27 September 2017

Mean streets

It was the year 2000, and it was the capital of the self-proclaimed Land of the Free. Our group leader gathered the gaggle of teenage travellers around her, put down a city map and drew a fat red line all the way across it. "Listen up", she said. "Do not venture north of this line. Not ever. It's a no-go area. Understood?"

Since then, similar red lines have been drawn for me in too many cities, from Buenos Aires to  Detroit and from New York to Rio. Never, though, in Montréal.

It wasn't until a recent quality-of-living study that I became conscious of the fact that there aren't really any "no-go areas" in my adopted home city. And that this is probably the exception rather than the rule in North America.

Yes, there may be a few neighborhoods where you'd feel out of place walking in the middle of the night. And there are definitely areas that just feel inherently hostile to pedestrians at any time of day, with roaring traffic, abandoned sidewalks and bland warehouses lining the roads for miles kilometers. But even there, the biggest threat is likely to be run over by a distracted driver not expecting anyone on foot.

The kind of random violence that mars many other big cities is rare in Montréal. CTV has put together a homicide map, which is remarkable not just for its relatively low number of occurrences (26, plus 7 people killed by police in 2016) but also its even distribution over the entire island. There are no "bad places".

Unfortunately, the map doesn't specify each murder's circumstances, but I can't recall any media coverage on random shootings or violent assaults on strangers. It would seem that even Canadian pickpockets - of which there are plenty - are essentially gentle.

All of this serves to illustrate an important aspect of quality of life: The freedom from fear for one's life. Too many urbanites on this planet do not have this luxury, and those who do, including this blogger, often don't value it enough. Canada may not call itself the Land of the Free, but it would arguably have a better claim to it.

With this in mind, I stroll through the city with newfound appreciation for its safety. Which leaves me free to worry about the true dangers of Montréal roads: Collapsing tunnelscrumbling bridges and man-eating potholes!


10 September 2017

Nanny state

"A message from the government of Canada" says a friendly voice at the end of many TV and radio commercials. They advertise various projects the government of the day deems worthwhile, from vaccination drives to compost collection and the latest tax credits. There is even a toll-free number for you to call (1 800 O CANADA, if you must try). The campaigns are evidently political, in that they promote the signature policies of the governing party, and are often timed around elections.

Inevitably, the opposition of the day decries such advertising as a colossal waste of public funds for partisan means - until it is their turn to govern, at which moment they do exactly the same. When the Liberals replaced the Tories, the focus of the messages changed radically, but their frequency did not.

Coming from Switzerland, where the tax-funded take-over of the airwaves is both much less prevalent and typically much more technocratic (the health ministry promoting safer sex, the firefighters informing about the proper use of candles on Christmas trees), Canada's government propaganda has always seemed a bit unseemely for a democracy.

But it wasn't until my recent visit to Singapore that I realized just how overbearing even a non-totalitarian government can be. It is an open secret that the political competition in the flourishing city state is, ahem, somewhat limited, and consequently the governing party may feel less of an urge to promote blatantly partisan causes. That doesn't mean the state stays out of your face, though.

Much more so than on any previous visit, I realized how ubiquitous public admonishments were. The buses I rode had no commercial advertising at all, but were plastered with signs telling riders where to sit, how to stand, where not to put their belongings, how to properly pay their fare and so on.

In parks, people were exhorted to pick up and recycle their garbage, not to waste water from the fountains, not to run and play outside of playgrounds, and to limit their use of pick-nick tables on busy days.

And at the signature hawker centers, into which Singapore has organized its street food vendors, nagging public hygene and behavior rules (always wash your hands! return and separate your waste!) left a bit of a sour taste, no matter the sweet cartoon characters used. The few days in this nanny state started to get to me.

Clearly, the tremendous success of the tiny, multicultural, clean and perfectly efficient country speaks to the effects of such campaigns, and its citizens must have internalized all the rules of proper behavior. So much so that when I swam at the public pool, where a broad section was reserved for lap swimming but I was its sole user, the pool attendant stopped me and pointed to a big sign: It explained how to properly swim up on one and down on the other side of the section. My objection of being the only swimmer present was dismissed with a bewildered look: "But these are the rules."

Well then. I for one am glad to be back on my way to Canada, where at least half of the political spectrum seems to mind government publicity at any one time. And the public reacts to it the same way as to any other advertisement: By tuning out.

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