Category Archives for Island Report

Can Sherry Simon understand cities by studying language?

Earlier this year, I attended a bilingual lunchtime discussion led by Sherry Simon about power struggles in multilingual cities at McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal.

As Keynote speaker, Simon, a Professor in Concordia’s French Department presented a collection of stories she edited within a book called “Speaking Memory: How Translation Shapes City Life.”

Even though this book is a collective, it is a result of my obsession with Montreal and with Montreal-like cities which I’ve studied over the last ten or more years,” she said. “It all started in the early 1990s in my neighbourhood, which is Mile-End, when I became aware that the day-to-day life in my neighbourhood, the way languages were handled, the way people thought, the way identities were construed were diametrically opposed to what I was hearing on the radio and what I was reading in the newspapers. That was a shock.”

My focus was a profile for the February issue of the Montrealer, but Simon’s work is so fascinating, I decided to present our conversation in this podcast as well.

Sherry Simon’s Diverse Career

As a Jewish Anglophone who grew up in Snowdon, went to school in Westmount and spent much of her life integrating into Montreal’s Francophone culture, Simon knows how it feels to be an outsider. Unlike many of us, however, she has used her minority status as a strength in understanding and explaining changing identities.  She is one of the few Anglophones I’ve met who speaks about the French and English dichotomy in Quebec from a position in which she absolutely believes that it is vitally important to keep the French language dominant in the city. Despite not agreeing with her, I couldn’t help but recognize how well-considered her opinion is.

Simon is currently a professor in the French Department at Concordia University and author of “Genders in Translation,” “Cities in Translation,” and “Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City” in addition to “Speaking Memory.”


What some people see as a disadvantage I turned into an advantage,” she said. “I remember that very existential sense that I had as a kid when I took the bus across town and felt unwelcome. Bilingualism in Montreal affects everything that we are. Culture is constantly being transferred back and forth.”

Simon was born on April 16, 1948. The Royal Society of Canada and of the Académie des lettres du Québec count her as a member. In 2009 she was a Killam Research Fellow and in 2010 she received the Prix André-Laurendeau from l’Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS).

During our conversation, we discuss the bonjour/hi controversy,  Quebec’s influence on France when it comes to gender,  the improvement in Francophone pride in their own identity, and the removal of gender from Canada’s national anthem.

This is a change that is long overdue,” says Simon. “Language regularly changes. This is totally normal and fundamental. It’s absolutely essential that people recognize themselves in the language they use.”

A fascinating part of our conversation for me was our discussion about Montreal’s fundamental shit from English to French between 1940 and 1980.

People don’t realize that what was happening on the French side of town was exciting to a whole group of Anglos at the time,” said Simon. “My favourite character of that time was Malcolm Reid, a journalist in the 70’s who wrote about Francophone Montreal. He wrote this wonderful book about the Shouting Sign Painters. It’s a fabulous book about how the poets and songwriters were transferring the identity of the city and how exciting that was for English Montrealers to watch.”

Sherry Simon’s next book will be a tourist guidebook to polyglot places.

Once my Montrealer profile is online, I’ll link to it, but in the meantime, I highly recommend that readers who understand French watch Simon’s bilingual speech called “The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures.”




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Canada Launches Open Science Platform Today


Today, 33 major academic and pharmaceutical research partners publicly agreed to share health data in an open science system to combat Alzheimer’s, dementia, mental illness, spinal cord injuries and other diseases that affect the brains of approximately 11 million people across Canada.

They did so because they now have secure computer resources within a network called the Canadian Open Neuroscience Platform (CONP).

CONP was made possible through a $10 million dollar grant from the Canada Brain Research Fund. David Lametti, Member of Parliament for LaSalle-Émard-Verdun and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development announced the grant earlier today.

The project is designed to allow researchers to share, store, analyze, and disseminate data using 8,000-10,000 terabytes of storage space from Compute Canada. Partners have also agreed to create and participate in inter-disciplinary training through the new organization.

This step is the next crucial element in creating the vision announced on December 16, 2016 by Larry Tanenbaum in the presence of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Tanenbaum, the Chairman and CEO of Kilmer Van Nostrand Co. Limited engineering construction company, donated $20 million dollars to create the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute at The Neuro.

The Open Science Institute operates under five philosophies designed to spur on innovation through unusual collaboration.

Partners agree to:

  • openly publish research results without restrictions,
  • share experimental data freely with international institutions,
  • refrain from obtaining patents,
  • share biological samples if supplies warrant it and patient confidentiality can be maintained, and
  • commercialize open source discoveries.

In addition to the Neuro at McGill, partners in todays announcement included: the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Calgary, University of Alberta, Western University, Brock University, University of Toronto, York University, Queen’s University, Concordia University, McGill University, Université de Montreal, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval, and Dalhousie University.


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The struggle to create safe clean social housing in Quebec

Four years ago, Verdun borough mayor Jean-François Parenteau agreed to build social housing on a municipally-owned lot on Gaetan Laberge instead of a larger project containing both condos and social housing.

It isn’t built yet in part because the land in question has to be decontaminated before residential units can be built. Add that price, which is likely to be in the millions of dollars to the cost of the social housing buildings, whatever form they take, and you get a challenging fundraising goal.

And that’s in addition to the many emotional and security barriers to building fully-subsidized apartments for vulnerable and impoverished people.

No matter where they live, or what their income might be, people can occasionally experience personal crises due to addiction, mental health challenges, and uncontrolled anger. Unfortunately, it can be much harder to hide these kinds of crises in a public building, even when most of the residences within it are private. That means that neighbours find out about every incident, and assume that unusual situations occur more often than they do. The stigma makes it hard to build social housing into the fabric of communities.

People don’t want those units too close to home,” said a condo developer in response to a question about integrating social housing into his projects when I first looked into this issue four years ago. “They’re afraid their property values will go down.”

Boroughs don’t like lower property values either, nor do they appreciate handling security and social problems that are difficult to hide in large impoverished neighbourhoods.  Despite a 2005 City of Montreal policy that requires 15% of social housing and 15% of affordable housing in all new developments with more than 200 units, boroughs and cities can make exceptions. Often, they require cash payments towards parks and public spaces instead.

The result is a waiting list of 25,000 people for social housing while there’s a glut of condominiums for sale. That’s 3,000 more people on the waiting list than when I covered this issue four years ago. And things then were bad:

Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI each have more than a year of inventory to absorb,” wrote Robert Kavcic, a senior economist with BMO Financial in June, 2014. “In most cases, those are decade highs that exceed even levels seen at the height of the Great Recession.”

Maintaining pure social housing after it’s built can also be a challenge; in that model, tenants pay only 25% of their income in rent, regardless of how little they earn. Today, the social housing banner also includes low-income apartments, cooperative housing projects and seniors’ residences run by non-profit entities.

Some non-profit housing options exist, but most of today’s pure social housing units were created with federal and provincial government financing in the sixties and seventies. In 1969, the federal government set up social housing neighbourhoods across the country through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

By 1982, people weren’t as concerned about social housing as they had been earlier. The CMHC began selling all of its buildings to local non-profits, a process they completed in 1994.

Some imaginative local politicians reacted to ensure that the units remained accessible to low-income people. In Pierrefonds for example, local politicians helped tenants turn a 750-unit building called Cloverdale into Canada’s largest housing cooperative.

As inspiring as that project was, other regions didn’t duplicate it. LaSalle Heights was owned by the same person, but instead of following the coop creation model, it was sold to private for-profit interests in 1988. The Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation battled the decision in court for years, but ultimately lost the right to keep the units reserved for low-income tenants. Instead, the CMHC set up grants for tenants and partnered with the owners to keep the complex open for another fifteen years. That agreement officially expires next year and locals worry that the site is targeted for major gentrification, especially since the 750 units are no longer tracked by any public agency.

The only social housing that is tracked carefully is that managed within the provincial HLM program. The Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM) operates 20,810 low-rent apartments within this program, while the Office municipal d’habitation de Laval (OMHL) operates another 1,120.

Unfortunately, almost all of the apartment buildings in the program were built in the seventies, so they require annual maintenance and occasional renewal projects that creates inconveniences for everyone and give the program a bad name. Renovations, when they occur, cost millions of dollars.

Hundreds of residents of a building on Plamondon, for instance, only just moved back into their units last June after three-and-a-half years and $10 million dollars in renovations that included removing mold.

Many other buildings need the same treatment. At the same time, Montreal faces a severe shortage of affordable family-sized rental units.

Verdun’s project remains one to watch to see whether any social housing solution can be found.

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Yoshua Bengio: the man leading Montreal’s Artificial Intelligence movement

If Montreal’s prominence in the evolution of an artificial intelligence industry in the past five years is primarily due to the leadership of Yoshua Bengio, we are all lucky he became a father and is a beloved son.

Two main things changed me,” he says. “Relationships with women taught me a lot about humanity and emotions, and my children: they really transformed me. I mean it was like a part of my heart hadn’t opened yet. You know having to take care of somebody and knowing that that person depends on you is really a transformative experience. When I was in my late 20s, it was a big thing.”

Today, the University of Montreal professor is a sought-after collaborator. He’s founded or cofounded five different institutions and has been a key ingredient in both Google and Microsoft setting up artificial intelligence centres in Montreal. He recently became the scientific director of a new non-profit linking his current school with his alma mater, McGill. That organization will be publicly launched once it finds a CEO.

He’s also the co-founder of Element AI, an entrepreneurial start-up dedicated to showing companies how artificial intelligence can help businesses run more effectively, save costs or both.

Indirectly, both of those efforts stem from two research laboratories founded by Bengio in the early 1990’s: the Laboratoire d’Informatique des Systèmes Adaptatifs (LISA), and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA).

MILA has been called “the largest concentration of deep learning researchers in the world.”

Read more in the September 2017 issue of the Montrealer.

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The Hornsteins created an enduring legacy in arts philanthropy

When two Polish Holocaust survivors arrived in Canada from Rome in 1951, they weren’t planning to become Montreal’s most generous arts benefactors.

After six decades of careful collecting, however, the couple amassed and then donated seventy-seven European masterpieces that were so impressive, they necessitated a new home.

The donation of European art to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by Michal and Renata Hornstein ranks among the greatest benefactions of art in the history of Canada,” wrote Hillyard T. Goldfarb in a memoir about the couple after they died. “They were very grateful to Canada and to Montreal,” he said in an interview later.

That gratitude, Michal’s strong business acumen and six decades of careful action enabled the Hornsteins to amass the fortune that would allow them to give generously to six major Montreal institutions. The Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the Montreal Heart Institute, the Montreal General Hospital, Hôpital Notre Dame, the Jewish General Hospital and the University of Montreal’s CHUM superhospital have all benefitted from their largesse. Two pavilions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art and a centre specializing in Parkinson’s disease carry their names.

Michal began his involvement with the Museum in 1969, when he donated the funds needed to purchase two Italian Renaissance Medals. A year later, he joined the Museum of Fine Arts’ board of trustees where he remained until his death. For most of that period, he served as vice-president and he also chaired the Acquisition Committee for International Art before 1900.


Read the rest of the story in the March 2017 issue of the Montrealer.

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