The Canadiens success this spring, reaching the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers, is one of the drivers of the city’s recent resurgence.
Photograph by: John Mahoney, The Gazette
It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.
- Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet.
The sound begins as a gathering roar up high, under the rafters of the cavernous Bell Centre. It seems to spiral down, ring by ring, a gale of noise that finally bursts at ice level as we stand on guard for thee.
Ginette Reno, the stately woman in the red coat and the Canadiens jersey, bows slightly before she is helped off the ice, having done her part to ramp up the crowd. Her voice quavers now but it is still a powerful instrument and her renditions of O Canada have become a signature moment in this Montreal spring, when we stand as one, a little teary-eyed, to cheer the Canadiens on their way.
And no one, not one solitary soul, boos the anthem. Weeks after Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois were spanked at the polls in such decisive fashion that it might tuck the spectre of separatism away for a generation, there is an almost giddy, euphoric optimism in the air.
The cool spring that has followed a long and particularly brutal winter aside, there are three obvious causes behind what feels a bit like a Montreal resurgence. (Meaning Montreal in the widest sense, the definition that embraces the megalopolis from Laval to Longueuil and the length of the island.) The Canadiens, obviously, are one factor. Newly minted Mayor Denis Coderre, possessed of a combination of toughness and humour that seems ideally suited to this city, is the second. And the third, somewhat improbably, is the Charbonneau Commission, which as it winds down promises to give the people who pay their taxes here a sense that pervasive corruption is no longer the norm in municipal life.
To begin at the beginning, with the Canadiens on a playoff run that has lit up the city more than the unpredictable weather, the fact that the fans are tearing strips off the decibel meter at the Bell Centre isn’t news. What is noteworthy is that we no longer hear the boos almost drowning the anthem. After one of the final games at the old Forum before the legendary building closed in March 1996, I found myself in a Ste.-Catherine St. pub with CTV’s Lloyd Robertson and Craig Oliver, talking the booing of the anthem and what it meant for Quebec and Canada.
The habit persisted long after the opening of the Bell Centre but now, booing the anthem has gone the way of smoky bars, driving without seatbelts and the single, Saturday night hockey broadcast. It’s one of the many signs that Montrealers are comfortable in their skins, that there is a new (if fragile) optimism adrift in a city long beaten down by potholes, political scandals and students banging pots and pans, and that we might be shaking off the long slough of despond that has had this city in its grip for much too long.
Another, more surprising indicator of a more buoyant mood came on the last weekend of March, when the Toronto Blue Jays played two exhibition games against the New York Mets at the Olympic Stadium. Nearly a decade after the Expos died an ignominious death at the same venue, performing nightly in front of fewer than 10,000 fans, no one knew quite what to expect what the Jays came to down. The response was overwhelming. The first game, on a Friday evening, drew a crowd of 46,121 to the Big O. The following afternoon, a throng of 50,229 filled the building to the rafters, bringing the two-game total to 96,350.
More remarkable still was their reaction to a Toronto team: They cheered the Blue Jays. When first baseman Brett Lawrie, a Canadian, made a sparkling play at third base on the Friday evening, he received a standing ovation. It was almost as though the game was being played in Canada.
When I first arrived in this city, Jean Drapeau was mayor. It think it’s fair to say that Drapeau began his long reign as a competent, can-do sort and ended it as a megalomaniac who wanted to build a tower atop Mount Royal as an accompanying piece to that disastrous white elephant, the Big O.
Drapeau was succeeded by a collection of mayors who were dreary, incompetent, corrupt or all three, culminating in the bumbling tenure of Gérald Tremblay, who had to be either profoundly corrupt or spectacularly blind to what went on around him. When Michael Applebaum was arrested on corruption charges almost before he had taken office, high politics had degenerated into low comedy: If not for the perpetual distraction of a drunken, obese, abusive crackhead running Canada’s largest city down the 401, Montreal would have been fodder for the late-night comics.
When Coderre was first elected to the office, expectations were about as low as they could get. At that point, we would have settled for anyone not named Gilles Vaillancourt. But Coderre is level-headed, quick-witted, down-to-earth and experienced. I laughed out loud when, during the run-up to the provincial election, a CBC radio host tried to trap Coderre into declaring his support for one of the parties. Coderre cut him off with a laugh: “I wasn’t born yesterday,” he chuckled.
Coderre clearly understands that a mayor’s role is not at all like that of a premier or prime minister. He has to function simultaneously as leader, court jester, the man who sells the dream and the place where the buck stops. So far, he seems to be very, very good at every facet of the job and Montreal, for the first time since Drapeau’s early days, has a mayor it might be able to love — a situation that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.
Marois’s defeat also took down the PQ’s divisive secular values charter, which Coderre staunchly opposed. The charter was a bitterly divisive issue in this multi-ethnic, multi-racial city and its demise surely has something to do with the lightness of being you sense on the streets.
If Coderre can get a laugh, meanwhile, so can Marc Bergevin, the Canadiens GM who is so much a part of the fabric of this city that he can see the church where he was baptized from his office at the Bell Centre. Bergevin has reversed the culture of the organization, found the right pieces to pull the team together, hired the right coach — and kept us all laughing. He is a lighthearted prankster but a superb judge of hockey talent and if the Canadiens aren’t quite all the way back to the top of the heap, they’re on the way.
The third major actor in this drama of resurgence is another native Montrealer, Justice France Charbonneau. Charbonneau possesses a dry wit but her role is not to provoke belly-laughs. Instead, the fearless prosecutor who once put Hells Angels boss Maurice “Mom” Boucher behind bars is presiding over what may be the most important pillar of this Montreal renaissance, because corruption is a form of rot. It erodes the pact between those who govern and those who are governed and ultimately, given enough time and sufficient ugliness, it leads to a pervasive, joyless cynicism. Why play by the rules, after all, when those who are elected to high office and the bureaucrats they hire quite clearly do not?
The Charbonneau Commission has held the city and the province transfixed for two years now with the seamy details pertaining to the awarding of contracts in the construction industry. But Arthur Porter, the alleged architect of what may be the biggest fraud in Canadian history, is in a Panamanian jail. It appears that Tony Accurso will be compelled to testify. And Montrealers can at least hope that all the miscreants implicated in a web of corruption so vast that it was the system, not merely a rotten aspect thereof, will finally be put behind bars.
Even the mob and the bikers have been quiet. There has been a dearth recently of exploding luxury automobiles and mob hits in which the victim, in the words of the late, great Gazette crime reporter Eddie Collister, was “dead before his face hit the bacon and eggs.”
It is a very long way, mind you, to the Montreal of the 1960s and early 1970s, when St. James was Bay St., when the Canadiens ruled the hockey world and the Expos were Nos amours when we could host a World’s Fair and an Olympics less than a decade apart. There are potholes to fill, wounds to heal, minorities to reassure, infrastructure to repair, a new Champlain Bridge to build — but it all starts with an attitude.
A city is a state of mind. A collective act of the will. We decide to make our lives here, we get married here, raise children, grow old and die here. Our destinies intertwine with Montreal. Its mood is ours.
Or perhaps it is simply that fate blows us here and we stay, washed up on these shores like Samuel de Champlain, who was so certain that the St. Lawrence River would lead to China that he set up a customs booth near the rapids, where he planned to exact a toll on the goods flowing to Europe from the Orient. Champlain, who could dream the big dream, called it Lachine.
Whether we dream of China or a Stanley Cup parade along the usual route or simply paying off the mortgage, this city is the fusion of our dreams. And for the first time in a very long while, it feels like something more than an amalgamation of nightmares.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette