Weekend happenings in Montreal – a roundup

Here are just a few of the many events happening in Montreal this weekend:


If you’re into comics and/or celebrities and pop culture this weekend’s Montreal ComicCon is for you. Today (Saturday’s) event is so popular online tickets are sold out and you have to line up at the door. Bring your comics and cash, especially if you’re looking for an autograph from a bigtime celeb or want to buy tickets to a panel. At the Palais des Congrès all weekend. Info available here.

Annual Community Corn Roast, Hector Toe-Blake Park (René-Lévesque & Sussex)

From 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Free. Details available here.

Eat, Learn & Play at Occupy the Sud-Ouest.

My last post has the details but this weekend’s “occupy” event is all about building community. There’s also free vegan food and play spaces for children. Info is available here.

Learn How to Access Grants with the QWF

This afternoon the Quebec Writers’ Federation is holding a workshop that will give writers the lowdown on how to access funding from the Canada Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.  Cost $20. Open to all. You can probably register at the door. Info: QWF Web site.

Chris Philpott of Transition Leamington Visits Verdun this Sunday

Philpott, a founding member of Transition Leamington in the U.K. and author of a new book called Green Spirituality will be giving a talk in Verdun as a guest of a new Verdun In Transition group.

Where:  Marcel Giroux Community Centre (5955, rue Bannantyne)

When: Sunday, September 16, 6:30pm -8:30pm.

All are welcome. Free but pay-what-you-can donations appreciated. Info available here.


Occupy the Sud-Ouest!

The red square movement ain’t over yet.

Yes, Parti Québécois Premier-elect Pauline Marois has promised not to raise university tuition and yes, it seems the student “strike” accomplished that goal.

But red squares are about a lot more than student strikes. The same energy students and community activists put into red square demos is being used to create community neighbourhood assemblies and keep the movement going. Arguably in Montreal a lot of this activism and community engagement began when people joined the Occupy movement.  Ideas from Occupy took form, evolved and continued with the red square movement (or at least that’s what happened with the creation of APAQs around the city, for instance, NDG’s Automous Neighbourhood Assembly).

For an idea of what I mean, this weekend residents and community groups in Montreal’s southwest (sud-ouest) sector will “occupy” their neighbourhoods by getting to know one another, exchanging knowledge and building better communities by gathering together to think up ways to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhoods.

St. Henri (Saint-Henri), for instance, was the working class setting for Gabrielle Roy’s novel Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute). Lately though there’s been plenty of gentrification as industrial lofts become condos and office spaces and hip restaurants, pubs and cafés dot the main streets. But many low income residents can’t afford to participate in the new St. Henri.

The rebuilding of the Turcot includes the demolition of existing (and badly needed) housing. Many in the neighbourhood also feel the Turcot reconstruction project doesn’t adequately address safety issues for pedestrians and cyclists. Social housing, environmental and food security initiatives for low income people would help in the fight against poverty and green the neighbourhood.

Starting today at 10 a.m.,  the Sir George-Etienne-Cartier Park near St-Henri metro will feature:

  • free, all-day vegan BBQs
  • a marketplace of kiosks dedicated to activities, projects, groups, and local concerns like the Turcot reconstruction, environment/food security, and social housing.
  • 2-hour workshops will be held from 11h-18h, followed in the evening by music and movie screenings
  • a play area for children

A detailed schedule is available here

Organizers say “anyone interested  is warmly invited to hold a workshop, kiosk, or activity, and we’re happy to help you set it up.”

I worked in St. Henri for a few weeks last month and snapped some “red square” photos on my way to the metro.

Empress outcome

This very long post may be the last one I’ll write about the old Empress Theatre/Cinema V building in NDG.

I’m still trying to tease out exactly what Wednesday’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough meeting was about in terms of the final decision on the Empress.

Is the heart of the matter a disagreement about process? Is it about municipal parties with vastly different approaches to governance? Or is it that some NDG folks expect a different kind of borough government?

The answer is probably all of the above.

Some background

For people who don’t know Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG),  we are made up of two municipal districts (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Loyola) in Montreal’s most populous borough, Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. The CDN-NDG borough does not have borough councillors, all the councillors at borough council meetings are city councillors who, along with our borough mayor, attend city council meetings. Some of these elected officials are high profile:

  • Mayor Michael Applebaum is a member of the city’s executive and is second-in-command to the Mayor of Montreal
  • Côte-des-Neiges district councillor Helen Fotopulos is the city executive member responsible for culture and heritage
  • Snowdon district councillor Marvin Rotrand is vice-president of the STM, the city’s public transportation agency

Unlike most other cities, Montreal has political parties. In our borough, four out of five city councillors, plus the borough mayor, are members of the city’s ruling party, Union Montréal, while one councillor belongs to Projet Montréal, an opposition party.

The old Empress/Cinema building is located in the NDG district of NDG, an area represented by the sole opposition councillor, Peter McQueen. The building’s history is contentious. Most of the building was shut down in 1992. The city definitely took it over when Vision Montréal was the city’s ruling party (I’m unclear as to when it was bought. Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand says the city bought the building 23 years ago but Pierre Bourque of Vision Montréal only became the city’s mayor in 1994 – 18 years ago). A number of politicians who currently run the CDN-NDG borough were opposition councillors at the time of the purchase and consider the building to be a white elephant.

NDG is home to many artists and community groups and has a long history of community activism. An example of this is what happened after the Canada Lands Company, a federal crown corporation, announced plans to sell off much of Benny Farm, which was originally an 18-acre public housing project built for World War II veterans and their families. NDG community activists feared the land would be sold to private developers for condo and townhouse projects and they protested fiercely.

As a result, in 2002 Canada Lands created a Task Force with community stakeholders and held public consultations on the site’s future to set goals for the site. Today Benny Farm has a mix of affordable housing for seniors, families, low income and disabled people, many buildings were recycled and use green energy (there were some disasters on that front, but I digress), private housing exists alongside non-profit housing and it will soon to be home to a CLSC and a library/culture centre. The end result of the Benny Farm process was not perfect but there was a sense in NDG that at least people’s concerns were heard and taken into account.

The same cannot be said for the Empress Theatre/Cinema V building.

It would take a long time to explain just how many people and successive boards of directors and volunteers tried to restore the building over the years. About 15 years ago, a non-profit group (its latest name was the Empress Cultural Centre or ECC), was put in charge of developing the building. Initially people wanted a cinema but when they applied to the federal government for charitable tax status they were told cinemas were ineligible.

The focus then changed to resurrecting the theatre and creating a multipurpose performance space, offices and artists’ lofts. At one point the roof leaked, adding more damage to a building already stricken by fire.

It seemed every time anyone tried to redevelop the building, they ran into obstacles. By far the biggest one was finding money for engineering and architectural studies and repairs and renovations, with cost estimates running as high as $14 million. Attempts at getting funding from federal and provincial governments failed, even though well-known people (for instance, Peter McAuslan and Warren Allmand) were on the ECC board of directors. And there was always a question of whether the ECC had enough support from local politicians to get the project off the ground.

A note to journalists reporting on the old Empress Theatre/Cinema V building: the building did not sit completely empty for 15 years. Head & Hands had an office on the Old Orchard side of the building until, I believe, 2003. They had to move because of the leaky roof. Also: one room was opened on the front left hand side of the building for use as an office/meeting space.

In late 2011 the CDN-NDG borough council took the mandate for the Empress/Cinema V building away from the ECC. In January the borough launched a “contest” for non-profit groups to bid on redeveloping the building. A set of criteria was established and groups had until May to find funding and prove their projects were financially viable and had a cultural component (environmental and community components were on the list as well).

A jury made up of four city employees and three citizens judged the bids. In June the committee filed its report with borough council. After eliminating a third contender, the jury ruled it had chosen Cinéma NDG’s neighbourhood repertory cinema project (modeled on Cinéma Beaubien) over the ECC’s proposal.

Wednesday’s borough council meeting was to be the final vote on the chosen project. Some NDG folks thought it would provide a chance to open up discussion on the building’s future. When the “contest” was discussed at January’s borough council meeting, Mayor Applebaum left the impression there would be an opportunity to talk about the jury’s decision before councillors voted on it.

Different political languages

Listening carefully Wednesday night to both CDN-NDG Borough Mayor Michael Applebaum and community group representatives, it seemed they weren’t speaking the same language. At all.

I wonder if in addition to NDG community folks and artists expecting a Benny Farm-type consultation, differences between Union Montréal and Project Montréal account for this disconnect.

(I’m aware of past differences community groups say they’ve had with Mayor Applebaum. I wonder about the bigger picture, the why of it all).

It reminds me of the mismatch you get when someone who enjoys working in a collaborative setting ends up in a hierarchical one.

While Projet Montréal emphasizes community consultation and participative democracy, in the case of the Empress Theatre/Cinema V building it seems Union Montréal was all about following city rules and process. The way Mayor Applebaum presented things it seems these politicians consider it their job to govern wthout necessarily always consulting constituents. This is puzzling considering this administration held information meetings in NDG for the Benny Farm Recreation Centre and the new library/cultural centre and to some degree there was public consultation for those projects.

When it came to the Empress decision there was no mechanism built into the process, aside from a 30-minute public question and information period (extended by 30 minutes), to allow for any sort of dissent. No special meeting was called to discuss the decision and no real opportunity existed for citizens to meet with or question the jury about their choice. Because the Empress decision was part of a regular borough council meeting, time was tight and there was a limit of three people asking questions on any given subject, including the Empress (after question period was extended, a few more questions on the Empress were allowed). So in spite of there being disappointment and distress and disillusionment for some NDG folks, the root source of the conflict wasn’t addressed.

At Wednesday’s meeting Mayor Applebaum called the contest an “appel d’offres,” (later on he said “appel de propositions”) and likened it to bidding on a road contract (ECC supporters at the back of the room cried out that culture is not the same as roadwork). During question period when respected NDG community activist Marlo Turner Ritchie asked Mayor Applebaum about adopting a collaborative spirit, Applebaum answered, “We don’t have consultation when we award a contract for a road.” During question period Sonya Girard of Action Communiterre asked Mayor Applebaum if there was a chance to open things up and work together for the best project possible. “I am not going to wait another three years, fours years, five years and watch the building deteriorate,” Applebaum answered.

When NDG district city councillor Peter McQueen challenged Mayor Applebaum to bring the Cinéma NDG and ECC groups together, Applebaum responded:

“One year ago I gave you an opportunity… to find a solution and partners,” Applebaum said. “You refused, Mr. McQueen, and we found a solution. When I gave you the challenge, you didn’t take it. You made a decision. You have to live with it.”

“You can’t have two winners,” Rotrand told McQueen later in the meeting. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Note: A similar challenge was presented by Applebaum to McQueen at January’s borough council meeting. Marie Cicchini of Les Actualités Côte-des-Neiges reported about it here. You’ll find my blog post account here.

Cinéma NDG-Caught In the Middle?

Community group reps and people involved with the ECC say they have nothing against Cinéma NDG. On Wednesday the ECC’s Paul Scriver told me he wouldn’t mind if Cinéma NDG stole the ECC’s ideas. Scriver’s goodwill appears to be founded on a belief that he’ll give his blessing to anyone who can get the building reopened. During question period Girard of Action Communiterre looked straight at the Cinéma NDG people and offered to work with them on a rooftop terrace to showcase urban agriculture, a feature of the ECC’s bid.

Aside from a scattering of media interviews, including a Montreal Gazette article, the Cinéma NDG folks have been tight-lipped about their project. Christine Beaubien of Cinéma NDG said they’d promised potential investors anonymity. Cinéma NDG supporters booed the ECC’s project during Wednesday’s meeting (especially when comments were made about the building sitting empty for 15 years). When the ECC’s Jason Hughes said it was difficult for a non-profit organization to find financing in such a short time for a building they did not own, Cinéma NDG supporters yelled out “We did!” Cinéma NDG supporters repeatedly jeered when McQueen spoke and loudly applauded their own win. It’s hard to tell if their board of directors has any interest in working with the people behind the “losing” bid or incorporating ideas from that bid into the Cinéma NDG project.

At Wednesday’s borough council meeting Mayor Applebaum made it clear the CDN-NDG borough believes in keeping the bid proposals confidential, just as they do for roadwork projects.

Judging from comments made Wednesday night by Cinéma NDG’s Christine Beaubien, the group appeared to embrace the borough’s policy on keeping their bid under wraps.

But yesterday (Friday, Sept. 7) Cinéma NDG posted its project proposal on the Cinéma NDG Web site.

The Decision

Mayor Applebaum, CDN-NDG director Stéphane Plante and Marvin Rotrand explained the reasoning behind the decision and compared the two project proposals:

  • The Cinéma NDG bid was clearer and provided more details – Plante.
  • Cinéma NDG’s business plan was far better than the ECC’s – Rotrand
  • Cinéma NDG’s estimate on the cost of renovations was more realistic than the ECC’s. Cinéma NDG estimated $12-$14 million, while the ECC quoted $6.7 million  – Plante & Applebaum
  • The Cinéma NDG project had letters of intent from investors, while the ECC did not – Plante (The ECC’s Jason Hughes and others shouted from the back of the room that the ECC’s project bid did include such letters)
  • Because of its partnership with Cinéma Beaubien, Cinéma NDG has experience running a similar project – Plante
  • Cinéma NDG has already raised $5 million, has the Caisse Desjardins as an anchor tenant and is backed by Investissement Québec. Its track record at Cinéma Beaubien will help it find financing – Applebaum. “We have a group with money and credible projects. I really believe if we don’t give this group a chance the building will be closed for years and years. I don’t know much about the other project except the jury poked holes in it” – Rotrand
  • The jury committee was not convinced of the rentabilité (profitability) of the ECC’s project – Plante
  • Cinéma NDG’s project will devote 60 per cent of the building to cinema (there will be four screening rooms) and 40 per cent to commercial space – Applebaum
  • A cinema has widespread appeal – this was said by a M. Côté (a jury member?) during the question period and echoed by Applebaum, Plante and others.
  • Cinéma NDG has until the end of 2013 to launch its project and build links with the community.

“There is always a place for innovative ideas,”  Côte-des-Neiges district councillor Helen Fotopulos told Cinéma NDG supporters. Both Fotopulos and Applebaum repeated their willingness to help Cinéma NDG seek government funding.  “We will help you if you need our support to continue your project,” Fotopulos said.

NDG district councillor Peter McQueen voted against the decision, citing a lack of transparency. McQueen accused Applebaum of misleading groups when Applebaum said projects would not receive any help from the borough. “Everyone was given the same documents,” Applebaum said. “The city would not financially support any project.”

Other issues

During the question period Christine Beaubien of Cinema NDG accused Peter McQueen of approaching Cinéma NDG’s potential investors and asking them about teaming up with the ECC’s project as well.

Fotopulos said she was “shocked” CBC Daybreak knew what was in Cinéma NDG’s bid proposal, the allegation being that McQueen had illegally leaked confidential information from Cinema NDG’s bid proposal documents.

It seems Mayor Applebaum is considering having McQueen investigated for possible misconduct as a city councillor (he mentioned seeking “l’avis de notre contentieux”). Or perhaps this was a veiled threat.


Toward the end of the vote discussion a number of ECC supporters left the room. Marlo Turner Ritchie told the Cinéma NDG folks, “Good luck with your Cinéma Caisse Pop.”

Behind all the frustration and anger is a dire need in NDG for multipurpose performance spaces (for community theatre, art exhibits, music, film screenings etc.), office spaces for artists’ organizations and artists’ lofts, rooftop gardens, places serving locally sourced food and spaces where you get to see films produced by local NDG filmmakers. There is also a deep attachment to the old Empress Theatre/Cinema V building that goes beyond bringing back the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Just after Wednesday’s meeting Marlo Turner Ritchie posted on Facebook:

Well THAT was a frustrating experience. Both Sonya and I, along with other citizens asked questions and shared ideas that addressed the need for public consultation, cooperation and maximum creativity. In a nutshell, Applebaum shared denial, hostility and lied outright (I.e. His “independent” jury was stacked with his own staff,  like the room tonight.) He even went as far as to suggest that the fact that we discussed this project in the context of a “contest” was illegal. Tonight was an opportunity to bring people together. Instead, he sought to divide us. Let’s show our elected officials that we can rise above the egos and political back-room deals and do what is right for our community! Write to the media! Contact your elected officials! Either that or we sit back and accept that “Cinéma Caisse Pop” will be the future for our precious historic asset.

Turner Ritchie also posted she is worried that 25 per cent of the Egyptian-styled facade could change when corporate logos are installed on the building.

But on the same Facebook page, John David “Hobbes” Hickey, a man I know to be devoted to the NDG community, a terrific storyteller and friend, appealed for peace:

Once the place is fixed up, it’s an ocean of possibilities where everyone can participate, thrive, and evolve. Once the roof is repaired, who is to say that we can’t ever have a rooftop garden? Once the cinematic halls are built, who is to say that we can’t have a live concert in one of them instead of a movie? Once the lobby is restored, who is to say that the art work of local artists cannot be displayed for all to enjoy (and maybe purchase)? But if we dig in our heels now, refuse to get involved because it didn’t happen exactly the way we wanted, everyone loses. Yes, I would’ve been much happier if could’ve gone the community-involvement route, but the economy is worse than ever, so prudence over leaps-of-faith tends to win out.

Dancing for the Empress

Women blow up balloons and pink flamingoes around protest sign on fenceAs a student journalist for The Charlatan at Carleton University, I remember being accused of lacking objectivity. As I recall, someone screamed “she’s an advocacy journalist” across the newspaper office during a staff meeting.

Anyone reading this blog knows that many of the posts here represent my point of view about issues affecting my home neighbourhood of NDG. That includes my take on the fate of the old Empress (Cinema V) building.

In spite of the label pinned on me years ago, I usually stay on the sidelines when I’m writing articles. I like to have some distance from the people I’m writing about.

But these latest developments affecting the Empress have outraged me enough I joined Friends of the Empress and some “dancivists” for a flash mob in front of the Empress yesterday. The song? Walk Like An Egyptian by The Bangles.

My friends know I hate having my photo taken and I’ve never had any ambition to appear on television. Being in the flash mob involved being filmed by two different TV crews (this included a cameraman zooming in on us as we passed him) and being photographed by print and online journalists.

Trying out different moves for Walk Like an Egyptian was great fun. So was improvising to the tune of Let’s Do the Time Warp Again. But I still don’t like being in front of any sort of camera.

I was greatly impressed by the hard work organizers, especially Marlo Turner Ritchie, did for this event. Marlo was fantastic leading our group through the dancing (she says her mom was an aerobics instructor in the 1980s). The dance moves were simple and easy to follow. Silly too. We did the “Egyptian” hand motions you see in The Bangles video. But we were also asked to “bring it on,” make boxing motions, pretend to be servers, pretend to be students and then “throw” our books away, hold hands in a circle, swing our partners, the list goes on.

The idea of holding a dance demo was brilliant. Instead of the usual moaning and complaining, with a flash mob citizens can use dance and music to express their displeasure with borough officials, yet also show their hopes for a different Empress.

Now if only this positive energy would translate into cooperation and change for the Empress. This Wednesday’s borough council meeting will be the test of that.

People dancing in front of the Empress buildingSign hanging on fence in front of Empress buildingProtest sign sits in Empress building window

The Bangles & A Showdown for the Empress?

It seems Sept. 5  is decision day for the old Empress (Cinema V) building in NDG.

The fate of the Egyptian-styled building is probably the most controversial item on the agenda of this Wednesday’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough council meeting.

If news reports are correct, a majority of the borough’s politicos will likely choose a redevelopment plan put forward by Cinema N.D.G. over another project proposed by the Empress Cultural Centre.

Cinema N.D.G. apparently has found an anchor tenant to support its project – the Caisse Desjardins. The Montreal Gazette quotes NDG district councillor Peter McQueen as saying the Caisse (presumably a Caisse populaire branch) would take up half the space on the building’s ground floor (retail outlets would take up the remaining space) and rent money from the Caisse would finance five cinema screening rooms on the second floor.

In contrast, the only other “contestant” for redeveloping the building, the Empress Cultural Centre, proposed a vastly different Empress. Were it to happen, the Empress Analog Institute would have highlighted culture, including music performances, special events for the local community (and the wider community of Montreal) and film programming through a Film Institute. The Empress Kitchen/cafe/bar was to be a social economy business with a “strong social mission,” a restaurant serving locally sourced ingredients, a cafe-bar offering a variety of Quebec microbrews. The Empress Kitchen was to have a rooftop garden terrace that could be used for anything from wedding receptions to organic gardening workshops. Artists’ lofts on the upper floors were part of this proposed plan.

I have no idea what’s been happening behind the scenes but I do find it strange the Caisse Desjardins is now in the picture and tied to the Cinema N.D.G. proposal. Years back when CDN-NDG borough mayor Michael Applebaum created a community centre for the St. Raymond section of NDG, he made a deal with the Caisse Desjardins. In that instance the Caisse was closing down its branch and heading for another section of NDG.  Applebaum successfully convinced the Caisse to leave some services at the centre  for people living in the area after the branch closed.

Weird too is that the borough required non-profit groups “bidding” to develop the Empress to highlight culture and community in their proposals. Right now it’s hard to tell what the Cinema N.D.G. project will do in terms of culture.

The situation has got some NDG folks upset. Fittingly they’re going to make their voices heard in the most dramatic way possible.

Tomorrow (Sept. 3)  at 1 p.m a group called Friends of the Empress is holding a flash mob (for details, check out Richard Burnett’s Pop Tart column)  in front of the Empress to the tune of the Bangles’ song “Walk like an Egyptian.”  Expect some songs from the Rocky Horror Picture Show on the playlist as well.

The invite says:

“Let’s send a strong message reminding our elected officials, and all possible partners in this large-scale local development, that culture and  community must be at the heart of this project, not commerce. Flashy costumes encouraged (think 1980s dance-hall meets ancient Egypt) This event is open to everyone!”

Failing fast, a lesson

“If you’re going to fail, fail fast,” a friend advised me. I believe she said she’d heard someone give that advice to startup businesses  but it applied to a job I was struggling with.

From the very beginning I questioned whether I was the right person for the job. Once in the job, it wasn’t long before I started failing. I wasn’t fast enough, I lacked the skills the position demanded and I felt as though I was continually hitting my head against a brick wall.

This latest situation reminded me of another job disaster, long ago when I tried stuffing envelopes for a direct mailing company. I have terrible hand-eye coordination and the job involved folding letters and stuffing 500 of them per hour into envelopes, and sealing the envelopes. I lasted three hours.

I had higher hopes for this job because the interview left me with the impression that I would be taught what I didn’t know and that I would adapt fairly easily. I knew my boss needed someone to step in soon but I had no idea he expected me to do work I’d never done before in just days or hours with no allowance for failure.

If this was a learning curve there was  no gradual incline – the hill (mountain?) was steep and the terrain, unforgiving. Nothing I did was ever right. The very skills and strengths others appreciate in me – my writing and editing abilities- were not valued. I received no praise or encouragement from my boss for what I did right. Many of my questions went unanswered and I never received the training I was promised during the interview.  I couldn’t believe the mistrust on my boss’s part. It was disheartening to be doubted so much.

I was getting ready to leave. I would have preferred to have been in the driver’s seat, to have left the job before being let go.

One of the most painful aspects of the job was working across a room from a boss who was obviously disappointed in me and didn’t seem to like me very much.

I loved the old factory building where the office is located. Built in 1899, it has high ceilings, wooden staircases and huge windows that allow natural light to stream in. Many artists, photographers and graphic designers are based there. It was definitely the blessing in an unhappy experience.

Failing in a job teaches you you’re not a good fit for that job. For me the test now is to move on quickly. It usually takes me a while to lick my wounds and go forward. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I need to welcome failure into my life more often.

I must be on the right track. The advice Doug Hall gives in a Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine article  is eerily familiar:

The only barrier to failing fast and failing cheap is your ego. You must be willing to fail, fail, and fail again if you are going to win in today’s competitive marketplace. Remember, even if you’re falling flat on your face, at least you’re still moving forward.