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.