An Open Letter from a City of Montreal Ambassador to Mayor Valerie Plante RE: Griffintown REM Proposal and Negative International Reaction

Salutations Mayor Valerie Plante,

I am one of your Ambassadors of the City, as licensed tour guides are known in Montreal. I would like to begin by acknowledging that we live on the un-ceded Indigenous territory of Tio’tia:ke and that the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) First Nation is the custodian of these lands and waters.

My name is Donovan King and we met very briefly at the official ceremony to rename Amherst Street to Atateken, a Mohawk word meaning brotherhood and sisterhood between nations.

In addition to being an Ambassador for Montreal, I am also a history teacher, historian, actor and tour guide. I also serve on the Board of Directors and as the official historian with the Irish Monument Park Foundation where we have been trying to create a world-class memorial park on the site of our second Famine Cemetery.

I wrote an academic paper outlining the sorry history of our cemetery, past and present. To understand the context of what is happening today in regards to the local Irish community, I advise you to learn more about the terrible history of the Irish Famine’s impact on Montreal by taking the time to read it.

I am writing you this open letter today to update you on a situation that is unfolding within the city’s Irish community that is causing much sadness, anger and mistrust. The issue is festering within our community at a sad time when the remains of our Famine ancestors are being dug up.

The Montreal Irish community wishes to mourn our ancestors and commiserate in peace without an albatross hanging around our neck.

That metaphorical albatross upsetting the community is your recent proposal to name the REM Station in the Griff after Bernard Landry.

I am advising you, as your ambassador, to withdraw the proposal out of respect for the Irish community during this period of deep mourning. The period of mourning will last until the bones of our ancestors are respectfully re-interred in the Black Rock Irish Famine Cemetery.

As you know, Montreal’s motto is Concordia Salus, or “well-being through harmony”. Created by the city’s first mayor, Jacques Viger, in 1832, the purpose of the motto was to remind each European ethnic group comprising the population – French, English, Scottish and Irish – to respect each other and to work together towards harmony through dialogue, mutual understanding and fraternization. 

Indeed, the City’s Coat of Arms and flag reflect this historic understanding. It was recently updated to include the symbol of the White Pine for the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka or Mohawk First Nation, on whose un-ceded territory we live today.

Maintaining harmony is a delicate operation for any mayor and many in the Irish community feel that you are straying from the original goals of the city and are needlessly sowing division.

Montreal’s historic Irish community was outraged after you tweeted on November 6, 2019, proposing to name the Griffintown REM light rail station after deceased Quebec Premier Bernard Landry (translated from French):

“Very happy to announce this morning that I wish to take advantage of the arrival of the REM to name the station that will be launched in Griffintown in honor of former Prime Minister Bernard Landry, whose sad anniversary of his death is celebrated today (1/3)

The Griffintown-Bernard-Landry station would recognize Mr. Landry’s important contribution to the development of our city, in the middle of the Cité du Multimédia, which has become the symbol of the bold economic vision of our former Prime Minister. (2/3)

I had the pleasure of proposing this idea to the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which was open to it. The circle of friends of Bernard Landry was also favorable to the idea. (3/3)”

[Très heureuse d’annoncer ce matin dans ma rubrique que je souhaite profiter de l’arrivée du REM pour nommer la station qui verra le jour dans Griffintown en l’honneur l’ex-premier ministre Bernard Landry dont on souligne le triste anniversaire de décès aujourd’hui (1/3)

La station Griffintown—Bernard-Landry permettrait de reconnaître l’importante contribution de M. Landry au développement de notre ville, et ce en pleine Cité du Multimédia, devenue le symbole de la vision économique audacieuse de notre ancien Premier ministre. (2/3)

J’ai eu le plaisir de proposer cette idée à la Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, qui s’y est montrée ouverte. Le Cercle des amis de Bernard Landry a aussi été favorable à l’idée. (3/3)]

Given that Montreal’s Irish immigrants built Griffintown from the ground up, including the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge, many feel that it is wrong to name the REM station after a controversial and divisive politician.

Bernard Landry undoubtedly made many positive contributions to Quebec society. One that comes prominently to mind is his creation of the audacious, imaginative and world-class Cité du Multimédia. He was one great economist and politician and the Irish certainly show no disrespect for him.

Indeed, many of us are indebted to him and hold down great-paying jobs in the Cité du Multimédia that our dear former Premier created.

I also personally consider Bernard Landry a role-model as an economist. His business acumen gave me the confidence to become an entrepreneur and today I am very happy to pay union-based wages to local actors from many language groups. I thank former Premier Landry, who was trilingual, for this vision.

However, as an Irish-Montreal historian, I feel that we must also take into account the full historical record, including controversy and divisiveness.

For example, Bernard Landry did call the Canadian flag a “piece of red rag“, which offended many people across the country, especially outside of Quebec.

His Wikipedia page shows that the former Premier was also known for anti-immigrant rants, despite being descended from French colonial immigrants himself.

You may recall, upon realizing that the 1995 referendum was lost, that Bernard Landry burst into the Inter-Continental Hotel and began berating immigrant employees, blaming them for the loss.

It was reported in the Montreal Gazette, and picked up by the New York Times that Landry spoke disparagingly of immigrants on the night of the referendum. In an article by The Gazette, it was reported that two employees at the Inter-Continental Hotel in the city planned to file a complaint against Mr. Landry with the Quebec Human Rights Commission. Anita Martinez, a Mexican night clerk at the hotel, said that Mr. Landry told her, “It was because of you immigrants that the ‘no’ won,” and added, “Why is it that we open the doors to this country so you can vote ‘no’ ” to Quebec sovereignty?

There is also criticism that Bernard Landry negotiated a deal that involved the flooding of ancestral Indigenous Cree burial grounds with Hydro-Québec projects. Page 50 of the Report on the Public Consultations Held in November 2012 Following Implementation of Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain-1-A and Sarcelle Powerhouses and Rupert Diversion Project states:

“The disappearance of a burial site caused by flooding of part of the territory also deeply upset members of the community of Nemaska, especially the Elders, as this participant explained: “Once, we took the Elders to the site where flooding was planned. We had the opportunity to visit one of the old cemeteries, but I believe that it is now flooded. Even if it was only for a few hours, the effects were visible and the faces were sad, especially those of the Elders, who were powerless.”

More recently, Cree First Nation member Jamie Moses said the flooding of traditional Indigenous territories was “like losing a loved one.”

Despite Bernard Landry’s incredible economic accomplishments and the pride many have in him, we cannot forget the pain it caused for immigrants and Indigenous people in the Age of Truth and Reconciliation, inclusion and diversity. We must tell both sides of the story in 21st Century historiography. To do otherwise would be intellectually dishonest.

Returning to your controversial tweet, the replies were swift and harsh. Dozens of people complained that the idea is ill-founded, outrageous and a disrespect to Montreal’s historic Irish community. Many felt snubbed and said they won’t vote for you again.

Montreal’s historical Irish roots date back to the days of New France, when Irish soldiers defeated by Oliver Cromwell were given the option of moving to France to fight for the French king. Many did just that, resulting in approximately 5% of the population of the New France colonies having Irish roots. Today, almost half the population of Quebec, a full 40%, has some Irish ancestry.

Due to the Irish influence in the city’s history, the Irish are considered one of the founding nations of the city, as demonstrated in 1832 when Mayor Viger created the motto and Coat of Arms, a predecessor of today’s flag.

Indeed, according a video released by the City of Montreal, the 2017 gesture of adding the Mohawk white pine represented a “new identity” for the city that signaled inclusion, diversity, respect and reconciliation. The new flag symbolizes a council fire “where people embrace and talk.” The city concludes with a call to action for all citizens: “Let’s embrace this new identity and move hand in hand into the future together.”

By refusing to consult Montreal’s Irish community, many members feel that you have ignored the city’s own motto and its historical precedent of inclusion, dialogue and harmonious relationships between different ethnic groups.

As such, the Irish Monument Park Foundation has asked members of the community to send you letters of complaint and to contact the REM to ask them to drop your proposal from consideration. This is out of respect for the Irish who built the Griff from the ground up and who lie buried by the thousands in the vicinity.

These types of unwarranted provocation also result in the inevitable dark Irish humour and shenanigans that intentionally furthers controversy, debate and discourse.

To make matters worse for City Hall, the media covering the scandal has gone international. The coverage has transcended languages and national borders. The reaction has generally been very critical of your re-branding idea because it totally devalues the Irish community. This self-inflicted brand damage to the City of Montreal and the Mayor’s office is immense and grows larger by the day.

In the print media, the story has been covered by local outlets such as the Montreal Gazette, MTLBlog, CBC Montreal, the National Post and the international Irish Central.

The story of Irish outrage was also covered by CTV News, CityNews and Global and broadcast on television and online. Barry Wilson, a popular Montreal journalist and broadcaster, described your proposal as “tone deaf”.

CBC asked me to write a point-of-view piece about the scandal, and I was also interviewed on CBC Radio.

A citizen named Stephanie Adamczewski also launched a petition called “Please help stop Mayor Valerie Plante from distorting everything we stand for!” that has already garnered over 4000 signatures. Please remember that 15,000 signatures can trigger a legally-bound Public Consultation.

More recently, the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network has written an open letter opposing the Bernard Landry proposal, as has the Fédération Histoire du Québec, according to the Montreal Gazette.

It is quite likely there will be a lot more local and international media as the story continues to unfold and make the rounds online. As more Irish stakeholders around the planet get involved, they will forcefully speak out against this indecent proposal.

To further exacerbate the conflict, the bones of our Irish ancestors have been dug up very recently by the REM, the same organization you are hoping will co-brand the Griffintown station with Bernard Landry. This terribly sad situation is triggering extreme emotion within the local Irish community and was even reported in La Presse.

As I am sure you can imagine, our community is devastated by this disturbance of our ancestors’ final resting place. Already over 15 of our ancestors’ remains have been dug up, including some typhus-victims still sealed in their plain deal wooden coffins. Their remains have been sent to laboratories for testing and analysis. In Irish culture, the Dead do not like to be displaced, disturbed or disrespected in any way and are said to return as ghosts when removed in this type of manner.

You may not have realized when trying to postpone Hallowe’en that this sacred day, known as Samhain, is actually a traditional Irish holiday. It is the disturbing division of the year between the lighter half (summer) and the darker half (winter) in Irish culture. During Samhain, this division between the world as we know it and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, allowing the spirits to pass through and to interact with the Living. This allows the Living and the Dead to share the same transformative space for one day of the year. For the Irish, this day is sacred. It is the historical roots of Hallowe’en, after all.

Image result for samhain

Simply put, the Irish treat the dead with great reverence and respect, lest they come back to haunt us.

As such, I have arranged an informal mourning event at the Black Rock on Sunday, December 8 at 3 pm for anyone who wishes to mourn, commiserate and pray. I would like to invite you personally to meet the people who are so upset by the Bernard Landry proposal so you can engage them in earnest conversation about these divisive and hurtful issues. Our community would really appreciate it if you learned more about Irish culture and consulted us in the future before trying to re-brand our landmarks or reschedule our sacred holidays.

We wish to honour Montreal’s Irish Famine ancestors and those who came to their aid and made the ultimate sacrifice. Mayor John Easton Mills certainly comes to mind, a strong leader who had so much respect for the Irish community that he paid with his life in coming to their aid.

I recommend taking him on as a role-model in your current duties as the Mayor of the City of Montreal. I have already proposed a good way to commemorate him, and hope you can support it.

Lastly, I would like to offer a better solution to this scandal by renaming the entire Multi-media City after Bernard Landry and the adjacent park. The park is ill-designed and is currently used mostly by cars as a parking lot and one-way ring road.

This could become a world-class park and green space if Projet Montreal had a mind to put Bernard Landry’s memory and commemoration before cars and parking spaces by accepting this proposal.

As your ambassador, I am again advising that you retire the proposal to name Griffintown REM Station after Bernard Landry immediately so as to allow the Montreal-Irish community to mourn in peace without any such albatross hanging around our collective neck.

It would also prevent future negative media attention and the ensuing brand damage to the City of Montreal, which harms both the tourism industry and your chances of re-election.

Image result for elect valerie plante

I have already had many cancellations for Irish Montreal tours because Irish clients and those living in the diaspora say they feel disrespected by the City of Montreal, so are choosing other destinations that respect the Irish like Toronto, Boston, New York, Liverpool or Dublin City itself.

In my humble opinion as an ambassador, you can easily save face by announcing that, after considering the opinion of the Montreal Irish community, you have decided to withdraw your proposal and instead will re-name the entire Multi-media City and adjacent park after Bernard Landry. Surely that would be a suitable resolution for all involved.

Please let me know if I can be of diplomatic assistance in any way.

Concordia Salus!

Your very own Ambassador for the City of Montreal,

Donovan King, MFA, BEd, BFA, DEC, ACS

Montreal Destination Specialist

Co-owner and creative director of Griffin Tours and Haunted Montreal

p.s. Can we arrange a meeting soon to discuss the fact that it is currently illegal for Indigenous tour guides to operate legally on the un-ceded territory of Tiotà:ke? As part of my Truth and Reconciliation initiatives, I would love to hire some Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) guides, but City of Montreal By-Law G-2 prevents me from doing so.

Please read my submission for the OCPM on systemic racism and discrimination in Montreal for more details.

February 25, 2020 Update:

Saultations again Mayor Plante!

Just a quick reminder that you have not yet withdrawn your proposal, although I have noted that you did release a cryptic message for the media:

cover photo, Image may contain: 1 person, closeup, possible text that says 'Mayor's Statement "The fact that we have the name 'Griffintown Bernard Landry' creates a dialogue that we still need today, but doesn't minimize the the huge contribution of the Irish community to the city of Montreal." Valérie Plante Mayor of Montreal Global NEWS'

As expected, the story has continued to explode in both languages across the planet:

December 9. Global News, CityNews, CTV News, La Presse, Montreal Gazette, CBC Montreal National News (runs 3:32 – 5:50).

December 10. Irish Central, CULT MTL, SooToday. Montreal City Weblog.

December 12. CBC Radio Noon Montreal with Shawn Apel, Radio 98.5 Montréal.

December 17. Irish Central. Montreal Gazette, Montreal City Weblog, Radio 98.5 Montréal, CJAD 800 Radio (runs 5:04 – 8:50).

December 18. EN24 News, Monde de Stars.

December 19. Irish Central.

December 20. Irish Central.

December 31. Forget the Box Blog.

January 1, 2020. OTL Blog.

January 2. Montreal Gazette.

January 5. Lokshtanov Blog.

January 11. The Catholic Register.

January 13. Haunted Montreal Blog, Blogue de Montréal hanté

January 14. Le Soleil.

January 17. Global News.

January 19. Montreal Gazette.

January 20. Irish Central, CJAD Radio, MONTRÉAL CAMPUS.

January 21. MAtv, CJAD Radio.

January 25. Montreal Gazette.

February 4. The Link (Concordia University).

February 6. CityNews.

February 13. Global NewsMontreal Gazette, CityNews, CTV News, MTL Blog, Haunted Montreal Blog, Blogue de Montréal hanté.

February 16. CBC News Montreal (story runs 4:05 – 6:37).

February 18. CJAD Radio.

February 20. Thai Boa: The Vietnamese Newspaper.

February 25. City of Montreal Council Meeting (YouTube). Runs 1:44:12 – 1:59:47.

March 17. Convivium.

June 13. CBC Radio One. All in a Weekend with Ainslie MacLellan. Interview with Donovan King.

June 18. Bloomsday Festival Montréal 2020. Virtual Walking tour with Donovan King about the Irish Famine’s Impact on Montreal in 1847. (Starts at 7:05)

I should also mention that a group of citizens is now mobilizing for a petition for a Public Consultation on all future re-naming proposals from City Hall to ensure community stakeholders are properly consulted henceforth. This includes members of the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka community on whose un-ceded territory we live. For example, why isn’t Otsirà:ke recognized as the original name of Mount Royal on websites, signage and brochures?

Many of these citizens dispute your assertion in the media that this is an anglophone vs. francophone dispute. It is more productive to see the conversation as between the descendants of European colonizers and those who were colonized, and how that dynamic plays out today. I can assure you that the conversation is not only playing out in English and French on social media, but also in Gaeilge (Irish), Kanienʼkeha (Mohawk) and many other languages.

I have returned from Dublin City and am available to communicate online should you desire. I recommend getting in touch soon, especially as the media headlines seem to be doing enormous brand damage to the City of Montreal internationally. The Irish Diaspora includes 100 million+ members across the planet and this brand damage can result in a loss of highly-coveted Tourism dollars for the City of Montreal and companies such as Griffin Tours and Irish Montreal Excursions.

Lastly, many in the Irish community feel humiliated that you have not backed down on this proposal during a time of deep mourning for our Famine ancestors who were just dug up and sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Please join our community in mourning Montreal’s Irish Famine Dead by withdrawing your proposal as soon as feasibly possible. With the Irish Season now upon us, it would be so wonderful if the City could restore social harmony so we all celebrate together without any hard feelings!

Go raibh maith agat! Merci! Niá:wen ki’ wáhi!

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