Montreal climate march 2019

Greta Thunberg (left) at Montreal's Climate March, Sept. 27, 2019

Montreal highs and lows of 2019

The good, weird, bad and ugly things that happened in our city this year.

It’s hard to formulate a Montreal year in review when you’ve spent the last few weeks in a whirlwind of family, shopping, travel and holiday parties. Lost in a daze of too much cheese and wine, too little structure and a zealous attempt to give yourself some time off from the internet, you barely have a grasp of reality, let alone a recollection of this past year as it’s zooming by you and you prepare to embark on a new decade. But here goes…

Was 2019 a big year for Montreal? I’m not sure, but like all years it contained both good and bad. What each of us will remember from it, I suppose, will vary depending on our views and values. Looking back, there are certain highs and lows that easily stand out for me.

Green lit

2019 was the year that saw 500,000 people hit Montreal’s streets to raise awareness about climate change and demand that governments do more to tackle it. Of course, it helped that 16-year-old climate-change activist Greta Thunberg was in town to lead one of her famous-by-now Fridays for Future marches.

No matter how Montreal residents may feel about mayor Valérie Plante, she is certainly trying hard to make the city greener. Some folks may claim that her administration is “anti-car” but I firmly believe that it’s pro-people. The fight against climate change will require radical solutions and that means that public transit and greener spaces need to be favoured. If that means that cars won’t be given priority in decision-making regarding our public spaces anymore, so be it. The realization of the Great Western Park project, preserving wetlands and biodiversity and making it the largest urban park in the country, as well as the city’s many new measures to increase pedestrian safety, were certainly highlights for me.

The new Champlain Bridge (complete with an awesome new bike path) was finally inaugurated, and Montrealers heading to the U.S. or the Dix 30 no longer need to worry about that old, rotting bridge collapsing and plunging them into the St. Lawrence.

In more positive construction news, 90 per cent of the Turcot Interchange is complete, and it’s miraculously on time and on budget — certainly not a small feat for a city and a province that have long been plagued with construction corruption and projects that appear to go on longer than a human’s average lifespan. The REM is another project stated to be on time and on budget. Will wonders never cease?

The taxi industry took a big hit this year, as over 20,000 taxi drivers saw the value of their permits reduced to nothing after the CAQ decided to reform the industry with Bill 17. Taxi drivers are now taking the government and Uber to court for $1.5-billion and we’ll see how this plays out in 2020.

Get low

The biggest stories of the year, and the ones I probably wrote most about, are the CAQ’s implementation of Bill 21 and Bill 9. Bill 21, the Quebec government’s legislation that banned public sector workers (the overwhelming majority of them — if not all of them — right here in Montreal) from wearing religious symbols on the job, rammed through with the use of both the notwithstanding clause and forced closure, wins as the undisputed low point of the year.

Whether it’s struck down in one of the many legal challenges it currently faces, or it temporarily remains, only to quietly fade away in five years when its renewal will be required, I have absolutely no doubt that Bill 21 will prove to be a shameful chapter in Quebec’s history.

Social cohesion always suffers when minorities find their fundamental rights eroded and racism and xenophobia always increase when people are “othered.”

No matter what the intention, history has always taught us that the political gains of reactionary populism are short-lived, but the dire consequences of “othering” persist and create prejudice, distrust, and always, always, always work against successful integration. All three Quebec Court of Appeal judges have conceded that Bill 21 has created “serious and irreparable damage” to the people affected by it.

Bill 9, the government’s immigration reform, was another doozy. While the province is experiencing major labour shortages, the CAQ, attempting to deliver on its campaign promise to reduce immigration, decided it could speed the process up by cancelling thousands of immigration applications and changing the rules mid-stream for thousands of qualified and already well-integrated international students, most of them living right here in Montreal.

Forced to contend with public outrage and the quick realization that Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette hadn’t done his homework, the government had no choice but to backtrack, but a new Quebec values test coming in 2020 won’t do much to assuage the feelings of apprehension many newcomers understandably already feel.

Close to home

In more positive news, two new homeless shelters opened in the city to help people in need, the archaic and often-cruel tradition of horse-drawn carriages is finally a thing of the past and controversial anti-protest law P-6, which severely limited people’s right to protest, was finally and rightfully repealed by the city’s administration. In 2019, Montreal continued to ride a high,consistently being voted one of the best student cities in the world, and one of the world’s leading IT and deep-learning hubs, while for the first time in decades our economy is sizzling hot.

But all is far from perfect. Pedestrian deaths reached a 10-year high in Montreal, as 24 people (most of them seniors) lost their lives navigating our streets. 2019 was also another deadly year for women, as the SPVM were called to far too many homicides — many of which quickly proved to be domestic violence cases. In the past three months alone, three cases of femicide made the headlines involving murder-suicide where the mother (and often the children, too) were killed in a final act of possessive rage. The last one was on Christmas Day, as one more man couldn’t stomach the idea of separation and decided to kill his wife and then turn the gun on himself.

It’s 2019 and violence against women has not only not abated, it’s escalated. While waiting to be scanned with a metal detector by SPVM security so I could join the crowd on the Mount Royal Belvedere to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, I found out that two separate threats against women had been issued by men — one of whom idolized Lépine. That sobering fact should worry more than just women.

In the meantime, Montreal keeps marching on into a new decade, with all its issues — new and old. Empty storefronts are a major worry, renovictions are becoming the next big problem as property values continue to soar and tenants continue to be kicked out to make room for Airbnb units and new condos. Housing anxiety is quickly becoming a real thing for Montreal residents and it’s up to the city to tackle it now, before it gets out of hand.

Montreal is far from perfect, but it’s always magical. Sure, this is the year when parents almost had a massive conniption because our mayor (in a misguided but sincere attempt to protect kids from flying tree branches) postponed Halloween, there were alligators seen crossing Jarry Street in broad daylight, the provincial government decided that anglos are now “historic” for some reason and language- and ethnic nationalism-fuelled debates reared their ugly heads once again.

But summer is divine in this town and everything is forgotten once you’re sitting at Lafontaine Park or by the Lachine Canal, sipping wine from a paper cup and enjoying a picnic as smiles from strangers abound and the smell of legal weed wafts through the air. It’s a beautiful place to live in and making a living in as a new decade begins.

New Year’s is just one more arbitrary day that comes to an end while another one is about to begin, but if you don’t allow the weight of expectations and resolutions to stress you too much, it’s a welcome opportunity to look back on the year and see what you did well or what you wish you could have done better. To ask yourself, as a wise friend once told me, “What do I want more of and what do I want less of?”

Whatever your interests and dreams and hopes for 2020, I hope you pursue what makes your heart sing and allows you space to dream.

I hope you’re surrounded by the kind of people who consistently show up for you in the way you need them to show up. I wish you lots of good meals and good conversations in the company of good friends, good books and someone you can snuggle up to and silently read with. I wish you lots of laughter and peace, and moments of travel that make you happy to be alive and on this gorgeous planet. And, of course, I wish you good health and excellent, strong coffee, because very little can be accomplished without them.

If 2019 was a banner year for you, keep doing what you’re doing and hopefully more of that comes your way. If it sucked and left you deflated and disillusioned, try something different and see if that sticks. Be generous, be open, trust in the kindness of strangers and trust in your instincts to recognize real. The year is done, let go of what doesn’t serve you and reach out for the new.

Here’s to a new decade. We got this. ■