Category Archives for Island Report

Unapologetically Episode 4: Sherry Simon’s quest to show how language shifts identity

Meeting Sherry Simon

McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal began 2018 with a bilingual lunchtime discussion about power struggles in multilingual cities.

Journalists, translators and writers packed the room. Among them were students and professors from the universities of Concordia, McGill, UQAM and Sherbrooke. Late-comers pulled up chairs in the hallway.

We all came to hear keynote speaker Sherry Simon, a woman long known for challenging community identity.

Simon simultaneously lives within multiple communities based on gender identity, religious upbringing and personal conviction. She works in French at Concordia, an English University. She grew up in an Anglophone family, yet argues strenuously in favour of a French-first Montreal.

Speaking Memory

The presentation stemmed from a controversial book Simon edited called “Speaking Memory: How Translation Shapes City Life.”

Simon began her talk by describing how much the book carries her sentiments even though others wrote most of it.

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,” said Simon. “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.”

Pivot from Literature to Social Studies

The resulting shock combined with reflections about her neighbourhood to inspire Simon to pivot her research away from Quebecois literature. She began studying language and translation as a conduit for exploring the social and cultural history of Montreal instead.

Eventually, her work took her going Montreal’s borders to examine similar multilingual cities around the world, such as Barcelona.

As she studies different places, her analysis reflects a deep understanding of how it feels to have basic assumptions about identity questioned. She says her background growing up in a minority culture enables her to see patterns others miss.

Watching English Lose Status in Montreal

I remember that very existential sense that I had as a kid, when I took the bus across town and felt unwelcome,” she said. “When I grew up, Anglophones thought we were the dominant culture in the city. Then we found out it wasn’t true.”

That shift [in dominance from English to French] happened between the 60s and the 80s. I think that shift is so foundational for me that it allows me to understand so many other contexts around the world where those kinds of shifts happen, where communities re-examine their relationships to their cities, to their countries. If you look at the situation in Catalonia today, for example, that’s what that’s about. The shift in power about who thinks they’re up and who thinks they’re down. How do the languages realign themselves?”

Publishing History

Simon’s history questioning how languages realign links the many facets of her career.  As a result, she has books in multiple disciplines.

Her study of Quebec literature led her to publish two books about the subject in 1989 and 1994.

Then she studied feminist writings and presented her research in a book called “Gender in Translation” two years later.

Then she turned her eye towards the history of cities. Two additional books followed. She published Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City in 2006. In 2011, she came out with Cities in Translation, in which she examines language patterns in cities around the world.

Translating Montreal

Simon says that Translating Montreal is her favourite work so far.

I think that the fact that this work was grounded in my personal experience of living between languages,” she said. Exploiting the potential discomfort of such a situation made it more of an organic quest. All these issues are things that I feel personally. As a citizen of a city like Montreal, we are always aware of the uncertainties of our situation. What some people see as a disadvantage I turned into an advantage.”

Living Between Communities

A lifetime of living between communities and her desire to shed identities has given Simon a cross-cultural existence.

To be a Montrealer means I have some affiliation to the historic Anglo community, even though for a very long time I wanted to give up my membership in that community. I felt more drawn to a Francophone identity. I wanted to be part of that identity. I’m also Jewish. So those three identities are important to me in various ways at various times and with various intensities.”

I found myself fascinated as she described the positive impacts of 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.”

Three Identities

Integrating her multiple identities has led Simon to approach research with a perspective that opens up unusual insights. She has closely examined Yiddish, French and English literary movements in Montreal during the early 1940s, for instance. That study made her realize that assumptions about Montreal as a land of two-solitudes is not correct.

Her work landed her the André-Laurendeau prize for the promotion of Québecois literature and culture in 2010.

I highly recommend watching Simon’s bilingual acceptance speech called “The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures.”

Simon plans to continue investigating language’s influence on identity. Her next book will focus on polyglot places around the globe.


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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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