Take a walk along St. Antoine Street at the edge of Old Montreal, just west of the main courthouse, and it’s hard to miss the glass-walled former pressroom of the newspaper La Presse. This lofty space, visible from the street, is now home to the newsroom. Where giant contraptions once churned mightily putting ink to paper, there sits a tri-level marvel of contemporary architecture where reporters and editors perform their daily tasks. This newsroom has largely escaped the massive cuts that have decimated editorial staff at the Postmedia newspapers and elsewhere. But there’s no ink, and no paper. La Presse is now a digital-only publication.

Newsstands are declining in number and scope, and some outlets (for example, a convenience store near where I live) have given up entirely on newspapers. At the ones where newspapers are still on offer, there’s a noticeable gap where La Presse used to appear, sometimes in glorious heaps that would reach sky-high on Saturdays with the massive weekend edition. To enjoy the product of what is still an impressive news-gathering and news-analyzing organization, you now require an iPad or similar device.

The Saturday print edition disappeared at the beginning of 2018, two years after the weekday print edition. They’ve been replaced by a tablet edition marketed under the name La Presse+, which unlike the web pages of most news organizations is read like a traditional newspaper, laid out on pages that are “turned” with thumb motions. Some people are obviously happy with this change. La Presse management claims to have attracted a larger – and younger – readership than ever before. One reason for its popularity is a policy of free distribution, with no subscription fees or paywall. In September 2018, downloads of the tablet app passed the million mark. But this is not necessarily a story with a happy ending.

La Presse is afflicted by the same financial challenges that face countless other publications in the Western world and beyond. Driven by mounting financial losses, a growing number – the Independent of London, which made the shift in March 2016, is a notable example – have switched to an all-digital model. Printing and distribution costs far exceeded revenues from subscriptions and newsstand sales. Eliminating print editions was a way of cutting costs. The thinking was that advertising revenues would be more than sufficient to cover the other costs of producing a newspaper. And the owners of La Presse had deep enough pockets to develop the required software for the tablet function. They even managed to sell their proprietary technology to the Toronto Star, though the Star Touch experiment ended in failure due to lack of reader interest.

The elimination of paper provided relief on the cost side of the ledger. But things haven’t been looking so good on the revenue side, with a continuing slump in advertising volumes despite the positive movement in readership. The extent of the slump is not known publicly. Although La Presse was for many years owned by a publicly traded company, its financial results were not disclosed separately. And now it has changed ownership, part of a continuing and increasingly dramatic story.

La Presse was founded in 1884 and was acquired in 1967 by a subsidiary of Power Corporation of Canada, which a year later came under the control of the late Paul Desmarais and is now controlled by his two sons. Power Corporation, founded in 1925, got its name from its holdings in electric utility companies. Its main focus long ago shifted to the financial services field. Through its partly owned subsidiary Power Financial Corporation, it controls Great-West Life, London Life, Canada Life, Investors Group and Mackenzie Investments, among other companies in Canada and abroad. And through its Gesca subsidiary, it owned, until recently, La Presse and six regional dailies. The regional dailies, with Le Soleil of Quebec City as the flagship, were sold in 2015 to Groupe Capitales Médias, a newly formed company headed by Martin Cauchon, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister. This was just the start of the convulsions that lay ahead.

The Desmarais family has, over the years, established close relationships with leading Liberal Party figures, primarily at the federal level, as well as with some Conservative politicians, including two former Ontario premiers. Paul Martin worked for Power Corporation for many years, and Jean Chrétien sat on the board of a Power subsidiary. Pierre Trudeau served briefly during the 1990s on Power’s international advisory board. The newspapers under the Desmarais family’s control have generally been close to the Liberal Party and have always been staunchly federalist on their editorial pages. This is especially true of La Presse.

The cause of the slump in advertising revenues can largely be summed up in two words: Facebook and Google. By some estimates, these two Silicon Valley behemoths together account for 80 per cent of online ad revenues in Canada. Their operations include news aggregation, which amounts to the appropriation of content produced at great expense by newspapers and broadcasters while siphoning a hefty portion of the advertising revenues that used to cover the costs of news gathering. Meanwhile, the likes of Craigslist and eBay have drained away most of the classified advertising revenues that were a mainstay of the newspaper industry. And these foreign firms are not even required to collect GST or provincial sales tax on their Canadian revenues. This has resulted in a business model that makes little financial sense for newspaper publishers, in Canada or elsewhere. Newspapers were long among the most profitable of businesses. Now the opposite is true, and many have succumbed.

Newspapers, of course, are more than businesses. They are also important community institutions that, under current circumstances, are seen increasingly as worthy of public support. Already, the Quebec government has committed $10 million to the financially distressed Groupe Capitales Médias to assist with a digital shift.

In July 2018, La Presse was ceded to a nonprofit foundation. The Desmarais family, to their immense credit, pledged $50 million to stabilize the employee pension plan. As much as they would probably have liked to remain in the newspaper business, it was becoming an intolerable drain on resources. La Presse is hardly the first newspaper in the world to adopt the nonprofit foundation model. It follows in the footsteps of The Guardian and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. A key attraction is that this status enables it to receive tax-advantaged contributions from charitable foundations, for which private businesses would not be eligible. It could also become eligible for financing under hypothetical government programs in support of the newspaper industry. Just as Ottawa supports broadcast journalism through the CBC, it could soon find itself supporting newspapers, whether in paper or digital format.

Of course, there are tricky ethical problems to be worked out, such as editorial lines that could be seen as favouring the party in power. But a number of European governments have long provided various forms of financial support to the press, and Ottawa is under growing pressure to respond to the fallout from Silicon Valley encroachment, especially on the heels of unfavourable reaction to a 2017 agreement under which Netflix was exempted from sales taxes and production fund contributions that its Canadian-based competitors are required to pay.

Despite the intensifying woes, Montreal (on the French side) remains, along with Toronto, among the most competitive of North American newspaper markets. La Presse, the traditional broadsheet newspaper of the broad middle class, is seeking a new way forward in the 21st century. Le Journal de Montréal, long denigrated as a sports-and-crime tabloid, has in recent years produced some creditable political reporting, but it too faces financial challenges. Its owner is Québecor Inc., a broadcasting and telecommunications giant controlled by Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who served briefly as Parti Québécois leader.

Le Devoir, which has earned intellectual esteem through most of its existence but has long been a low-circulation financial weakling, seems paradoxically to be coping better than its larger rivals, with a recent recapitalization and a subscription-focused revenue model. Resolutely independent, Le Devoir has an unusual ownership structure, with 51 per cent of the shares held by a foundation under the nominal control of the editor-in-chief. Adding to the competitive mix are Métro and 24 Heures, rival tabloids distributed free at public transit stations. Meanwhile, the Postmedia-owned Montreal Gazette looks like a pale shadow of a pale shadow. The bitter joke goes that any further cuts in editorial staff will leave it in minus numbers.

As a long-time reader of La Presse with a sentimental attachment to paper, I found the adjustment to the tablet edition difficult at first. But I soon discovered advantages. I can read the newspaper (the “news” part of the word still applies even if the “paper” part does not) without having to step out of bed. One initial fear was that the editors would be tempted to rely more heavily on photos and fancy graphics at the expense of hard news coverage. This fear has turned out to be unfounded. Yes, there are more photos than before, but there is also more text. Without the constraints imposed by physical production, there is more space available, and it is often put to good use. I also have to confess that some of the graphic elements are quite appealing.

All in all, I think the product has improved since the print days. La Presse continues to produce good journalism, with some serious investigative reporting and a number of columnists who are well worth reading. Among them are international affairs writer Agnès Gruda, political columnists Lysiane Gagnon and Patrick Lagacé, legal affairs columnist Yves Boisvert and cultural affairs columnist Nathalie Petrowski, along with Rima Elkouri, who writes about immigration, among other topics, and Boucar Diouf, who covers a vast range of topics ranging from marine biology to Senegalese folklore.

I truly hope La Presse ends up with a business model that works. But I fear that its very survival is at risk.

Jack Jedwab, Counterterrorism and Identities: Canadian Viewpoints. Montreal: Linda Leith Publishing, 2015. 195 pages.

At the launch last fall of Counterterrorism and Identities: Canadian Viewpoints, Jack Jedwab made the unremarkable confession that he has a lifelong love of numbers. Readers who share his fondness for numbers will more fully appreciate this book, centred around an extensive set of polling data on topics that include Canadians’ understanding of terrorism, their competing identities and sense of security, religion and counterterrorism, and civil liberties.

The launch occurred at a very opportune time, just days after the November 13 atrocities in Paris and only a few weeks after the October 19 federal election that ended a decade of Conservative rule in Canada. National security had featured prominently in the governing party’s campaign. The opposition parties were portrayed as soft on terrorism and too willing to accept “barbaric cultural practices,” widely perceived as code words aimed at Muslims, a handy political target in many Western countries. No less a personage than National Post founder and columnist Conrad Black denounced the Conservative campaign as “a pastiche of contemptible low-balling and fear-mongering.” However, it is reasonable to conjecture that, had voters gone to the polls after the deadly attacks in Paris, the election results might have been quite different.

Jedwab is president of the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Institute of Identities and Migration. He is a former executive director of the Quebec Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress and also a former university lecturer, teaching courses on the history of immigration in Quebec and on ethnic and official language minorities. This background is obviously useful in analyzing the issues he raises in the book.

Among his more alarming findings is that 47 per cent of Canadians would be willing to require everyone to carry a national identity card that police may see upon request. The polling data also show that significantly more French speakers than English speakers see curbs on the display of religious symbols as a way to prevent radicalization rather than as an exacerbating factor, and more francophones support the view that religious minorities should abandon their customs and traditions.

While Counterterrorism and Identities is a resolutely nonpartisan work, Jedwab’s civil libertarian leanings emerge clearly, especially in the final chapters. But first, he zeroes in on what is at stake. “To what extent are citizen anxieties about security and terrorism shaped by their identities?” he asks. “On a related question, do our social (i.e., age and gender) and cultural identities (i.e., ethnicity and religion) affect the preferred strategies for and desired methods in the fight against terrorism?”

The book is based mostly on a set of surveys conducted by Leger Marketing on behalf of the Association of Canadian Studies, with backing from the federal Department of Public Safety. It contains no fewer than one hundred charts and tables, and much of the space between them is taken up with brief recapitulations of the statistical findings, which were drawn from Web surveys with minimum sample sizes of 1,500. Some results are broken down by age or gender, and others by language or religious group. Almost no regional breakdowns are provided, though French language is a reasonable proxy for Quebec. Numerous correlations are drawn between respondents’ views on distinct but related issues.

20_Samuel_P._Huntington_(2004_World_Economic_Forum)The survey data begin with definitions of terrorism and its perceived causes and then move on to the factors shaping identity. One of the more interesting findings is that Muslims are more likely than members of other religious groups to “agree that religion brings people together more than it divides them.” They are also more tolerant of relations between members of different religious groups. Jedwab interprets this as showing a propensity to favour religious pluralism. Sadly, trust among Canadians toward Muslims is lower than toward other groups. However, no reasons are given, leaving room for conjecture. Not surprisingly, Muslims are more likely to agree that minority religions are misrepresented in Canada. And, to Jedwab’s evident distress, large numbers of Canadians appear to accept the “clash of civilizations” thesis advanced by the late Samuel Huntington, suggesting irreconcilable differences between Western and non-Western societies.

The book also examines the conflicts or phenomena that cause the greatest concern among Canadians. The 18-to-24 age group proved far less worried than their elders by Islamic fundamentalism and less likely to view military strength as the only way to deal with the threat of state terrorism. Television viewers (CTV viewers in particular) seemed more worried by the threat of terrorism than people getting their news from radio or print. Other questions ask which institutions are best positioned to deal with terrorist threats, or with individual or community responsibility to report such threats.

These and similar issues have particular resonance in Quebec, for reasons peculiar to the province’s recent history and familiar to many Inroads readers. To recapitulate, in January 2007, the town council in the rural municipality of Hérouxville (with an immigrant population close to zero) adopted a Code of Conduct based on grotesque stereotypes of certain immigrant groups, prohibiting such practices as stoning women and burning them alive. Mario Dumont, leader of the Action Démocratique du Québec, exploited the reaction to help catapult his conservative nationalist party to second place in a closely fought provincial election later that year, relegating the Parti Québécois to a humiliating third place. Liberal Premier Jean Charest, who barely hung onto power, had sought to sidestep identity issues by appointing a commission on “reasonable accommodation” headed by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Leading figures in the PQ vowed never again to let the party be outflanked on identity issues.

One response, different in approach but capitalizing on similar anxieties, was the Charter of Values championed by Pauline Marois, who headed a shaky PQ minority government elected in 2012. The Charter affirmed the “religious neutrality and secular nature of the State” through measures that included a ban on religious headgear among public sector workers. Some found this ban difficult to square with the continued presence of a large crucifix in the National Assembly, left untouched by the Charter. The PQ sold the Charter as a way of reinforcing the separation of religion and the state, favouring gender equality, easing the integration of newcomers and countering terrorism. Emboldened by favourable poll results, Marois called a snap election but was trounced by the Liberals. The poll results had not indicated whether voters saw support for the Charter as sufficient reason to back the PQ. “The debate around Quebec’s Charter of Values serves as a prime example of just how divisive talk of shared values can be and the damage it can do to relations between communities,” Jedwab observes.

The attitudes that produced support for the Charter among many French-speaking Quebecers are reflected in some of Jedwab’s polling data. For example, more than 50 per cent of French-speaking respondents agreed with the statement that “religious/cultural groups such as Jews, Muslims and Sikhs should abandon their customs and traditions and become more like others,” while fewer than 30 per cent of English speakers agreed. By way of explanation, Jedwab delves briefly into the threat of assimilation that has hung over French-Canadian society for centuries, at least since the Durham Report of 1839 calling explicitly for that society to be absorbed into the growing English-speaking population of Upper and Lower Canada. A lingering wariness toward outsiders is one outcome of this, particularly among older people.

Outside Quebec, 45 per cent of respondents in a 2015 survey believed that curbs on the display of religious symbols “were more likely to encourage grievance and radicalization, compared to 35 per cent who felt otherwise. Francophone Quebecers were more inclined to take an opposing view.” Debate around the Charter of Values, Jedwab argues, “promoted the idea that the public expression of religion – notably by members of the province’s minorities – risked encouraging ‘radicalized’ behaviour.”

20_camera-19223_960_720No more edifying is the extent to which Canadians of all backgrounds agreed with expanding counterterrorism measures that may infringe on civil liberties. For instance, requiring everyone “to carry a national identity card at all times to show a police officer upon request” gets 47 per cent total agreement, and expanded camera surveillance gets 67 per cent approval. However, only 21 per cent said yes to regular monitoring of phone calls and email messages and 23 per cent to putting people suspected of terrorism in prison without a trial, though close to 30 per cent (lower among 18-to-24-year-olds) agree that someone suspected of involvement with terrorism should not be protected by human rights law:

While one in three Canadians are prepared to give up some civil liberties to support counterterrorism, approximately 45 per cent of the population agree that limits to freedom of religion are necessary in the fight against terrorism, and 40 per cent agree that limits to freedom of expression are necessary in the fight against terrorism.

Jedwab adds later:

It is fundamentally important to strike a balance between the government’s commitment to ensuring the public’s safety and its commitment to safeguarding the civil rights of the public.

When these objectives are cast as undermining each other, many Canadians should feel uneasy … It’s apparent that, in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist incident, governments feel compelled to act quickly to quell public anxiety, and such action may arise at the expense of civil liberties.

Jedwab’s prose is less than scintillating, but the conclusions he draws are important. It is to be hoped that public policy makers will take note.

An often overlooked dimension of the 2014 Quebec election is that of metropolis versus hinterland. Almost from the day the Parti Québécois was founded in 1968, the party has faced tensions between its Montreal-based leadership and voters in non-metropolitan areas where, in more recent times, it has won most of its National Assembly seats.

The cleavage was especially acute in 2007 when many voters outside Montreal abandoned the PQ, then led by André Boisclair, the ultimate Montréalais, an archetype of modern urban values, openly gay, a sharp dresser and a proponent of openness to the world. Mario Dumont, leader of the upstart Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), capitalized on this to win support in wide areas of Quebec where resentment of Montreal’s economic and cultural influence is never far from the surface. When the tiny rural municipality of Hérouxville adopted a xenophobic Code of Conduct, it was enthusiastically embraced by Dumont and just as keenly rejected by Boisclair.

Jean Charest, the Liberal premier of the day, sought to push the issue under the rug. His approach was to appoint a commission on “reasonable accommodations” – and then ignore most of its recommendations. In the 2007 election, the Liberals lost their majority, the ADQ became the official opposition and the PQ was relegated to third place. While the ADQ’s surge was short-lived – it lost most of its seats in another election a year later – its message had been heard.

The Charter of Values needs to be understood in this context. PQ strategists, among them Jean-François Lisée, concluded that the party had to outflank the floundering ADQ (and later its successor, François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec) on identity issues. In Montreal, for which he was responsible as minister in Pauline Marois’s government, Lisée ran into a stone wall when it came to the Charter. An anti-Charter motion in August 2013 won unanimous support from Montreal city councillors, including several prominent Péquistes. In the November 2013 mayoral race, the Charter was backed by just one candidate, who got less than 1.4 per cent of the vote. The message was clear: the Charter was anything but a vote-winner in Montreal. Yet the Marois government was undeterred and called an early election.

The PQ could not expect any breakthrough in Montreal. The largely French-speaking east end of the city has been friendly to the PQ since the party’s founding, but even there its support has been waning. Montreal Island, accounting for just under half the metropolitan population of four million, is notorious for its stability in provincial elections. In 2012, only one of 28 Montreal ridings changed hands (from the PQ to Québec Solidaire), while in 2014 two seats switched, both PQ losses. In one, Sainte-Marie–Saint-Jacques, near downtown Montreal and long a PQ bastion, the PQ incumbent finished third. In two of the four Montreal ridings it did retain, its margins collapsed. As usual, ridings in the island’s west and north, with large English-speaking or immigrant groups, voted solidly Liberal.

Because none of the parties can expect to make major gains, it is easy for them to disregard Montreal at election time. The pastures are greener in the suburbs, especially the more volatile outer suburbs, where the CAQ is a major player and where seats frequently change hands. This has been reflected in long-term infrastructure spending and in the province’s insensitive approach to specific Montreal concerns in areas ranging from municipal status to transportation measures. It remains to be seen if the unusually large number of cabinet ministers from Montreal in the newly formed Liberal cabinet will alter this state of affairs.

Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois has entered what may be a long period of introspection. With its message making no headway in the metropolis (especially among younger Montréalais) and failing to woo the hinterland, what was once a party of youth and hope must choose, for now, between bad and worse.

Many Canadians live in the comfortable belief that municipalities exist as a distinct level of government. But that’s not what the constitution says. Does a lack of autonomy make municipalities more vulnerable to corrupt practices?

When Canada’s constitution was proclaimed in 1867, most people lived in rural areas. Little thought was given to the task of governing urban entities or to the provision of many services we now take for granted. The British North America Act, as it was called then, recognized two levels of government, federal and provincial, with municipalities existing only as creatures of the provinces. Over the years, the provinces made up the rules as they went along, producing mixed results. Though the constitution has been amended, it still reflects a rural bias, with even the largest municipalities subject to provincial whim and treated “as a bunch of immature children,” in the words of Peter F. Trent, the mayor of the central Montreal municipality of Westmount.

“Yet municipalities have as much democratic legitimacy as provinces,” he says in a recent and highly readable book.1 “While provinces are fixed and arbitrary straight-line divisions drawn by nineteenth-century surveyors, municipalities are organic, evolving, spatially relevant entities that reflect their residents’ needs more faithfully than provinces can ever do.”

Trent gained prominence as an opponent of the forced amalgamation of municipalities on Montreal Island in 2002, an action taken under a Parti Québécois government. One justification for this move was that wealthy suburbs should bear more of the burden carried by the central city (although the same logic did not seem to apply to suburbs off the island, which according to the 2011 census contained roughly half of the Montreal metropolitan area’s 3,824,211 people). The amalgamation was partly undone four years later under a Liberal government when 15 municipalities, most of them with significant English-speaking populations, voted in referendums to regain their autonomy.

Montreal Island is now a checkerboard of city boroughs and autonomous municipalities, each with its own mayor and council. On top of this are the city mayor, his executive committee and the city council. The division of responsibilities between the city and its boroughs is based on an arcane formula that leads to confusion and overlap. This cumbersome structure, imposed by the Quebec government, makes governing the city an administrative and logistical nightmare. Some argue that this, in turn, has resulted in weakened controls over spending. One major scandal that triggered the current climate of outrage involved a massive contract for the installation of water meters. (This scandal could have been called Watergate, but it wasn’t.)

Montreal is cursed by the electoral stability of its provincial ridings. A handful of ridings in the east end have been safely in Parti Québécois hands for decades, while most other ridings on Montreal Island have remained loyal to the Liberals. Only in the suburbs is there a significant number of competitive ridings. For obvious reasons, competitive ridings are going to get more attention from whoever happens to be in power. One result of this is provincial policies that have tended to favour suburban sprawl.

It does not take a great leap to imagine a conspiracy in Quebec City aimed at weakening Montreal. Many people in the provincial capital regard their city as a rival to Montreal (a notion that is not widely reciprocated). Across Quebec, millions of people view Montreal with a blend of suspicion, resentment and misunderstanding. The same is true of many Ontarians’ attitudes toward Toronto, but there is a key difference. Toronto is the provincial capital, and provincial decisions affecting Toronto are made there. Control is exerted locally.

The pitfalls of provincial interference in local affairs can be seen in the Montreal public transit system. The Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), a municipal body that runs the subway system and city buses on Montreal Island, accounts for well over 80 per cent of transit use in the metropolitan area. As the successor to the Montreal Tramway Company, it has more than a century and a half of institutional experience in moving large numbers of people.

For whatever reason, the Quebec government did not see fit to entrust the STM with a broad role in transit development. In 1995, Quebec created a provincial body, the Agence Métropolitaine de Transport (AMT), to run the suburban trains, handle capital spending (lavished mostly on off-island suburbs) and coordinate the services of various Montreal-area transit operators (little coordination is evident). The blunder-prone AMT, notorious for cost overruns and often at loggerheads with the STM, has become a political dumping ground. Its current head is Nicolas Girard, a former Parti Québécois MNA rejected by voters in the 2012 election. One recent embarrassment involved the purchase of 20 new bimodal locomotives that weigh slightly more than the models they replace. The AMT did not think to check whether the tracks near Central Station could support the extra weight. They couldn’t, and a train derailed. Meanwhile, the locally controlled STM won a top award in 2010 from the American Public Transportation Association.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Montrealers had ample reason to be unhappy with longtime mayor Jean Drapeau, who ruled in authoritarian fashion without interruption from 1960 to 1986. But he knew how to assert what he perceived as his city’s interests. Though he may not have had the constitution on his side, he was fully capable of bending provincial officials to his will. Premier Robert Bourassa, in particular, seemed to cower in his presence. Then there followed a succession of weaker mayors – Jean Doré, Pierre Bourque, Gérald Tremblay and the current interim mayor, Michael Applebaum. It did not take long for the province to reassert its authority.

The question I posed at the beginning of this article has no easy answer. At the time of writing, the Charbonneau Commission had not begun its examination of the Quebec department of transport. There, compulsive outsourcing may be a big part of the problem, as it is at the municipal level, enabling greedy private-sector firms to set their own terms. Stay tuned.

Continue reading “Montreal: Autonomous entity or creature of Quebec?”