It was during the CJAD/Gazette English language mayoral debate, held on October 25th 2013 at Concordia’s Oscar Peterson Hall that I realized the dire importance of this election. It hit me that it is possibly the most important one for the last ten and maybe the next twenty years for our city. Indeed, somewhere in the midst of all the smiles, slogans, promises, personal attacks and vandalized posters, the reality of the predicament we Montrealers find ourselves in became painfully evident, agonizingly real.
It was just over a year ago that a provincial election sparked by systemic corruption and an education funding squabble handed the Parti Québécois a minority government. As the dust settled into that old familiar mold of language and identity politics, we see with the wisdom of hindsight the danger our city is in. Calling English ‘a foreign language’, eliminating intensive English classes in 6th grade and pushing forward an unwarranted attack on English businesses and municipalities – the dreaded Bill 14 – the PQ wasted no time resuming its traditionally divisive stance.
It is under the weight of these events that I and many other are foreseeing the linguistic balance and harmony of this city being shaken and very possibly lost forever. We would be failing our city if we just stood by and did nothing to work towards real, conciliatory change.
On the night of October 25th everyone could feel the stakes were high. All the candidates are of francophone descent and all of them were trying to capture the hearts of the English speaking half of Montreal; language and identity were the undeniable elephants roaming that room. For the first time, the candidates were no longer evaluated on their presentability, connections or experience, but their ability to honestly and efficiently manage the exquisite and fragile mosaic that is our beloved city of Montreal.
As Marcel Côté eloquently put it “Investors and private entrepreneurs will be the ones rebuilding the economy, if we don’t distract them with one of our biggest problems in Montreal; the recurring battles on nationalism and on language. We have to manage our linguistic duality, we have to live with it and manage it and the mayor has an important leadership role in that regard’’.
So true is this statement by Côté, the entrepreneur who, pushed into politics by supporters has managed to rally a real coalition of people as diverse as Louise Harel and Marvin Rotrand. Indeed nothing could be truer. As much as Denis Coderre would like it to be the opposite – that stimulating the economy will eliminate our division and language issues – the reality is that he has the cause and the consequence reversed.
And so despite it being a question on the tip of everyone’s tongues it was still a surprise to hear a woman from the audience ask the question; “Do you think the mayor of Montreal in his or her relations to Quebec should be taking a stronger stand when it comes to language legislation that restricts English and what do you think of the language situation now in Montreal?”
During the first English debate on CTV, all the candidates praised Montreal’s bilingualism but here, in front of a live audience of primarily Anglo voters, only one was able to demonstrate that they really meant it.
“We are very badly served when Quebec comes in very clumsily and intervenes” said Marcel Côté. “We need to be ahead of the curve and that is what I intend to do. We also have to improve significantly the representativeness of City of Montréal employment. And we have said in our program, and even Mrs Harel signed up on this, that we will have an affirmative action program to get the employment in line with the demographic reality of Montreal.”
By contrast the other candidates answered cautiously to the point of evasion.
“I think we need to be proud of our cultural uniqueness”, said Mélanie Joly, “and I think we need to be proud that our population has the highest rate of bilingualism in North America. That being said, I know that I will have to choose my battles. And the biggest battle of Montreal right now is corruption. I won’t tell you things I won’t be able… I won’t tell you promises I won’t be able to keep. And that’s why I want to make sure that my priorities are well understood.”
It is unfortunate, that Madame Joly does not see the important role she could play as a potential mayor of the city in an issue that divides our city so much, not only affecting the lives of our citizens, but our businesses and the tourism industry on which we so heavily rely. Interesting that during the debate she would cite Montreal’s addiction to property taxes, but not its heavy dependence on foreign tourism, its lion’s share being English speaking visitors. This strikes one as a strange passivity in a political environment constantly stoked by activists bent on sinking us ever deeper into language division and segregation. Amongst the 10 actions listed on her site, I would imagine that language issues might have deserved a mention.
Richard Bergeron surprised everyone by denying there is a language problem in Montreal at all. “We have reached a very good balance between languages in Montreal. I don’t see such a big problem here. If an English person wants to be served in English he can be served anywhere, in any borough of Montreal.” That was the only moment during the debate that actually drew boos from the audience.
Denis Coderre, being the “slick” politician that he is, deflected the question and put pink powder in the water to make it look like wine. “The name of the game here is respect. The name of the game is rights. So it is not a matter of choosing our battles, it is a matter of do we feel like everyone feels like they are a world-class citizen. The role of the mayor is to make sure that their people are happy, so you know (…) The role of the administration is to provide those services, so we need to find a way that the reality is the facts.” So many words to suggest not much will be done.
Indeed, it would be nice to simply manage our linguistic and cultural mosaic ourselves and have a government that reflects us as whole, as Marcel Côté proposes. It’s in our weakness and division that larger powers find opportunities to further divide and conquer us. Uniting people from the East and the West is essential for our city to have any hope of presenting a unified voice to Quebec City. Certainly there’s very little chance our city will be able to demand and receive its fair share from the province without it. I am ready to be fully seduced by the Coalition and their bold attempt to change history and re-unite this city, if not only for one detail: Their platform does not explicitly state all the three added executive responsibilities, but rather only mentions the one concerning the vitality of the French language. The other two describe affirmative action strategies, indeed, but no mention of responsible execs. The summary of the platform says: “19. Recognize the contribution of cultural diversity to Montreal’s wealth while reaffirming Montreal’s status as a francophone city.” Sounds like a lightly disguised attempt at social engineering, worthy of Jean-François Lisée.
One look at our original Coat of Arms, now having been replaced by four empty hearts, attests to the falsity of the unilingual claim to this city. It is wonderful to see a public figure break the taboo and propel the discussion about our linguistic duality and diversity. But remembering Montreal was only declared unilingual francophone after 2000, it is critical that we not let another fast one like that slip by.
It is quite clear that our beloved Montreal is in freefall. It is essential that Montreal matures and takes its destiny into its own hands to avert disaster. How can it be that Montreal is not amongst the top 10 cities in the world? How can we be the most taxed city in North America? How can we have the highest unemployment rate of any major Canadian city? As Montrealers, surely we believe we deserve better. This suffocating environment caused by provincial deception and manipulation has lasted long enough, and now that it is highlighted by the division caused by Bill 14 and the Charter, it is up to Montrealers like you and me to decide if we will carpe diem and stand up together for our city, or if we will keep bickering about language, separatism and Marie-Mai.
These municipal elections could not have come at a better time. This is the first time that Montrealers have the opportunity to change the course of history, to listen to one another, to accept their uniqueness, be proud of their bilingualism and unite for their beloved city despite their differences. Provided, of course, they do not fall for the old brand of “glad-handing, backslapping, winking and grinning” politics.
And that, in itself, would be a quiet revolution.