‘MONTREAL, P.Q.’: A LEGACY WHICH HAS LEFT US WITH CRUMBLING INFRASTRUCTURE AND POTENTIALLY DEADLY CONSEQUENCES FOR OUR INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION.
Remember back in the 1970s, when Canada Post was just in the process of bringing in postal codes in Canada, and standardizing the nomenclature for the abbreviations for each province and territory? Back then, when I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s, no postal codes existed, and a stamp cost 6 cents for anywhere in Canada. There was a now outdated system of postal districts for different parts of at least the province of Québec, with my area in Québec city being designated as ‘Québec 6’. I once saw an old document showing how the whole area was divided up. It seemed to make sense, but has now long been superseded by the pan-Canadian system of postal codes, based; it would seem, on a modified British-style system. Ours uses an ‘Alpha, numeric, alpha/numeric, alpha, numeric’ system, with the ‘As’ being in Newfoundland, and the other end of the alphabet, such as the ‘Ys’ being in the Yukon. I’ve always wondered why there don’t seem to be any ‘Z’ postal codes, but no matter. I just get a lot of pleasure from knowing where letters come from based on their postal codes: ‘Gs’ from Québec city, ‘H’ from Montréal, ‘K’ from Ottawa, ‘L’ from the Toronto area and so on.
But I digress. One thing which also changed, as I mentioned above, was the system for designating provinces. It used to be that people in our province used to address letters to their relatives in Montréal by putting ‘Montréal, P.Q.’, as in ‘Province of Québec’. But then something cataclysmic happened. That is if you were English-speaking and loved Québec being part of Canada. (Or French-speaking and ditto, for that matter!). On the evening of November 15, 1976, the political, social, cultural, linguistic and economic landscapes in our province changed dramatically, both for good and for ill, and the people of this province’s afore-mentioned biggest city, as well as those in the rest of the province, and the whole country for that matter, are still feeling the after shocks.
What happened was that the ‘P.Q.’ party of Mr. René Lévesque (which stands for ‘Parti Québécois’), was elected and swept to power in an historical provincial election, pushing the scandal-plagued government of Mr. Robert Bourassa, a two-term Liberal incumbent, from power, and ushering into existence our province’s first provincial government whose avowed and explicit goal was to secede from Canada using the peaceful democratic process of parliamentary government, which, ironically, they had inherited from the very British conquerors in whose country, they now alleged to being ‘oppressed’.
Suddenly, as I recall in those days in the 1970s, during the lead up to the P.Q.’s election and subsequent victory, word was rife amongst my English-speaking neighbours, friends, relatives and acquaintances that, putting the letters ‘P.Q.’ after the name of your town or city when mailing a letter somewhere within the province, was almost sinful, and should be discouraged at all costs, because it was giving free publicity to the separatists. Funny thing happened, though. Not long after, Canada Post came out with a newly-minted format for the abbreviated nomenclature of the ten provinces and the territories. ‘P.Q.’, all of a sudden became ‘QC’. So that issue was solved.
One issue that wasn’t solved though was the more ‘concrete’, if I may use that word literally, impact on the city of Montréal’s infrastructure, as well as that of the whole province. Lots of deficit-financing went into building new programs for people, which was laudable: The SAAQ (Société de l’Assurance Automobile du Québec), publically run ‘no-fault’ car insurance scheme was born, greatly lowering the cost of car insurance for the average driver in Québec, and spreading the risk of personal injury in all traffic collisions across the province’s population much more fairly and evenly. Electoral financing and party financing reforms were brought in; a lot of private fishing camps were taken over, giving access to rivers, lakes and streams to ordinary Québecers sometimes for the first time ever.
However, all of this Social-Democratic social engineering was very costly in terms of tax hikes and deficit and debt increases for our province. The civil service ballooned even more in anticipation of Mr. Lévesque winning his much-anticipated referendum on secession, which was eventually held in May of 1980. Rumours abounded of him wanting to have a ‘government straight out of the box’ so as to be ready to go on day one after Independence Day, whenever that was to be. Also, the more public sector workers he hired with generous state-sector, unionized wages in the civil service, health care, education, and social services, the larger was his ‘army’ of separatist voter base which would most likely vote for him in the upcoming May 1980 vote.
It was also souring the business climate in our province, especially the overtly confrontational language law, Bill 101, which was passed into law in 1977, which made French the sole official language in the province of Québec, especially for all businesses above a certain number of employees. It was a boon for empowering French-speaking Québecers, who for the first time were able to enter the upper echelons of management in the private sector, but bad in the sense that it caused many head offices, which had already been seeing a lot of their operations going further upstream to Toronto since 1959 with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, to move to Toronto, or even to Calgary in Alberta.
Montréal began to resemble a second-rate metropolis. Lots of government subsidies from both the provincial and federal levels of government kept a lot of its aging and inefficient industries afloat in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but by the time the P.Q. lost power in 1985, and were relegated to the status of the opposition, and for-the-time-being, now permanent ‘government in waiting’, keeping the spectre of their return to power with its accompanying threat of another referendum on secession omnipresent, the city entered into a sort of quasi-permanent type of gridlock.
Private sector investment still continued somewhat, Montréal was still a significant place to do business as a primary transportation, manufacturing, banking, financial and commercial centre for the province of Québec and parts of northern New England, but it had lost its status as the prime ‘Metropolis of Canada’. It was no longer the uncontested manufacturing and transportation, banking and commercial hub for our nation’s transcontinental system of east-west commerce, and it showed. Montréal was in dire need of reinventing itself.
One thing that had always been popular in Montréal since at least the times of Prohibition was the ‘leisure and entertainment industry’. (Some would call brothels, illegal casinos and speakeasies ‘vice’, but let’s not go there, shall we?). So some bright person in the early 1980s had noticed that there were a lot of vacant lots in downtown Montréal, where buildings had either been torn down, or where the economic slowdown of the 1979-82 recession, exacerbated by the separatist threat, had caused the push to develop new commercial properties to drop. So they said, ‘why not start a Jazz Festival?’ So ever since the early 1980s, Montréal has done a great job of reinventing itself as a festival city and big event place: Jazz festival, Franco-Folies festival to celebrate French music, fireworks festival, Formula 1 racing, etc…
But again, most of this is for people, which again is laudable, but people also need to move around on roads, bridges, have access to efficient public transit, access to safe and efficient drinking water and sewage systems etc…This is where Montréal and the whole province of Québec has fallen flat on its face, and, may I add, something may very well fall flat on somebody’s face pretty soon if something drastic isn’t done to shore up Montréal’s crumbling physical infrastructure. Because the P.Q.’s passage in power in ‘Montréal, P.Q.’ as well as elsewhere in the province, basically set in motion a pattern of neglect of our province’s physical infrastructure, which has since been copied by a succession of both Liberal and P.Q. administrations.
As the 1985 election brought the Liberals back into power, and neo-conservative ideology began making headway in Canada, the notion of scaling back public spending on everything began becoming more and more popular, but the roads, bridges, transit, schools, and hospitals, were just about that time getting to be old enough that they needed a lot of repairing, but the ideology which was being adopted at the time, was to cut back on those budgets, so as to ‘balance the books’, ‘slay the deficit’, and so on.
After, Québec got embroiled in even more linguistic and secessionist questions in the 1990-95 era, with a kerfuffle over the language to be used on public signs in Montréal in 1990 being one example which sapped a lot of energy from our collective will to get on with each other. The other stuff was the Meech and Charlottetown constitutional accords, which aggravated everybody more than anything else, trying to be all things to all people, in the case of the latter, and all things to some people in the case of the former. This was followed by the near death experience of the second vote on secession in October of 1995, which was only defeated by the slimmest of margins, after which a generalized feeling of collective exhaustion overtook the people of Montréal, as well as the entire province, and people just wanted to put it all behind them and move on, like people who’ve just fought a very harsh and bloody war, and want to just move on with their lives.
By the time the dust had settled and 1995 oozed into 1996 and onwards, the now newly-re-elected P.Q. governments of Lucien Bouchard, and later Bernard Landry, had to grapple with the continuing problems of big governments, a shrinking tax base, a low birth rate, a sluggish economy, one of the highest suicide rates in the western world, especially amongst young men, as well as one of the highest high-school drop out rates (about 25% overall, and even higher for boys), alarming rates of functional illiteracy, one of the highest rates of common law conjugal unions and rates of conjugal breakdown in the western world, with one of the lowest rates of civil or religious marriage in the world, and the still-nagging question of: How are we going to find enough money and enough labourers to fix all of this crumbling infrastructure?
It’s bad enough that Canada and the province of Québec neglected trades training for many years, and that there is an alarming shortage of skilled labour in our province. Emploi Québec is ready to practically bend over backwards to get you to get off your keester and get off welfare learn a trade, learn French, learn SOMETHING, and start working and start paying taxes, because only about half the population of the province actually does, if you factor out those on Unemployment, Welfare, low incomes, retired, and the wealthy.
This all begs the question: What ever happened to the ‘Modèle Québécois’? For sometime after the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, especially in the 1980s, when a distinctly upper-echelon private-sector bourgeoisie started to emerge in Montréal, and some French Canadians started becoming wealthy in a big way, the French-speaking media started falling all over themselves by quoting academics from our leading French-speaking universities who began to talk about the now-questionable phrase ‘Modèle Québécois’, and ‘Québec Inc.’ pointing to our province’s unique combination of public-private and para-governmental institutions such as the Société Générale de Financement and the Caisse de dépôt et de Placement, and the Fonds de Solidarité FTQ trade union investment fund ,as shining examples of a hybrid form of ‘social-capitalism’, which creates wealth but also collective well being at the same time.
I can only say that this experiment has been but a mixed blessing at best. A ‘model’, be it ‘Québécois’ or other, is one which is actively emulated by other peoples of the world. To my knowledge, no other country has seen fit to adopt the ‘Modèle Québécois’ as a means of governing themselves. Even the Scandinavian countries take a more proactive view towards wealth creation than we do in Québec, and, as far as I know, Stockholm, Oslo, or Copenhagen is not falling in ruins and have much better systems of public transportation than do Montréal or Québec city.
So, ‘Montréal, P.Q.’, where do we stand? At a crossroads, it would seem. The postal codes have changed, the provincial nomenclature has too, but you haven’t. Why’s that? Maybe you need to not only change the ‘P.Q.’ in your provincial nomenclature, but also in your political affiliation, and that goes for all across this province. Montréal, the ‘Mont Royale’, is far too beautiful to be left to rot. Let’s make it prosperous again!