Letter from the publisher: Montreal: time for a new agenda

Par Beryl Wajsman le 28 mai 2009

When we crawled out of the mists of the jungles of history to create communities – villages, the origin of cities - it was not out of what  today’s politically correct zeitgeist would consider a noble purpose. It was done out of selfishness. As it happens, one of mankind’s more creative instincts if husbanded properly. 

 We realized we could protect ourselves better against the wolves of the forests if we acted together. Defense was the primary motivation for the organization of the community. The word for that organization in Greek is polis. The origin of our modern day “politics” and “policing”. But it was not the sort of policing we have come to suffer through today. 

It was not the imposition of some collective will over individual conscience. Nor the brute force that demonizes citizens merely to collect money through the enforcement of prohibition and nullification. It was organization – policing -  so that through common defense we could have more time for the fullest flowering of our individual possibilities. The fullest flowering of our individual passions and poetries.  

Though those first social contracts demanded cessions of some our treasure for the provision of the service of defense, they  did not demand abdication of our individual prerogatives. The village – the city – did not dictate our passions and poetries. It did not dictate our behavior insofar as it concerned our  personal domains. It did not seek to protect us from ourselves. City governance was about the provision of services. As simple as that.

Indeed, the city-state, the precursor to the nation-state, may have been the highest and best form of social organization. Even today our personal identity is most closely tied to the city we live in. We are Montrealers or New Yorkers or Torontonians. From the time of the renaissance, it was the liberal cauldron of the cities that produced  our greatest art, music, philosophy and literature. The spirit of man was forged in the crucible of the cities. From ancient Athens and Rome, to the Florentine renaissance, to turn of the century Vienna to modern day New York, London and Paris.

Sadly today, our city, the jewel of the St. Lawrence, has lost sight of all this. The power of its officials is used as much for the oppression and impoverishment of its citizens as for the provision of any services. And as Edward R. Murrow once wrote, it’s always the small story that tells us so much about the big picture.

bela.jpgRecently the story was about Bela Kosoian. Bela is a 38 year old mother of two studying international law at UQAM. In speaking with her she told me that she had come out of the former Soviet Union to live free. That was in her thoughts all weekend. Bela had entered the Montmorency metro station in Laval. She was on the escalator when a transit guard told her to hold onto the handrail. She replied that she didn’t have three hands as she was searching for something in her handbag. The guard persisted. She asked to be left alone. The guard called over a police officier. He asked her for identification. She refused. He handcuffed her and took her to a holding room where she was not allowed to call a lawyer. After twenty minutes she was released with a $100 ticket for not holding the handrail and a $320 fine for obstructing justice.Nothing we could add here would be a more eloquent indictment of the state of ourcity than the bare facts. As Bela said, “Stalin may be dead, but Stalinism lives on.”

Montrealers are tired of this. Tired of students being fined $500 for sitting with their feet on the wrong side of a concrete enclosure in Emilie-Gamelin Park. Tired of garbage inspectors opening our refuse bags to find our address to send a fine because we put them out too early. Tired of merchants on Park Ave. being fined for not cutting weeds on city sidewalks as they are now obliged to do. Tired of landlords being fined because their restaurant or bar tenants do not have “official” ashtrays screwed in next to their entrances. Tired of fines that criminalize the homeless. Tired of increases in parking rates at the same time that the city is hiding record profits. Ca suffit! Enough Alice in Wonderland!

Montrealers are already the highest taxed urban citizens in North America.

Our taxes are supposed to go for the basics. Garbage collection, snow removal, public security, public transit and water. It should not be up to the citizens to pay additional costs to manage what they have already paid for.

Too many politicians today squander public monies on pork barrel vote grabbing schemes, then complain that they have to fine and tax more just to deal with the basics. An example of that at the municipal level is some $13 million spent on skateboarding rinks in the west and east ends, and needless bike paths destroying commuter arteries and city streets downtown. 

The job of elected officials is not to engage in social engineering.  To impose fines for citizens doing what is the city’s work, or making choices about personal risk is criminal. One of the latest examples in nanny-statism are the fines levied at storekeepers in town who don’t clean the public sidewalks in front of their establishments. That should not be their responsibility. Their taxes pay for the city to do that.

For municipal politicians to offset these responsibilities on citizens is an admission that they can’t do their jobs. 

Before the next municipal elections, perhaps we should demand that those running for office outline specific plans for rectifying the problems in the five core areas we mentioned above. If they have no ideas, then maybe they should be disqualified from running. Before we allow municipal leaders to engage in harebrained schemes of bike paths and tramways in a city with six months of winter, we need to know that they can handle the basics.

Montreal didn’t need the cleanliness fines; or the garbage fines or the non-regulation ashtray fines. This city is about as clean as an urban centre can get. The only reason that officials engage in demonizing the public is that it deflects from their inability to get things right. And that inability stems not only from a lack of imagination but also from a lack of resolve guts in dealing with city employees to get the kind of quality and quantity of work every big city needs.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to demonstrate a bit of civil, and civic, disobedience. Perhaps it is time for a tax revolt. After all, it seems the more you pay the more fines and extra rates are levied. So maybe we should all stop paying until the pols get real. And if they don’t, then as the saying goes “throw the bums out!”

And for those who think that all laws, even unjust ones, need to be obeyed. Reflect on what Gandhi once said. “We are a society of laws and not of men. But when bad men make bad laws, and when unprincipled officials compromise good ones, then citizens have a responsibility to protect their rights and exercise responsible agitation to keep governments from staggering drunkenly from wrong to wrong merely to preserve their own immortality.” Words to build on if we care about the state of the city.


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Beryl P. Wajsman

Redacteur en chef et Editeur

Alan Hustak

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