5th Montreal Citizen Summit - Right, Done Right, But...

Montreal - The 5th Montreal Citizen Summit was held last weekend, June 5-7. And no, this wasn’t another banner-waiving, slogan-chanting march, or a get-together for wild-eyed, preachy granola types (although a few were present)… People walking by the UQÀM building in which the event took place could have easily assumed that this was a conference on software or life insurance; it was a serious (though far from sombre) and well-organized affair with sufficient formality and officialism to attract important speakers while not enough to intimidate John and Jane Public. No, as boring as it may sound, this summit was nothing more than a structured setting that brought together citizens and urban activists and city officials; the group responsible for this event, Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal, was really aiming to do the right things right! And that’s what made this event—an interesting mixture of educational talks, forums, calls for actions and quasi political platform—all the more pertinent.

And, despite my criticisms (wouldn’t be me otherwise), the summit proved to be a veritable success; this year’s theme, ‘The City We Want,’ attracted over a thousand participants that were offered over 80 eco-urban-related workshops and discussion groups by a slew of collaborating organizations.

Of course, the Montreal Urban Ecology Center has its own agenda—they are pushing for a greener and more sustainable, socially-centered and truly democratic city through specific types of transformations—but you have to admire how this group attempts to bring about local change; they know what situation calls for what actions and they understand that militant attitudes have a limited time and place, and so this repeated effort (this was the 5th summit) is a fine example of left-wing ideology being promoted through right-wing bureaucratic techniques, and if anything, this should serve as a model to all other cities, irregardless of their size.
But then this shouldn’t really come as a surprise considering some of the names linked to this event. People like Dimitri Roussopoulos, Bernard Vallée, Luc Rabouin, Annie Roy amongst others; people whose accomplishments have taught them to limit their energy to applying concrete solutions to surmountable problems, because clearly, they’ve learned that change still relies on politicians and that proposals falling on the left side of the spectrum are even more dependant on a hard-to-come-by public support, and as such, who have acquired the experience and wisdom to act inside the political process while retaining their place outside the system.
This whole approach is about dreaming big, but ‘doing’ what’s ‘doable.’

And so the main conferences weren’t pointless descriptions of sci-fi-esque dreamscapes of the shape tomorrow’s cities should take, or passionate, tear-jerking Hollywood-worthy rallying cries; for the most part, they were generally dry, yet mostly positive accounts framing the real issues facing the development of greener, healthier, and more democratic cities. But not just from one side of the debate! In keeping with what I outlined in the previous paragraph, both sides were well represented. As a matter of fact, Sunday morning’s 9:15 conference was particularly interesting due to the contrast it provided: Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal were each discussed in turn, first by an activist, then by a city official; Mayor Gérald Tremblay was there to defend his city.

Then there was the ‘debate,’ where candidates for city hall addressed the 7 topics raised by the Citizen’s Agenda. With 5 months before municipal elections, that event organisers had the foresight to see the political opportunity this presented for the summit and then have the weight to pull it off is a testament to their credibility and potential to affect pressure at a high level.

Unfortunately, the speeches were content-less and had all the flavours of unrefined and unrehearsed campaign speeches. The only one who made any impression on me was Richard Bergeron from Projet Montreal, who appeared to be speaking more from the heart rather than pander to activists. Montreal Ville-Marie’s Louise O’Sullivan was a total disappointment and Louise Harel, Vision Montreal, was one big soundbite.

Turning to my criticisms: firstly, my complaints vis-à-vis this event are of an entirely different nature. I have very little to say other than ‘bravo’ in regards to the Urban Ecology Center’s approach and efforts. However, I somewhat have to question the council’s willingness to dress the Citizen’s Agenda—a so called list of changes and directions desired by Montreal citizens and which are meant to provide the framework for the Urban Ecology Center’s battles with city hall—based directly on what the citizens truly voice; many elements demonstrate this.

I’m ambivalent as to how this should be interpreted, mostly due to the fact that I agree fully with this group’s ideals. Nonetheless, nearly all my criticisms stem from this aspect, which also relates to another issue, albeit activism generic and not Citizen Summit specific.

More on this is my next post, including comments on an out-of-place statement made by Roussopoulus, the limitations of being so tightly linked to l'UQÀM (Université du Québec à Montréal), the subsequent lack of media coverage despite a wide media presence, and why hardly any minorities attended.

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© 2009, Pascal-Denis

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