Montreal was the city that first made me fall in love with Quebec. It was a city of beautiful people drinking Molson quarts, a city of hipsters who knew how to appreciate a good knish, a city that felt at once Cirque-du-Soleil young and Richler-grizzled, a city whose stylishness flirted on the edge of seediness. This was the start of the nineties, a time of jazz, cigarettes, the Expos, Jean Doré’s moustache and Me, Mom and Morgentaler.
Montreal was such a welcoming city at the time – it still is. It has always attracted people like… well, like me, young hopefuls from across Canada and the world who come to study and work, counting on their half-remembered high school French to get by. And when they inevitably pronounce the “S” in “jus” as I did my first summer in Montreal, the lovely server will smile patiently, and she will pass them their drinks, and they will fall in love with the server and the city besides.
This, then, is the problem: Montreal has been far too forgiving for far too long.
For generations, Montreal has been a laissez affair. Under successive colourful mayors, city government has been part carnival, part crap shoot. Business was taken care of however business was taken care of, and if that meant in diners over a brisket and a bulging briefcase, so be it. C’était Montréal.
In the meantime, the city drew more and more outsiders as the natives (read: francophones) fled to the off-island suburbs, outsiders from the rest of the world, outsiders more comfortable in their native English or, if English wasn’t their first language, keen to learn it. Montreal, always secretly bilingual, was becoming brazenly capital-B Bilingual.
During times of social peace, the bilingual fact nettled only the extremists, who swatted at the issue harmlessly and were rewarded with condescending disinterest.
But political regimes fall. Mayor Gérald Tremblay, who never seemed to muster the moxie to manage Montreal’s Wild West show, perhaps allowed his administration to take too many chances, with too many “friends” feeling entitled to a piece of the brisket. When Jean Charest’s cageyness could no longer shore up the stagnant provincial Liberals, his government fell. Montreal was an overripe fruit long due for plucking. And, boy, did it get plucked!
The newly elected Parti Québécois immediately set axes a-grinding by concocting a language issue. The result: Bill 14, whose purpose is to strengthen French language in Quebec (read: weaken English language in Quebec).
But the English-French issue is not a Quebec problem; it’s a Montreal problem. Bill 14 is clearly aimed at punishing Montreal’s traditional open-arms embrace of bilingualism. Unfortunately, if adopted, the bill will do real damage to anglos elsewhere in Quebec. Out here, anglos are so not a threat. We’re just trying to hang on.
These are polarized, unforgiving, moustache-free times, and Bill 14 is representative of that. So too is the Charbonneau Commission examining corruption. Easygoing Montreal is suddenly out of step with these times and a victim of its own laissez-faire attitude. Never one to shy away from overzealousness (hello, OQLF!), Quebec’s bureaucracy is giddily slicing away at the city, uprooting any and all corruption, another punishment for being the city that’s always a bit cooler, a bit hipper than the seat of government down river. (Sorry, Quebec City, but it’s true.)
And so this week, the mayor of Montreal was arrested. Not even Toronto’s mayor can get arrested! But Montreal, special in so many ways, is also special in its shame, a shame that radiates onto all Quebecers.
So, please, Montreal, you’re killing us. First Bill 14 and now this international embarrassment? It’s bad enough that we have to explain to our friends in the rest of Canada about the politics of language, tuition and turbans, but now we have to apologize for Montreal?
In moments of despair, even Quebec federalists sometimes say, “Maybe things would be better if Quebec just separated from Canada.” But perhaps there’s another solution; maybe Quebec should just separate from Montreal.
We’ll visit often…