Selected Minor Works: Oh. Canada.

Justin E. H. Smith

One often hears that Montreal is the New York of Canada. It seems to me one may just as well say that Iqaluit is the New York of Nunavut. Both analogies are true enough, insofar as each settlement in question is the undisputed cultural capital of its region. But analogies can often work simply in virtue of the similitude of the relation in each of the pairs, even when the two pairs are vastly different the one from the other. Montreal is the New York of Canada, to be sure. But Canada, well… Canada is the Canada of North America.

This will be the first of two articles in which I lay out a scurrilous and wholly unfounded diatribe against the place I now call home. The second part will consist in a screed against Canada as a whole; today I would like to direct my bile towards Montreal in particular.

Sometime in early 2002, there was an amusing article in the New York Times, chronicling the fates of a few New York families that had fled to re-settle with relatives in Canada for fear of further attacks. Within a few months, they were back. As I recall, one man was quoted as saying something like: I’d rather go up in fireball, I’d rather be vaporized, than live out the rest of my days up there.

New York pride is not only quantitative, yet it is interesting to note that there was more square footage in the World Trade Center than in all the highrises of Montreal combined. Still, in terms of square feet, if not of lives, September 11 scarcely made a dent in Manhattan.  It is of course not everywhere that the greatness of a city is measured by the number of skyscrapers it hosts. If this were the universal measure, Dallas would have London beat by a long-shot. But in Montreal the skyline is constantly pushed, on the ubiquitous postcards and tchotchkes sold along St. Catherine Street, as though this were some great accomplishment of human ingenuity, rather than a paltry imitation, a mere toy model, of the envied city to the south.

Les gratte-ciel are also celebrated shamelessly in Quebecois art and cinema. Take Denys Arcand, the tiresome and repetitive director of The Decline and Fall of the American Empire and its sequel The Barbarian Invasions, as well as of the slightly more compelling 1989 film, Jesus of Montreal. The way he cuts to new scenes with panoramic shots of the city’s skyscrapers at night, alto saxes blaring, you would think you were watching a promotional segment of the in-flight entertainment program on an incoming Air Canada plane. You would almost expect this schmaltzy segue to be followed by scenes of children getting their faces painted at a street fair, of horse carriages in the old town, or of a group of young adults, sweaters tied around their necks, laughing in a restaurant booth as a man in a chef’s hat serves them a flaming dessert. And yet this is not Air Canada filler, but the work of a supposedly serious director, himself only one example of a very common phenomenon in French Canadian movies. Every time I see the Montreal skyline glorified in Quebecois cinema, I think to myself: if Nebraska had a state-subsidized film industry, Omaha too would be portrayed as a metropolis.

But pay attention to the panorama, and you will see that there is simply not much there. Montreal is probably a notch closer to Iqaluit than it is to New York on the scale of the world’s great cities. I place it just behind Timisoara, and just ahead of Irkutsk, Windhoek, and Perth. It is admittedly not just an aluminum shed and a ski-doo or two. But still one gets the sense there that the entire settlement could be easily dismantled and quitted overnight, as one might pack up a polar research station. I’ve lived in Montreal for three years, and still, every time a Canadian commences another soporific paean to the place I think to myself: where is this city you keep mentioning? I must still be lost in the banlieue. I must not have discovered that dense and vital core of the place that would justify all this effusive praise. And so I consult the map repeatedly, and determine to my confusion that I have by now been just about everywhere in the city, indeed that I live in the centre-ville. In New York, in contrast, I always know, in the same way I know I exist, that I am most assuredly, metaphysically there. You cannot be in New York and doubt that you are in New York.

A student of mine recently returned from her first trip to New York and announced that it is ‘not all that different’ from Montreal. She noted that there is virtually the same concentration of hipsters in each place, and that many New York hipsters are listening to Montreal bands such as Les Georges Leningrad. Call it ‘the hipster index’. In Baltimore, Tucson, Cincinnati, and even Edmonton, there are plenty of ruddy youngsters who collect vinyl, make objets d’art with trash they find, do yoga, declare ‘I’m not religious per se, but I consider myself a very spiritual person,’ read Jung and Hesse and Leary and (‘just for fun’) their horoscopes, have spells of veganism, try to build theremins, decorate with Betty Page artifacts, and speak disdainfully of that empty abstraction, ‘Americans’. I’ve been to these places, and seen them with my own eyes. All these places rank very high on the hipster index. I’m afraid, though, that I am reaching a period of my life in which I measure the greatness of a place by other indices. Like beauty, for instance, and the intensity and importance of the things the grown-ups there are up to.

The other city often invoked in order that Montreal might borrow a bit of greatness is, of course, Paris. The city on the Seine, but without the jet-lag, is how the tourism industry packages it. I think this has something to do with the fact that a French of sorts is spoken in the province. But an English (of sorts) is spoken in Alabama, and nobody thinks to invoke London to try to get people to go there. It is odd, when you think about it, to make a claim to greater affinity with the Old World on the mere basis of la francophonie. After all, every major language of the New World –excluding those of the First Nations—is part of the European branch of the Indo-European family, but this doesn’t give Brazil, Panama, or the United States any special foothold in Europe.

I have been to Paris, and stood at intersections waiting to see pick-up trucks pass by with bumperstickers exclaiming the French equivalent of ‘This vehicle protected by Smith & Wesson,’ or ‘U toucha my truck, I breaka u face.’ They don’t have these there. They don’t have strip malls, or ‘new country’, or donuts, or (regrettably) coffee to go, and WWF wrestling has not made much of an impact.

The situation is quite different in Quebec. La belle province is 100% American, in the early-18th-century sense of the term, and Montreal is but an outlying provincial capital. The metropolitan capital to which Montreal is subordinated is New York. What counts as center and what as periphery does not, of course, stay the same forever. A few more decades of incompetent US government and global warming may change the balance between the two cities. For now, anyway, this is just how things are.

A very happy new year from 125th Street in Harlem. I will be returning to my usual, deracinated life up north a few days from now. If they’ll still let me in.