For a guy like me, who hates flags, the revamped version of Sherbrooke street in downtown Montreal should be a nightmare. Probably as part of the 375th anniversary of the founding of the city, this street, once known as the most elegant in the country, has been given an almost total makeover. Ancient pipes, sewers and wires have been replaced (as in many other parts of the city), and spiffing new sidewalks have been constructed, twice as wide as they used to be, beautifully paved with handsome stones, and with lovely new trees, already flowering though just planted, and beautiful flower boxes along the one kilometer of roadway between the intersections with St Laurent boulevard in the east, and Guy street in the west. To mark the occasion some 30 artworks have been commissioned and laid out along the way, and all in all one might be excused for thinking it is a job well done.
Except for this one thing: the street has been decorated with the flags of surely all of the world’s nation states, and to accommodate them, a series of long high aluminum poles have been established on heavy concrete bases that are themselves far from beautiful, poles that reach up towards the sky and tend to give the street an overladen sort of feel.
But I have to confess, much as I dislike flags, that all those multi-coloured flags do enliven what has become in the last half century a more or less typically North American-looking street of gleaming skyscrapers, many of whose ground floors are now occupied with pizza and burger joints. I myself first saw the street more than 60 years ago, when it was still marked with the elegant ancient houses of Montreal’s earlier times, and over the years I have been one with the citizens who have deplored every demolition of these old houses and their replacement with skyscrapers that have reduced the city’s links with its past.
In those days Sherbrooke was more or less a symbol of the primacy of the monied class that had played so prominent a role in the development of Canada, just as its twin street, Ste. Catherine, that runs parallel through the city 200 or 300 yards to the south seemed to be, in its brawling, bustling, vulgar antithesis, the street of the common man. At the time, I remember, Ste. Catherine was loftily but rather affectionately described by the well-known British architectural critic Reyner Banham as “one of the great, awful streets of the world.” Unfortunately in recent decades Sherbrooke has moved in the direction of Ste. Catherine as it has become just another street of commerce, and all the prettying up that has recently been undertaken, though welcome, seems unlikely to arrest its movement towards aesthetic mediocrity.
It was a bit of a shock to me today to see how the flags have enlivened the Sherbrooke street scene, because ever since I was a kid in New Zealand and refused to stand up for the national anthem when it was played before the movies, I have distrusted everything to do with flags, and I cannot imagine myself ever carrying one and waving it around to establish the supremacy of our particular nation, whichever that might be. In fact some years ago I gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on citizenship and told its members that two of the things I liked particularly about Canada when I first came here in 1954 were that the nation had no flag, and no anthem. (A third element I mentioned was that the only thing that seemed to be demanded of a new resident of Canada was that he go into debt enough to buy a second-hand car. Ah, those were the days!)
Ruminating on my detestation of flags, I began to think that maybe I have taken it a bit too far. Nearing the end of my ninth decade, I have surely reached the time when I might justifiably engage in some self-criticism (as the Communists used to call it.)
There might even be other things for which I might justifiably be criticized.
For example, I have never voted either Liberal or Conservative, and have always been so fixed in my detestation for our governing parties as to vow that I never would vote for either of them. I suppose it can be argued that occasionally some Liberal Members of Parliament might be decent fellows deserving of support. Okay, I am willing to concede that, although I cannot reasonably extend my concession to cover Conservatives. All of this stems from my upbringing in a country that was ruled by a Labour government in my youth. I always heartily supported that party, and grew to detest the Conservative opposition, and I have carried that on through my seven or eight decades since, having never seen any reason to change my opinion. When I came to Canada I quickly realized that one of the things separating this country from the United States was simply the existence of the NDP (or CCF, as it was known when I arrived), because it has kept as part of the normal political discourse in this country ideas of collective responsibility that are regarded as anathema in the United States. This difference was illustrated to me forcefully when I first visited the United States in 1956, and met many people of like mind to mine who were living in isolation from neighbours who shunned them because of their ideas. As I heard Noam Chomsky say in a recent interview, solidarity is the word that describes the idea that we are all responsible for each other, the very bedrock idea of national health systems, social welfare schemes and so on. I agreed entirely with his description of how without this quality no society can solve its social problems over the long term. The proof of this is in the current situation of United States and British society, no longer functioning as democracies but as oligarchies governed by wealth-owners, whose wealth in recent years has grown to obscene levels.
I read just today that this rise in inequality has gone in lockstep with the decline in union membership. In the days when union membership in the United States was 30 per cent of non-public workers, the difference between the income of the highest paid CEO and the average worker was as 30 to 1. Now, with union membership fallen to 6.5 per cent, the difference is as 350 to 1. In that same article I read of the multitude of measures enacted to destroy the Labour movement. In fact, according to the International Labor Organization, the United States is violating international standards by failing to protect the right to organize, by banning secondary strikes and boycotts, and by allowing employers to permanently replace workers who strike. If strikes are banned, workers are defenceless against their employers, and, as the authors contend, all advancement in the rights of workers have been won as a result of strikes, which means that they are in the present circumstances unable to organize workers effectively into unions for collective action. (This information is taken from an article in the Boston Review called The Right to Strike, by James Gray Pope, Ed Bruno and Peter Kellman.)
I didn’t intend when I set out to write this to descend into a defence of my opinions in this way. Rather, I was expecting to confess to a certain rigidity of opinion.
Another area in which I am even more rigid now than when I was younger is in my attitude towards religion. I cannot deny that there have been good people who have been motivated by religion and have done wonderful works. But my study of the history of how indigenous people have been treated by the invaders who have taken over their lands has hardened my detestation of those who came among them propagating what they claimed were superior religions. It is undeniable that missionaries have been part of the conquering force, in fact, in many places they have been precursors of the soldiers who have followed them with their guns. And, taken all in all, I find that the effects of religion have been disastrous to human kind in general. It is impossible to believe that reasonable people can actually believe many of the central precepts of religions. We have been seeing in recent years the rise of the suicide bomber who is apparently motivated by the belief that his or her action will result in his being transported to a heaven in which he will have access to 72 virgins. I daren’t go on with a catalogue of the absurdities that are believed by religious adherents, but will content myself with mentioning the supposedly virgin birth of the leading figure in a religion whose name discretion forbids me to mention.
Anyway, if any of my acquaintances (or readers) find me too rigid in expression or belief, I have written this to say that (maybe) I agree with them. I accept I could be wrong, but please don't expect me to vote Liberal or Conservative in the next election.