A good many years before John A. Macdonald’s statue was pulled down from its perch in Montreal’s Dominion Square, my high school history class had a debate on the case of Louis Riel. In real life, Riel stood accused of high treason by the government of John A. Macdonald for the ‘crime’ of resisting the transfer of a Métis settlement to the Canadian government. Our class assignment was called: Riel. Hero or villain?

Riel, as you might remember, went onto become the villain in the real story. He was ordered executed by Macdonald and hung in effigy by my history class, which is regretful, since it was my part of class project to defend him. But what chance would a 15-year-old student have as the defender of minority rights when the only knowledge on the topic was gained from books written by English setters?

As an adult armed with knowledge obtained outside of the education system, it is now tempting to weigh Riel’s ‘crime’ against that of some of North America’s colonizers, whose actions are rarely put to such ‘hero or villain’ scrutiny. Take Christopher Columbus for example, accused of genocide, slavery and torture of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. He is celebrated as a hero in the United States, whose shores he never reached.

George Washington made it to Mount Rushmore despite owning slaves, who some history books prefer to call ‘domestics.’

Canada’s own John A. stands accused of supporting the starvation of First Nations people, instituting the residential school system, and condemning Riel to his death. Hero or villain? Well, when you see his face on your money, and his name on schools, highways, a mountain, and an airport, you know the verdict has been reached.

But there was no ‘hero or villain’ debate in my high school history class about Macdonald, although our teacher did throw in a few ‘fun facts’ about him just to make sure that Canadian history didn’t seem too boring. “Oh sure Macdonald was a drunk,” the teacher joked, and “Macdonald married his cousin too, but both of those things were fairly common in those days.”

“Even our heroes have warts,” our teacher said, a familiar refrain that is still heard today “but Canada needs heroes, and Macdonald built our nation,” so that was the end of the story. If only I could go back in time to ask some very uncomfortable questions about those ‘warts’ and the nation that Macdonald was trying to build. Somehow it was never mentioned in my class that Macdonald was the architect of policies so disturbing and inescapably racist that greater knowledge of this history would undermine Canada’s reputation as a tolerant society.

Macdonald recently joined a growing list of bronzed ‘national heroes’ felled by protesters around the world, from Confederate American leaders like Robert E. Lee to the British slave trade profiteer Edward Coulson.

British PM Boris Johnson accused demonstrators in his country of trying to “…censor our past,” and “impoverish the education of generations to come.” Donald Trump, being the American President who, when asked during a TV interview, was unable to recall the name of a single book he had read, somehow felt privileged to provide lectures on history, saying “We should learn from the history,’ to his partisans on Fox News, “and if you don’t understand your history, you will go back to it again.”

Reaching for the low bar with a more conciliatory tone than Trump, Quebec Premier Francois Legault called the Macdonald toppling unacceptable, but added “Of course we need to fight against racism, but that is not the way to do it…we have to respect the history.”

But this is the same Legault who insisted that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec, although it’s difficult to tell, since one sure symptom of systemic racism is the steadfast refusal to acknowledge it. But the ability to express such surefooted opinions on racism from those unlikely to experience it is a Canada-wide phenomenon, starting with education systems that entrench ideas about the British and French ‘founding’ of Canada at the expense of other perspectives. That is what makes Macdonald a hero and Riel the villain. It is also what makes these men lecturing about the need to respect history absurdly hypercritical.

Behind much of the ‘history’ of Canada is the uncomfortable truth that the original plan for Canada was as the North American version of 19th century Britain, designated one of the ‘White Dominions,’ a not so subtle way to distinguish Canadians from others in their global Empire that needed to be ‘colonised’ and ‘civilized.’ Canada’s First Nations stood in the way of that vision, especially since they held valuable land and incompatible cultural values.

The problem with not learning much of this in school and having to find it out for yourself (along with topics such as the existence of slavery in Canada, the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians, the segregation of racial groups on undesirable land such as Halifax’s Africville, the imposition Chinese head tax, and so much more) is that a large part of the population will never know much about them. The sad part about erasing parts of the past that don’t suit the dominant narrative is that it contributes to the ongoing marginalisation of non-White people in the country — in the present.

Still, it is an open question whether dismantling statues is the best way to reclaim history by those left out of it, or as an effective way to protest against racial inequality. Well, actually no, that question is already settled. Macdonald’s downfall has been universally denounced by the press and has provided red meat for the culture war. Such acts are referred to as ‘thuggery’ by some right-wing commentators. The latest example of ‘cancel culture,’ others cry. “An angry mob out to steal ‘your’ history and culture to impose their own,” shout many social media posts.

But how is it not also considered ‘cancel culture’ when the lack of diverse voices in Canada’s mainstream media means that popular opinion is often reflective of that same narrow range of views? Meanwhile, the history, struggles and accomplishments of minorities are minimalised, or even ignored.

These commentators should consider it a privilege not to have been subjected to the ‘cultural genocide’ of the residential schools system. The victims of that system might walk past a statue that reminds them that the country that ignores their history also honours a man who called their people ‘savages’ who ‘must be removed from their parental influence to acquire the habits and modes of White men.’ Is that not also part of the history we have to respect, M. Legault?

We can also question Prime Minister Trudeau’s reaction, saying that such acts of ‘vandalism’ are “…not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country.” But how many concrete achievements toward these goals have been ticked off by the Trudeau government in its five years in office, to match all the talk about the strength of Canada’s diversity and reconciliation with its First Nations?

Action is what happens when people get tired of such talk. Marginalised groups turn to desperation only after they talk about their experiences and notice few people listening.

History has not been changed by pulling down statues of racists. But doing so opens a window for dialogue about history that would otherwise not take place. Such drastic action is often ‘plan B,’ as it is often said. Many other ways of raising awareness about issues of social injustice have been tried. But how has that been working out?

Featured Image: Still from CBC News Video

(Still from CBC News video)

Last Saturday, Defund the Police protesters, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter marched through the rainy streets of Downtown Montreal. When they arrived in Dominion Square, a group unrelated to the demonstration organization (no one knows who) pulled off something some have tried to do before: they took down the statue of Sir John A. MacDonald:

It was really beautiful how it played out. While it was the activists that pulled Sir John from his pedestal (not an easy feat), the statue was decapitated by the laws of physics themselves.

This statue needed to come down. MacDonald may have been Canada’s first Prime Minister, but he also laid the groundwork, both rhetorically and practically, for the institutionalized subjugation of the original inhabitants of this land and the cultural (and also very real) genocide that made it possible.

I could spend the rest of this piece talking about the details, but I won’t. We’re publishing an article about just that this weekend, and there are plenty of sources already available online with that info.

Also, no one will forget John A. MacDonald without the statue, we just won’t be celebrating him in Downtown Montreal — he is on our money after all!

Instead of the moral reasons for why the statue needed to come down, I’m going to put on my political hat, my very cynical political hat, and offer some free advice to our current politicians in power. I’m being practical here.

My real hope is that the statue doesn’t go back up. Ideally, something celebrating either our diversity or (even better) the First Nations replaces it and that there are no negative repercussions for the people who pulled it down (if they are ever identified). If I have to appeal to baser political instincts to make that happen, so be it.

So Far, Not So Good

For her part, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante responded the same day of the incident with a strong condemnation of “acts of vandalism,” followed by saying that she understands and shares “the motivation of citizens who want to live in a more just and inclusive society” but that this is not the way, followed by a statement that the SPVM (Montreal Police) are gonna do what they gonna do:

Je déplore fermement les actes de vandalisme qui ont eu lieu cet après-midi dans le centre-ville de Montréal, qui ont…

Posted by Valérie Plante on Saturday, August 29, 2020

Now I am, for the most part, a Plante supporter, but this was the wrong way, politically, to respond. Of course she can’t be in favour of vandalism, but she could have said just that without the strong condemnation, and not even mentioned the SPVM (and behind the scenes told them to not bother investigating).

Instead she irritated her own base. The people who love Sir John and care about this above all else aren’t generally those who support Projet Montréal.

Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault said that the statue will be “dusted off, restored and put back” where it was, presumably with the head re-attached. While I get that Legault’s base is right-leaning, last time I checked, Sir John A. MacDonald wasn’t one of their heroes.

While I believe Quebec Nationalism is just as colonial as the Canadian variety, this is one case where I kinda wished Legault’s latent sovereignist aspirations had reared their ugly head. Instead we found out that the CAQ is more interested in right-wing values of “law and order” than in Quebec values.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, sounded just like you would expect him to. He kept things in the conceptual: vandalism is not the way (appeal to the right), we need to examine the legacy of former Prime Ministers (appeal to the left) including his own father’s (make it personal). End scene!

Of course Trudeau won’t decide if the statue goes back up or not. And neither will Legault. It’s a municipal decision.

So the ball’s in Plante’s corner, and I strongly encourage her to drop it and then kick it back to the wall. She should only pick this particular ball back up when we are ready to move on to a different statue.

That is unless she wants to truly own the moment and either look for or propose other people to honour. But if she doesn’t, then inaction for the moment, in this case, is fine.

(Still from CBC News video)

The Statue Will Go

Getting rid of paint is one thing. Fixing then replacing a statue that has already been toppled and decapitated is a whole other ballgame.

It would be akin to being the administration that decided to spend money on commemorating Sir John A. MacDonald in the first place. In 2020.

This statue will be down for good eventually. If it gets replaced and the official process to remove it doesn’t work, you’d better believe protesters will take it down again…they clearly know how to do it.

Don’t let the unsanctioned way the statue came down justify putting it back up. The protestors did you a favour by accomplishing what the bureaucracy could not.

Sure, don’t support what they did officially, but don’t go after them either. Be a politician.

Recognize that your base wants the statue down, those who want it back up probably won’t vote for you anyways, and most people just don’t care enough for it to matter.

Do the smart political thing. It just so happens that it’s also the right thing to do.

Featured Image: Still from CBC News Video

It’s been a few months since we’ve been able to have a drink and check out a band with others in public. It’s been considerably longer since we’ve been able to do that at the Jailhouse Rock Café.

The now-legendary Montreal music venues closed its cell door at 30 Mont-Royal Ouest for the last time in 2001, so we’re talking almost two decades. Now, thanks to a new book by Domenic Castelli (if you remember the Jailhouse, you know who he is) you can relive the scene.

The Jailhouse Rock Café – Show Posters 1988-2001 Montreal is exactly what it sounds like and then some. It’s a visual history of the venue from its early days as Bar La Terrasse and then as Jailhouse under original owner Jacques Corbo to when Castelli convinced his brother David to buy the place in 1998 and the Castelli Bros moved everything around, turning it into the venue most of us remember, and right up to when the landlord refused to renew the lease.

Jailhouse was mostly known as a punk venue, and for good reason. Many a local and touring punk band graced their stage (and wrote on the backstage wall).

But the venue also featured rockabilly, ska, rock, you name it, they had it at some point. They even had burlesque, vaudeville and horror theatre all rolled into one.

Full disclosure: I was part of that particular show, Dead Dolls Cabaret, and yes, some of our posters are in the book. I also went to other shows at Jailhouse, some where I had friends in one of the bands and some just because.

While I only really started going to local shows in the later years of Jailhouse, the whole book is full of memories for me. That’s because in those days, you didn’t have to actually go to the show to remember the poster.

Show posters were part of Montreal’s landscape. You couldn’t walk around the Plateau without seeing a bunch of them.

Whether they were made by a professional graphic designer or the bassist who also happened to draw, they were art. A lost art form that comes alive again in this book.

While there are plenty of photos, both on stage and back stage, as well as the odd set list, newspaper listing and bit of text explaining things, the show posters are key. And they look great, even on a computer screen.

Of course this is meant to be a physical coffee table book, the kind you invite a few friends over to look at over drinks while listening to music from the Jailhouse era.

UPDATE: You can now order the physical book or the book with a Jailhouse T-Shirt or Hoodie or the e-book (also available in an Amazon Kindle Edition).

Featured image courtesy of Domenic Castelli

The United States is, was, and most likely will continue to be a two-party system. Changing that would be, to put it mildly, an uphill battle and one unlikely to be won with the Electoral College still in place.

All hope of breaking away from the corporate duopoly that now exists and achieving real progress is not lost, though. In fact, it may be a strong possibility in four or eight years. There is a historical precedent.

Zachary Taylor and the Whigs


Ever hear of Zachary Taylor? He was the 12th President of the United States. He was elected under the banner of the Whig Party and served a little over a year in office beginning in 1849 until his death in 1850, when his Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed office for the rest of his term.

Never heard of the Whig Party? Not surprising. They were one of the two major US parties, along with the Democrats, that benefited from the two-party system. However, they never elected another President after the end of the Taylor/Fillmore term.

Why? Because Taylor was not a typical Whig candidate. In fact, he crossed with the party he became the standard bearer of on many issues, most notably on slavery. You could say he destroyed the Whig Party despite being successful electorally.

The Democratic Party took over for the next two Presidents until a third party challenger took power. His name was Abraham Lincoln and the third party he represented was an upstart organization called the Republican Party.

The two-party system continued, only one of those parties had now changed.

It’s Happening…Again!

Back in June, Politico wrote a thorough analysis of how Taylor destroyed the Whigs. They also drew a historical parallel between that clash and the current animosity between Donald Trump and the establishment of that once upstart third party, now establishment brand known as the GOP.

A few months ago, a split was just a possibility, but now it looks like it’s happening. Establishment Republicans, including former supporters, have been desertin’ Trump in droves following the Access Hollywood leak. Guess attacking married white women was just a bridge too far for the GOP establishment.

Meanwhile, Trump supporters and the candidate himself have been attacking some of their fellow Republicans almost as much as they have been attacking Hillary Clinton. One Trump supporter even told The Young Turks that GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan is in cahoots with Clinton and was the one who leaked the Trump Tape. Lack of logic notwithstanding, you know that guy votes.

This Election Day, we could potentially see some Republicans going to the polls, choosing GOP House and Senate candidates but leaving President blank, writing someone in or even checking Clinton. At the same time, hardcore Trump supporters could vote to put their guy into the White House but leave the rest of the ballot blank to punish the GOP brass for deserting The Donald.

November 8th could spell electoral disaster for the Republican Party and the wound may be too deep to heal. It’s possible that what would be considered a third party challenge today could be one of the two dominant parties in a two-party system four, eight or twelve years from now, depending on how quickly the GOP collapses electorally and internally.

The Best Outcome for the Two-Party System

If it does go down like this, the most likely thing to happen is the remnants of the Republican establishment will join up with the Democrats. I mean if a Bush can vote for a Clinton, anything is possible. Maybe they’d even resurrect the very old name Democrat – Republican Party, like back in the day.


They’d be the corporate party, the establishment party, the Wall Street party. They’d have to reach a compromise on hot button social issues, but since the far right base that the GOP had nurtured would have been lost to Trump, I suspect they would end up going left of centre on issues like abortion, marriage equality and trans rights but, as a compromise, swing right on guns.

When it comes to climate change (including pipelines), racism and police violence, campaign finance reform and war, I suspect they would do what the Dems almost always do: talk a good progressive game but in practice, it’s business as usual.

So that’s one of the two parties. The real question would be who would fill the void left by the demise of the GOP. If it turns out to be the Libertarian Party or some new Alt-Right monstrosity, then America is screwed. No more, though, than the country is already. Having to side with the corporate establishment to get some sort of social progress is pretty much the status quo.

However, this would also be a golden opportunity for a truly progressive third party, maybe the Green Party or a new entity formed by BernieCrats, to take over the slot as one of the two main parties. The way around all the impediments to revolution and/or progress within a two-party system may exist within that system. You just need to completely replace one of the two major parties.


The federal government decided to get involved in the campaign to return the remains of two members of the Beothuck Nation, currently exposed in an Edinburgh Museum, to their native Newfoundland.

Chief Mi’sel Joe, of the Conne River Mi’kmaq band, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government have been trying for years to repatriate the skulls and burial goods of two members of the extinct indigenous nation of Beothucks.  The vestiges were taken from a grave site in Newfoundland in 1828.

The National Museum of Scotland had responded that it would only consider a claim made by the federal government in association with a Canadian National Museum. So Ottawa quietly joined the fight.

On Wednesday, CBC News got hold of a letter written by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to the director of National Museums Scotland (the parent association of the National Museum of Scotland, which is in Edinburgh).

“As the Government of Canada is committed to reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples, I am writing to inform you that it is now involved in this matter,” said the letter. “The Government of Canada considers this matter to be of considerable importance.”

The message was sent on May 29, as a notification to the NMS that Canada intended to put in an official request to claim the Beothuck remnants. CBC just got access to it through the Access to Information Act.

Chief Mi’sel Joe, the most prominent figure of the campaign, was happy and surprised to learn that Ottawa had taken this unusual initiative, reported CBC.

The Fascinating History of Beothucks

The Beothucks were the original inhabitants of Newfoundland. They cohabited with the Mi’kmaqs, and for a while, with European settlers before being declared extinct in 1829. There is no doubt that the arrival of the Europeans played a great role in their extinction, which certain historians call a genocide.

The remains currently in Edinburgh are those of Nonosabasut and his wife Demasduit, believed to be the aunt and uncle of the last known Beothuck, a woman named Shanawdithit. Their story is quite fascinating.

In 1818, conflicts between settlers and Beothucks were frequent in Newfoundland. One night, in retaliation for the theft of their fishing equipment, the local colony sent nine armed men to storm a Beothuck camp near Exploits River. Demasduit, wife of the leader Nonosabasut, was captured. Her husband was killed while trying to protect her and her infant son died a few days after.

Demasduit was taken into the colony and lived with a priest who gave her the white name of Mary March. Some unsuccessful attempts have been made to return her to her tribe in the summer of 1819. She died of tuberculosis one year later. Her body was retrieved by her tribe and placed in a burial hut, beside her husband and child.

According to Wikipedia, there was only 31 Beothucks remaining at that time. A Scottish explorer found the bones and other vestiges about nine year later.

Why so Quiet?

A briefing note addressed to Joly (presumably also accessed through the Access to Information Act) said that getting involved in the repatriation of the remains in Scotland “would be consistent with the government’s commitment toward reconciliation with Canada’s Aboriginal people… Return of these remains, or a concerted effort to have them returned, would be a high profile demonstration of that commitment.”

This begs the question of why this high profile demonstration has been exceptionally discreet so far. It’s possible that they wanted to avoid the diplomatic complications of a highly publicized feud between Scottish Museums and the Canadian government.

“The department is still assembling all of the elements required by the trustees of the museum in Edinburgh, in order to ensure the case is complete and as strong as possible,” said Pierre-Olivier Herbert, spokesperson for the department of Heritage.

Other Remains in Canada

It’s also possible that they didn’t want to wake the sleeping matter of the remains of 22 Beothucks in possession of various Canadian museums. In 2012, Mi’sel Joe had declared to the CBC that returning those remains to Newfoundland is “the respectful and right thing to do, for anyone.”  At the time, Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History, where the remains of ten individuals lie, had named lack of resources as the reason for their failure to be proactive in the matter.

According to more recent statements of spokeswoman Éliane Laberge, they have received no formal request from Indigenous groups.

* Featured Image: A portrait of Demasduit, one of the last Beothucks of Newfoundland

To think, we had our chance. A luscious one at that: green, fatty and garlicky smooth. Yet we didn’t let it sink in properly up here.

That heralding moment we called #GuacGate. The absurd #gate to end all #gates, it seemed to finally provoke laughs and calm South of the border, marking the death of the slowly decaying storm of …#gates over thirty or forty years.

Yet not only do Canadians make very poor guacamole, it seems, we completely fail to let go when it comes to our own “#gates.” On this one, we Canadians just can’t move on. Perhaps it’s the lack of godly, earthly, comforting avocadoes in our land.

The Trajectory of the #Gate

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 8.14.46 PM

It used to mean something, really. Both here at home and abroad. The ring of stature & sadness, or something just in between.

Even if one was not alive when it happened, even if still a child, the mere phrase “Watergate” would leave one curious, intimidated, even threatened. Remember it? A “gate” before peegate & hairgate, in other words before “#gate,” a Gate uttered in whispers, almost solemnly, by our elders.

One need only observe casual samples to see the slow decline of the #gate. Once lodged for matters of deep concern – corruption, foreign relations, world order – the phrase has evaporated into scandals of urine, doughnuts and teen idols.  Here’s a random selection, with my own legend for ease of reading.

  • 1980: #BillyGate (Scandal keywords: President Jimmy Carter, foreign relations, Khadafi)
  • 1985: #ContraGate (Scandal keywords: weapons, Iran, US)
  • 1987: #PonyGate (Scandal keywords: corruption, money, NCAA)
  • 1993: #TravelGate (Scandal keywords: White House, misuse of federal funds, Hillary bein’ sketchy)
  • 1993: #ZipperGate (Scandal keywords: White House, power, sex, Bill Clinton)
  • 2005: #TaxiGate (Scandal keywords: Scottish Parliament, misuse of public funds)
  • 2010: #GargleGate (Scandal keywords: Irish President, hangovers)
  • 2016: #DoughnutGate (Scandal keywords: Ariana Grande, licking unpurchased doughnuts, stating ‘I hate America. That’s disgusting.’)


#GuacGate: The Final Straw (or Spoon)

Which leads us to #GuacGate, a bipartisan bill to end the #gates. If you recall, it blew up because people discovered this old New York Times recipe which called for peas in guacamole.

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In somewhat of a rare moment, the parties united, everyone laughed for awhile and most blessedly, most thought #gates could go nowhere further… they’d found their natural resting place.

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Only it turned out our Southern neighbours proved more capable of letting go, with things calming down on the #gate fronts.

Canadians & #GateGate

Don’t say Forget the Box didn’t warn the nation! Jason C. Mclean & Jerry Gabriel foretold (with doomsday glee) the end of the gate–called “#GateGate”–way back last year on our very own Forget the Box podcast. From here, they said, the only logical progression should be “#GateGate.”

Yet even though the US seemed to have gone in the direction, quieting down, Canadians dug in their heels.

There was #peegate (keywords: MP, coffee mug, relief), then #hairgate (keywords: Atwood, cached news, National Post).

Then finally, the day we were set to debate one of the most monumentally significant legal and medical bills in recent years. Which became…#elbowgate.

The thing is, there’s nothing left to be said about what happened, or what it “means,” as have so many others. So I’ll just beg this one thing: please let this be the gate to end all #gates. By that I don’t mean stop talking about things. Rather, just close the gate and move on once and for all.

In the wake of the most devastating war that mankind had known at that point in time, tens of thousands of battered and torn, brave Canadian soldiers sent to the frontlines of a mortal duel between imperial powers, returned home. With them came hundreds of thousands of toiled and impoverished Europeans of all walks of life in search of a better life, of a brighter tomorrow.

Unfortunately, all they found was a gilded cage. The country in which they had invested so many hopes was the private domain of a handful of business moguls who had founded their empires in inequality, on the backs of the men and women who had sacrificed their livelihoods and well-being for the “greater good.”

winnipeg strike

The Winnipeg strike of 1919 was couched in this misery and inequality, it appeared as a roar, a revolt of the “have-nots” against those that possessed everything. The series of strikes that occurred in Winnipeg during the year of 1919 would create ripples that would reach far beyond the boundaries of Manitoba, it would create a movement.

The “Bolsheviks”, the striking workers as they were labeled, would continue to organize with the objective of not merely forging better working conditions in the their immediate environment, but of profoundly transforming Canadian society. As Podemos was born out of Peurta Del Sol and other indignant square occupations, that swept Spain in 2011, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation –the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP– was born out of the Winnipeg strike of 1919. Its first leader J.S. Woodsworth was a strike leader and was arrested by the authorities for his “subversive activities” during the strike, for Tommy Douglas it was his political awakening.

Form that starting point, the CCF would become a leading political formation. It would unite the various left wing Canadian fractions which existed at the time and create bridges between the farmer and labour movements. In 1944, as World War II, yet another war which had torn and ripped apart the world, was drawing to an end, Tommy Douglas would lead the CCF to its first electoral victory in Saskatchewan.

tommy douglas shaking hands
Tommy Douglas at a rally in Hamilton, 1968 (image: Canadian Press)

In the witch hunt epoch of Mccarthyism, the establishment of an overtly socialist government in the heart of North America was welcome by few. Criticism came from the right, but also came from the left. On the left, the expediency of the CCF’s reforms weren’t swift enough. On the right (yes that includes the Liberals) CCFers were either utopists or Stalinists.

But the CCF government stood their ground, and offered Canada its first Bill of Rights, a forerunner to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would be implemented by the Trudeau administration in 1982. But most importantly, Tommy Douglas’s CCF administration would bring to life a universal public health-care system for all residents of Saskatchewan.

The opposition against medicare was ferocious, negative campaigns sought to turn public opinion against the project, doctors went on strike bringing medical services to an almost complete halt; the CCF stood strong. Now both are recognized essential quilts of the tissue of Canadian identity.

After his tenure in Regina, Tommy Douglas would go on to become the first leader of the newly anointed New Democratic Party of Canada. During one of the darkest times in Canadian history, when Pierre Elliot Trudeau decreed martial law in Quebec, only one voice stood in opposition to the draconian measure. It was that of Tommy Douglas and his NDP caucus.

Svend Robinson and police (image

The story of the CCF and of the NDP is the story of a movement that was born out of misery, poverty and struggle, out of blood, sweat and tears. It’s the story of Svend Robinson and his fight for LGBT and Trans-rights amidst massive discrimination and harassment. It’s the story of Libby Davis and her fight to uphold the rights of sex workers and of safe injection sites, of compassion instead of punishment for drug dependents. Its the story of Elijah Harper and Frank Calder and their fight to uphold aboriginal rights in Canada. It’s the story of a “little” party that managed with 19, with 33, with 103 seats in government or not, in power or without it, to profoundly transform Canadian society for the better to forge Canadian institutions that reflect the goodness in our hearts.

I had promised myself never to write a post about the NDP, promise broken! Because I’m too closely involved in it, my post couldn’t be impartial. But given the desperate times we are living in, the recurrent lack of hope, the mainstream media’s constant spin which reinforces right-wing rhetoric, the straitjacket of neo-liberal propaganda: job-creators, investment, economic growth, free-trade, the poverty of the debate about fossil fuel development, the self-defeatism of some sections of the left endorsing the non-choice of strategic voting, the discourse of sacrificing the awesome possibility of Canada’s first viable left-wing government on the altar of an “Anything but Harper” Campaign, I couldn’t help myself!

Canada needs the spirit of 1919 more than ever! Its never been the NDP’s thing to listen to polls, so forget the polls! To strive for power for the sake of power, let’s leave that to those that are so poor only opportunism guides them!

We must redouble of courage and audacity in this coming year, not merely win an election but create the space to transform Canadian society. That can only be done in synchrony with social movements throughout the country. We mustn’t merely offer an alternative, we must break the framework that sustains Liberal-Conservative hegemony and unmask the voidness of neoliberal agendas and their buzzwords.

Within the NDP we can’t forget the importance of the anti-austerity movements that are organizing against the neoliberal agenda, but anti-austerity movements also mustn’t forget that the best vehicle to stop austerity is having a government that puts people before profit.

Push, shove and struggle, create the space within Canadian civil society for an anti-austerity agenda, we are in dire need of it! As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to union leaders in 1933 “make me do it!”

Libby writes on sex worker support wall
LIbby Davies writing on a wall in support of sex workers (image:

Thomas Mulcair recently said that what struck him the most during his travels from coast to coast to coast was the “goodness” that reigns in the hearts of everyday Canadians and how unfortunately it isn’t reflected in our government. I couldn’t agree more! We must put that goodness, the goodness, solidarity and compassion which found its most beautiful expression this year in the community of Cold Lake Alberta forefront and center, at the heart of all our struggles.

At the height of the French Revolution, with reactionary forces at the gates of Paris preparing their final assault against the revolutionary epicenter of Europe, in dire times where the novice republic and all its accomplishments were on a thin razor edge, threatened with possibility of being just another ephemere footnote of history, Danton stood on a pupitre and spoke these words as far as his breath could carry: “We need audacity, yet more audacity, always audacity!”

A luta continua!

PS: This post is dedicated to Libby Davis who has been and always will be an eternal source of inspiration for me.

* Featured image of Thomas Muclair at the Corona Theatre in Montreal, 2011, by Chris Zacchia

* Full disclosure: Niall is both a card-carrying NDP member and works for an MP. As such, he has avoided writing about the party, until he just couldn’t resist.

Recently, in the House of Commons, “middle class” has become the favorite buzz word, omnipresent in every debate related near or far to the current state of the Canadian economy. “The middle class is hurting” is an almost daily remark uttered from the Liberal corner of the house as is the question “What is this government doing for the middle class?” Every dip or bounce in the GDP or in economic indicators resuscitates the urge of many parliamentarians to take care of this vital and yet fragile section of Canadian society.

But no one has ever cared to define what middle class means in this day and age. Before claiming to be the champion of the middle class, one has to first identify what the middle class truly is and if the notion of middle class is the same as when the concept was first coined.

The truth is that in many ways the middle class as a sociological entity was born in the post WWII period, built in many ways as a consequence of the Spirit of 45, which is brilliantly portrayed in Ken Loach’s documentary of the same name. This Spirit of 45 was the motor behind a blueprint to sap the economical and social foundations that had bred fascist and extreme right-wing ideologies in the first place.

spirit of 45
Scene from The Spirit of 45

Through communist, socialist, social-democratic forces during the first post-WWII decade, the foundations of the social state were laid: universal public health, universal access to post-secondary education, social insurance and more. This social welfare state is the engine that allowed the development of a new kind of social class which was universally described as the middle class.

This development of capitalism with a human face went hand in hand with the construction of a mass consumerist class and here is where the dichotomy begins. Even though the accession of the middle class was enabled by the construction of a social welfare state, the majority of individuals of the middle class never considered themselves as the product of the social welfare state, or a product at all, because of the lack of class conciseness within the so-called middle class, the middle class never truly existed.

To form a political or social class, one must first identify with the bonding aspects that supposedly connect individuals to one classification or another. So what are the unifying aspects of the middle class in economical, social or political terms? None, if there were some before, they hardly exist today.

Unlike the working class, which is historically united around organized labor movements or expresses its political force through labor parties or the farmers which organized farmer organizations, be they unions, coops or political parties (the NDP is the alliance between those two social groups and political forces), the middle class has never succeeded in organizing around a certain set of values and principles. So the subsequent question is: if the middle class is not a class by definition, what meaning should give to this notion of middle class?

silent majorityOne interesting historical aspect is that the development of the middle class as a notion that is intertwined with the neo-liberal revolution spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s. At the time, the middle class was used as a synonym for the “silent majority”that was against taxes, against welfare fraud and thus against the social welfare state as a whole, against government in many ways and inherently individualistic, only preoccupied by economic matters. Here taxpayers and middle class are interchangeable. In the Canadian context, in many ways the consequent “common sense revolutions” of Mike Harris in Ontario and of the Reform Party on the federal level used the same rhetoric and couched their legitimacy on the shoulders of an invisible middle class.

Today, global austerity, the tyranny of balanced budgets and growth as an end in and of itself use the same logic and are supposedly championed by the middle class. To be the “champion of the middle class” is to not challenge the reckless economic ideology that is at the root of the global recession despite the hardship of hundreds of thousands of Canadians, the true non-silent majority.

The middle class as a notion is the worst enemy of everyone who in purely economic terms is middle class, in between the affluent sections of society and the disenfranchised.

The motion that we are seeing today is the motion of disenfranchisement of the middle-class as a direct reaction to the advent of modern capitalism. Through austerity policies and the dictatorship of profit and the markets, the social welfare net which had been the motor of the ascension of the middle state is under assault.

There is a complete disconnect between the economical reality of most middle class families today in Canada and the reality portrayed by politicians in the House of Commons. In that sense, the middle class is a complete abstraction, with no ties to reality.

The middle class is anything and everything you want it to be, you can make it say what you want, however you want and when you want it and because it’s unrepresented, without a physical link to everyday reality, it will never contradict you. The Liberal and the Conservative parties fight in a meaningless debate to represent the silent majority of Canadians, the hurting middle class that needs jobs and economic growth, while on the other hand is okay with slashing corporate taxes and hand-outs for multinationals. Really, the middle class is Disneyland for political demagogy, it’s the link that reconciles the irreconcilable.

living wage

The truth of the matter is that today a clear majority of Canadian households barely survive from paycheque to paycheque. In this reality where a living wage is an unforeseeable utopia, a majority of Canadians are indebted to their necks and most of my generation will start their professional careers with an already unhealthy amount of debt and in precarious jobs positions.

This is the reality of the majority of Canadians and these elements constitute the new social class of the 21st century: the precariat.

The middle class of yesterday is the precarious unemployed youth of today, the minimum wage slaves, the young families struggling to provide a standard of living for their children. These are the tens of millions of Canadians that have fear for their future and their financial stability.

The notion of middle class cherished by many politicians is but an abstraction, it superimposes itself upon this dreaded reality with the objective to make it disappear. Forget your real situation, because as long as you considered yourself middle class, trust us and there will be a better tomorrow for you and me.

Little do they know that the prosperity and the growth they talk of created the dismay of the middle class as a tangible reality, as something to look forward to.

Now we are all precarious.

Canada’s continued prohibition of marijuana represents perhaps the most glaring example of our government’s near total lack of critical thinking. While legalization efforts are catching across the globe, and perhaps more importantly are proving more effective deterrents against organized crime, we continue to endorse the prohibition of marijuana seemingly without ever having asked why it is illegal in the first place.

The near constant insinuation by the Federal Tories that the legalization of marijuana, as proposed by Justin Trudeau, is intended to put drugs in the hands of children is vulgar, reprehensible and completely unfounded. But in country governed by the politics of fear it should come as no surprise.

The Tories have their backs against the wall, having appealed so much to the most fundamentalist, evangelically conservative elements of our society they couldn’t support a sensible reform of our antiquated drug laws even if it was their own idea. And so like mules they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge reality.

Marijuana is misclassified.

Marijuana may be a drug, but it is quite unlike any other drug out there. It is not habit forming, it can be used regularly and recreationally without serious physical or mental side-effects and has myriad therapeutic effects, the extent of which we have no idea simply because we’ve idiotically refused to fully examine its medicinal qualities.

Cannabis is a plant that has a million uses and can be grown throughout the world. A plant so useful, so universal, so ubiquitous is illegal to possess, cultivate or use in this, what was once a progressive, forward-thinking nation.

marijuana-girlI can imagine the only reason marijuana continues to be illegal is because, as ubiquitous as it is, it could be cultivated by just about everyone. For that reason, people in this country may no longer need to buy a wide variety of government-subsidized medication, may refrain from gambling in government-owned casinos or buying highly-taxed government-regulated drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

The only reason marijuana is illegal in the first place is because of racism and racist ideas that were prevalent in Canada about a hundred years ago. Anti-Asian sentiment was widespread back then and a common myth was that Asian men lusted after white women and were using drugs (at first opium, then heroin, cocaine and then marijuana) to turn newly socially and politically liberated Canadian women into sex slaves.

It’s an unfortunate reality of our political experience that progressive early feminism had to ride the coattails of socially conservative temperance movements which promoted these ideas in the yellow press. It was these temperance movements which advocated against drugs for the aforementioned reasons inasmuch as alcohol because of widespread alcoholism (a malady more associated with men at the time). Reform wound up cutting two ways, empowering women with the vote and then getting those votes to empower social conservatism.

Today our socially conservative federal government continues to uphold draconian drug laws and is pushing for stiffer sentences, despite mounting evidence marijuana’s illegality is completely and thoroughly baseless. The argument it is a ‘gateway drug,’ whatever that means, is ludicrous and absurd. You may as well say spaghetti is the gateway to pasta, or that pasta is a gateway to enjoying Italian food. Maybe remote controls are the gateways to television addiction, maybe hockey’s a gateway to high dental costs…

Where does it end?

What’s even more enigmatic is that the Tories haven’t recognized three key points:

1. Marijuana arrests are racially-skewed to begin with and clog up our judicial system and prisons. Legalization removes the institutionalized racism and clears out a lot of prison beds and courtrooms. All of this saves money and increases the respectability of our federal judicial system.

2. Legalizing marijuana takes money out of the hands of organized crime and puts it back in the hands of the government through taxation. Marijuana is in constant high demand and users are used to paying an admittedly exorbitant price for the product. Legalizing marijuana could return more money to the federal government in taxation than alcohol and tobacco combined. The loss of this revenue would be crippling for organized crime across Canada.

3. The prohibition of Cannabis and marijuana is quite simply anti-capitalist. Legalization would provide numerous new small business opportunities as they pertain to the cultivation of cannabis and the production and sale of marijuana and marijuana by-products for a potentially massive number of consumers. The government monopoly on sin would be broken.

I can imagine farmers might develop cannabis as a kind of back-up cash crop, an insurance against bad harvests, and this in turn could have the effect of reviving Canadian agricultural independence more broadly.

But of course, it is precisely for all these reasons that our corporate-owned federal government refuses to look at marijuana prohibition critically and precisely why they equate drug law reform with reckless child abuse.

* Look for Taylor Noakes’ interview with Adam Greenblatt on the privatization of medical marijuana in Canada in a few days on FTB

For many, Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald may just be the guy on the ten dollar bill and generally a good man. Not everyone knows that the man behind the face we see when we spend a ten on some food intentionally starved First Nations peoples in order to make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

NDP MP Charlie Angus wants people to know more about the ugly side of Sir John that we don’t get in many history books. He has recorded a song callled Four Horses, inspired by the bestselling book Clearing the Planes by James Daschuk and released a very passionate and informative music video.

It’s not your typical Canadian Heritage Minute, but it should be.

On November 11th, after more research and more reflection, I stood watching the Remembrance day celebrations in Montreal. I was wearing a White Poppy, after the first blast of the cannon; I threw it in the garbage.

The Red Poppy is not about war mongering. The Red Poppy is not about militarism. The Red Poppy is about remembering the Sacred Dead, those who heard the call, felt the fight was just and put their lives on the line for a greater good.

But, originally, when the Red Poppy was given out in 1921, it was about more than that. It was about camaraderie, it was about caring for the less fortunate domestically and it was about trying to help the most affected by the pillages and destruction of war around the world.

Somehow, over almost a century these core messages were perverted. It is time we take them back.

GWVA constitution 1917 1In the early of fall of 1921, The Great War Veteran’s Association wanted to run a cross country campaign. Returned soldiers were worried, the government was apathetic and stingy, returned soldiers were starving. And so the Poppy Day campaign was started.

It was based on and in collaboration with efforts in France. Orphans and widows in the most ravaged parts of France had begun producing beautiful silk poppies in 1920 to cover their most basic needs, many were sold in the United States and around the world. Times were desperate.

The G.W.V.A was in touch with the needs of the poor and helpless. It wasn’t an organization of fancy officers and big shot generals.

It was started by non-commissioned members, mostly privates and corporals. Members addressed each other as comrade, and used their organizational strength to fight for Canadians.

Unlike the apathetic Officer’s Legion of today they were very political, although unfortunately sometimes reflecting the racial biases of the day. They had grand conventions and called for national unemployment insurance, jobs for the jobless and more help for the poor.

A lot of big shots didn’t like that. They were called Bolsheviks, fanatics and were suppressed mercilessly. But they kept on. Winter was coming and many knew their comrades wouldn’t make to the Spring. The Red Poppy, a desperate Hail Mary, just had to work.

The G.W.V.A Poppy Day campaign had three official objectives repeated across the country. The first was to inaugurate the wearing of the Red Poppy as a sign to cherish the memory of the Sacred Dead. The big shots who ended up taking over the campaign kept this one alive.

The second, explicitly, was to provide funds to relieve the very real distresses of returned soldiers, who very well couldn’t survive the winter. If you suggested the third today you’d be called a heretic. The G.W.V.A wanted to raise money for the orphans of Europe, the victims of the war. It is a national shame the second and third have been forgotten. We need to take back our traditions.

And people responded. That year, over 1 million poppies were sold. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised. Jewish, Orange Protestant and Catholic organizations set aside their differences and worked together.

In Ottawa, the tradition of laying poppy covered wreaths began on Parliament Hill. In Calgary, returned soldiers of all ranks had a ball at the beautiful Palliser Hotel, now reserved exclusively for the rich.

The following Sunday, the 10th Battalion showed off their brand new Highlander Kilts. In Toronto, thousands crowded the war monument, despite the slush and terrible weather, to show their respect.

Our great Canadian traditions have been stolen from us. It is high time we took them back.

The Red Poppy is about Remembrance, but it was about more than Remembrance. The G.W.V.A was created, in their own words, by bands of “weary-eyed, hopeless men who struggled to regain a niche in the country which apparently had no further use for them because their value as fighting units belonged to the past.”

Veterans today are facing austerity. Front line services are being cut. The government is getting stingy. Not much has changed.

This isn’t just about veterans, it is about all Canadians and it is about the world. We need to take back our traditions from those who use them against us. Like the Great War Veterans’ Association, together as comrades, we can make that happen.

Although it might seem contradictory, a central part of remembering the past is also forgetting it. If today blacks march alongside whites during Civil War reenactments, it is to challenge the enduring narrative that continues to erase them from their struggle for emancipation. At the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, in front of thousands of white Yankees and Confederates, the Chairman of reunion exclaimed “it matters little to you or to me now what the causes were that provoked the war,” what was important was how the nation’s collective memory and amnesia served America’s current war aims.

….never forget…what? The statement seems purposefully vague so as to encompass a multitude of ideas. Rituals and places of pilgrimage unite public memory with an individual’s own private memory. Yet absent from solemn Remembrance Day ceremonies are the stories of racism and resistance that were very much part of the experience of the First World War.

Contesting the dominant narrative of war remembrance and the reverence of “fallen heroes” is met with resistance. For example, recently there has been some outcry over people sporting a white poppy instead of the traditional red one.

The other day I asked an eight year old I work with why she was wearing the red poppy and what she thought it meant. She said it is to remember “our soldiers who went to make peace for our country, to keep us safe. We think about all the soldiers who died for us, fighting for peace.”

Name one soldier, I asked…

Previous to the Great War, military-themed monuments marked a battle or glorified a single military leader. Then during WWI, there was a concerted effort to erect more democratic lieux de mémoire as a means of drumming up support for an increasingly unpopular war.

These stone monuments can be seen in public squares, parks and in front of town halls across the island, so ubiquitous they become invisible; names appear without military rank thus leveling the battlefield —all were rewarded and remembered equally in death.

Who is remembered has changed as much as how we remember.

While the tradition of naming fallen soldiers has endured, the intended purpose of the monuments has shifted: from patriotic hero-worship to therapeutic healing and reflection. In Maya Lin’s words, when visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial “it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with (this) loss. For death, is in the end a personal and private matter, and the area contained with this memorial is a quiet place, meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.” The reflective black granite, submerged into the ground and into which over 58 000 names are inscribed is a far cry from the Thiepval Memorial‘s towering majestic arch and its chiseled  72 000 names, which served as its inspiration.

If wars are divisive, so too are the ways in which we chose to remember them. Today anthems, flags, and memorials are the equivalent of a secular religion whose symbols and meaning need to be constantly reinforced.

“Ah not this marble, dead and cold,” lamented Walt Whitman in 1885 upon the completion of the Washington Monument. Perhaps the best way to understand our nation’s past is not to repeat slogans or sport a plastic flower, but to crack open a book or three. Better yet take the time to sit down and talk to a veteran; that will surely be a day to remember.

* Westmount Cenotaph photo by Mario Melillo

In the years before the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish cemeteries were established on the mountain, smaller graveyards were located on what is now Square Victoria, Complex Guy Favreau and Dorchester Square. Eventually in the nineteenth century social and demographic changes meant that these dark and insalubrious spaces needed to be cleaned up: shallow and stacked graves resulted in bones and skulls that kept popping out the of the earth, the ooze of decaying bodies made it difficult to walk the grounds and the smell coupled with new ideas about air-born diseases kept mourners at bay.

From here, we see the literal move from religious graveyards to more secular cemeteries.

As people’s (ie. the upper class) ideas about death and the afterlife changed, new conceptions of “death” spaces changed as well. Respectable men in society desired spaces where their living legacy could find a parallel in their eternal resting places. For the Protestants, the usual suspects (McCord et al. ) decided to take matters into their own hands and established the Mount Royal Cemetery, which opened its gates in 1852.

mt royal cemetary
Mount Royal Cemetery map (source: Respectable Burials by Brian Young)

The move toward “rural” cemeteries began with Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1801 and on this side of the Atlantic with Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Frederick Law Olmsted was originally approached to design the Mount Royal Cemetery’s landscape and though he declined, his philosophy, ubiquitous in other North American mid-1800s city planning projects, prevailed.

The cemetery can be seen as a public museum of ideas and events.  The rich sought to enshrine their social position via lasting funeral monuments: the Molson family’s mausoleum towers over the rest; the Allan family’s gated plot holds the remains of two daughters who perished when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by German fire. The unmarked pauper graves and the shocking number of children’s graves during times of epidemic also tell part of the story of Montreal’s past.

mccord museum
(source: McCord Museum)

The choice of words on tombstone inscriptions display prevailing ideas about gender, status and the afterlife. And the landscape itself, the sinewy roads, the hilltop views, the carefully manicured grounds and flora create a suburban oasis where the wealthy could stroll and contemplate. Public places were intimately linked with values: the Mount Royal Cemetery unlike it’s decrepit predecessors, was a morally edifying place and respectable enough for women to enjoy on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Eventually Victorian ideas about death would be shaken by the Great War. If sex was taboo and death romanticized, it’s obvious that today the opposite is true.

And yet, the Mount Royal Cemetery continues to be a beautiful and relaxing space visited by joggers, mourners and the curious. Themed walking tours are organized year round while Repercussion Theatre hold one of its most popular Shakespeare in the Park productions on its grounds.

These days, we can make diamonds out the the dead and we are nonplussed when Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes get shot out of a cannon. Yet there is something to be said about being able to gather our thoughts and visit a specific place where the public and private rituals of death and the beauty of carefully crafted nature live on.

* Featured image by Sarah Ring

If asked which waterway marked Montreal’s early history the most, I would bet that a majority if not all would answer either the Saint-Lawrence River or the Lachine Rapids. A little known fact is that this city was founded at the confluence of two rivers: the Saint-Lawrence of course but also the Petite Rivière Saint-Pierre.

This much smaller river (now D’Youville Street) served as a natural northern barrier of the first fortified settlement as well as providing an inland route that helped navigators bypass the treacherous rapids. Fast forward to when the Marché Saint-Anne was built and the same river was used to cool meat and produce. Eventually the river was buried completely and incorporated in the city’s sewer system.

In fact, there were little waterways all over the island: along Landsdowne/de Courcelle in Westmount ran the Glen creek, Saint-Antoine used to be the Rivière Saint-Martin, a small burn (the Scottish word for stream as James McGill would have called it) ran near the Milton gates and was a favorite make-out spot for students. Westmount Park, Lafontaine Park and Beaver Lake’s cement ponds are all built upon previously natural waterways.

Montreal underground river map
From the Montreal Archives: a map of the city showing our former rivers

Though rarely used as a means of obtaining clean incoming water in pre-industrial Montreal, houses and businesses could channel their dirty outgoing water into these natural sewers. Yet as Montreal’s population increased the creeks became a convenient (though unlawful) outlet for unwanted rubbish and human and animal waste. The rivers’ reputation was sullied even more during the nineteenth century cholera epidemics when ideas of contagious miasmas originating in the now dirty and stagnant waters were blamed by some for the spread of the deadly disease.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, entire neighborhoods were established because of their proximity to these smaller waterways. Côte-de-Neiges and Saint-Henri (formerly Saint-Henri-des-Tanneries) were settled by those who used water for commercial purposes; tanning animal skins was a water-intensive process. The physical layout of these places still bare witness to their original purpose and design.

Today, we can still see a few above-ground remnants of these rivers: the image at the top of this post shows a brook that runs through the Mount-Royal Cemetery and which flows down into Outremont’s Springgrove Park; the other is in the Meadowbrook golf course. Plans for a residential development on that site is pitting a relatively “green” project that incorporates the Saint-Pierre into its landscape design against Les Amis de Meadowbrook who would rather see the site become a publicly accessible park.

There are in fact many local movements around the world now pushing to “daylight” the rivers that used to flow through their metropolitan centers. First prize might go to Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon as the most successful restoration project, though it seems the the original stream remains hidden from view. And while this and other projects are focused on the greeening benefits accrued by urban waterways, other cities such as Cincinnati look at daylighting as the solution to more technical sewer problems.

Here in Montreal, archeologists working at Pointe-à-Callière have uncovered Native tools and pottery near where the Petite-Saint-Pierre used to flow while in England, Roman-period skulls have been unearthed by those working near the “lost” Walbrook. And while there are no projects yet to daylight any of Montreal’s streams, Concordia’s Mobile Media Lab has paired up with a local production company to produce an interactive smartphone application that allows users to voyage back in time and learn more about our city’s “lost” waterways.

Of all the feelings I thought I’d have at a memorial to gay Holocaust victims, shame was the furthest from my mind. Yet it’s exactly what I felt.

While on a walking tour in Berlin recently, my boyfriend and I stopped at the breathtaking Holocaust memorial by the Brandenburg Gate.

A graveyard of towering grey pillars overwhelms its guests as they work their way into the grid. And as city sounds give way to silence, the sheer madness of the Holocaust, the demented logic of fascism, and the utter bleakness of World War II are brought to bear on those who enter.

The absence of identifiable symbols or colours—religious or otherwise—strengthens the inclusive nature of the monument. So when I found out the memorial was not actually for all victims of the Holocaust, but only for the Jews, I felt shameful.

I felt shame that my own community’s suffering was deemed unworthy of inclusion in a most important Holocaust memorial. Was the pain felt by a gay man somehow lesser than that felt by a Jew?

Enough people felt the suffering of homosexuals was worthy of commemoration, though, that a monument was eventually built for them. But after seeing it, I’m not quite sure what to think.

Coming from the immense Jewish monument, the ‘Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism’ is underwhelming, to say the least. It stands as but a single, towering, unmarked block of concrete, nestled away in a nondescript enclave of the famous Tiergarten.

The juxtaposition of the two sites—one impossible to miss, the other hard to notice—only added to my initial shame of exclusion. Why is the monument for gay victims hidden in the bushes?

Maybe it’s a fitting place, I thought to myself. Maybe a memorial planted in the forest, where those it commemorates were once shamed into seeking discreet sex, is appropriate. Or maybe not. In any case, the jury is out on that decision, so I’ll continue with the tour.

The shame of homosexuality is further explored in a video, seen through a window in the giant block, that features short clips of same-sex couples caught kissing in public. Despite hesitancy from the couples, all continue embracing their partner. The act, though hardly remarkable today, was once enough to end the lives of those caught under Germany’s anti-homosexual law.

Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, initially passed in 1871, criminalized sexual behaviour between men. Upon taking power, the Nazis intensified the law, allowing for the detention of homosexuals in concentration camps without any legal trial. Of the 5,000–15,000 gay men placed in concentration camps, up to 60 per cent perished.

Those that survived the camps were faced with further injustice after the war. Many of those “saved” were placed back in prison to finish the remainder of their sentence, since paragraph 175 was technically not a Nazi law. And even though the law was modified after WWII, it was not fully repealed until 1994.

Walking out of the woods and back on the main drag, I tried to make sense of the memorial. I realized I hadn’t even kissed my boyfriend in that most perfect of places. Caught up in the politics of the memorial, I’d lost sight of what it was all about: the ability to celebrate one’s love.

So I leaned in and, after a moment’s hesitation, we embraced—shame no longer on my mind.

The memorial may not be perfect. It may not be in the best spot and it may lack the power to inspire awe. But where it succeeds is in its simplicity with the message that love prevails.

Photo courtesy of Julian Ward

With a glitz Hollywood musical starring pop tart Christina Aguliera and the legendary Cher, burlesque is back with a vengeance!   Well, I suppose it’s a bit of a misnomer to say that burlesque is back, since it’s been around in one form or another since the late 19th century, in smoky cabaret halls and dimly lit back alley bars.

Burlesque shows were brought to America from England way back in the 1860s.   Since then, the form has assimilated vaudeville, comedy, cabaret and striptease to become the dominant type of “follies” entertainment, lampooning every facet of society while titillating its audience with the once-forbidden near nudity it became famous for.

A burlesque act can take many forms.   There’s the voluptuous dancer in fishnets that can hypnotize you with her nipple tassels, the leggy blonde with the voluminous ostrich feather fans and barely there pasties, but then there’s also melodrama, dance and even stand up comedy.   I was lucky enough to get my first taste of burlesque performance in October with Montreal’s grotesque burlesque troupe, Glam Gam.

Glam Gam was founded one year ago by newfies Michael McCarthy and Sarah Murphy and Montrealer Julie Paquet.   As they put it, “We all knew we loved to perform, but we were not satisfied with existing platforms, so we made our own. We categorize ourselves as ‘burlesque’, because this is the genre that best describes what we do. However, we also struggle with the term since the general population’s point of reference is now a Hollywood high-budget film that shares the same name yet has nothing to do with what we’re about.”

Burlesque is about more than just taking it off the delight is in the tease.   But it’s also about living in a world where you get to make the rules.

One of the main reasons I find burlesque so appealing, other than delight in the sheer pleasure of exhibitionism, is that it allows us to reclaim images of sexuality and shape them however we choose.   We are constantly bombarded with highly sexualized images, from the moment we leave our houses and glance upon the giant ads in the metro to the moment when we turn off our TVs at night.

Instead of allowing ourselves to be objectified on someone else’s terms, we get to stand up there and demonstrate our own personal definition of what’s sexy.   In keeping with this aesthetic, Glam Gam welcomes performers of varying genders, shapes, sizes, colours and sexual orientations.   After all, it wouldn’t be a burlesque show without a little drag!

You never know quite what to expect at a Glam Gam show.   At Halloween, people were witness to such diverse acts as yours truly dressed up like a pregnant green alien birthing then devouring her newborn child onstage to a hilarious send-up of Disney characters from our youth, to a hauntingly beautiful photo collage in a cemetery followed by a dance with Death that, spoiler alert, didn’t end so well.   In between, there was something for everyone tits, ass, penis and, I’m proud to admit I was one of the first to flaunt the female form, full frontal.   One thing’s for certain, everyone always leaves with a smile on their face.

To celebrate their one year anniversary, Glam Gam is putting on a Christmas-themed burlesque show called Tits the Season 2… Be Naughtier, at one of the city’s oldest venues, the storied Café Cleopatra.   Situated at the corner of St. Laurent and Ste-Catherine, this hundred year old landmark stands in the former red light district.   Gentrification is threatening the demolition of this venerable performance space, so catch it while you can.

As Glam Gam put it, “We always put on our shows at Café Cléopâtre because they have been so good to us and allow us to express ourselves in a way that no other venue will. We consider this venue our home as it  has allowed burlesque to flourish in Montreal for 35 years (in a building that has hosted this and other alternative art forms for over 100 years) and embraces our spin on it. We find the city’s plans to demolish our home devastating!  From the beginning we have aimed to break down barriers of what is considered sexy and we also want to entertain everyone. Many events are targeted to one specific audience, but we’d like to think we have something for everyone and love bringing people together! We are an entertainment utopia, wherein all shapes, sizes, genders and sexualities are represented on stage and in the crowd.

In the day and age of Christina Aguilera and Cher, visuals speak louder than words. So check out the teaser for our show!”

Expect the unexpected – this ain’t your grandma’s burlesque!   If you leave a Glam Gam show dry and frowning, then we didn’t do our job properly.  Bring on the mess and bring on the titties!!

If you want to check out pics from the last show, take a look at these!