May 8: The Montreal Conference (version française ici)
I arrive at night. We drive through Chinatown, its bright red and yellow signs a jumble of Mandarin, Vietnamese and French. We drive past blocks of old brick townhouses. To me, Montréal thrums with an energy that says: we know how to do culture. Even the way my cab driver says, “Je vous en prie, mademoiselle,” seems to me infused with decorum and style. The next day, I feel that energy again when I arrive at the venue of the 2017StartsNow conference. The clean, modern architecture of the SAT, backdrop to the cadenced buzz of the French-speaking crowd, emphasizes the culture-consciousness of the people here.
You might think that bilingualism would be on people’s minds when thinking about what to celebrate in 2017. But if these conferences are exercises in imagining, Montrealers don’t need to imagine living bilingualism, or even trilingualism. They’re already there. What I notice, instead, is that these Montrealers, perhaps because they already understand the importance of shared language, also know the roles that artistry and creativity play in building and maintaining social cohesion.
When Marc Lepage of Génome Quebec asks if we can celebrate scientists the same way we celebrate artists, it’s as much a plug for what scientists do for culture as it is a plug for what culture does for scientists. When Michel Leblanc speaks of creativity as one of the things that Montreal’s business community can be proud of, when he suggests working with Moment Factory to light up Jacques Cartier bridge, and when he suggests building momentum with the question “Were You There,” he demonstrates that Montreal’s business community understands itself as participating in creating the city’s culture.
As usual, everyone in attendance is brimming with ideas. Bettina Forget, a local gallery owner, echoes Toronto Luminato Festival’s Lucille Joseph, when she says that Montreal needs to involve its communities in the creation, not just the consumption of public art.
Patrick Valiquette says his B.C. friends told him to attend the conference. “Where are all the other environmentalists?” he asks, looking around. “There aren’t any here.”
I ask Chief Ghislain Picard about opening the conference with a prayer and a reminder that we’re on traditional Iroquois territory. “I only started seeing people do that when I moved out of Ontario to B.C.,” I told him. “Have things changed in the past six years? Are we recognizing traditional territory in all the provinces now?” He took a deep breath. “It depends on who the audience is,” he says. “Some people are more open to it.”
A CEGEP teacher named Patrick, who organizes mountain running competitions on Mont Royal, wants to see Montreal use the 150 celebration to invite people from all around the world to come to Canada. We should be inviting the world to our party, he suggests. “Come celebrate with us,” he says, “that could be our slogan.”
At the same time, many of the attendees agree that it’s a tough sell to get Quebecois excited about the idea of “Canada.” Montreal may have hosted Expo ’67, people tell me, but since then we’ve had the Quiet Revolution, Bill 101, Oka and two referendums. I ask one of the facilitators, Kevin, a young man who looks about fifteen but must be older than that, what his main takeaway is. “I think people are thinking less about ‘celebrating’ and more about building something that we care about and that will last,“ says Kevin. “We don’t need another party or a festival. Montreal already has tons of great festivals; we already know how to party.”