THE BLOG

Thank Q! Culture in Defence of Montreal

10/03/2013 05:26 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Ever since the PQ officially unveiled its Charter of Quebec Values, Montreal residents have been in a bit of a slump.

In the not-too-distant past, whenever the media attempted to draw ire with reports of Hasidic Jews forcing gym goers to conceal their Lululemon workout gear from the public, or with headlines of Muslims demanding that pork be removed from sugar shacks, most of us simply shrugged and continued to go about our business.

And, as recently as last June, when the Quebec Soccer Federation received Pauline Marois' blessing to uphold a ban preventing turban-wearing youth from playing soccer, Montrealers swiftly denounced a move we viewed as hostile to our city's mantra of openness and fun.

Yet, when it comes to this Charter, and to the government's unwavering claim that its objectives are to protect the public practice of our society's commitment to the principles of equality and neutrality, things feel different.

Yes, we've signed an impressively constructed petition calling for inclusion. We've continued to publicly call out the PQ for solving a crisis that is entirely of its own making. And, we've commiserated with our friends and acquaintances at work and in our local cafés. Confronting a reality, however, in which even cities and politicians out West are doing cosmopolitan life better than we are, we're nursing wounds to our collective psyche, and we're shuffling in our efforts to get our mojos back.

It was in this sad context last Thursday night when about 1500 Montrealers gathered for an event that coincided with Pop Montreal. When the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi brought his crew to the Olympia Theatre for a live taping of his daily radio show, Q, the Toronto-based host, perhaps unwittingly, used culture to choreograph and direct a re-awakening of the city's confidence.

Of principal importance to the revival were the evening's guests. Not simply due to the content of their performances, or to the substance of the answers they gave to Ghomeshi's questions, but especially because of the symbolic role their presence served to an audience of Montrealers.

Ghomeshi welcomed two musical performers. Patrick Watson performed elegantly, but when he said that the Montreal music scene was known more for creative collaboration between bands than for competition, he highlighted a unity in diversity spirit that's been rendered verboten under the letter of the Charter. Members of Braids told Ghomeshi how they fuel the content of their craft with their life experiences, but by showcasing a band that had relocated from Calgary, Q recognized that Montreal's allure still radiated outward to young artists in search of opportunity.

The inclusion of author Louise Penny, whose new book debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, was an obvious feel good story. But, when actor Antoine Bertrand's taunting of Ghomeshi for butchering the French pronunciation of his TV show's name segued into a disclosure of the nerves he felt about speaking English to the crowd, a deliciously local encounter was set in motion. A sheepish Ghomeshi offered a few words in his best French. Bertrand replied saying all that's needed is effort. Reasonable accommodation is anathema under the PQ, but when its awkward reality played out on the Olympia's stage, the audience ate it up precisely because they're comfortable performing it in their daily lives.

Finally, while Q's special Quebec media panel was ostensibly tasked with making sense of the Charter, comedian Sugar Sammy just may have been the one who offered the best edification on this score. Born and raised in Montreal, of Indian ethnicity, open about his irrational fealty to his traditional immigrant parents, and so fluent in English and French that his bilingual comedy show has sold 100,000 tickets to Quebecers on both sides of the two solitudes, Sugar Sammy is the living embodiment of the PQ's worst nightmare. "I grew up around different cultures," Sammy said. "And, I've always said, 'if you open yourself up to everybody, I promise you you'll come out winning.'" Sammy's preference to promote equality in Quebec by letting everybody be themselves is at odds with the Charter. But, judging from his overwhelming popularity province wide, time may very well be on the man's side.

This is all rather optimistic. Why, after all, do Montrealers need a Toronto show to highlight our culture? Why were no visible minorities included on the media panel to speak about the Charter's effects on their communities? Certainly, there were some in the audience who supported the Charter?

These are important questions.

But, in the midst of an uncomfortable autumn, when our politics are particularly foul, local culture makers reminded Montrealers just who we are. By watching them, we celebrated ourselves. And, at least for one night, it was good.

Quebec Values Charter