For and Against the Quebec Student “Strike”

When the Quebec student protest (it’s not actually a “strike”) started heating up a few weeks ago I found myself falling into the standard trap of people like me — people who have been out of school for some time and who, rightfully or not, tend to see the current crop of young people as perhaps a bit too entitled and completely unaware of how good they have it. After all, tuition in Quebec is lower than anywhere else in Canada, and has been since as long as I can remember.

And indeed that is a trap. I like to call it the “geezer trap,” as it is the most likely hole for people of a certain age to fall into. That’s not to say there aren’t younger people who feel the same way, but for them I blame ignorance.

To cut a long blog post short, I’ll just say that I know the burden of student debt, so I can relate to their concern. It took me almost 10 years to pay off my student loans, and during my first four years post-university, I didn’t know how I would be able do it.

The amount I had to pay seems rather small in retrospect; $16,000 in official student loans plus another $3000 in short-term loans and credit card debt that I acquired while trying to launch myself into a post-university, so-called “real life.” (I knew people who were paying that muct just to get a car.) But you have to consider that I was not graduating with a degree in video game design or object-oriented programming. There were virtually no jobs available to me with my lowly bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. It took three years before I found a job that had the slightest hint of a career path, and that job paid only $6.50 an hour. (I quit a $7.00 an hour dead-end job to take it.)

Kids these days (ha! I just had to say that) seem to think that everything was all rosy and filled with unicorns in times past and now is the only era of bleakness. Not so. When I started university in 1983 the national unemployment rate was 12%. By the time I graduated it was down to 9% but it went north of 10% by 1991. Those are national averages; for people in my geographic and demographic groups the rates were consistently higher by three or four percentage points. Today’s national unemployment rate of 7.2% seems rather glorious by comparison.

But I’m not going to dig deeper into the geezer trap by yammering on about how tough I had it. But I will say this: from the point-of-view of freshly-graduated me looking forward from 1987, things looked very bleak indeed. Big debt, high unemployment, and few personal prospects. Adding weight to that burden was the fact that I was coming from a bleak place with a long history of unemployment and minimal prospects, so I started off having very little hope. I went off to university not because it was expected, but because I forced myself out of a quagmire of defeat and dispair and got myself some education with the hope of smartening myself up and improving my prospects a little.

In 1987, 88, and 89, those prospects seemed worse than ever. Now, in 2012, 20-plus years into a fairly interesting and reasonably lucrative career, it’s easy to dismiss my youthful worries. That too is part of the geezer trap, although there is potentially a positive “it gets better” type of message in there, if anyone’s looking.

While I probably won’t remember your name two minutes after we meet, I do remember how defeated I felt in those few years after university, and how empty the future looked. I remember how that debt felt like a ball and chain, keeping me from having the kind of life that people in their 20s are supposed to have. I also remember that despite all that, I was always very grateful for the student loans I was able to procure, and how the annual increase in tuition fees at my university always felt like a stab in the gut. (For perspective, the tuition for two semesters in my final year was about $1600. That was 1986-87.)

I maintain that one should pay for the things one receives, but I also think that we all, as a society, benefit from an educated population. (Please re-read that last line and ponder it. Save us both the bother of me writing 1000 words on how important it is to have an educated population, as that should go without saying.)

Surely there’s a balance point that places less burdent on the students, particularly when you remember that not all of those students are there to “train” for high paying jobs. They all bring something valuable to our society, and not all of them will be engineers and doctors.

I agree with many who acknowledge that the price of tuition should go up somewhat, but I also agree with many who feel that the currently proposed increases are way too much, way too fast.

What I cannot agree with are the tactics the student protesters are using. Boycotting classes hurts themselves and their fellow students who may not want to boycott classes. Their practice of disrupting public transit and bridge traffic only turns public opinon against them. Then there are the recent acts of vandalism, including failed Molotov cocktails and throwing bricks on the Metro tracks, that may or may not be associated with the student protest. That’s where they are really shooting themselves in their collective foot, because the only way the student protests will have any effect is if they can create and then ride a wave of positive public opinion.

Pissing the public off only plays into the government’s hand. It’s bad enough that there is a general perception that today’s youth are spoiled with self-entitlements and their discontent is just them crying like children under threat of having their candy taken away (I tend to believe that does define a minority of todays’ youth — as it always has). But when you pile that perception on top of public disruptions, all wrapped in a fog of conflicting information on how much money we’re really talking about, then you have a very strong formula for protest failure.

I doubt the tactics will change, so I doubt the tuition increases will be stopped. That is unfortunate, as it will cause some students to drop out of their studies, and it will place a large burden of debt on those who do manage to finish.

As for those of you who are stuck in the geezer trap and can’t take your eyes off that “lowest tuition in Canada” factoid, it’s a false argument to compare the fees of Quebec students with those from other provinces and other countries, because the question is not “why shouldn’t Quebec students pay as much as others?” The question is the simpler and un-relative “how much should Quebec students pay?”

Talking About Books

I like talking about books. What I like even more is listening to people talk about books. Over the years I have entertained this fetish by listening to CBC Radio and by attending various book festivals around town, most notably the Blue Metropolis festival (which, while still good, was a lot better when it was smaller and less ambitious).

Top of the list on CBC Radio is Writers and Company, with Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been listening to that show for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad episode. It’s so good that I cry a little bit every week when I think about Ms. Wachtel’s long career; she’s older than me, so in my golden years, while I pass the hours in a squeaky rocking chair next to a warm Tivoli radio, my dear Eleanor will be long retired and Writers and Company will be no more.

The only strike against Writers and Company in the context of this discussion is that it isn’t really about books; it’s about writers. But since writers are more likely to talk about books than anything else, it still counts, and counts big.

CBC’s other books show is The Next Chapter, with Shelagh Rogers. I confess I’m not the hugest fan. I don’t dislike it; in fact I’ve enjoyed many an episode. But its cheery “fan” vibe is a bit much for my taste. All pens and no swords. Hugs and camomile tea. So it’s good, but it’s rarely (to me) great.

Then there’s the late, lamented Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Now there was a books show. The format was a panel discussion, lead by Brown, with various grumpy and curmudgeonly guests, most of whom were regulars. The knives were long and the bouquets were florid. Lots of people talking and yelling over each other and a few times it sounded like it might come to blows but it always ended in laughter. If you told me the setting was a smoky pub on a stormy night I wouldn’t doubt you. Unfortunately, Talking Books was cancelled in 2008, after 11 years.

So what’s a guy to do if he needs a fix of grumpy book talk? He starts a book club!

Last year, while bending elbows with a few of my surliest friends, I proposed exactly that; a book club. The intention was to be as unstructured as possible. As such, we have but one rule: there are no rules. Neither are there required readings. We simply meet, every four to six weeks, and talk about books. If patterns develop, so be it, but they are not to be seen as rules or requirements.

And there does seem to be a pattern. Most of our book club meetings unfold as follows. We meet at Amelio’s on Milton at about 5:30 on a Thursday or Friday evening. Once ensconced we order our “book club special,” a large vegetarian pizza with Italian sausage. I never fail to add, while ordering, “because that’s the kind of vegetarians we are.” The waitress never fails to smile and pretend, ha ha, she’s never heard that before.

After the meal, which is accompanied by an inordinate amount of wine, we over-tip then make our way along rue Milton to The Word, a quiet, beautifully shambled tiny gem of a used bookstore. Having four burly men smelling of sausage, cheese and Sangiovese burst through the door of such an establishment is surely terrifying, but so far the police have not been called and there have been no injuries. We do eventually calm down and manage to keep things reasonably civil, and we always make amends by purchasing a few books.

Unfortunately these wine-fueled book benders have resulted in a few duplications on my bookshelf as I sometimes forget if the luscious object in my hand is one I desire because I want it or because I already own it. In one case I had a copy of Michael Frayn’s Headlong thrust upon me by one of the book club members, along with a five minute oration on its merits. So I bought it. At our next book club meeting the exact scene repeated itself, with the same book, and I bought it again. I also recently discovered that I have not two, but three copies of Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo. One is the paperback I bought at a church flea market in 1986 (my first Moore, and the one that turned me into very much a Brian Moore fan). Another is a first Canadian edition hardcover from 1962 that was given to me as a gift, and the third a hardcover “club edition,” that I likely bought at The Word during a book club meeting.

After The Word we usually end up in a pub downtown, often the Old Orchard on rue de la Montagne because it’s a convenient hub for our divergent exits homeward, and it’s usually not so loud as to it prohibit conversation.

So if you enjoy books, and in particular you enjoy talking about books, I highly recommend you form a book club. But if you want it to succeed I suggest you eschew the usual book club formalities of required readings. And stay away from the tea and crumpets. The most important thing is that you all be friends, and that you all really like books and talking about them. In fact, you can substitute “books” for just about any shared interest and you’ll achieve the same success. And to make it that much better, don’t put it on Facebook, and never, ever tweet about it.

Vivian Maier in Quebec, Part 2

Last week I wrote about Vivian Maier and how I had determined the exact location of a photograph she made in Quebec City at some point in the 1950s. I indicated that I know of another Vivian Maier photograph also taken in Quebec City, but that I could not determine the exact location. Well, dear readers, with a bit of additional digging, I have located that one too!

A bit of background: Terreau & Racine was a well known and very successful metal foundry, established in 1850 in Quebec City. They made, among other things, the stoves that were widely used to heat houses and cabins through the cold Quebec winters. The foundry was destroyed by a huge fire in 1919 but they rebuilt and continued to be successful until another fire destroyed the building in the 1950s. The site remains vacant of buildings to this day; it’s the parking lot at the corner of Quai Saint-André and rue Saint-Thomas.

The Vivian Maier photograph in question is below. You can clearly see the Terreau & Racine warehouse (entrepôt) in the background.

Photo by Vivian Maier, Copyright The Maloof Collection Ltd.

Martine, who first spotted this photo on the official Vivian Maier web site, did some research and found that Terreau & Racine’s warehouse was in a separate building, on the next street over from the one that burned. That street is the tiny Côte de la Canoterie, which is less than 300 metres in length. If you take a Google Streetview drive down Côte de la Canoterie you’ll see that none of the buildings on the north side look anything like the Terreau & Racine warehouse, although they are all quite old, meaning they would have been there looking more or less the same, when the Vivian Maier photo was taken.

So that leaves the south side, where we find only a handful of buildings and a few parking lots. The obvious candidate was this place:

31 Côte de la Canoterie

The proportions look right, but there are a lot of details in the present day building that are not there in the Vivian Maier shot. That’s easy enough to explain: renovations. The sidewalk is also very different, but that too could be due to municipal renovations.

This is where I had given up, as I figured there’s not much else I could do. The most likely scenario, I thought, was that the Terreau & Racine warehouse was probably torn down and the site is now one of the parking lots.

Then I started digging into the maps at the National Archives, thanks to a link provided in a comment in the original Vivian Maier blog post. Bingo!

Below you’ll see an “insurance map” from 1957 that firmly places the Terreau & Racine warehouse at 57 Côte de la Canoterie. Under that you’ll see the same location from Google Satellite view. You can see that the Terreau & Racine warehouse seems to be in the exact location as the building I’ve circled, which is the building at 31 Côte de la Canoterie (in the Streetview image, above).

1957 insurance map

Present day, via Google Satellite View

A confounding factor: in Streetview, we clearly see that the building is marked as being at 31 Côte de la Canoterie (you can’t see it in my screenshot, but if you go there in Streetview you’ll see it). Well, sometimes municipalities do re-numbering of street addresses, which seems likely in this case, as the numbering in the 1957 map seems sort of random, and in Streetview we can see that it is linear (which is how most street numbering is these days).

But the location looks exactly right. To prove it, I superimposed the satellite image on top of the 1957 map and got a perfect match:

1957 insurance map and present day satellite view mashup. (Click here to see it bigger.)

I think the visual matching trumps the number mis-match. So there you have it. We can pinpoint to within a few feet where Vivian Maier stood when she took that photograph of the Terreau & Racine warehouse: in front of what is now 31 Côte de la Canoterie.

The next challenge is to figure out when she took those photos.

Vivian Maier in Quebec

Vivian Maier was a street photographer who worked in obscurity from the 1950s until she died at 83 in 2009. Her work was “discovered,” quite literally, only days before her death, and since then much has been written about her and it. If you’re not familiar with the story, this roughly ten minute video from WTTW in Chicago (via YouTube) provides a nice overview.

[youtube width=”500″ height=”355″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWEDOnBfDUI[/youtube]

(Direct link to the video on YouTube.)

I first heard about Vivian Maier in late 2010. John Maloof, who discovered her work, had been scanning and posting images to a blog he created to show the work, and was also showing it on Flickr in one of the street photography discussion groups. The Flickr group and other street photography online communities were abuzz with excitement over the work.

Maier’s work is held in two different collections; one owned by Maloof and the other by art collector Jeffrey Goldstein, both of Chicago. Prints have been making the rounds of various galleries in the United States and Europe, and in early 2011 came word that a book would be published from Maloof’s collection. I pre-ordered the book the second it showed up on Amazon. It finally arrived in early December.

I was worried about the quality of the reproductions, as John Maloof is a real estate agent, not a fine art curator nor an expert in scanning and reproduction technologies. Fortunately he’s young, seems very determined, and appears to be a fast learner. The book is gorgeous, and the scans and reproductions are beautiful.

A few days after the book arrived, Martine was looking through it and she noticed the writing on some signs in one image were in French. This was a bit odd, as the vast majority of Maier’s work that has been shown thus far (which is only a small percentage of the total body of work) is from New York and Chicago. But it is known that she traveled, and that she had family in France. We looked again at the image and it was obvious that the architecture was very North American. That could mean only one thing: Vivian Maier had been to Montreal!

©Vivian Maier, from Vivian Maier Street Photographer (2011 PowerHouse Books)

Or not. It turns out I was wrong. Or to be precise, I was wrong in thinking the photograph had been taken in Montreal. All of my attempts to locate the setting of the photograph came up empty. The scene looked like it could be along rue St-Jacques or even Notre-Dame, but the buildings didn’t seem familiar. I did historical research on the few recognizable business names, to no result.

Then it hit me: Montrealer that I am, I had fallen into the trap of thinking that all of Quebec (and thus, the world) revolves around Montreal. I kicked myself in the butt and started researching Quebec City. It took about five minutes to locate the scene as being on rue du Roi, between rue de la Couronne and rue Dorchester. That’s the street that runs along the north (i.e., back) side of the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy in the working-class, rapidly-turning-hipster neighbourhood of Saint-Roch.

To find the location I searched for information about “Turcotte Letourneau,” the easiest to read business sign in the photograph. That lead me to a picture of a business card for Turcotte & Létourneau Ltée from the late 1950s in the PatrimoineQc Flickr stream. A Google Streetview search of that address immediately followed.

The scene looks very different now. The fenced-in lot where the people are playing ball has been replaced by the exit ramp from the library’s underground parking. Everything in the foreground has been replaced by bus and loading zones for the library itself, which opened in 1983.

Most of the buildings on the far side of the street – including the Turcotte & Létourneau one – are gone, replaced by a large hotel that extends all the way east to the corner of rue de la Couronne. The hotel opened in 1987.

I looked for some visual cues to verify the location and I found two. The first is the building at the left of the Maier image with the barber shop at the ground level and an array of six square windows on the upper two floors. That building is still there and can be seen in Streetview. It hasn’t changed much. The sash windows have been replaced by single panes and the barber pole is gone, but otherwise it’s clearly the same building:

The Street View view, April 2009.

You can see part of that building with the sashes intact in this 1981 photo of the hole being dug for the bibliothèque. Look on the right edge of the image; you can see two of the windows, as well as the little rinky-dink Hotel Dahlia that still exists just to the left of the building. (The photo in the link is from the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America’s article on the rebirth of Saint-Roch.)

The other point of verification is farther down the street (to the right) on the other side of rue de la Couronne. In the Maier photograph you can see a two story building, whitewashed on the ground floor with a brick facade on the second floor. You can see a sign written in script but you can only read the last three letters, “nie.” The giveaways are the distinctive corner window on the second floor and the ground-floor corner entrance. The building with that window is still there; it houses Restaurant Saigon Bangkok.

April 2009 vs. circa 1950-something.

This is all very fascinating on multiple levels. As not much is known about Vivian Maier and her life, information about her travels is sketchy.

1952?

According to Martine’s research, Vivan Maier was in Canada at least twice, once in 1951 and again in 1955. A confusing aspect of her photograph is the building to the right of Turcotte & Létourneau, which is clearly marked “1952 EDIFICE HARNOIS.” That is confusing because Martine’s research indicates Maier was in Quebec in 1951 but she could find no specific evidence of Quebec being on the itinerary for the 1955 trip. It’s also confusing because the building marked “1952” seems to be of a much older style that would be build that year.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about all this, at least for me and Martine, is on a purely personal level. Martine is very familiar with that street, as that neighbourhood is where, as a girl, she and her mother would do the weekly shopping, and where she’d hang out with her friends. Later, as a CEGEP and then university student, she worked part-time at the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy for several years.

You can tell by the cars in the scene that the Vivian Maier photo was most likely taken in the mid-1950s, long before Martine was born. But Martine’s parents and her uncles and aunts were around then. We’re wondering if there are other photographs from that trip in which a member of Martine’s family might be visible. Given the thousands of yet unscanned and unpublished photographs in the archive, it’s a fun idea to hang onto, but not one to hold our breaths over.

Update 1: I have found the location of a second Vivian Maier photo taken in Quebec City.

Update 2: According to a friend’s father, who has been working on Ford cars since the 1950s, one of the cars visible in the rue de Roi photo is either a 1952 or 1953 model, based on the chrome trim. That implies this photo could not have been taken during Maier’s 1951 trip.

References and further reading: