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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Montreal, a world class, androgenous city state

Remembrance Day, 2010 included a trip to Montreal, a city-state, if there ever was one in North America.
Visiting a daughter and granddaughter of eight months, in the middle of this megolopolis, requires one to pass from one province, through one of two main entry points into the French language, with French road signs, and business signs, and miles of office and factory buildings, all or most of them appearing occupied.
Entering by Route 40, and exiting by Route 20 gives an Ontario visitor a bifocal view, with miles of leggo-stilted sphagetti freeways interlocking on the way into and out of this throbbing "country."
Some of us in the rest of Canada were a little miffed that the Harper government would concede, by bill, that Quebec was a "nation" different from the rest of Canada. However, what was missing in that bill, and what remains missing in the picture most Canadians have of this country is the part that says, Montreal is its own city state.
Here, there are at least as many people as there are in many of the U.N.'s 195 countries. There is a thriving economy, a more than thriving arts culture and community with small and large galleries dotting the landscape, two significant and very different universities, (McGill and Concordia) plus multiple "cegeps" (The Quebec version of the community college), a host of ethnicities and languages, including respect for and significant use of both French and English, a very successful NHL hockey team, Les Canadiens, complete with a history, tradition and culture based on much more than the statistics and salaries of its many stars and heroes, several globally significant hospitals and research units boasting many innovations and scientists, larger-than-life Canadian luminaries including Pierre Trudeau, Rene Levesque, Jean Lesage, Jean Drapeau (he of Olympics overruns) Jean Belliveau, Maurice (Rocket) Richard and his brother, Henri (the 'pocket rocket'), the Montreal Symphony with long-time conductor (1977-2002) Charles Dutois, poets such as Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, novelists such as Mordecai Richler, clerics like Emile Cardinal Leger, journalists like Claude Ryan, Red Fischer, and even  Michaelle Jean, our former Governor General. And that is not to mention such Canadian luminaries as Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, and political leaders and thinkers such as Jean Marchand, and Gerard Pelletier, who both were recruited by then Prime Minister Lester Pearson.
And then, to think, while passing along those many corridors, that this city-state has been pulsing with vitality, energy, imagination and profound character for longer than any other urban setting in Canada, save possibly the city of Quebec, and it is not hard to see that there is and will likely continue to be a wave of Canadians from the rest of the country, from both east and west of Montreal, choosing to move into that culture and lifestyle.
There are those who like to think of Toronto as a "global city" and in some respects it certainly is. Clearly, both its university (U.of T.) and its hospitals, especially Toronto General and Sick Children's have both achieved world status, along with such profound thinkers as Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan. And there is certainly a Bay Street financial district with the TSE (Toronto Stock Exchange), several industrial complexes and libraries of world calibre.
Nevertheless, there is a kind of inward perspective about Toronto, that is not so evident in Montreal. Perhaps it is the convergence of language and culture, and/or the convergence of antiquity and modernity, and/or the convergence of art and design, and/or the convergence of science and faith (if no longer religion), and/or the convergence of comedy and tragedy, or the clash of Canadian and French nationalism...all of these tensions that bring about a city-state of considerable tolerance, sound social policy (day care costing a mere $7 per day), access to both the amenities of urban life in what seems like thousands of world class restaurants and nite spots, an indigenous film and drama community, a vibrant documentary tradition and a sense that in Montreal, more things are truly both conceivable and feasible. And Montreal is not to be compared with the U.S. on muscle and action. The differences are canyon-like: Montreal's elegance, elan, style and poetry are legion and uniquely elegant, sophisticated and spanning centuries, continents, languages and cultures in relatively close proximity, relative harmony and cusomarily shared rhythms, like a jazz band, improvising all day, all night, every day, on every corner and all different.
And this cluster of islands in the middle of the flowing river that opens the centre of this country and continent to the Atlantic and the western world never ceases to leave even a brief visitor with the perception that living there must be both a challenge and an exciting adventure, held in imaginative tension and compassion without a visible or a visceral tension between what others might dub "masculine" and "feminine."
It says here that Montreal is not only a world-class city state, it is also a uniquely androgenous country, one for all the world to emulate, including the most remote outposts of Canada.

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