in between last month's murderous terrorism and the somber 10th anniversary of the worst terrorism America has ever seen, Canada makes for a needed, lighter place to rant about. Aside from the beautiful violence of ice hockey, our northern neighbor is known for its lack of crime, its civility, its unabashed politeness and (for good and bad) an almost drama-free society. Tragically however, Canada, particularly, Montreal, has seen its own share of mass shootings. Despite those moments of darkness and despair, Montreal like New York, and as will Norway, has always bounced back.
The mix of French, English and ethnic cultures has for decades made Montreal one of the world's most eclectic cities. Having the highest percentage of college students in North America and all the nightlife that comes with it, Montreal is easily Canada's coolest city. To some, that title is as vaunted as most cultured town in Mississippi, or best beach resort in Utah. While Canada racks up points for having a fair and just society, they usually lose coolness points. Ann Murray, Corey Heart, Bryan Adams, Snow, Crash Test Dummies, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Nickelback, Avril Lavigne, Donny Lalonde, Howie Mandel, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Michael Cera and Captain Kirk have all done their part to make Canada seem square, desperate, or both.
Then again Canada has also given us Neil Young, Ivan Reitman, SCTV, Tommy Chong, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Michael J. Fox, early Mike Myers, Norm MacDonald, Melissa Auf Der Maur, Will Sasso, Arturo Gatti, the creation of Arcade Fire, Ryan Gosling, Ellen Page (who unlike Cera can do more than just mope while looking for hugs) Mia Kirshner and a bunch of hot actresses with weird names like Elisha Cuthbert, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Laura Vandervoot and Jessalyn Gilsig. Not to mention the 1990's Pantheon of Blonde Barbie Girl Hot created by Pamerla Anserson, and later, Natasha Henstridge, and later still, Estella Warren. Kinda like the "sneaky gay" whom Sue Sylvester rails against, Canada has always been "sneaky cool."
While recently profiling Toronto, New York Magazine used a 30 Rock quote in its opening. "New York... without all the stuff." Although Canada as a whole can be considered America without all the stuff, the political drama, the wars, the racial tension, or the flat out craziness, Toronto is actually more Chicago than New York. Maybe it's the beach on the lake? Or the flatness, or the lack of an old, colonial era port or any old architecture, or second rate subways, but Toronto, with all of its niceness, feels more Midwestern than anything you'll find in the "Tell it like it is!" Northeast. If there ever was a type of New York in Canada or anywhere else in the world, it would have to be Montreal.
Despite its relatively small size (slightly smaller than Brooklyn, with a land mass of Brooklyn and Queens combined) Montreal even has a lot of the "stuff" which Canada famously lacks. Health care isn't as simple and clean as you might see in a Michael Moore flick. That could be part of the reason he always has his cameras pointed at Ontario and not Quebec. In fact, the Oscar winning Barbarian Invasions probably better documents the bloated bureaucracy that many Montrealers have to deal with when sick. Of course that still easily beats the American system where many can't even visit doctors to begin with. Still, there is "stuff," even the annoying everyday brand, which Montreal constantly deals with it. Language laws fit at the top of that list. Local politicians and entire neighborhoods are often pitted against each other over frivolous matters like how much English is allowed to be seen on the streets, or which school districts are allowed to operate in English instead of French. It almost seems as if French speaking politicians wake up each and everyday with the drive to stamp out the world's language in favor of their fading one. Despite all of the ridiculous restrictions ("Stop" signs read "Arret" in Montreal even though France itself uses the internationally known, English worded red octagons) at the end of the day, most Montrealers, English, French or other, appreciate the government.
They may wish for a government which prioritizes better, but language policing aside, few wish for less government. Whether at a French or English speaking hospital they appreciate free health care and cheap drugs. Whether at a French or English speaking school they appreciate free two year colleges and four year universities which charge as little as $2,000 per year. Even elite, Ivy League level universities, like McGill University, only charge about $7,000 per year and that's only for non-Quebec students.
For what might be considered "stuff" in Toronto and the rest of Canada, most Montrealers appreciate the "Nanny State."
They appreciate a government which operates to take care of all the people and not just those rich enough to outsource jobs. They appreciate spotless subways which run on time. They appreciate the fact that their modern subway stations could double for museum lobbies. Especially since many of those stations feature local art. They appreciate beautiful parks and grand outdoor plazas overlooking the city. They appreciate the extra parkland built over two manmade islands. Islands which from an amusement park, to a casino, to a Formula 1 race track, provide jobs for locals and from an outdoor olympic swimming and diving center, to basketball courts, to half pipes for skate boarders, to even a small manmade beach, provides the same locals with multiple recreational options.
They appreciate clean streets, wide boulevards and a highway system, which despite brutally frigid winter conditions, offer about a tenth of the potholes seen on any given portion of the BQE, LIE or any route located in the Bronx.
Except for the often maligned Olympic Stadium (once called the Big O but more commonly referred to as the Big Owe) when the government does something, they do it right. Even Olympic Stadium, despite its billion dollar price tag and the fact that it's far too big to serve any of Montreal's pro teams is still considered one of the most eye-popping stadiums in the world. True, the once retractable roof no longer works, always leaks and is constantly being replaced. True, the interior is cold an unappealing. True, the playing field dimensions created by the Expos before they skipped town, make lower tier seats awkward for football and soccer use. True, there are cracks in the stadium which constantly need repairing. But nearly 40 years after it was built, the stadium's exterior is still as modern as any ever built. Together, with its connected 500+ foot tower, Olympic Stadium is a reminder that Montreal takes architecture more seriously than any other city in North America. Function is a different issue, but as many New Yorkers already know, sometimes it's better to look good than feel good.
As Montrealers gear for another round of refurbishments (including a $200M leak and tear proof steel roof) to their infamous sports complex, they can take solace in all that government has done which has worked. Despite what American Teabaggers may tell you, government can successfully build a massive projects like the Underground City. A place which (according to Wikipedia, 14 miles long in the 1990s before a new series of expansions) provides space for thousands of businesses that would probably never exist during the afore mentioned frigid winter months.
Montrealers also appreciate that for all the complaints that people from all countries share, there's a feel that government (whether it be the English-backed Liberals or French-backed, Parti Quebecois) is indeed there to help. There's a feel, at least through American eyes, that government will take care of health, education, transportation, various forms of recreation and social services.
There is a feel that whether the Liberals (Clinton type Democrats) or PQ (straight up socialists) are in charge, government will provide help for anyone that needs it. That of course creates an environment where anyone can live the American, Canadian/Canadien Dream. An environment which in turn leads to less anger, less hostility, less hate and a more unified, tighter, productive society.
In many ways, despite the Nanny State culture and steep taxes which come with it, as well as very strict gun control laws, Montreal feels even more free than New York. In a weird, dumb, male sort of way this is especially true as drunk, late night Montrealers stagger out of the many bars, lounges and clubs that dot Saint Laurent and other local hotspots. As silly as it sounds, drunk Montrealers are more free to fight than they are in New York. Not that it's recommended, but it is easier to go punch for punch with someone when you know that someone isn't packing. Other, less violent types, and thanks to relaxed or rarely enforced drug laws, are more free to stroll down the many street festivals of Saint Catherine's (the Broadway of the North) while taking tokes of herb. Apparently Montreal cops have little time on silly crap. It's also hard not noticing that even the girls (covered in winter burkas for six months out of the year) dress more provocatively than in New York. When weather allows that is. Perhaps that comes from the freedom of being in a society where women know they won't be hounded at by every car driving by or groped while on the subway.
There are also some less obvious signs of greater freedoms. Most of Montreal is on an island inside the St. Lawrence but it also contains several smaller islands (like the manmade ones) off its southern shore. All of these islands offer promenades and some even open docks leading right into the water. Imagine New York building open public invites right into the East River? How long would it last before somebody drowned and the city was sued? Montreal's subway stations feature open cat walks running directly over the tracks. Again, this would last a handful of days in New York before someone jumped or was pushed to their deaths, leading to more law suits. Even their parks feature wildlife like beavers, skunks and red foxes. Again, it would only take one bite before they were taken down by New York's litigious society.
Then there is the extra freedom to be found in simple nighttime entertainment. In Montreal you can step into a nightclub without having your driver's license info being zapped into a computer. You can go to a football game (granted they do punt on 3rd down!) without first being patted down like a criminal. You can go to a soccer game (in the ultras' section at least) and bring flags, instruments, air horns and make as much noise as you want. Nothing confiscated at the gate, no soccer moms complaining to security about overzealous fans. During bigger games, security even looks the other way when a flare or two is lit.
Except for the lack of some fun, unabashed commercialism (even the most cynical native New Yorker has to be wowed by the lights of Times Square) Montreal has it all pretty much covered. It would be nice if winters didn't last for five months and were a whole lot less brutal. It would be nice if language was less of divisive political weapon. It would be nice if the bilingual population concentrated on what made their city great and not what tore them apart. It would be nice, as western Canada grows more and more conservative and morphs into an extension of Alaska, and as the rest of Quebec yearns for their independence, that Montreal officially declared themselves as its own unique society. It truly is a small slice of Europe in North America and qualifies for that type of recognition. Or at the very least, the type of 30 Rock one liners and New York Magazine profiles that Montreal's bigger but less hip cousin has been getting of late. Either way, La Belle Ville, with cathedrals so exquisite they make St. Patrick's seem Protestant, is almost perfect.
That "almost perfect" feel to the north isn't meant as a knock on New York or America. Of course America, and especially New York has much to be proud of. While Canada must take the blame for Avril Lavigne, New York is the land which gave birth to the Beasties, Wu, Chris Rock, Larry David, (early) Martin Scorsese and (early) Robert Deniro. Perhaps it's because of New York's "stuff," and drama, and toughness that these artists and many others like the Ramones prospered. Still, government should be doing more here. New York, like the rest of America is teetering as the divide between rich and poor reaches pre-Great Depression levels. The fact that health care and education is more expensive than ever before has a shrinking middle class in an uproar. But the lack of smooth roads, efficient mass transit, beautiful parks and civil liberties isn't helping either. Montreal, just 7 1/2 hours straight north of Brooklyn is proof of what can be accomplished when government rules over big business and not the other way around. Three years ago Obama promised to make government cool again. Great! When?*