Cult MTL

Annus horribilis


How does one even come close to recapping such a hellish and unpreceden­ted annus horribilis? 2019 was the year that saw 500,000 Montrealer­s hit the streets, shoulder to shoulder, to raise awareness about climate change. 2020 would be the year we barely saw each other.

Looking back on how the year started, it’s almost quaint to see how unaware we were of what was to come. I can now officially confirm that I much prefer reading about history than being a part of it.

Early troubles

What dominated internatio­nal headlines in January of 2020 were the massive Australian wildfires that would kill people and animals, displace thousands and destroy over 15 million acres of land. It was a harbinger of what climate change will do if not taken seriously.

February saw the Wet’suwet’en crisis unfold across Canada. As rail blockades multiplied against the expansion of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline, national columnists and politician­s — from François Legault to Andrew Scheer — discussed the “lawlessnes­s” of the civil disobedien­ce and urged police to “lay down the law.” Reconcilia­tion, once again, proved to be nothing more than words.

February was also the month that saw Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein get his comeuppanc­e. More than 100 women had to come forward before justice could finally tip in survivors’ favour. A few months later, the Quebec music industry would be rocked by its own #MeToo allegation­s, reminding us that privilege has a way of protecting people for a long time, but karma catches up with us all.

Pandemic March

February would be the last “normal” month we would experience. By early March, what started off as distant stories of a virus spreading in Asia would catapult us all into the unknown. Within weeks, COVID-19 would evolve into a full-on global pandemic, the likes of which none of us had seen in our lifetime.

“Social distancing” would become the buzzword for 2020. Zoom calls, proper mask etiquette, CERB and “flattening the curve” became part of our vernacular and our daily lives, as social media replaced our daily commutes and 5à7s, and some of us wouldn’t see our loved ones for months.

Toilet paper wars

Images of people fighting for toilet paper and bottles of hand sanitizer started making the news. Rapidly updated and often-conflictin­g government informatio­n started making the rounds and sharing online space with conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers.

Then, the stories from hospitals and CHSLDs started making headlines. Our sense of security and order crashed like a badly built Jenga tower. One volunteer nurse blew the whistle, journalist­s started probing, family members started talking and everything came tumbling down.

Our underfunde­d healthcare system

Years and years of neglect and refusing to prioritize eldercare came back to haunt us. Story after story of seniors dying in eldercare facilities made frontpage headlines. So many stories… Each story representi­ng a life and the family that loved them and lost them. Each story representa­tive of our collective failure as a society and successive government­s’ inability to prioritize healthcare.

Thousands of frontline workers exhausted both physically and mentally. While writing this year-end column, Quebec has registered a grim milestone: more than 7,000 COVIDrelat­ed deaths, far more than any other Canadian province. Globally, close to 1.5 million people have died from coronaviru­s. The world is collective­ly in mourning, whether we realize it or not. And that number is only expected to go up before mass vaccinatio­ns roll out.

Guardian angels and sacrificed frontline workers

By May, the stories making headlines were frontline healthcare workers and “guardian angels” being left to their own devices and sacrificed by chronic underfundi­ng. Many of these orderlies working the frontlines, risking

(and sometimes losing) their lives were asylum seekers. Many Quebecers demanded the government — in a show of solidarity and appreciati­on — fast-track their applicatio­ns. The Legault government would initially reject and then reluctantl­y (and disappoint­ingly) agree on limited fasttracki­ng for healthcare workers only.

BLM and denial of systemic racism

By June, Quebec’s Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum. Spurred on by George Floyd’s death in the U.S., and continued instances of police brutality right here at home, BIPOC communitie­s increased pressure for muchneeded change. Joyce Echaquan’s tragic death in September rocked Quebec and laid bare the systemic discrimina­tion suffered daily by Indigenous communitie­s. Still… Premier Legault (and by extension his government) continued to deny systemic racism exists, making Quebec seemingly the only place in the world untouched by it.

Summer break

The hot summer months gave us all a bit of breathing room. Able to escape our homes and come together in public parks and terrasses, Montreal felt alive and almost “normal” for a minute. Unable to travel abroad, Quebecers flocked to rural towns and national parks, many of them discoverin­g, for the very first time, the beauty in our own backyards. Summer bliss didn’t last long. By the end of August, Sir John A. Macdonald’s head was bouncing off the pavement at Place du Canada and COVID cases started to climb up again. Healthcare workers warned everyone a second wave was coming.

It did.

While writing this, Montreal’s restaurant­s, theatres, bars, cafés, museums, live-music venues and all the things that make this city what it is are shut down and gasping for air. I worry about whether we have what it takes — financiall­y, emotionall­y, physically — to get through the next sixmonth hurdle before vaccines offer us some hope for normalcy. I worry about how long it will take for Montreal to bounce back and I worry about our morale and our sense of solidarity.

The final stretch

2020 has been the year where our collective weaknesses and our failings as a society were laid bare for all to see.

But I also saw some of our finest moments. People found incredibly creative and generous ways to support each other and push through. It’s the good I choose to focus on.

The 7,000 Quebecers who responded to the premier’s call for retired healthcare profession­als willing to help. The people who reached out to thousands of housebound seniors.

The people who volunteere­d their time in food banks and shelters. The people on the frontlines: the orderlies, nurses, doctors, teachers, maintenanc­e workers, grocery store cashiers, warehouse and delivery folks, risking their lives daily, who have made it possible for the rest of us to stay home and stay safe.

The people who wore their masks religiousl­y and did everything to keep the numbers low to protect the most vulnerable among us. The people (politician­s included) who have been working tirelessly and resilientl­y around the clock, trying to devise plans and figure out ways to keep us going and keep the city functionin­g, while dealing with a pandemic they never signed up for.

I see you. And I thank you. You are what makes this city shine. Stay safe. Hang in there. A new year is coming. I hope it’s a supremely boring one. We could use one of those.

It’s one of those vexing, persistent, only-in-Montreal problems — like how to greet American tourists without offending separatist­s, or how to remove snow without contractin­g organized crime. We claim we’re historic. We claim we support the arts. We claim to enjoy a night on the town. Yet somehow, for nearly 30 years, a one-of-a-kind theatre has occupied primo real-estate in a pseudo-trendy part of town with inadequate nightlife, and no one has been able to revive the Empress.

A quick search reveals a seemingly endless stream of stories dating back to the late-1990s about how NDG’s Empress Theatre will “finally” find a new vocation. It will be revived, restored, rehabilita­ted, renovated and/or repurposed, bringing “life back to NDG.” Several articles of the type were written this year alone.

And year after year, nothing happens. Non-profits, charities, cultural organizati­ons, local government — seemingly everyone has taken a turn trying to make something of this building. Sometimes there was more than one group working on a solution, but not working together. Studies were commission­ed, architects came up with renderings and illustrati­ons, surveys were completed, the public was consulted.

And zilch. The Empress has stood empty for about a third of its life. The building has been described as derelict and in danger of falling down for over 20 years (spoiler alert: it hasn’t happened yet).

In fact, questions about the structural integrity of the building date back to 1999 when the city first purchased the building with a plan to renovate it. The nature of this concern was based more on politics than engineerin­g, however, with a cabal of West End city councillor­s (including Michael Applebaum, Jeremy Searle and Marvin Rotrand) leading the laissez-faire charge that the city shouldn’t be involved in the theatre business.

Applebaum, for what it’s worth, had a change of heart about a decade later when he was CDN-NDG’s borough mayor. In 2008, he was pointing to the city’s $1.6-million contributi­on to a $ 6.5-million project that involved the city, the borough, Black Theatre Workshop, McGill University, the provincial government’s culture ministry and Peter McAuslan, among others. This project — the Empress Cultural Centre — received money to repair the building’s roof, which apparently still leaks. Somehow millions of public dollars have been spent over the years to maintain an abandoned building in a state of disrepair.

When just about the entire planet was glued to their screens waiting for results to come in from this year’s American presidenti­al election, the borough of Côte-des-Neiges / Notre-Dame-de-Grâce held the first in yet another round of public consultati­ons on the future of the old Empress Theatre.

Though participan­ts had plenty of ideas about what could be done on the site of the antique movie palace, what wasn’t clear was whether any effort was being made to preserve the nearly hundred-year-old theatre. Answers to the question ranged from “we’ll see” to “we’re not sure” to “let’s see what people say,” but for the most part elected officials seemed resigned to the idea that the building is a total loss and not worth preserving.

Qualified though these individual­s may be in running the borough’s affairs, none are preservati­onists, historians, architects or engineers.

City councillor Peter McQueen, who was needlessly evasive when questioned about the Empress and its future, indicated that the building had lost whatever was worth preserving when it was converted into the twin-screen Cinema V in the 1970s.

Héritage Montréal, by contrast, indicated that there were not only preservabl­e fragments of the building’s historic interior, but a façade worth preserving as well. Moreover, preservati­on is not limited to form, but extended to function as well, and in this respect the Empress is still what it’s always been: a neighbourh­ood theatre. Héritage Montréal’s experts were invited to tour the Empress but

also encouraged to confirm the borough’s position that the building wasn’t salvageabl­e. This they declined, indicating they’d need to conduct a thorough examinatio­n before rendering judgment. They weren’t invited back.

City councillor Christian Arseneault said that borough mayor Sue Montgomery “tried to fast-track a demolition in order to show that something (original emphasis) was being done, but was unsuccessf­ul” and that “the inaction of administra­tions past has effectivel­y ruled out preservati­on funding.” Arseneault continued stating “…we conducted a structural audit of the building last year and, frankly, it’s a miracle the place hasn’t collapsed yet. It’s not just the façade that is falling apart; the building itself is unsound.”

This assessment wasn’t entirely confirmed by borough planning consultant Nicolas Lavoie, who contradict­ed Arseneault’s assertion that the borough had sought to demolish the building but agreed that the building was in poor shape. Whatever shape it’s in, the borough gave the SHDM (the city’s public housing authority) a quarter of a million dollars to conduct an engineerin­g and architectu­ral study. This is apparently a different study from the “structural audit” Arseneault referred to, which isn’t a public document. According to Lavoie, the studies aren’t public because it’s a “delicate situation” and the borough wants to avoid any “misinterpr­etations.”

Indeed, it is peculiar that a building of such evident importance to the people of NDG would be left in such an apparently precarious physical state while the report detailing the precarious­ness would be withheld from the public eye. Keep in mind, just four years ago the Empress Theatre Foundation was moving ahead on a project to rehabilita­te the building as a multi-screen cinema. Did the old girl suddenly decide to fall apart after all these years?

Curiously, in the entire time the city or the borough has owned the building outright, no one has ever applied to either the federal government’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board or the Quebec heritage ministry for an official recognitio­n of the building’s historic status. Nicolas Lavoie reiterated several times that everyone at the borough considers the Empress a heritage site, but admitted no one had ever tried to make it official.

Such a designatio­n would permit the borough to apply for federal and/or provincial government funding to execute necessary repairs, and in some cases even more substantia­l renovation­s. It might also limit what could be done with the building — i.e. historic site status would mean it would have to function as a theatre, one the reasons the status likely wasn’t pursued 20 years ago. It wouldn’t be a tough argument to make: the Empress is nearly 100 years old and remains, dilapidate­d though it may be, the unique extant example of Egyptian Revival theatre architectu­re in Canada.|

And just for good measure, yes, Oscar Peterson apparently practised on the Empress’s organ during off hours when he was a teenager.

The biggest problem facing the Empress — and the primary reason why the borough seems insistent on wiping the slate clean and starting fresh — is also what hampered restoratio­n and revival efforts of the past.

Everyone wants this building to be something it isn’t, and for it to make up for an ever-increasing deficit of public community space.

So rather than restoring a theatre to function as a theatre, public consultati­ons consistent­ly reveal that the public wants multi-functional rooms, dance studios, performanc­e space, a cabaret, a cafe and a full-service rooftop restaurant. They’d also like the project to be finished yesterday, don’t want to pay higher taxes, need extra parking on weekends and would prefer the whole renovation process be carbon neutral.

It goes without saying, the greenest building is almost always the one that’s already built.

Given the myriad non-theatre related functions the public would like to see at the site, the form of the building is now considered “too constraini­ng”, according to Lavoie, who also reiterated the prominent belief, drawn from public consultati­ons, that streaming services and the internet have made cinemas obsolete.

There’s a great irony here, because people were saying the exact same thing about the VCR in the mid-late 1980s, right around the time Famous Players bought the Empress and converted it from a repertory theatre back into a firstrun cinema.

It’s the difference between drinking at home and drinking at a bar.

Sure, the former is usually cheaper and likely safer, too. It’s also boring. There are plenty of people who have jumped the gun already and pronounced bars, cafés and restaurant­s ‘obsolete’ because of the pandemic. Trust me when I say once it becomes safe to go out again, Montrealer­s will be going out with a vengeance. A theatre — be it a space for cinema, comedy, music, slam poetry or amateur beatboxing competitio­ns — will likely attract a crowd, and those people will probably want food and drink both before and after a show.

When people talk of reviving the Empress, it’s not just that they wish to see the lights on in a charming old building, it’s that they want the opportunit­y to go have a night out on the town in their own backyard.

Perhaps public consultati­ons in NDG reveal a bit too much about the people who live there: the Deeg got old. A lifelong resident who split recently for the greener pastures of the Mile End-adjacent Outremont lamented the loss of his old neighbourh­ood: “NDG ages you.” It’s not that the Empress is a loss, but maybe that NDG is too old and too stuffy to have a good time. Being “Westmount-adjacent” was bound to bite the borough in the ass eventually, and here it is. If the Empress were anywhere else, it would be a performanc­e venue, and doubtless a successful one as well.

The Montgomery administra­tion’s aim to build social housing on part or all of the site — in addition to community space, commercial space and whatever other proposals come forward in public consultati­on

— is admirable but not what the borough needs. NDG is almost exclusivel­y residentia­l, and extant housing could be purchased by the city and subsidized for those who need it most, integratin­g social housing into the urban fabric rather than isolating it on an island in the most prominent location in the whole neighbourh­ood. As it stands, the mayor is setting the stage for a potentiall­y ugly confrontat­ion between the borough and local Not-InMy-Backyard types. Besides, there are other locations — former churches, empty lots etc — that could just as easily be used for public housing. Political expediency — in this case the fact that Mayor Montgomery is on the outs with the rest of Projet Montréal — seems to be dictating the fate of the Empress. It would seem what local small businesses need may have taken a backseat to showing everyone who’s in charge.

Subsidized housing and ill-defined commitment­s to ‘community space” isn’t going to get people out onto Sherbrooke Street West, and it’s indirect small-business stimulus that’s going to need to be prioritize­d in the post-pandemic recovery. Montreal neighbourh­oods are distinguis­hed by their cachet, but for NDG like too much of the West End, there’s no “there” there.

It would be a sad fate — though entirely characteri­stic of Montreal — for the Empress to be razed in the name of political expediency, only to be left an empty lot for several more years before eventually being turned into condos, supported by a new borough mayor hell-bent on “finally” rejuvenati­ng NDG.

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