Thursday, 28 February 2008

Feisty Photog Fights Formidable Foe: Ron Diamond Challenges Devimco in Griffintown Development Dispute

Ron Diamond is a feisty guy. A commercial photographer who only shoots digital photos “when the client insists,” he has high aesthetic standards and is unafraid to take on the powers that be. Earlier this week he dared Devimco, the development company that wants to redo the Griffintown area of Montreal, to buy out his lease in a building which Devimco wants to tear down. According to The Gazette, Ron wants $1 million, or he won’t budge.

He is quoted as saying he spent $10,000 renovating the space into a photographic studio, and he doesn’t want to be chased out.

That sounds like Ron. He’s the treasurer of the Electronic Rights Defence Committee, and each time we’ve talked lately he’s railed over the Griffintown plans. The development would be a disaster, he says, adding that he objects strongly to the way the city of Montreal appears to be encouraging it. On Tuesday at the hearings into the ERDC’s request for class action authorization, he mentioned that he was planning to make a protest at a “consultation” on Griffintown that night.

Good for him. If he had e-mail, I’d send him a note of congratulations. But just as he prefers taking pictures with film, he doesn’t truck with computers much. When the ERDC has an email exchange on some subject, I end up printing it out and mailing it to him. His pictures are great though, I think. That's his photo of me that I use for my profile, and it's better than any pix that's ever been taken of me.

The world needs more talented contrarians like him.

Where's the PQ, Now that the Talking Is Getting Tough on Health Care?

Coming up for air after three days of intense concentration on the ERDC class action authorization hearing, and I realize that I haven't heard any meaningful comment from the Parti Québécois, the supposed major left wing party in Quebec provincial politics on the controversial report on health care handed down 10 days ago.

What is going on? Why hasn’t Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois come out against the more egregious proposals of the Castonguay report on Quebec’s health care? She's made some insignificant comments, but hasn't even congratulated the one dissident voice on the panel, Michel Venne, who was named to it by the PQ.

The Liberal Health Minister Philippe Coulliard promptly said no to proposals to introduce user fees and, while he may have backpedaled some, clearly distanced himself from moves by the right wing in Quebec politics to dismantle universal health care.

The very left wing Quebec solidaire party attacked a number of the report's proposals, and the right wing ADQ (quite predictably) called for more privatization. The puzzle is why the Parti Québécois, which for so long was thought to be a rampart of progressive ideas in Quebec has said so very little

It is a most disturbing state of affairs, and one which the PQ should not let go on, at the risk of becoming completely irrelevant on the provincial scene.

But then again there are those who'd say the PQ has been irrelevant for a long time.

(Apropos of the ERDC hearings: I was so wrapped up in them that I completely forgot that I'd agreed to talk last night to a group of children's writers about royalties, taxes, and stuff like that. My sincerest apologies. I don't think I've forgotten anything so totally and inconsiderately in 20 years: the last time was when I was involved in the 1988 federal election campaign and I missed a parent-teacher meeting!)

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Time and the River Flowing: Buildings, Snow, and Climate Change

A quiet interlude in a very busy week.

It is the noon break in the ERDC hearings and after a quick sandwich with other freelancers, I go back up to the 16th floor of the Palais de Justice where the hearing room is, and find a corner by a window to get some work done. No computers are available, so I lean against the wall next to one of the floor to ceiling windows and pull out a notebook to write the old fashioned way.

But outside it is snowing lightly. A bigger storm is forecast for tonight but now the temperature is around freezing and the snowflakes dance on the other side of the window. Snow covers the flat roof of the old Palais building (built in the 1920s) across the street The 15 glass pyramids which cover the skylights—like the Louvre’s pyramid in miniature—look pale green in the light, while the 16 Greek columns across the façade are several shades grayer than the snow on the sidewalks.

The “new” Palais (completed in 1971) is faced in marble whose intricate patterns I have never noticed before. But how long the panels will stay in place is a question; already the joints between three panels outside this window have begun to chip. Who is going to notice this evidence of passing time, up in the cloud sas it is? When will the windows—cold to the touch on this relatively mild winter afternoon—be retrofitted with panes that provide better insulation?

Oh dear, environmental thoughts intrude. I push them aside, because there are some words that have to be put down immediately. Yet, I can’t help noticing that the river, flowing at the bottom of the slope beyond the old Palais, is full of floating ice. Fifty, even 40 years ago it would have been frozen solid at this time of year.

Oh yes. Time and the River Flowing. We have changed things, haven’t we?

Monday, 25 February 2008

It's a Small World Department: Adrian Tomine in Mile End

I thought the name was familiar when I checked the masthead in The New Yorker to see who had done the brilliant cover, Shelf Life. “Adrian Tomine” said something to me, as the saying around here goes. And then when I was running errands on the weekend I saw the posters again. The neighborhood is plastered for his reading and appearance tonight (Tuesday, February 25) at the Drawn and Quarterly Bookstore, 211 Bernard West (two blocks east of Park Avenue.)

What I hadn’t put together is that Tomine is published by Drawn and Quarterly Press, an edgy and quite successful graphica publisher based in Montreal. It opened the bookstore about 18 months on the edge of Mile End. (There are now three independent bookstore in a two block area: besides D + Q, the excellent used bookstore S.W. Welch and the delightful French librairie L’Écume des jours are on the street south, Saint-Viateur.)

Tomine will be at D + Q at 7 p.m. tonight. Thursday February 28, he’ll be in Cambridge, MA at 6 p.m. in the Brattle Theater, an event co-sponsored with Harvard Bookstore. Then it’s on to Providence, RI on Friday, February 29, at 7:00 PM. in the Rhode Island School of Design auditorium . The week following he’ll be in Washington, D.C, on Wednesday, March 5, at 7:00 PM. at Politics & Prose.

That's terrific. With that kind of interest his books are likely to have a good, long shelf life, and are unlikely to end up being burned as in his New Yorker cover, or at S.W. Welch.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

ERDC Hearing on Class Action Authorization Begins

Finally, our day(s) in court!

The Electronic Rights Defence Committee (ERDC) today begins a three day hearing before Judge Eva Petras of the Quebec Superior Court on authorization for a class action over electronic rights and copyright. It’s a saga that goes back a long way, but may yet end in affirmation of the principle that copyright rests with the creator unless specifically ceded.

On April 7, 1997, the ERDC, of which I’m the current president, took the first steps toward the multi-million dollar class action against Southam Inc, CEDROM-SNJI, Infomart-Dialog and Southam Business Communications for 37,000 instances of copyright infringement of freelancers’ work dating back to 1985.

More than ten years later, the ERDC is still up in arms over the fact that freelancers’ work was (and frequently still is) reproduced electronically without consent or compensation. David Homel has been our class representative since 2003 (our first class representatives Nancy Lyon and David Fennario had to withdraw) and the case has been modified to reflect changes in The Gazette’s ownership. The defendants now are Montreal Gazette Group, CanWest Global Communications, Hollinger Canadian Publishing Holdings, CanWest Interactive, Southam and Southam Business Communications, Infomart Dialog and Cedrom-SNI). Making these changes has slowed the case down, but we also have met with delaying tactics on the other side: it took nearly a year to arrive at a mutually agreeable date for the class authorization hearing now set for February 25-27.

Other information about class actions against newspaper and media over the issue of electronic rights grabs:

1. In October 2007 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled five to four in the Heather Robertson vs. Thomson case that freelancers do indeed hold copyright on their work reproduced in electronic data bases. This is good news, although the closeness of the decision is disappointing. Now that the points of law have been settled, the Robertson vs. Thomson case will go to trial on the question of “implied consent” September 29, 2009.

2. The US$18 million class action settlement in the United States which followed from the Tasini vs. New York Times case is currently in limbo. Some class members contested the settlement, the US Court of Appeals found problems with the definition of “class” and jurisdiction of the lower court and threw out the judgment. so even though the process of finding who is eligible to receive money began in the summer of 2005, no cheques have been given out. What comes next is up in the air.

More later, you can be sure.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Saturday Photo: Another Vision for Griffintown

This morning another slightly out of kilter Griffintown photo: the red brick building on the left contains a store front which will open as a gallery in March. In the center is a garage that specializes in auto body work, and on the right (not shown because my frozen hands didn't point the camera right and I didn't realize it until later) is a shop which makes custom bicycles.

The mix is the kind Jane Jacobs talks about in several of her books--relatively cheap rents, urban location, demand for various sevices, an incubator for ideas and industry. She would not be in favour of the Devimco plans to redevelop Griffintown: I imagine she'd say that it's on its way to redeveloping itself.

That seems to be the message of work by Robert Mellin of McGill's School of Architecture and his students. In part, he recommends that: "Development of the Griffintown area permitted to happen in a long-term, incremental way so as to repair the damage wrought by drastic urban renewal and the forced resettlement of residents in the area.:

His report goes on to recommend "a vision of a “living/working” quasi-industrial, but urban landscape of production." What is not needed is " a strictly 'pleasure-oriented' landscape of consumption, with its attendant banal condos, parks, and shopping malls."

Banal? Well, that's not the word I'd use. But I agree there's a lot to be lost if Montreal and Devimco proceeds with the sort of "lifestyle centre" development they're proposing. The borough council will discuss the project March 10.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Adrian Tomine's "Shelf Life "Is Enough to Make a Writer Weep--with Laughter and Despair

The New Yorker cover for the coming week depicts just what happens to many books. Entitled "Shelf Life," it shows graphically what a short time a book has to prove itself on the market place, and in people's hearts.

Not a cheery thought, as we prepare to launch The Violets of Usambara at the end of March. Plans are being made for launch party at Paragraphe Books Tuesday March 25 (along with Hélène Dorion whose Days of Sands, translated by Jonathan Kaplansky, is also being published by Cormorant this spring) and for one featuring Violets alone in Montreal's Mile End district where half the book takes place. That one will be Wednesday, April 2, at Librairie l'Écume des jours: more details coming up later.

The New Yorker, bless its elitist little head, has had a string of articles lately about publishing and editing, which I've commented on previously. Anyone who has literary ambitions ought to read them. But this new cover shows just what a writer is up against. Writing is tough work, and then you get burned.

Quebec Heath Care Report: Zombie Ideas May Be Laid to Rest Once Again

One of the more heartening things of this not-very-old year is the way that the report on Quebec’s health care system, chaired by Claude Castonguay, has been roundly criticized by the health minister Philippe Couillard and many others, both in and out of government.

The fear had been that in appointing Castonguay to head the inquiry, the current provincial government was stacking the deck. Castonguay was indeed the architect of Quebec’s version of Medicare, but since then he has worked in the insurance industry and has spoken frequently in favour of more private health insurance and a greater role for the private sector.

The report does suggest adding a user fee ($25 a doctor’s visit, to be tacked on your income tax) and/or increasing the sales tax to add more money to the health care pot. A string of research shows that neither user fees, but the idea is what British Columbia health economist Robert Evans calls a “zombie” because it keeps coming back from the dead.

In Quebec its latest resurrection appears to have been soundly put down: Le Devoir’s headline Wednesday was “Couillard Says No!” Also seemingly rejected was the possibility of allowing doctors to practice in both the private and the public sector: currently they must choose between them.

Some of the report’s points probably bear further discussion. Why is it, for example, that Quebec has a higher per capita ratio of doctors than other provinces, but still is running into problems with waiting lists and supply of family physicians? It could be because more Quebec doctors are women who are choosing to share practices or to practice shorter hours, which is not a bad thing necessarily. Or it could mean there are some structural problems that need be rejigging.

Just because the worst seems to have been avoided, and the current government will not rush into undercutting our free, universally accessible health care system, we should not be complacent. Decent governance—like healthful living—requires constant vigilance. And maybe some garlic too, to boost our immune systems and to keep the zombies at bay.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

What is Stephen Harper Reading? Hot Thoughts or Cool Reflections

What is Stephen Harper reading? Some pretty hot stuff, if he’s plunged into the latest book that Yann Martel has sent him—or some very intellectual musings, if he’s begun reading the offering before that.

You’ll remember that Martel began sending a book every two weeks last spring when he decided that Harper needed to have something good to read before bedtime that would promote “stillness.” In early February, Martel sent the Prime Minister Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

“Marcus Aurelius was a man of great ability selected to be Roman emperor. In other words, he was a politician, and, like you, a busy one; he spent much of his time battling barbarian hordes on the frontiers of the empire,” Martel says in his cover letter. “But at the same time, he was a thinking man—with a penchant for philosophy—who put his thoughts down on the page. He was a writer.” The book, Martel says, is “the perfect book for you, Mr. Harper. A practical book on thinking, being and acting by a philosopher-king.”

But this week, Martel sent something quite different: Artists and Models, by Anaïs Nin. It is very cold in Saskatchewan where Martel is living now, he writes, and this book is something to warm things up a bit. Nin, a diarist and novelist, wrote abundantly and freely about her life in France and the United States. Some of it is “Hot stuff. Kinky stuff,” Martel writes. This book may leave Harper cold, he acknowledges, but “it bears noting that while covering our loins and our hearts with clothes is often useful—it’s minus 23 degrees Celsius outside as I write these words—there is the risk that they are also hiding, perhaps burying, an essential part of us, one that does not think but rather feels. Clothes are the commonest trappings of vanity. When we are naked, we are honest. That is the essential quality of these lustful stories of Nin, embellished or wholly invented though they might be: their honesty.”

It will be interesting to see if either of these books gets a response—not likely, seeing that Harper’s office has only acknowledged the first offering, The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy. But the idea of Harper starting out first with Marcus Aurelius and then turning to Anaïs Nin in bed is mind-blowing, as we used to say.

Tonight, however, I’m returning to the Tolstoy book in the first of a series of book discussions in French at the Kirkland Library in suburban Montreal. This is the third time I’ve led such a discussion, and each time I see more things in the book. It was great choice to kick off Martel’s Stephen Harper book club.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Quebec Agriculture Commission Report Covers a Lot of Territory

A big report on the future of Quebec agriculture and food production came own last week, and the scope of its recommendations can be seen in the wide diversity of the headlines it provoked. The Gazette led with the idea that all Quebec farmers should emulate its cheese producers, and go for high quality, value added products in the future.

The Globe and Mail’s report on business picked the recommendation that Quebec farmers’ groups—particularly the Union des producteurs agricoles—should be shaken up, so that farmers can choose which organization they join.

Grainnews, a farmers’ news service, talked about the recommendation that calls for cutting back on regulations: ‘Quebec farming risks "suffocating:" commission’

Le Devoir said that farmers who are respectful of the environment will get more help in the future if the commission's recommendations are followed.

What didn’t come out--in the headlines at least-- is any recommendations about safe-guarding agricultural land around cities threatened by suburban development. That the topic appears not to be mentioned—although at least one presentation during the year touched on it—is probably a good thing. But it will be something I’ll keep my eyes on. Maintaining the current agricultural zoning is going to be essential in any attempt to keep urban places from over flowing into agricultural land in the future.

The Great Dish Washing Challenge: Hand or Machine? And What about Those Phosphates?

Canada’s Conservative government says it will bring down the limit on allowable phosphates in detergents to .5 per cent in 2010. Far too late, environmental critics are saying. Quebec, like Manitoba, will impose the limit next year, while several Quebec retailers have begun to promote low phosphate products already.

The aim, of course, is to stop phosphate from polluting water courses and lakes with chemicals which spur the growth of blue green algae. Serious water pollution may be the result. But why wait two years to impose the limits, environmentalists are asking A year is plenty of time for manufacturers to get rid of stocks, and there are a number of products—including homegrown ones—ready to fill the demand.

The saddest thing in this debate is the fact that nearly 30 years ago citizen pressure resulted in a substantial decrease in the phosphate content of detergent for clothes washing machines. At the time, it seemed the problem was going to be solved, but not only were detergents for dishwashers exempted from the regulations but also apparently no phosphate limits were put on other kinds of cleaners.

Today there are a lot more dishwashers than there were so long ago, producing a much greater phosphate load than was expected in the 1970s. If there is a moral to this story it is: do not trust a government or an industry to quietly lay down their arms if there is a way around a regulation.

A related question is: why use dishwashers anyway? New models use between 3 and 10 gallons of water per wash, apparently, but hand washing uses about half that if you are turn off the faucet between rinses. And while it may be nice to fill a dishwasher after a dinner party and turn the thing on while you go to bed to sleep off the good food and drink, for ordinary meals I’m not convinced you save much time—and certainly use more energy and water—if you use a machine.

Not convinced? A study cited on Treehugger says that new, high efficiency European machines are better environmentally than hand washing, but as the comments suggest the study may have some built-in biases in favour of the machines. Maybe we need a dish washing bee to compare technique and water use. What do you say?

Friday, 15 February 2008

Saturday Photo: Floral Extravagance

There are times when being well-behaved just doesn't cut it, and I think the middle of the winter is one of them. I love the way amaryllis flowers are anything but self-effacing. They are gorgeous, big, flashy, improvident, and wonderful. Can you imagine anything more spectacular than plants which give you two flower stocks per bulb with four flowers per stock? That they bloom when the world is full of darkness is even more fabulous.

These amaryllis are ones sold by the Canadian Huntington Foundation. For the last several years we've bought two (one of Lee's colleagues sells them) and they've lit up the darkest days of winter. Friends have been able to coax them into bloom a second year, but so far I haven't. At the moment four bulbs from previous years sit in pots in the basement, sprouting leaves, so I shall try again. But even if I don't get more flowers, we've had a grand show for a good cause.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Tough Films about Tough Situations: Family Motel and Is My Story Hurting You? at Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois

This weekend the Rendez-vous de cinema québécois begins, and films by two friends will be getting prominent play. One is a wonderful docudrama by Helene Klowdawsky, Family Motel, which we saw at the end of the summer during the Montreal World Film Festival. It tells the story of a hardworking Somali mother, who struggles to send money back to her husband and sons stranded in that country, finds herself over her head in Ottawa where she is living with her two teenaged daughters. They end up in Family Motel when they are evicted from their apartment. The story is one of those which is “truer” than a documentary: the three actresses at the center of the film are really mother and daughters, but the story is not really their story. Nevertheless it captures the spirit and courage it takes to try to make it in North America, even when you have already passed the hurdle of getting official refugee status.

It will be screened Saturday February 16, 3 p.m. at the Cinema du Parc
3575, avenue du Parc and Thursday, February 21, at the Centre Segal des arts de la scène, 5170, chemin de la Côte-Ste-Catherine.

The other is the first film directed by novelist David Homel, whose novel about the war in Serbia, The Speaking Cure, won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2003. Is My Story Hurting You? is a documentary focusing on Vladimir Jovic, a Bosnian Serb psychiatrist who saw the break-up of his country and the end of Slobodan Milosevic's dictatorship. I haven’t seen the film, but the novel was first rate and I know that David has poured great skill and passion into making the film.
The film will be shown in a French version on Sunday, February 17 at 8 p.m. at the National Film Board cinema (1564, rue Saint-Denis) and in English on Tuesday February 19 at the Centre Segal des arts de la scène (5170, chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine).

Both are highly recommended. And it’s also worth noting that both films received considerable encouragement from the National Film Board, a unique organization which supports films that would never be made if the filmaker had to depend on commercial markets.

Balance: What's Needed These Days

Because it's semi-holiday, here's a little story to make you smile. Courtesy of a friend who was born in Washington State and who would like to see a change in the White House, as you might guess,


God was missing for six days. Eventually, Michael, the archangel, found him, resting on the seventh day. He inquired of God. "Where have you been?"

God sighed a deep sigh of satisfaction, and proudly pointed downwards through the clouds, "Look, Michael. Look what I've made."

Archangel Michael looked puzzled, and said, "What is it?"

"It's a planet," replied God, "and I've put Life on it. I'm going to call it Earth and it's going to be a great place of balance."

"Balance?" inquired Michael, still confused.

God explained, pointing to different parts of earth. "For example, that place will be be full of useful meals and that place will be good for growing things. There will be white people and black people, and people in between. There will be balance in all things,"

God continued pointing to different countries. "This one will be extremely hot, while this one will be very cold and covered in ice."

The Archangel, impressed by God's work, then pointed to a land area and said, "What's that one?"

"Ah," said God "That's Washington State, the most glorious place on earth. There are beautiful mountains, rivers and streams, lakes, forests, hills, plains, and coulees. The people from Washington State are going to be handsome, modest, intelligent, and humorous, and they are going to be found traveling the world. They will be extremely sociable, hardworking, high achieving, and they will be known throughout the world as diplomats, and carriers of peace."

Michael gasped in wonder and admiration, but then proclaimed, "What about balance, God? You said there would be balance."

God smiled, "There is another Washington...wait until you see the idiots I put there."

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Art and Crime and the Desire to Possess: Pictures Stolen from Arms Magnate's Museum

The picture of the young man on the front pages this morning jumped out at me. It is Paul Cezanne’s "Boy in a Red Vest," which I have stared at often, trying to figure out just what is wrong with his arms. The painting would be arresting anyway, but one arm would be longer than the other if they were extended, I’m sure. Was that intentional? What does it say about Cezanne and the way he saw the world?

The reproduction I have of the painting is in the catalogue of an exhibit which visited Montreal in 1990, The Passionate Eye: Impressionist and Other Master Paintings from the E.G. Bührle Collection, (Zurich, Artemis, 1990.) It was a fabulous exhibit from a fabulous collection and I returned several times. Aside from the truly astounding paintings, I found myself wondering about the ethics of one man collecting so many masterworks, particularly when the money he used to buy them came from his Oerlikon armaments factories. The question so preoccupied me that I put it at the center of my new novel The Violets of Usambara, where the main female character finds herself asking the same questions, while her politician husband wants her to make nice with the Bürhle family because Oerlikon is building new installations in Quebec.

Yesterday Marc Côté of Cormorant Books called me with one last question before the book was sent to the printers. This morning reproductions of the painting are everywhere because thieves stole it and three others from the Bürhle museum in Zurich on Sunday. Clearly the appeal of these paintings transcends morals: somone must have them, no matter what. And what does that say about art?

Photo: Reuters

Stories Told by Children: Lullabies for Little Criminals and Lignes de faille

The Atwater Book Club and the Causeries littéraires d’Outremont begin again this week, after a hiatus for the month of January. The first month of the year is a good one for reading, but given the uncertain weather, it is not a good one to get people out in the evening to talk books. But February—well, February is a month of cold and ice, but also the days are growing perceptibly longer and I’ve found folks welcome a chance to do something.

So last night in Outremont we talked about Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines, or Lignes de faille, as it is called in her original French version. The book won the Prix Femina in 2006, but only found English language publishers last year because of the snotty comments of one of the book’s narrators, Sol, with which Huston begins the telling of her tale. It is told in four voices, each of a child of six, and goes from the present (2004) to the past, until several mysteries, personal as well as historical, are uncovered.

The book for tonight at Atwater also has a precocious child as a narrator. Baby in Heather O’Neil’s Lullabies for Little Criminals speaks in a voice that seems to me at least more authentic than those of Huston’s characters. The story she has to tell is just as harrowing, but not at all overtly political.

Both books are excellent reading, and make one reflect about the innocence of childhood. How much we know when we aren't supposed to know!

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Culinary Time Travel: Supper from 1750 in New France

A very grand pleasure this weekend: Elin’s conjoint Emmanuel Nivon—with her help—presented Lee and me and Sophie and Lukas with a delayed Christmas present, a 10 course meal from the New France of 1750. Emmanuel is a passionate historian, who has worked a lot for Parks Canada as a guide and who has an amazing collection of 18th century objects. The menu, he explained over drinks, olives and almonds, was what an upper middle class family in Montreal or Quebec City might enjoy on a special occasion during the height of the French regime. (One of the things he does is give workshops to school and interest groups on life in New France in English and French: I can’t imagine a better way to learn about the past.)

We were to serve ourselves from the dishes as they came to table, he explained. The custom was to present as many dishes a possible, but the company was not expected to eat everything since the left-overs would feed the rest of the family, its employees and servants for subsequent meals. That’s a good thing because we couldn’t possibly have eaten everything, even though it was delicious.

The table was set with rimmed plates that somewhat resembled a soup dish, a soup spoon, napkin (on the right), two pronged-fork, a broad, unsharpened knife and a small loaf of bread. When we got to the meats that needed to be cut, Emmanuel feigned surprise that we didn’t have our own pocket knives with us (in 18th century New France we would have, it seems) and produced folding knives for us to use.

The first course—a farmer’s soup of rich home-made stock and vegetables--was served in the dish, and Emmanuel said to sop up any left with the bread broken off the bread. We kept our plates for each of the following courses: very few people would have had a service large enough to provide separate plates for each new dish, Emmanuel said. In between we scoured our plates with bread. There were pitchers of blonde beer, and carafes of red Bordeaux, white Burgundy and water to drink, all served in the same glass too.

Next came boudin noir and boudin blanc, sausages made from blood and ground fowl, followed by a kind of empanada (he said they show up as paté espagnol in the old documents) filled with salmon, and white fish rissoles. After that there was a ragout of capon in a cream sauce and roast pork with tangy mustard sauce “à la diable,” accompanied by wild rice, and green peas cooked with ham..

When I found myself struggling with the peas—ever try to scoop them up with a two-tined fork?--Lukas suggested I try the broad knife, which he was using. Emmanuel nodded in agreement. Suddenly I remembered my father chanting: “I eat my peas with honey, I’ve done it all my life./ It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on my knife.” Ah yes, the world connects in the most amazing ways!

After that we had a little break with radishes and cucumbers to dip in salt—white salt from Camargue, not the gray stuff that would have been imported from the west of France and which contained impurities we might find delightful now. Gruyère and Gouda—both of which were imported into the colony in the 18th century—followed as a cheese course. The dessert was fresh cream cheese, with apricot and cherry preserves. accompanied by coffee and Italian macaroons. Rum from Saint Domingue (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic today) rounded things off.

The meal lasted five and a half hours with much laughter and good talk. Truly an unforgettable evening!

Friday, 8 February 2008

Saturday Photo: Green Light to Right Turn...Or to Griffintown Development

Green light to a right turn on Ottawa Street: with talk of an impending vote on Canada's role in Afghanistan which may bring down the Conservative minority government, the picture seems either prescient, or menacing, depending on where you sit on the politcal spectrum.

Actually it is was taken in the heart of Griffintown, "the city below the hill." which once hummed with industry. Plans to redevelop 10.2 hectares of it will be aired on February 21 by the developer Devimco, while a public discussion is scheduled by the borough council for March 10.

Another part of town which once looked nearly as forlorn as Griffintown and is now bustling was in the news this week. The idea is to make part of St. Catherine Street running through the Gay Village into a pedestrian mall during the summer months. An interesting plan--and one supported by merchants and residents--but summer seems such a long time off!

Rabaska and Gros Cacouna: Supply Side Problems May Do What Environmentalists Haven't Done So Far

Will there be a liquid natural gas (LNG) port on the St. Lawrence after all?

Assuring supplies of LNG is proving harder than expected, stockholders in Gaz Métropolitain learned Wednesday at their annual general meeting. Sophie Brochu, Gaz Metro president, noted that with the increasing demand for natural gas, competition for supply contracts is becoming hotter. The utility is part of the Rabaska consortium that wants to build an LNG port near Lévis, across from Quebec City. Spokespersons for another LNG project a little down stream at Gros Cacouna said earlier that it also was having to push back its schedule because of delays.

Both projects have been given green lights by the provincial government, but opposition from environmental groups has been strong.

“Today it’s not Cacouna against Rabaska, it’s Quebec against the rest of the planet when it comes to attracting liquid natural gas to its territory,” Brochu said. So far Rabaska has spent more than $45 million other project, with Gaz Métro picking up a third of the tab, according to Le Devoir.

This morning the newspaper also reported that, if one or both of the projects finally does materialize, Quebec may find itself being forced to give preference to US markets in time of international emergency and short LNG supplies. Under NAFTA agreements, a certain proportion of production must be guaranteed for export to the US, Charles-Emmanuel Côté, an international law professor at Laval University, said in a report prepared a year ago for presentation during environmental hearings on the project. That means that Quebec could not increase the share of production for domestic needs even if total production is curtailed.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Blogging The New York Review of Books

When I was in university I remember a professor—his name escapes me, such are the vagaries of time—who told the class with great passion: “If you have any interest in the life of the mind, you must read The New York Review of Books.

At the time I had just discovered the publication myself, and found the essays which grew out of a review of one or more books absolutely fascinating. Yes, I said to myself then. Right on!

Over the years we have usually had a subscription, and while Lee always reads it (sometimes months and months after an issue has arrived,) recently I have grown impatient with the articles’ wordiness, lack of focus and too-predictable opinions. The wordy “fusty” had begun to come to mind with I thought of it.

The Feb. 14 issue has an article about blogs though, so I grabbed it before it disappeared into Lee’s pile of “must read—some day.” The essay is by Sara Boxer who reviews 11 books on blogs and bloggers. That she sees fit to give an etymological note on “blog” (comes from “web log,” in case you forgot) suggests that the NYRB expects its readers to be not very engaged in electronic culture. That Boxer compares the casual tone of most blogs with the opening of Plato’s Republic tells you a lot about the readers’ cultural baggage. And that she goes on for 4150 words says more than you need to know about editing at the NYRB.

Who will take time to read anything that long? Not many bloggers.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Required Reading for Clinton and Obama: Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine

As we waited to hear how the primaries went yesterday, I finished reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Now I'm thinkinig of sending copies to both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama because nowhere have I seen such a brilliant analysis of how disasters (economic, natural and jingoistic) have been turned into power grabs and chances to make fortunes.

Since the 1970s neo-conservatives, influenced by the school of economic thought created by Milton Friedman, have used every excuse to advance their free market ideas. Klein quotes Friedman: ‘Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Clinton and Obama must have a similar, countervailing set of ideas ready and be prepared to fight the neo-cons who may lose the White House in November but aren’t going to lose their economic clout. If they don't have time to read the book, here's the link to Klein's thoughts on the threatened recession: "Why The Right Loves A Disaster"

Klein’s book is right up there with Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, and Chantal Hébert’s French Kiss as must-reads for anyone who cares about the world.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

"Super Mardi:" The View from Radio Canada

According to Radio Canada this morning, there are 600,000 expat Americans in Canada who have the right to vote today in the 24 presidential primaries in the US.

Radio Canada news—the CBC’s French equivalent—sent a reporter to poke around the headquarters of Republican candidates Romney and McCain in California. What she came up with was several sound bites of supporters of the two frontrunners commenting in painfully accented but quite correct French. What they said was nothing new—we need a man more like Reagan, and Romney’s experience as a businessman will make him a good president, and McCain is a real hero—but I’m always surprised when reporters are able to discover Americans who speak other languages well.

Growing up the San Diego, there were few around me who considered learning another language well important. A little Spanish, maybe, if you wanted to shop in Tijuana. Or perhaps Russian, because it was thought good to know the enemy: after all it was the Cold War and beginning of the Space Age. I had to learn my French as an adult here, which means that I am forever “branded on my tongue” as George Orwell said about accents.

Radio Can also reported that American expat Democrats can vote on-line, while Republicans can vote in special voting places in Canadian cities. Don’t know how widespread this is, but California and Michigan resortissants vote by mail-in absentee ballot. This means that the votes for John Edwards of a number of people I know are lost somewhere in limbo since the ballots were mailed before he withdrew.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Gardening and God Department: Coaxing Cactus into Bloom

The days are getting longer: sunset is after 5 p.m., and it’s light before 7 a.m. Even though the groundhog didn’t see his shadow here on Saturday—it was cloudy with the tail end of a snow storm—and without a doubt we’d have six more weeks of winter anyway, the year is progressing.

But my one of my Christmas cactuses is in bloom again! Of course that’s related to winter sunshine, but still I find it a small miracle. Since the plants are sensitive to the length of day, I’ve found that they'll bloom a second time if I put them back in a place where they get sun but not for too many hours a day. So this weekend I brought downstairs the one that had bloomed in early November and which now is in bloom again. The other one, whose last flowers fell a couple of weeks ago, is back in the sunny window, in hopes that it can be coaxed into flower again.

Louise Brossard, the major female character in my new novel The Violets of Usambara, grows African violets, not Christmas cactuses, but she loves playing God with her plants. A writer often doesn't know just here his or her characters' attributes come from--and I certainly am not Louise--I understand Louise's delight in manipulating circumstances in hopes of creating something marvelous.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Saturday Photo: Griffintown on a Winter Day

Griffintown, whose grid-like subdivision pre-dates Manhattan's by several years, may become a new "lifestyle centre." Or at least that is what development company Devimco is pushing. The same day that I visited Dix30--their "lifestyle centre" set at the junction of two expressways on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence--I wandered around Griffintown too. What difference! (Check out last week's Saturday photo for a look.

This picture is a little crooked but it was so cold I had trouble keeping my hands steady. You'll notice that this building--whose electrical system appears to be up to code--is already for sale.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Ozone to Treat Montreal's Sewage: the Last Step in a Long Anti-Pollution March?

The province of Quebec and Montreal are near agreement, it appears, on a $200 million plan to treat the city’s sewage with ozone, Le Devoir reported this week. The procedure should disinfect the effluent as well as destroy residual medication excreted by the 2 million people in the catchment area. Twenty years ago when the current treatment facility was opened at the eastern tip of the island, the idea was to provide primary and secondary treatment, that is to remove solid waste and part of the rest. But concern has grown about the effects of what on life in the river and on the health of people who drink the water taken from the river farther downstream, even when it is purified conventionally.

The magnitude of the sewage problem was not recognized until the 1970s, and my first introduction into political action here came with the campaign for sewage treatment. Happily, the quality of water in the rivers around Montreal have improved remarkably since the Montreal plant—and others treating waste from off-island communities—was opened. More beaches may actually be opened to swimming soon. But it’s good to hear that the job started so long ago by STOP (the Society to Overcome Pollution) and SVP (la Société de vaincre la pollution) so long ago may finally be properly completed.

PS Just discovered that the National Film Board of Canada still has a charming little documentary about STOP “Persistent and Finagling” (1971.) How many women started raising hell with causes that touched their families!