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by Mary Soderstrom

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Saturday, 29 September 2007

Saturday Photo: The Stars of Autumn

A little rain and the asters bloom in the woods. Last year, when August was wet and I was walking every day across the mountain, I remember seeing clouds of them at the edge of wild spaces. This year it has been considerably drier and they only began to bloom after a good rain we had two weeks ago. Now they are everywhere.

According to my wildflower references, there are two kinds of asters which grow in a broad band across the north-eastern US and southern Canada from Ontario to the Maritimes. One source says the pink-purple New England aster is more common, and that the New York aster--Aster novi-belgii--is rare in southern Ontario. But what seems to be growing wild here is the latter, with its pale mauve petals and yellow-orange center.

When I started writing this blog in June the columbine were like shooting stars in the garden. Now the appropriatedly-named asters are the ones giving a stellar performance.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The African Great Lake Wars: Refugees in Burundi and "Shake Hands with the Devil"

Roméo Dallaire and Roy Dupuis have been much in the news here this week. “Shake Hands with the Devil,” which stars Quebec film vedette Dupuis playing the Canadian general who tried to stop the genocide in Rwanda, has opened around the country. Dallaire—since retired and now a Canadian senator—won the 2004 Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction for his book of the same name. Even though he has his critics—he is depicted as an ineffectual nothing in another genocide movie, “Hotel Rwanda”—many consider him a genuine hero because of his efforts to get the United Nations to act decisively in 1994.

It’s been a while since I checked how things were going in Rwanda’s neighbor, Burundi. The two countries were once the Kingdom of Ruanda-Urundi, on the north-east quadrant of Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. The Germans were the first Europeans to claim the territory, and after the First World War, the Belgians—who already controlled the immense territory to the west now called the Democratic Republic of Congo—took over. Independence came in the 1960s, and now both countries have similar population mixes, about 10 per cent Tutsi and 90 per cent Hutu with a few Twa thrown in for good measure.

Burundi has also known violent ethnic conflicts, but so far a genocide on the scale of Rwanda’s has been avoided. Repercussions of that tragedy, as well as the continuing struggle between groups for control of Congo, continue to mark Burundi, however. The latest story on the IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network) news service tells of refugees from Congo who had been camping in front of the UN refugee agency office in Bujumbura being bussed off to more permanent shelter in Northern Ngazi province.

Six years ago this week I was preparing to go to Bujumbura to research my novel The Violets of Usambara, which is about a Canadian politician who goes missing in Burundi in 1997 while on a fact-finding mission about the status of refugees. It is discouraging to see how the tragedy continues.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Blue-Green Algae, Liquid Natural Gas Ports, and the Arrival of Fall

How can you tell that Fall has finally arrived? The calendar says the season changed on Monday, and for the last two nights great flocks of geese have flown over Montreal, heading south and using the full moon for navigation. But also--and just as striking--there are the big announcements from governments and business, the ones they want the public to pay attention to (the ones they’d like us to ignore they announce on Friday afternoon before a summer holiday weekend.)

For example, on Tuesday Quebec’s environment minister Lise Beauchamp and municipal affairs minister Nathalie Normandeau announced a multi-part program to solve the problem of blue-green algae which have increasingly plagued the province’s lakes and water courses. Three of the 35 points are: giving municipalities more latitude in making and enforcing regulations for development on the shores of waterways and on the use of septic tanks; providing $145 million over 10 years for the agriculture sector to fight run-off from fields which contribute to blue green-algae; and banning detergents with phosphates.

Beauchamp and Normandeau outlined the plan at a mini-summit which included agriculture and municipal groups, but to which Nature Québec, Greenpeace and other environmental groups were not invited, it seems.

Then on Wednesday promoters of the liquid natural gas port at Gros Cacouna on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river announced that the time line for development has been stretched out two years, with opening set for 2012 instead of 2010, This project as well as the Rabaska one a little downstream of Quebec City were widely criticized over the summer by environmental groups which question their effects on the health of the shore of the great river, and the river itself. Opponents also ask whether either LNG project will be economically viable—and whether it would be better for governments to encourage energy conservation.

Andrew Pelletier of Enérgie Cacouna told the Quebec daily Le Soleil that rising costs account for part of the delay. Project director Bob Eadie added that the consortium are considering constructing the marine part of the installation 150 meters from the shore, rather than the 350 meters which had been approved. “This would be better for marine life, as well as reduce costs,” he is quoted by Le Soleil as saying.

Oh yeah? Sounds to me like Enérgie Cacouna is looking to drum up support for its project locally by hinting that unless certain changes are allowed, it might just fold its cards. As Pierre Levesque, the mayor of one of the nearby municipalities who wants the project very badly, commented: “Until the first shovelful of earth is turned, we will continue to worry.”

Makes you wonder what those geese heading south are going to find when they come back to nest next spring.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Building More Capacity is No Way to Cut Down Green House Gases, Congestion--Or, For That Matter, Aggravation

"It'll reduce green house gases because people won't be stuck in traffic," Quebec's Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget said earlier this week when announcing that the provincial government has just signed on for a new expressway bridge from Montreal island to the suburban island of Laval to the north.

The 7.2 kilometer span on Autoroute 25 will run from a major arterial to Autoroute 440 which runs east and west across Laval. It will be built by a private-public consortium, the first of its kind here. A $2.40 toll will be charged during rush hours, which will drop to $1.80 during off hours.

Jérôme-Forget's statement about the environmentally-friendly nature of the bridge--it also will have bike lanes--is simply nonsense, retorted André Porlier, executive director of the regional environment council (le Conseil régional de l'environnement or CRE. ) The council and other environment groups have already launched proceedings against the provincial government over the way an earlier environmental impact consultation on the bridge project was held. Pollution isn't reduced by making it easier for cars to travel into the city, Porlier said, adding "they’ve pushed us in a corner, and it’s just possible that we’ll ask for an injuction.”

Bridge maintenance will be guaranteed for 35 years, Jérôme-Forget said over and over in radio interviews as the project was announced. But of course problems with bridges and highways here and elsewhere (think Minneapolis) only start after about 35 or 40 years, so the guarantee seems not that great a deal.

More to the point, it’s not clear just how needed this new bridge is. Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay was not present at the announcement, apparently because the city would rather see money go into public transit than into more freeways bringing cars into the city.

Furthermore, recent research done by University of California at Los Angeles Institute of Transportation Studis suggests that congestion is only temporarily reduced when more capacity is added, although observers noted as far back as the 1900 that the first Paris Métro line did absolutely nothing to cut down on traffic on the surface. It is a case of "If you build it, they will come, and keep coming, and coming, and coming..."

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Living a Good Life, Part I: "After the Wedding," an excellent film by Suzanne Bier

This week I find myself returning again and again to a film we saw this weekend, "After the Wedding" It was up for an Oscar for best foreign-language film this year, and certainly it is thought-provoking and well done. The story concerns a Danish do-gooder who is spending his life in India, running an orphanage, but who is lured back to Denmark in order to lobby for funding from a Danish industrialist. He finds himself plunged into another world when the industrialist--seemingly on the spur of the moment--invites him to attend the wedding of the man's daughter that weekend. It turns out that their lives are inter-twined, etc., etc.

Lots of secrets here, lots of hidden motivations and agendas. Most of all, though, it is an exploration of what a good life is--not the good life, but a life lived with respect toward others. It's not easy, the road to salvation (if there is such a thing) is exceedingly tortuous, how people in the developed world should behave toward those in the undeveloped world is not clear... And yet we all have to make moral decisions every day of our lives, even when we are not aware that we are doing this.

In mid-October I'm supposed to meet with Marc Côté of Cormorant Books
to discuss my novel The Violets of Usambara which he will publish next spring. Moral questions like those raised in "After the Wedding" underly my story about a Canadian politician who goes missing in Burundi in 1997, so seeing the movie was particularly appropriate. My hat is off to Suzanne Bier, who explores them so well in this film.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Henry James on Suburban Sprawl

Picture this: Art Townsend and his new wife are moving into a new house.

“It’s only for three or four years," he says. "At the end of three or four years we’ll move. That’s the way to live in New York—to move every three or four years. Then you always get the last thing. It’s because the city’s growing so quick—you’ve got to keep up with it... So you see we’ll always have a new house; it’s a great advantage to have a new house; you get all the latest improvements. They invent everything all over again about every five years, and it’s a great thing to keep up with the new things.”

Sound familiar, doesn't it? Could be one of those guys who's been making a bundle flipping real estate or in defence contracts and is now on the trail of the perfect trophy house. But it isn't. Art--who probably would have preferred to be called Arthur--is a creation of Henry James in his novel Washington Square. The book was published in 1880 and takes place in the 1850s, when New York was moving north along Fifth Avenue from Washington Square. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, n'est-ce pas?

Of course, Washington Square a hundred years later became the neighborhood park for Jane Jacobs's kids, and her first battle ground for the delights of urban diversity. Check out the video of her son Ned talking about how she and her friends saved the Square and the neighborhood from Robert Moses and his freeways.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Saturday Photo: Suburban Parking Lot

Lots of room for cars here, more than necessary even. This small shopping centre on Montreal's West Island is making a go of it, but when it was built in 1977 the developers were thinking big when it came to how many parking places would be needed.

When I visited the neighborhood this week, I commented on how complicated it was to get from there downtown, noting that the lot at the Beaconsfield train station was only three-quarters full. A friend who lives not far away tells me that is not the case in winter usually, but that she thinks twice about parking there because there are a number of break-ins every month.

Jane Jacobs would likely find this interesting but not surprising: there are two periods of traffic at the station, from about 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. In between there are only a couple of trains which means that the parking lot is effectively deserted with no "eyes on the street" (as Jacobs put it) to dissuade casual theft and vandalism. Another advantage of more frequent train and bus service would be more coming and going in the parking lot, with less dead time for petty thieves to work undisturbed.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Department of You've Come a Long Way Baby: Who's Freer, a Young Woman in Shorts or in a Burka?

Just finished Henry James’s Washington Square when I received notice that Sissy Willis had left a comment on my post about Anita Kunz's New Yorker cover and Henry James: “Moral relativism in the face of gynophobic Islamicists could get you killed, girl.”

I don’t doubt that, but so can flitting around in shorts and a halter top (as one of the young women in the New Yorker cover is; the other two are in burka and nun's habit) if you do so in a place where the amount of skin you show can be interpreted as indicating that you're for sale. Well, getting killed is less frequent but rape can occur if you and the male don't understand what you're offering.

It’s a matter of choosing context, and my point is that we decide what we wear and how we act in large part to send out signals that our society and culture approve of. Did the scantily-clad young woman on the cover make a free choice to dress like that, or was she railroaded into it by a barrage of sexually-charged advertising?

Which brings me back to Washington Square. If ever there was a misogynistic character it is Dr. Sloper who considers his only child—a daughter—stupid and incapable of making decisions for herself. He is convinced that her only suitor is after her money and essentially destroys the girl by insisting that she not marry him.

The story takes place in the 1830s, and it is striking to realize how much the Western world has changed since then…

But it hasn’t completely. As recently as 25 years ago Diana Spencer—a pretty young women with not much going for her intellectually—was set up to become Prince Charles’s wife. It would appear that her virginity was checked out by doctors for the Royals: certainly the fact that she had not been attached to any young man previously was considered very important.

We all know what happened later.

The world is full of contradictions and subtleties. Don’t forget that.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

It's Cheaper to Take Public Transit, but Does Anybody Realize it?

There are 475 parking spaces at the Beaconsfield commuter train station, and when I was there at noon earlier this week the lot was about three-quarters full. Wonder if it will be fuller this morning, when people are supposed to leave their cars at home on the fifth annual “In Town without My Car” day.

Beaconsfield is a suburb on the western part of Montreal island, developed in the 1960s and 1970s as an up-scale community of single-family houses. There is some rental housing, and new development of town houses, but its 19,194 residents (2006 census) live mostly on lots of 100 by 100 in the best suburban style. There are some bicycle trails running through parks and along the St. Lawrence waterfront, but this is car country.

Should you decide to take the "no car" challenge and go into central Montreal by public transport this morning, though, you have two choices.

You can take the train ($20.50 for a strip of six tickets, $5.25 the single ticket) at 6:14, 6:55, 7:20, 7:35, 7:54, 8:09, 8:34 or 8:40 a.m. and then transfer to the Métro at the Lionel-Groulx Métro station which will take you downtown. Time: maybe 45 minutes from the train station to the corner of Saint Catherine and Peel.

Or you can take the 221 Bus from the Beaconsfield train station, which will take you to the Métro at Lionel-Groulx. Time to Saint Catherine and Peel: something more than an hour with 15 departures between 6:14 and 9:30 .m. Cost: $11.75 for a six tickets, $2.75 single fare,

Either one will require a certain amount of coordination of schedules, and a walk from the downtown Métro station to your final destination. You may well end up saving money and time, however. Parking downtown runs at least $10 a day, and you must add the cost of operating your car on top of that—say a minimum of 35 cents a kilometer for a distance of 26 kilometers times two or about $18. Mapquest says the trip should take 23 minutes, but that’s certainly not the time at rush hour.

In today’s La Presse, columnist Patrick Lagacé says that if we were really serious about trying to cut down on cars in cities we’d charge more for bringing cars into them instead of spending a lot of money on hoopla like a no-car day. If you pay more, you’ll opt for a cheaper solution, he says. He's probably right.

But it looks to me that people already aren’t doing the math when it comes to the relative costs of taking public transport. If they did, they’d decided it was cheaper: a minimum of $20 a day for transport by car versus $11.50 for the train and Métro or--even better--$5.50 for bus and Métro.

Jacking up the cost may help a bit, but just as important is guaranteeing that you don’t have to spend a half hour figuring out what buses to take, or have to wait too long if you miss your train or bus by a couple of seconds. To make increased service economically feasible will require more public financial support for transit—and also construction of a denser housing.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Tomorrow There Will Be Grass, Not Cars on Saint Catherine Street

Tomorrow several blocks in the commercial centre of Montreal will be closed to vehicles from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., as part of the world-wide campaign to encourage active transport in cities. In the Montreal region, the Agence métroplitaine de transport is organizing the event: the suburban cities of Laval and Longueuil are also taking part.

I happened to be downtown last year during the celebrations. Long swaths of turf were spread down major streets and people picnicked on it. Of course, I’d taken the bus into the centre of the city as usual, and a few of us urban-dwellers watched and wondered aloud whether all this was necessary, given the high level of active-transport in the centre of the city.

But we are still in a minority, and anything that makes people who ordinarily take their cars reconsider is a good thing, I suppose. We should be careful not confuse this kind of once-a-year circus with real solutions to urban problems, though. That would be like thinking you’re making a real contribution to cutting down energy use when you switch to those funny light bulbs but still keep your furnace thermometer set high in winter and your airconditioning set low in summer.

For a look at an interesting way to increase carpooling, check out Covoiturage Montréal. It’s a way of linking drivers and riders through their postal codes (which in Canada are much more precise ways of localizing addresses than the US’s five figure codes.) The English link is found about half-way down the menu.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Some Times the Nice Guy Wins Instead of Finishing Last

There are days that are a long time coming, and yesterday was one. For more than 20 years I’ve been sure that the NDP could win Outremont with the right candidate: the party always gets one of its best scores in Quebec even when they put no effort into a campaign, and in 1988 when the NDP’s Louise O’Neill and the Liberal Lucie Pépin split the center left/left vote, the NDP (unfortunately) caused enough damage for a Conservative to win.

This time Thomas Mulcair, a man of great integrity and considerble charm, ran away with the by election in Outremont for the NDP. His victory is the result of a lot of work in the field and a tribute to the good sense of voters who—whatever strategic thoughts they may have had—seemed to appreciate Mulcair’s plain-spoken integrity and the tough stands he took in the past while a cabinet minister in the Quebec provincial government of Jean Charest, from which he was excluded finally.

I was a poll captain in a polling place not far from where I live, and it was clear from before the polls opened that the NDP was much better organized than any other party. The day passed without incident—nobody showed up in veil or Halloween mask—and turn out seemed more or less normal for a by election. For the count, I sat in my own poll which is an eclectic mix of bon chic bon gens Québécois, Francophone/something else couples and Hassidic Jews. I know almost everyone, if only to say hello, because I’ve lived here so long, and, although we had some good numbers from our telephone and door-to-door canvasses, I had no idea how it was going to come out in the wash. In the end Mulcair got 60 votes, the Liberal Jocelyn Coulon 34, with the Bloc Québécois and Conservative candidates far behind with about 15 a piece, not far from the riding-wide vote, which gave Mulcair about 48 per cent.

Absolutely amazing!

Of course, it was a by election, and people of all political stripes wanted to send various messages too. In a general election the playing field will be considerably different. But I was so pleased to see that it worked.

And, by the way, I even got some of Henry James's Washington Square read. I’ll talk about that later, perhaps, when I’m back to work on my Haussmann-Jane Jacobs book. She would have been pleased with the campaign, I’m sure.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Election Day: Too Busy to Blog

I've got a regulation ecologically-friendly canvas bag ready with lunch and reading material because Monday I'm supposed to sit in a poll and keep track of voters. Henry James's Washington Square is on top: I just remembered that one of his novels takes place in Jane Jacobs's original stomping grounds. Since the book takes place about the same time that Haussmann was busy tearing up Paris and Zola was writing his naturalistic novels, I'm hoping that I can find some interesting bits that will resonate both with what Jacobs like about her corner of New York, and with what Paris was like in the great Haussmannian period.

But really I'll be wondering just how this by election will come out. Never seen so many people in an NDP campaign, nor such support when doing telephone canvassing....

Friday, 14 September 2007

Saturday Photo: Day Lilies, the best of my summer

If I gave a prize to the nicest flower this summer in my garden, I'd have to give to the day lilies in the backyard. I've never had much luck with them, unlike my neighbors who seem to neglect them but nevertheless have brilliant summer bloom. This year, however, for some reason which escapes me, I had some good flowers. Can't tell you what the variety is--keeping lists is another of those things I just never get around to doing--but the results were lovely.

This week I dug up and gave away a host of hostas, and planted the space where they were with pansies and a couple of other things. Will have to rethink that bed seriouisly next spring. The aim at the moment is just to introduce a little yellow in the backyard to balance the rudebeckia which is doing famously, thank you very much.

What a pleasure my Darwinian garden is! Just the thing to get my mind off the more stressful elements of life.

An NDP Win in Outremont?

La Presse reports that a poll of the Outremont riding shows the NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair leading the Liberal Jocelyn Coulon, 38% to 32 % in the federal by election set for next Monday. The Bloc Québécois candidate Jean-Paul Gilson follows with a meager 14 % and the Conservative Gilles Duguay comes in fourth. Some 43% of electors say they could change their minds before the election, while 41% say they aren’t interested, so it’s definitely not over.

It’s clear, though, that the Liberals are really frightened. Even though every one who knows me, knows that I’ve been an NDP stalwart for years, I got a call yesterday morning from a woman who lives in another riding and who I worked with in an anti-pollution group 35 years ago when I first came to Montreal. I don’t think our paths have crossed since, but she wanted to talk to me about the election and how “we have to beat Stephen Harper” by electing a Liberal in Outremont. Needless to say, I don’t think that—rather I think that the best message would be the shock treatment of an NDP victory—and I brushed her off. But the fact that Liberals are scraping the bottom of the barrel in this manner says a lot about what is happening here.

The La Presse poll also shows the Liberal coming in fourth in the rural riding of Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot with 5%, where the Bloc Québécois candidate got 49%, the Conservatives, 32%, and the NDP, 7% . The riding is considered a Bloc stronghold: its candidate is a young woman of Vietnamese origin, Ève-Mary Thaï Lac.

In the third riding, Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean (held by the Bloquiste Michel Gautier until he stepped down) the Conservatives are leading with 43 % , the Bloc follows with 37%, with the Liberals at 12% and the NDP, 4%.

The polls, done by Unimarketing, have a sample of at least 1000 in each riding.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Violets of Usambara: I

Today the task is to fill out a questionnaire from Cormorant Books about my novel The Violets of Usambara, which they will publish next spring. It seems this is the time for preparing that season’s catalogue, and they want a 50 word synopsis of the book.

How appropriate that I have to think about the book now! Six years ago exactly I was in the throes of deciding whether to go through with a trip to Africa to research the book. The tickets were bought, the reservations were made, my daughter (who was studying at the Hague) was expecting me to stop by to celebrate her birthday with her. But of course 9/11 intervened, and travel anywhere was called into question, as was so much else.

The trip, which I’d been planning for months, would be my one chance to see the world that I wanted to write about: Burundi in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and the Usambara mountains where wild African violets have their origin. My sister was trying to talk me out of going—“and if you do, try to be inconspicuous”—and my my husband—usually always encouraging—was quite silent about what he thought.

In the end I went, to find the flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi filled with North American Christian missionaries and European tourists who had made the same decision: life must go on, and besides the money is already spent. The trip was not uneventful, but nothing bad happened—actually the worst thing was having my wallet snatched in The Hague even before I started for Africa, and that had a positive side that perhaps I’ll talk about here sometime.

And now it’s finally time to prepare for presenting the story that grew from the trip to the world.

How’s this for a teaser:

April, 1997: A Canadian politician goes missing in Burundi while investigating refugee camps after the genocide in Rwanda. Back in Montreal his wife waits for news and tries to help friends caught up in a money laundering scheme. A suspenseful story that brings up a host of political, personal and spiritual questions.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Western Wind and Work

O western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?

Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Anonymous
16th Century

The rain began in late afternoon, and continued most of the night. The western wind blows this morning--fresh air, blue sky, high white clouds. It is a perfect day for work, I thought to myself as I walked this morning and the poem came to mind. It is a mariner's lament, if I remember correctly, a wish for winds that would speed him home.

It is, as I say, a perfect day for work, however, an energizing day at the very end of summer. Therefore, even though I am home, and my love is not far away, it is not a case of "and so to bed" (as that blogger before his time Samuel Pepys would say) but to work...

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Austen to Afghanistan: Suggestions for Stephen Harper

What do you think Stephen Harper has been reading on those long airplane trips he's been taking across the Pacific latelyl? Could it be one of those books that Yann Martel has given him over the last few months?

The most recent, mailed September 3, is The Watsons by Jane Austen. Martel says he chose it "for two reasons: it is short, and it is unfinished. Its shortness will I hope make you want to read some of Austen’s longer novels, Pride and Prejudice or Emma perhaps."

Austen abandoned the book--although, Martel writes, "there is more perfection in it than in many a completed novel"--because of several sad events in her life while she was working on it, including the illness and death of her father. It was only four years later when some of her family responsibilities were lifted that she began to write again.

"She let go and then started up again, able to produce novels that marked the English novel forever. In that, there is something instructive. There is so much we must leave unfinished. How hard it is to let go," Martel concludes.

Hmm, whatever is Martel thinking about? Afghanistan is one possibility. If so, and if Harper really has taken a look at Martel's letters, if not his gift books, there may be some hope for changing Canada's mission to Afghanistan soon.

N.B. We'll be talking about Martel's first gift to Harper, The Death of Ivan Illytch, tonight in French at a causerie littéraire in the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont, and in English at informal book discussion at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Fight against LNG ports to Spread to Montreal from Lower St. Lawrence

Opponents to two liquid natural gas ports proposed for the St. Lawrence down river from Quebec City are turning up the heat. This morning they’re announcing demonstrations in Montreal on September 22, as they attempt to widen the discussion about the LNG facilities, one to be built across from Quebec City near Lévis, and the other, at Grand Cacouna. Both projects were given green lights by the provincial environmental review agency, the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE)
last spring.

André Bélisle of the Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA) and a spokesperson for the coalition of environmental groups said Sunday that big questions surround the projects. These include just who will benefit from them and whether Quebec really needs the natural gas. The need for energy efficiency as well as the environmental dangers of LNG ports must be considered.

Montreal is a good 200 kilometers up river from the projects, but their development is “too important for debate about them to be confined to the immediate neighborhood,” the opponents say. That’s the reason for shifting the focus of protest to Montreal.

The anti-LNG project demonstration will come the Saturday after the federal by election in Outremont, where former Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair has been waging a very green campaign as New Democratic Party candidate. Even though the NDP has only once won a seat in Quebec, some of the betting money is going on Mulcair to win this time. If he does, it will reflect, in part, the concern of urban folk about what we’re doing to the world.

Please note, by the way, that the Saturday Photo of windmills on Park Avenue was taken a block away from Mulcair's campaign headquarters and three blocks from Emmanuel Cosgrove's LEED platinum house. There may be a fair amount of asphalt here, but it's the ecologically-friendly kind that comes with urban density.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Saturday Photo: The Windmills of Park Avenue

Wind power is sometimes thought of as a rural thing. Vast windmill farms on gusty hilltops or by the edge of the sea are what usually spring to mind. But a few pioneers are using it in the middle of cities. These windmills have whirled on top of this triplex on Park Avenue for about two years. I haven't had the courage to go and ring the door bell to ask questions, but perhaps I should.

This part of Montreal is full of little gardens on rooftops, balconies and in backyards, despite the fact that Park Avenue is one of the city's most traveled. It also is home to Emmanuel Cosgrove, who recently received an LEED platinum rating for his triplex, just a block to the south.

And, oh yes, that orange poster on the top balcony in the picture is one for Thomas Mulcair, the NDP candidate in a by election September 17. Mulcair left the provincial Liberal party (he'd been minister of environment and sustainable development for three years) over policy differences, among them the Liberals' plan to sell off part of a provincial park.

Why am I not surprised to find windmills and the poster in such close proximity?

Friday, 7 September 2007

Market Forces and the Market for Local Fruits and Vegetables

So the squirrels got all our pears this year, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent pears from Ontario available: I just finished eating one that was luscious and juicy. You have to look around to locate them, though: I found baskets of them for $4.99 at the open air Jean Talon market, but none of the stores in my neighborhood, be they groceries or fruit stores, had them.

It was a similar story at the end of June when the delicious Quebec strawberries were in season. There are three full-service grocery stores within walking distance (an advantage of living in a dense part of town) but during the three week strawberry season, only one of them regularly had Quebec berries. One store even featured California berries during one of the weeks. The four smaller fruit stores on Park Avenue and side streets—where the owner goes to the central produce market a couple of mornings a week himself—were more reliable.

There are a lot of good reasons to buy local produce, including better taste, but it sounds like getting the fruits and vegetables to consumers is a real nightmare. Supermarkets say that local growers can’t guarantee quantities and so they don’t want to commit themselves to carrying the local stuff. This of course means that the farmers can’t count on having outlets for what they grow, and so may be reluctant to expand production. It is a classic which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-eggplant situation.

There may be ways to legislate a better arrangement—they have been suggested to the commission on the future of Quebec agriculture which is currently holding hearings—but an immediate and possibly very effective way to improve things would be for consumers to raise a fuss when they can’t find local fruits and vegetables in the stores where they usually they trade. Maybe then we can get market forces working on the side of the angels for once.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Rain, Gardens, Writing Books and Temptation

It rained last night, even though the forecast when I went to bed was for clear skies. What a pleasure to wake up about 5 a.m. to the sound of steady rain. After a cool and relatively wet July, August was very dry, so despite a heavy thunder shower a week ago, the grass on the lawns on our street look pretty sad. Leaves have started falling too—not the brilliant red and yellow ones we should see in October, but brown, almost burned looking ones. Many trees appear to have suffered along with the grass. How much good this lovely little rain will do remains to be seen, but it's a step in the right direction.

Some things have done well this summer, however. We had a lot of pears, although all were eaten by the squirrels. And the hostas in back have spread so they are taking up far too much space. The plan for today is make a trip to the nursery to see what I can find to replace at least some of them. Then I’ll dig them up, and plant something new. I may even get some daffodils planted before November which is when I usually get around to that task.

All of this means, of course, that I have plenty of other things to think about when I really should be working on the next book. This summer I’ve been reading and trying to start to write something that will be called (I think) Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Street: An Unpedestrian Look at Walking in the City. I had a pretty good outline when I started and I’ve got maybe 50 pages roughed out. But writing is something that I like having done, and at this point, the “having done” won’t come for quite a while. Must get crackin’ though because Véhicule Press will bring it out in 2008, which means, working back, that I shouldn’t be spending too much more time spinning my wheels…or dreaming about gardens…or maybe writing blogs.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Outremont by-election: The Problems of Polling in a Cell Phone World

Nobody’s saying out loud if any of the political parties have done polls in the Outremont by-election, although the campaign workers for the four major candidates have been busy canvassing by telephone. If you ask them how they’re doing they’ll all smile and tell you that it's going very well.

That’s part of the campaigning game, but it may also be that finding out how people intend to vote in elections these days is a lot harder than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The difference is the increasing number of people—particularly the young—who don’t have land lines and so aren’t listed with directory assistance. That removes them from the polling universe, in effect. How this affects polling results is an interesting question.

One large study in the US recently found that those people who only have cell phones aren’t that different from people who have land lines. The study’s conclusion was that probably the differences can be factored in when massaging the raw poll data.

One way of overcoming the unavailability of cell phone numbers would be to call various permutations of possible numbers in the prefixes assigned to cell phones. Getting computers to generate and call numbers is not legal in the US, but apparently would be allowed in Canada. Whether it would be well-received is another matter. One campaign worker I know turned absolutely purple when I suggested the possibility. “I’d be furious if someone got my cell number that way,” he said. “it would be completely counterproductive.”

Well, maybe. But there are those who would argue that calling anyone at 6:30 p.m. is counterproductive in at least half the cases. Parties do it anyway, and in fact couldn’t run campaigns without telephone canvasses

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Department of Maybe We're Getting Somewhere: Sewage and the St. Lawrence

The Journal de Montréal had big headlines last week about sewage going directly into the St. Lawrence from badly connected toilets at La Ronde, the amusement park, and a hotel on Ile Charron. Pretty unappetizing, and clearly things to be corrected—which officials assure us has been done. Handling human waste has been one of our biggest challenges ever since people started living in groups. Unless sewage collection and treatment is done properly life in any kind of dense settlement quickly becomes impossible: in Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places I talk about the problem so much, in fact, that one reviewer said it should be called “Days of Poo and Roses.

And Montreal for decades was a terrible example of sewage irresponsibility. Two groups, la Société pour vaincre la pollution (SVP) and the Society to Overcome Pollution (STOP,) led the fight in the 1970s for decent sewage treatment at a time when untreated sewage from 2.5 million people was being discharged directly into the rivers around Montreal.

Thank goodness that has changed. Big collector sewers and a treatment plant at the eastern end of the island have made an enormous difference. Only two beaches are open for swimming, but several more could be opened, it seems. A group who wants to see just that held a massive jump-in down at the Old Port in early August, while regular checks at nearly a hundred spots around the island show remarkably good water quality.

The situation obviously is not perfect, as the Journal de Montréal’s stories witness, but things are so much better than they were 25 years ago that I’d call this an almost-success story. When it appears that environmental problems are insurmountable, it is good to remember that things can change for the better.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Give Us Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, Not Opera Light

First let me say that I used to enjoy Richardson's Roundup, which ran on CBC's Radio One for seven years. Bill Richardson made something quite delightful out of a show which the CBC seemed to intend originally as a dumping ground for previously-run items. His off-beat sense of humour and his cultural knowledge created an eclectic pot pourri which, I believe, had terrific ratings.

But on Saturday I turned him off after a few minutes: that was his first shot as official host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, and he didn't play an opera but a concert of opera excerpts. Come on, Bill, if I want to listen to "best-of" programming like that, I have many other choices. But a whole opera on a Saturday afternoon, followed by intelligent comments and more music! Only SATO offered that.

Maybe wiser heads will prevail, and the CBC Radio Two will go back concentrating on serious music. I fear not, however. The CBC brass seems to think it will attract a younger audience by dumbing down the programming, by giving us Opera Light and excerpts of this and that. Haven't they seen that in markets where an all-classical station competes with Radio Two (or its Radio Canada equivalent Espace Musique) the all-classical station is the one with the solid audience? Don't they understand that the support opera is getting these days (see all the tributes to the late Richard Bradshaw) means that people want to hear more, not less?

There's a "contact us" feature on the SATO web site. Why not let them know what you think.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Saturday Photo: The End of Summer, and Back to School

Summer vacation for most school children in Montreal last two months and a bit, from just before the St. Jean Baptiste holiday or Fête nationale June 24 until the last week in August.

Last Thursday these kids were headed for the school my children attended, École Nouvelle Querbes. They only went for half a day, and in small groups. Next Tuesday, after the Labour Day holiday, they'll go back for full days and in full class groups. They looked pretty excited, as did their parents.

It reminded me that long ago when I was covering education in the suburbs east of San Francisco Bay, school officials--who then counted on property taxes for most of their budget--always tried to schedule any tax hike or bond issue referendum for September. Parents tended to look very kindly on schools at that point: keeping the kids busy and out of trouble during those long summer days frequently makes one better appreciate what schools do.