Spring days are very much here. Both the sunny warm days and political hopefulness is everywhere.
My sojourn in Paris was an experience to absorb in many ways. I was invited to attend the international council meeting of the World Social Forum, the movement of movements. Founded in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 as a counter point to the regular meetings of the plutocracy at the World Economic Forum in Davos,Switzerland, by those concerned by the destructive effects of the New World Order based on ‘free-trade capitalism based on globalization’. From a world gathering of 15,000 from across the planet to 100,000 in recent years, the WSF has become a social and political force to take into account, as its network of networks brings hundreds of thousands of activists together campaigning on a broad range of concerns. Among the important issues to be decided in Paris was where the next WSF was to be held in 2013. The last world forum was held this February in Dakar, Senegal, bringing together some 60,000 people in hundreds of workshops and assemblies dealing with environmental and social justice questions. One of the candidates for the next WSF was Montreal, and a strong case was made by the ONG Alternatives for our city. In November 2009, the WSF international council met in Montreal, and City Hall officially invited the council to attend a welcoming reception during which Mayor Tremblay made an inviting speech to the delegates from 30 countries present. In his statement, Tremblay invited the WSF to hold a future world forum in Montreal. The final decision will be made by the council in November at its meeting in Dacca, Bangladesh, the first country which will have to deal with environ-mental refugees in the near future.
Montreal hosting the biggest anti-globalization assembly of social movements in the world? How is this possible? Well it is. While Paris has had a socialist Mayor and administration, the first since the Paris Commune, during the last eight years, its gay Mayor has introduced major changes in vehicle traffic favouring public transportation, a bixi type of bike programme (which inspired Tremblay to do the same). It is a city that does many things right which can oblige us to do likewise. Take small, but important things like having concrete barriers between the streets and bus lanes co-habiting in safe lanes which allow buses and taxis a clear stream of the road, with a separate lane for motor bikes and bicycles. The road indicators are not painted images of lettering and bikes on these distinct roads, but in the base of the bike lane an image of it is found in the form of an elevated concrete form painted white, thus reducing, as it occurs in Montreal, an annual white-wash painting every spring/summer of the bike images on the roads. The Paris bixi bikes do not have advertising on them, but then again it is socialists who run the city.
Decentralization of municipal government and public services was introduced in Paris, some time ago, so that boroughs became clear sources of identity and action. This model was a source that our borough system was based on. Contrary to here, the borough mayoralty offices are very visible on ground floors with very large electronic bulletin boards outside on the sidewalks announcing not only official borough meetings and events but also those of local community organizations. Our borough offices on the whole are out of public view in office buildings. I stayed in the lively 14th arrondissement, at the Solar Hotel (the first ecological, economical and activists hotel www.solarhotel.fr) and had a pleasant experience.
I also visited the HQ of UNESCO which is in Pars. What about the UNESCO Montreal connection? UNESCO has an interesting programme called “The Right to the City” named after the left-wing French sociologist Henri Lefebvre. This programme recognizes cities as central caldrons of not only cultural and social development in society but also economic and political motors in the context of democratizing public life. There, some of our Montreal innovations are on display and celebrated sending our examples across the world.
Where Montreal has Moved Ahead
A number of democratic tools place Montreal ahead of Paris and most other cities. Some of the new democratic tools include the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities [www.montreal.qc.ca/charterofrights]: a major statement and commitment wherein the City of Montreal informs all citizens of its responsibilities towards us. I don’t know of any other city where a city government says clearly in one document that City Hall is responsible for this and that, and if you feel your rights are not respected you can complain to the City Ombudsman’s office. The Ombudsman takes your concern, investigates and finds a solution, often arbitrating between citizens on the one hand, politicians and bureaucrats on the other. The Charter deals with basic shared values and principles as well as concretely with democracy, economic and social life (again unique among charters because the State avoids dealing with economic rights as it considers the budget its exclusive responsibility). Our charter also deals with cultural life, recreation, physical activities and sports, environmental and sustainable development, public security, municipal services and so on. The Montreal Charter is applicable throughout the city and to all inhabitants. One does not have to be a Canadian citizen, and one does not have to have a fixed residence. Street people have the same rights as a home owner in Outremont.
The Right of Citizen Initiative
For decades Montrealers fought for public consultation especially on issues of urban ‘development’, e.g. demolition and construction of the built environment. A Municipal office of public consultation was created by the administration of the Montreal Citizens Movement when it took over City Hall in 1986. It was abolished by the right-wing Mayor Bourque and his Vision Montreal party. When Tremblay took over City Hall in 2001 he and his party immediately set up the Office of Public Consultation (www.ocpm.qc.ca), a widely respected organization that carries on well attended public fora. But only the Executive Committee of City Hall can give mandates to the Office to have public consultations on this or that public matter. A new very important democratic tool has recently been added to our chest of tools, The Right of Citizen Initiative [www.ville.montreal.qc./right-initiative], whereby a given group of citizens can demand a public consultation on a borough or a city-wide matter they oppose or propose. Imagine, we want to propose a new public policy on this or that, we then undertake a petition drive, get the required number of signatures and then the politicians have no choice but to conduct a publically funded consultation to discuss the matter followed by our recommendations as to what to do about it. Thus for the first time in our political history citizens have taken away the exclusive right of politicians to decide on public policy in between elections. I am simplifying the process as there are a number of reasonable dos and don’ts .We are unique in Canada for having such a democratic tool.
It is important to note that these political accomplishments are the result of citizen grassroots activism. These democratic tools were first discussed, debated and advanced at the five citizen summits that we held in the last decade in Montreal. These tools were not concocted by a group of politicians in some backroom. These tools represent our victories and meant for us to exercise our rights and advance these further. It is our individual and collective responsibility therefore to make these tools known as widely as possible.
Much of all this is inspired by the World Social Forum and the World Charter for the right to the city (www.hic-al.org). Cities are assuming such importance on the planet that they are about to make their entry in the United Nations. The last World Urban Forum, organized by UN-Habitat for instance in Rio witnessed much expression of opinion in this direction. Its theme was ‘The Right to the City’ and the above mentioned democratic tools were much discussed by Montrealers present.
Much has been reported and said about corruption and Montreal. My working assumption is that we unfortunately live in a corrupt society. It is hidden most of the time but it is ever present, in more ways than one. On the whole it is a ‘sophisticated’ form of corruption. It should not be tolerated nevertheless and denounced. But we have to be honest about what is said and done, and be well informed. To begin with our electoral system and therefore what follows is corrupt. How else can one explain the recent federal elections whereby a political party obtains 37.5 of the popular vote in 2008, adds 2% in 2011 and sails from a minority government to a majority. How can you explain that at a municipal level, a minority of the electorate votes, so the governing party at the borough level or at City Hall obtains a minority popular vote within this minority and goes on to arrogantly announce that it was elected with a mandate to do this or that. The whole system lacks legitimacy. Space does not allow me to discuss here that beyond our ‘political democracy’ there is the whole level of the economy and the forces that shape it daily where there is no democracy at all.
I conclude with a reality check which is not widely discussed by the commercial media. Canada has one of the most backward constitutions. The simple reason for this assertion is that, in 2011, cities have no recognized legal status. Cities in Canada, big and small, are creatures of provincial governments. I can go on at some length about all this, but let me end by saying that, as a result of this situation, cities and their mayors have to bow and scrape before provincial governments begging for this or that additional dollar. Consider the following fact and it implications. For every total tax dollar that leaves this city, 50 cents goes to Ottawa, 42 cents goes to the Quebec government and only 8 cents is distributed back to Montreal. (Source: the Canadian Federation of Municipalities). Now, how can we run a city like Montreal on 8 cents on the tax dollar? So the city then becomes dependent on property taxes. Thus a window is open to the influence and power of the construction industry and all of its dark associates. It’s a vicious circle. Sure, one administration can administer slightly better than others. But in the blame game of politics, no one wants to debate and denounce the system in place as such. Until the doors and windows of a full democratic debate and discourse floods our contracting public space the three monkeys will remain. We will not get close to the sources of corruption and contradictions in our urban society unless this silence is broken. During this period let’s use the democratic tools on hand to the fullest, unique in Canada if not in North America. We have come a long way in a short time. Push on.
These perspectives are often discussed on www.blackrosebooks.net
I am one of the dissidents in Montreal who has for some five decades organised many public protests on issues ranging from the international, national to the local. It is with this background that I make a number of observations as a participant regarding the the march/parade of 4 June. The event was billed as a protest against the Quebec government’s plans for the Turcot autoroute. Contrary to previous protests which brought out thousands, with widespread commercial media coverage, this time round some 100 persons took part. I asked myself why the drastic reduction in turnout ?
It is my position that we should in the public work also evaluate failures.
This march was poorly organised, even though it was talked about for many weeks and months. From a range of actions that were considered which included civil disobedience, a traditional march was in the end chosen (no surprise given the principals). The route of the march was worked out between the two opposition municipal parties, Vision Montreal and Projet Montreal. This route which took streets with the least number of people was to go from one of their political strongholds to another, from the Plateau to Rosemount-Petite Patrie. In effect the political parties hijacked the demo and clearly the bulk of previous protesters and the large number of Montreal environmentalists did other things on the sunny June 4th.
Thus the politicians of the Quebec State could easily conclude that the considerable opposition of the past is now satisfied.
A strong Montreal urban left is still in the process of constituting itself. We still have a long march ahead of us.