Tag Archives: Montreal

Taking a City’s Pulse

By Jason Menard

Noted poet El DeBarge, before he plunged into the particular circle of Hell reserved for 80’s pop Jackson-wannabes, implored us all to feel the beat of the rhythm of the night. But how do you feel the beat when the city you live in has no pulse.

Recently I had the pleasure of spending two days in Toronto on a conference. Now, Hog Town’s not my favourite city in the world, but being in the heart of downtown for two days reminded me what a real city is like – and what I’m missing where I currently live.

No, I was not dancing ‘til the morning light – in fact, my dancing machine’s in bad need of an overhaul. But I did take the opportunity to walk – a hell of a long way, if you ask my feet. It was a practise that I used to engage in quite frequently living and working in Montreal.

There is a pulse to the city and you can tell the tourists not by the gaudy clothes or the slack-jawed, gaping stares as they look heavenwards at the steel and glass monstrosities that rise up before them. You can tell who they are by the fact that they don’t engage in the dance of the street. They’re unable to walk any distance without bumping into people, the become confused and double-back on their steps, and they generally get in the way of those who feel the rhythms of the city in their bones and march along in time.

Unfortunately, absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder, it makes one forget the notes that sing so sweetly for city dwellers.

Once I was able to walk the busy downtown streets of Montreal, along with thousands of dance partners as we emerged from our underground transportation blinking into the light of day. Huddling our jackets about us in winter or trying to catch our breath stolen by the oppressive humidity of summer, we would steel ourselves for the march and move in time – one harmonious, intertwined mass that would only break apart as we would reach our destination.

In fact, many of us, myself include, would do this while keeping our noses buried in a book or newspaper. The morning and evening commute danced along the city streets, through the cacophony of horns as we regarded streets signs as a suggestion.

Yes, this time I noticed I was one of “them.” I was one of those unfortunate few who appeared to be dancing with two left feet. The notes, although familiar, weren’t coming back to me as quickly as they once did. And the reason is because where I live now just doesn’t play the same tune.

Oh, sure, there’s a rhythm to London, Ontario – unfortunately when it comes to the downtown it sounds more like Taps. And where I work it could be the theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. My day job is in an industrial park area, near a residential section, but certainly not conducive to an engaging walk. It’s an area where one doesn’t walk for pleasure – it’s an area where you have to force yourself to walk. But, more often than not, we all pile into our cars, shut out the great outdoors, and drive to whatever destination and errand awaits us.

And that’s one of the biggest thing big-city dwellers miss about big cities. It’s not the events, it’s not the size or diversity – it’s not all that external stuff. What’s most missed by those that leave is something more organic – something internal. It’s not the style, it’s not the flash that you miss, it’s the heartbeat of the city. It’s that factor that you can’t fake, that you can’t just feel in a one-week visit, but rather that slow and steady pulse that’s made up of all those who are a part of it.

I’ve felt it in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. These are not cities built upon foundations of steel and glass, but rather they’re nexus points where millions of souls converge to engage in a dynamic dance of life.

For those two days, even though I can’t consider myself a fan of Toronto itself, I have to admit that it was nice to feel the rhythms and remember how I was once able to dance those steps. Perhaps it will happen again, but at the very least I know that when I’m back in a city with a true pulse, I’ll be able to feel it, slowly, reassuringly. And in large cities where people often feel alone despite being surrounded by millions of people, that pulse, that heartbeat is what makes us feel a part of something bigger.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

The Mystery of the One-Way Highway

By Jason Menard

If the government of Quebec is looking for a way to save a few bucks, perhaps they could scrimp a little on repairs of Highway 20 west of Montreal because it’s a little-known fact that this stretch of highway only goes one way.

Well, to be honest, it’s a little known fact only to Montrealers. To those of us estranged from our beloved city to locales westward, it’s an all-too-real phenomenon.

OK, it can be a little scary crossing those bridges and heading to the mainland. And, sure, the barren expanse around St. Zotique is almost post-nuclear in its Spartaness. But a little perserverence goes a long way. Maybe it’s a fear similar to what seafarers felt in Christopher Columbus’ day, but I can assure you that you won’t fall off the edge of the Earth – well, maybe off the edge culturally, but certainly not literally. In fact, many successful forays have been made into the Heart of Darkness – also known as Ontario – and several Quebecers have lived to tell the tale.

Sure, family members have been forced to visit us because we have that all important magnet creating an irresistible force drawing them to us – grandchildren. However, when it comes to friends and extended family — that’s a different story.

When we make our frequent pilgrimages back to our home town of Montreal, all of our friends come out of the woodwork, welcoming us with open arms, and peppering us with the same question, “When are you coming back?” Yet, despite this outward expression of concern and affection, a return visit to our domain is never forthcoming.

Lest you think that this is an isolated situation and that we’re the proverbial black sheep of the family, let me assure you that this is a phenomenon shared by many of us now residing in the land of the trillium but with fleur-de-lys growing in our hearts. From my parents, to co-workers, to acquaintances with French roots, it’s too much of a coincidence to believe that we’re all social pariahs condemned to banishment from our birthplace. Since examples of this phenomenon are shared across family lines, then there must be a deeper aversion at foot.

Why is there such an apprehension of crossing this particular border? In fact, the Ottawa-Gatineau border is well traveled, with people from both sides making ventures into a different province and returns to their homes without any long-term emotional scarring. Perhaps it’s Montrealers’ fear of the unknown, prompted by the fact that so many of their friends have disappeared down the 401 never to return. Of course, this migration is usually prompted by the threat or existence of a referendum, but that’s another story.

As our license plates state, Ontario is truly yours to discover. There is more to us than the scourge of Toronto – many of us non-Hog-Town residents hate that city as much as you. We are here, immersed in our Anglo enclaves waiting for your arrival. In fact, a trip to visit relatives in Ontario is no more exotic than a visit to certain parts of the West Island, so don’t fear broadening your horizons.

We have many of the same programs, we have many of the same interests, we use the same currency, and hold the same passport. We even all get SRC, so the comforts of home are all around you! Sure, Montreal has more to offer than most other cities on this planet, and travelling to Ontario locales doesn’t have the same cachet as staying in town – but what Montreal doesn’t have at this moment is us, and friendship and family knows no geographic boundaries.

I can assure you that there is no hidden danger that comes when the 20 turns into the 401. We are not forced to return to our Ontario homes because of the fact that our first-born are being held as collateral by some Orwellian government organization designed to tether us to our shallow Ontario bonds when the lure of our deeper Quebec roots come calling. We come and go as we please – and so should you.

As a Quebecer stuck in Ontario, I beseech you to come visit us! We’ve gone to all extents to make your trip as comfortable as possible. In fact, you’ll notice that we’ve taken the steps to make all the highway markers bilingual – well, at least until you pass Cornwall, and then by that time you’ve made too much of an investment of time to turn back.

Come visit us. Regale us with stories from the old country. And don’t be afraid of the unknown because, despite all appearances and experiences to the contrary, the highway does go both ways.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Tanks for the Memories

By Jason Menard

While filling up my tank in Montreal, I came to the realization that gas companies have us, both literally and figuratively, over a barrel.

I realized how bad the situation has gotten during a recent fill-up. Oh, how naïve I was when, leaving Ontario just last week, I grumbled about filling up with prices in the mid-80s. Little did I know what was awaiting me in la belle province.

Like a mountain climber that sets up a camp to acclimatize to the higher elevations, my family made a stop in the Ottawa-Gatineau region before continuing on our merry way. While the prices were in the low-90s, they served as a buffer for what I was to experience hitting Montreal.

104.9.

Unfortunately, that’s not the frequency of the radio station I was listening to. That was the price of gas staring at me from every Petro-Canada, Ultramar, and Esso on and off the island. I mean, I was ready to get out and push the car the rest of the way when I saw that. I didn’t even know those signs could hold three numbers before the period, but apparently they do.

But it wasn’t the price itself that discouraged me. It was how I reacted to it. The fact that when, mid-week, well past midnight, I found an out-of-the-way station that was selling gas for 94.9, I essentially broke out into a little petroleum-fuelled happy dance and — for a moment — I felt like I had found a portal to an on-ramp to Nirvana. I was actually able to look at a mid-90s price and say to myself, “Hey, that’s pretty cheap!”

I hit rock bottom when, the very next day, I took pleasure in watching others filling up at 104.9. I was engaging in a sort of sweet crude schadenfreude. It was at that time I realized how far gone we are. And that no matter how high the gas prices go, we’ll always find a way to happily pay the petroleum premium, as long as someone else, somewhere is paying more.

I’ve heard the arguments about how lucky we are in North America to essentially pay half of what our compatriots in Europe shell out for gas. But to me – and the majority of other vehicle owners in North America, that luxury is taken for granted. We’re used to paying well under a buck for a litre of gas and, judging by the grumbling at the pump, we’re not willing to give up that right.

However, the human mind has a great way to rationalize each and every purchase. We’ve seen our gas prices rise steadily each and every day. We’ve gone from grumbling about paying in the 70s to grumbling about paying in the 80s. Ontarians have grumbled about the rising costs of fuelling up, but happily do so with the idea that “at least we’re not paying Quebec or East Coast prices!”

But our costs are rising. And I think the gas companies have figured it out! Sure, they may send the prices skyrocketing by five or more cents one day, and we’ll all be up in a lather about it. But as prices ease up a bit – not back to their original threshold, but down a few pennies here and there – we grow accustomed to the inflated price and justify the cost by saying, “well, it’s cheaper than it was last week”

Yet today’s sticker shock-inducing price is tomorrow’s wistful memory. Fuelling up in the 60s and 70s used to be a travesty – now those prices are nothing more than fond sepia-tinged remembrances.

As drivers we all get into a huff about the rising cost of gas. We grouse and grumble about gas taxes, rising costs, and make off-hand comments about how the government needs to step in and do something about it. But we never really get mad enough to prompt any sort of action. At the same time as we fret and fume about the rising cost of gas, we’re digging in deeper into our pockets to find the cash to pay for our on-the-go lifestyle.

No matter how much we may try to conserve, drive smaller cars, or find alternative sources of transportation, we seem to have come to the same conclusion as a society: there’s really nothing we can do about the price of gas, so it’s time to put up and shut up.

So maybe I shouldn’t look upon the times that I fill up in Quebec as an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence. Perhaps I shouldn’t be shaking my head in disbelief, but rather nod my head in sage appreciation for the look into the future that I’ve been granted. After all, day-by-day, month-by-month, and price jump by price jump, we’re probably all going to be seeing four digits on our fuel pumps in the not-too-distance future.

After all, we may be over the same barrel, but as long as someone else is in a more uncomfortable position, we’ll be OK with our lot in life.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

A Tale of Two Cities

By Jason Menard

Apparently, winning in London depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.

Yesterday London, England surprised many and plucked the 2012 Olympics out from under France’s nose. And, in a cosmic balancing of franco-anglo relations, Montreal edged out London, Ontario for the rights to the Shiners Children’s Hospital.

So while they break out the party hats on Downing Street, there will be a noticeable lack of fezzes on display in The Forest City. And instead of developing a new site to help sick kids, Londoners on this side of the Atlantic will have to find a cure for bruised egos.

But once the shock and disappointment of losing what was, at one point, professed to be a sure thing passes, North American Londoners will have to realize that it’s time to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on whatever increased recognition the city may have earned from this five-year process.

However, London’s representatives at the conference almost erased any goodwill with an inflammatory video that alleged the proposed site of a new Shriners Hospital in Montreal’s Glen Yards – next to McGill’s planned superhospital – is contaminated. That game of dirty pool has put London behind the eight ball in terms of public relations.

While all parties were making nice afterwards and saying the right things about mending fences and working together in the future for the benefit of the children, the fact of the matter is that London and Montreal’s delegations have acted more like kids themselves during this process.

Whether it was questionable accusations about contaminated land or supercilious dismissals over the status of London as a major player in the medical game, both sides haven’t come out of this unscathed. But with the right attitude going forward, London’s loss could end up being a win-win-win situation for all parties involved.

Win #1 – The city of Montreal retains the Shriners Hospital, and whether they choose to renovate the existing Mount Royal location or invest in building a new site, the city is assured of remaining a hub for specialized pediatric care in North America.

Win #2 – The Shriners, despite what Londoners may think, made the right decision. Essentially, they were taken for granted by the powers-that-be in Montreal, who ignored requests for concessions until it was almost too late. In the end, the Shriners were able to use London’s efforts to woo them to work a better deal with their existing city while continuing 80 years of tradition.

Win #3 – And this is the trickiest of all. The clock is ticking on London’s 15 minutes of fame. As it stands now, we’ve proven that our existing facilities are worthy of international recognition – so much so that we were almost able to wrest away the prize of a Shriners Hospital from much bigger competition. But the key is to be able to build on that fame and entrench it into the minds of the masses.

It’s not enough to be respected – London needs to work to be revered. Respect means that those in the industry know what your city has to offer in your chosen field. London’s got that already – our hospital system is on par with any other in the country and, thanks to the University of Western Ontario and its research facilities, we’ve earned a solid name in the medical and research communities.

But reverence? That’s something difference. To be revered means that Joe (or Jean) Average knows who you are. Reverence means that perceived transportation issues – like those that allegedly helped to sink London’s bid – are a non-factor because you’ve got that name recognition to back it up. It’s all about how you market yourself.

Londoners are blessed and cursed by our self-importance. Internally, the city’s leadership believes The Forest City is a major player on the Canadian landscape – but externally, we’re really not much more than a spot on the map. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver – they can get away on name recognition alone. London has to work at promoting itself as a haven for the medical community.

There’s room for smaller cities to make their mark in this nation. One needs to look no further than down the 401 to see how the Kitchener/Waterloo/Cambridge region has become an international star in future technologies and research, powered in large part by RIM.

London needs to market itself less for its forests and more for its forceps. The Shriners’ decision shouldn’t be lamented as a loss, but rather recognized as an opportunity. The city has stepped onto the national and international stages, the audiences are waiting – now it’s time to make others see what Londoners believe: that London is, and will continue to be, a legitimate player in the theatre of Canadian health.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones…

By Jason Menard

I wonder, do Shriners hospitals offer a cure for thin skin?

In a desperate bid to keep by an official with the Shriner’s Hospital in Montreal, many people in the City of London have bristled at the fact that London was referred to as a less-than-cosmopolitan city. Suddenly some of the more notable talking heads in the city are lobbying missives back as if the entire Montreal region had been involved in this, instead of one, misguided individual.

The fact of the matter is that London isn’t cosmopolitan. It’s stuck at a crossroads and is in danger of being overwhelmed by inertia.

I have spent almost equal amounts of my life in both London and Montreal, and I’ve seen the good and the bad of both. I had to laugh when I read some of the comments that were made in an attempt – puerile as it may have been – to boost our city’s own fragile ego. It was almost as if we were back on the schoolyard, resorting to “My dad can beat up your dad.”

Sure, driving to work in Montreal would take me an hour – if I chose to take that route. But the commuter train and other methods of public transportation got me from one end of the island to my downtown office in 15 minutes. Conversely, it takes me 10 minutes to drive to work in London, but would take over an hour by bus. Considering we’re the Forest City, I’d have to say chock one up for la belle province.

London remains a medium-sized town with big-city aspirations that have been saddled with small-town thinking. For many years, the city has been considered bush league – and it’s evidenced by the fact that so many people feel the need to be over-protective of our accomplishments. One would think the JLC is an entertainment Mecca on par with Madison Square Garden considering the amount of times it has been trotted out in defence of this city’s cultural standing.

So instead of resorting to playground antics, maybe we should sit back and take a look at where this city is – and where it can go, if we let it!

We can be proud of our world-class hospital facilities – including the incoming Shriner’s Hospital – and the fact that we have one of the most respected education institutions in all of Canada thanks to the University of Western Ontario. We can hope that the vaunted JLC will serve as the start of a vital downtown revitalization. We can pride ourselves in the city’s beauty and relative safety.

But still that inertia remains. I recently spoke with one of this city’s radio voices, who shares a history with me in that we both attended Western and both left London for a number of years, only to return. And, despite the cosmetic changes like building changing names and stores changing ownership, we were both struck with the same idea – not much has changed in the past 10 years.

That social inertia seems to have gripped this city, and needs something to tip it over the brink. Does this city decide to turn the corner and modernize? Become aggressive in its approach to attracting new and dynamic industries? Or do we continue to be led by an Old Boys’ (and Girls’) network that doesn’t want to rock the conservative boat we’re on. Do we accept the status quo and be content?

The opinion of outsiders towards London can be summed up in one word – pleasant. Of course, that’s if outsiders even have an opinion of us. Like it or not, despite how self-important some Londoners feel, the fact of the matter is that we’re barely a blip on the cultural and social radar of the rest of Canada. So are we happy with this, or do we want to move forward and become a vital component of the country?

The Shriners offer an interesting metaphor for this city. On one hand, you have the traditionally older Shriner population being looked to as a key component of this city’s growth. But perhaps the focus should switch to the kids they are looking to help. A Shriners hospital works to give those children hope for a brighter future.

The choice is up to London. It’s great for a city to have the enthusiasm and potential of children, but it’s embarrassing for us to be acting like them.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved