Forty-five years ago, our city played “Host to the World” with Expo 67. The World’s Fair boasted the latest technology of its time, a festive atmosphere, unmistakable energy and exciting prospects for the future. Visitors were greeted with new infrastructure, including the métro, the Champlain Bridge, the Décarie Expressway and Place des Arts. There was talk of being the gateway to Europe, a bi-cultural commercial bridge between the Old World and the New. The catchy Expo theme song – “Hey Friend, Say friend” – was taken to heart, with about 50 million visits tallied.
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Certainly, it’s different from today’s Montreal. Once-clean streets are now filthy, poorly maintained, with graffiti everywhere. Heavy truck traffic is restricted on our bridges. Recently, a sinkhole appeared on Sherbrooke St., a great metaphor for the corruption that we sense is just beneath the surface. Our formerly safe downtown is patrolled by police in riot gear, and the U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert that puts us in the same company with Bahrain, Guinea and Tunisia.
Much of what we are experiencing is specific to Montreal (and Quebec). Our local history has played a role, as the province moved from Quiet Revolution through political kidnappings, divisive referendums on our constitutional future, the loss of economic might, and the diminution of the anglophone community. Hosting the two-week summer Olympics and the ensuing debt burden didn’t help, as Barcelona and Athens can similarly attest. And the arrival and departure of Major League Baseball also reflected our diminishing status.
Intertwined in all this is a broader malaise. Western nations are reeling from a two-generation buildup of debt, the result of consumption exceeding production and entitlements promised but not paid for. Europe has sought to dampen its excess borrowing through austerity. The result to date: crushing unemployment and civil unrest. North America has taken another route, hoping to grow itself out of its debts. The risk here is not just inflation but hyper-inflation, a proven society destroyer as Europeans, Africans and South Americans well know. Meanwhile, paying the price are those who denied themselves by saving for the future while others, profligate in their ways, look to be bailed out. Retirees now find their bank accounts produce no income under government-repressed low- interest rates.
Connecting the dots, we can see that a growing economy masks a lot of society’s underlying tensions. Why rock the boat? But when the economic pie stops expanding, every interest group and entitlement-seeker wants their voice heard, and conflict abounds. Any sense of compromise is quickly lost. Political debate becomes shrill and no one wants to bend. This plays into the hands of self-serving, media-savvy leaders, who narcissistically point fingers everywhere but at the mirror. Don’t we deserve better?
These are difficult times for sure. Yet, as complex and numerous as today’s problems may be, the causes and solutions are generally known. It will take political courage to make the tough choices needed. I prefer the term “leadership.”
It reminds me of an Aesop’s fable. A cat is prone to wandering, and sometimes gets lost. The solution is simplicity itself: attach a bell collar around its neck. The task now is to “bell the cat.” Easy, you say? Go ask anyone who owns a frisky cat, and give it a try. What we need are leaders who will take charge and lead, not follow. Leaders who will seek consensus and be unafraid to get wet in the rain. And rain it will. Yet it’s been done. From Moses to Churchill to Ghandi to Martin Luther King. All demanded sacrifice from their followers, and follow they did.
During the darkest hour in our city’s history, following the assassination of Pierre Laporte, the inspired message of the song Bridge Over Troubled Waters helped calm and unite us. Another Paul Simon composition, Mrs. Robinson, hearkens to a simpler time: of accomplishment, of pride, of promise. It might be that time again, to recall the values of an era past and a yearning evoked by the woeful lyrics “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” This time, with a local twist: “Where have you gone (Jean Béliveau, Gary Carter, Sam Etcheverry), a city turns its lonely eyes to you.”JoelJoel Raby
is the managing director of MacDougall Investment Counsel of Montreal. He lives in Montreal.
.........................Students have been protesting forever,regardless of the so called cause. - Les