yard Sale.

CHOO! CHOO! Smells like transportation in the Magic City.
Terming what Miami has a “public transit system” is like saying Jackson Pollock painted in the Belgian clear line style. There were fewer wheel gauges in my toychest than Miami uses on its rail lines. There’s the Amtrak-like Tri-Rail, a train that runs from Palm Beach County to a terminus that is about a kilometre away from the Miami International Airport (this is one of the rogue airports you’d be trying to avoid if you elected to drive). While there is no continuing train service to that airport, you can get off the train two stops previous on a smaller gauge train called the Metrorail that then makes three stops max in Miami’s downtown core before heading into Coral Gables. That train connects somewhere with the MetroMover, which is a free tram that runs on tires offering users some of the sights and all the smells of the city.

I actually used to love using the MetroMover, which offered a good way to see Miami from two storeys up. But like with anything free, there are pungent trade-offs to riding it. It looks like a futuristic robot-operated monorail; it smells like a futuristic robot-operated dumpster. 

The language front, part two: In Montreal, most people speak one of two official languages, depending on where you are and who you talk to. In Miami, most people speak one of two foreign languages, depending on where you are and who you talk to.

When in Miami, wear a guayabera instead...
The international politics front, part two: The most talismanic symbol of where the two cities differ is the Che Guevara t-shirt. Wear one in Miami and you wouldn’t make it five minutes in the open atmosphere. In Montreal scores of people wear them as a totem of Third World solidarity. In one city, he’s a symbol of repression. In the other he’s a symbol of rebellion.

A few serious comparisons perhaps only I find interesting:
Of the roughly 2.5 million people who live in Miami-Dade County (essentially the metro area), just under 51 percent are foreign-born, and just under 68 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the most recent figures by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of the more than 3.5 million who live in Montreal, about 18 percent are foreign-born, more than 2.4 million speak French at home (about 590,000 speak English with the rest speaking another tongue), according to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada.

A slanted horizon aside, this place ain't so bad...
About 26 percent of Miami’s populace has a bachelor’s degree, versus almost 33 percent in Montreal, according to the Census Bureau and StatsCan respectively.

Perhaps one of the most interesting points of departure between the two cities is the role that language plays, and I’d by lying if I said I didn’t think this blog would return to this topic in the future. There is a feeling in Montreal that language is something that is constantly defended through the enforcement of laws. In Miami language is a de facto mode of communication that sprouts out of a barely controlled chaos.

Somehow both towns make it work. 

And all of that being said, please don't take this post as an indictment of Miami. It's a city whose culture and arts scene is vastly underrated by the mainstream media. And while my neighbours inform me I could be shovelling snow in April, summertime is so long in Miami there you don't even really find deciduous trees. 

A Tale of Two Exiles

I had to run some errands downtown before attending a dedication ceremony, and ended up riding the Montreal Metro system into a bizarre coincidence of history.

I was heading to the dedication of the duplex apartment that Jackie Robinson lived in when he played for the AAA Montreal Royals, just before he smashed major league baseball’s colour barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Ground floor: makeup, lingerie, and Confederate presidents. 

I made some copies and headed down toward Phillips Square to catch the orange line train at the McGill station. It occurred to me I was walking past the former home of another émigré from the states who lived in Montreal for quite different reasons than Jackie Robinson’s.

Part of the McGill metro station lies beneath the Hudson’s Bay Company store in downtown Montreal, a landmark department store whose red stone arches dominate the northern side of the square. On the building’s western side lies a 50-year-old plaque in French that almost no one pays any attention to anymore. The Bay’s employees take their lunch on the bench right in front of it and never know it’s there. And if anyone stopped to read the bronze marker, they’d make a mildly surprising discovery.

This was the home of Jefferson Davis.

Yes, that Jefferson Davis – the former president of the Confederate States of America, the one who led the South in its ultimately doomed effort to secede from the United States in a vain gambit to keep slavery legal.

Being a native of Richmond, Va. (that would be the former capital of said Confederacy) I found this to be an especially strange footnote of this city’s history. Am I the only one who thinks it odd he lived on Union Street?
One can assume Davis didn't sleep on the bench here...

During the U.S. Civil War Davis sent his family to live in Montreal, and even sent his sons to study at Bishop’s University (then known as Bishop’s College) in the Eastern Townships, according to on-line archives kept by Rice University. With slavery abolished after the war, he actually followed the same path of so many escaped slaves to settle in Montreal while awaited trial.
Look Away!

I caught my public time machine on the city’s orange line and travelled from the 19th Century into the 20th Century.

Avenue de Gaspé is a nondescript residential street on the northern end of town. It is far enough away from the heart of the city to almost have the feel of a suburb. Many a sporting hero has been made in the midst of low-slung homes and local taverns. A week ago, Montreal offered up Jackie Robinson.

Unlike the stately palace that housed Davis’ home, this house didn’t look palatial. And unlike Davis’ home, the plaque outside of it attracted a lot more attention.

Just before the Robinsons moved there for the 1946 season, they had gone through rough times while he was in spring training in Florida.

“We were still shaken from that experience and didn’t know what to expect in Montreal,” wrote Jackie’s wife Rachel, in an open letter she recently sent to David Jacobson, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada. The Dodgers’ president, Branch Rickey, wanted to break the unwritten rule, and staged Robinson’s splashdown to the majors by starting him out in Montreal. 

Robinson, from National Baseball Hall of Fame
“We couldn’t afford to fail,” she wrote.

There was some trepidation because the city’s neighbourhoods were mostly white. The Robinsons didn’t know any French, and few people there knew any English, but it didn’t keep folks from looking out for them. “When it became noticeable that summer that I was pregnant with our first child, the neighbours all started watching out for me, coming by to ask me how I was doing and bringing ration coupons,” she wrote. “That’s the kind of experience we had in Montreal.”

In Robinson’s first game on April 14, 1946, he knocked a three-run homerun, hit three singles and stole two bases, according to archives from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The Royals clobbered the Jersey City Giants that game 14-1, and the Royals won the league championship that year, the CBC wrote. He jumped to Brooklyn the next year and became the first rookie of the year in the major leagues – during one of only two seasons when it awarded one league-wide honour.

 “In the 1940s we were the exception,” standing next to Robinson's daughter Sharon Robinson, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay told a crowd of journalists standing in a deluge of wintry mix. “Jackie Robinson’s story is not only a story of courage, but a story of dignity.” (As an aside, Tremblay proceeded to knock off all of the microphones on the podium and asked aloud “why does this always happen to me?”) 

Mayor Tremblay: good pitcher, but fielding needs work.

Somehow a family of Americans from the South who found no love in the states were treated like family in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language. In a nutshell I guess, that was the U.S. paradox during segregation.

The Montreal paradox is that the city was the exile home to the figurehead of the miserable institutions of the Old South; almost a century later it became the exile home to someone who became the face of integration in the states.  

A plaque that the United Daughters of the Confederacy put at Union and Sainte-Catherine hangs alone by one of the downtown’s busiest corners. Barely anyone even knows its there.

And if Jackie Robinson’s reputation were a building, the Montreal skyline would be dominated by a skyscraper rising out of a quiet neighbourhood at 8232 avenue de Gaspé.

A Spire on Saint-Denis

Saint-Jacques at dusk in the Latin Quarter
On the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Denis streets lies the Église Saint-Jacques, its Gothic steeple jutting into the sky over the south end of the city’s young and trendy Latin Quarter. As the sun goes down and the electric lights start to burn the church almost looks like the stone-faced chaperone of a party that is going to go on for a long, long time. 

Built in the early 1820s to become Montreal’s Catholic cathedral, Saint-Jacques is a metaphor made out of stone. Because Église Saint-Jacques has a little secret that no passerby would guess until he trod the stairs to enter:

It isn’t a church.

Walk up the steps of Saint-Jacques and enter the doors, and the hordes of young smokers catching a few drags in front of stain glass windows and graffiti tip you off to Saint-Jacques’ contemporary purpose – the façade of the University of Quebec at Montreal, known by its French initials: UQÀM.

For centuries all over Quebec, the Catholic Church held a preponderant role in daily life. It controlled the hospitals, it ran the schools, and it had a hand-in-glove relationship with the government.

Not a place to find a confessional
The 1960s changed that during a process here that became known as the Quiet Revolution. The province took over the hospitals and the schools from the church, consolidated and took control of key industries such as the power company, and created a middle class in the realm of the civil service.

In the midst of these changes, Quebec also spawned UQÀM, which opened in 1969. By planting a public university aimed at the everyman square in the middle of an old cathedral, the province was asserting its primacy over that of the old institution that had been the de facto government for hundreds of years.

It’s easy to feel that Catholicism is a vestige here (I’m something of a lapsed Catholic and I thought that way), until something makes you realize that maybe it isn’t.

Recently the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordered the mayor of Saguenay to remove a crucifix from city hall and stop reciting a prayer to open meetings. This immediately caused an uproar, as the mayor swore he’d appeal, and both the province’s two most important political parties vowed they’d sponsor legislation to keep these symbolic things in the public sphere. The mayor even added, according to the Globe and Mail, that Christians accommodate minority religions too much at the expense of their own.

And columnists took to this one too. A writer for The Gazette bemoaned the fact that minority rights are being crushed in the path of Quebec identity politics. A writer for La Presse lamented while it's probably legally correct that the halls of government will likely have to rid themselves of the trappings of the church, a piece of the province’s culture would go out the door with them.  

"Soon we'll pass the point of no return!" Well, maybe.
Whether religious symbols belong in public spaces is not for me to say. In addition to everything else, I'm a foreigner. But I’ve come to view Église Saint-Jacques as a reverse-metaphor in Quebec. It isn’t that this province is a largely secular place with a cultural and religious exterior, it’s the other way round. It’s a liberalized society that still retains some of the old time religion, it just depends on the context. 

You see it at Christmastime: restaurants and stores close up early, and the white streets on Christmas Eve look like the abandoned set of a 1950s holiday film. In the states, even in small towns restaurants and movie theatres stay open at ungodly hours of the evening to cater to surly throngs of shoppers in a constantly escalating quest for consumption. 

At that same time of year on the corner of Saint-Denis and Sainte-Catherine streets, there is a video lightshow projected onto the walls of the old Église Saint-Jacques. The whole church is lit up in the night sky with moving symbols of the season. It is similar to a display shown on the cathedral in Amiens, France.

Those who enter the Saint-Jacques now do so to take classes, read, or smoke a few with some friends. But if the building’s guts now hold a university, its spire is still a marker for a religion that still retains a certain amount of influence in Quebec. Just ask someone in Saguenay. 

Welcome to Paradox Island

This blog will be devoted to expatriate life in Montreal, where I live.
I’ve worked as a reporter in some pretty interesting areas. I wrote for a newspaper in Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara, I covered crime in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I covered courts in perhaps the wackiest city of them all, Miami (which, as everyone knows, is quite close to the United States).
Those places all had their quirks. But the layers of culture, language and politics here definitely put Montreal in another category. That’s why I dub this island city of 3.7 million Paradox Island.
Internationally Montreal is the face of French Canada, a city as full of joie de vivre as ice and snow. It’s a culinary capital where future Parisian chefs get their chops together to make the jump to France. It’s a centre for cutting edge film and music that usually attracts serious respect and rarely ends up being pre-fab or overcommercialized.
But within Quebec Montreal is the redoubt of English Canada, with a downtown core where English is the lingua franca. The biggest city of an officially French-speaking province boasts a top-flight university that draws a student body from across the rest of the country to learn in the language of the Saxons.
Though no one seems to know for sure, encrypted in the flags of the city and the province appear the watermarks of two different forms of cultural currency.
In many ways Montreal is an international city, a former host of the Olympic Games, a metropolis where more than 20 percent of the populace is foreign-born (including one scribe I can think of), and a cultural switching post for two of the world’s major languages. In other ways it’s an inward-looking town that’s never outgrown a provincial atmosphere, a place where homegrowns who’ve hit the big time are perennially celebrated, even if Hollywood Beach, Hollywood, Cal., or Paris is now their home.
In the coming weeks I plan to delve further into to this city’s kinks as I read them. And I want to shape a dialogue with this blog; please send any comments along the way.

-- Billy