MONTREAL — Gary Shapiro is not a man given to overstatement. But after weathering decades of upheaval in Quebec, the businessman does not hesitate to voice the opinion that Montreal today is in the worst condition he has ever seen it.
Even its famous joie de vivre has been lost, he fears.
Shapiro is founder and chair of CRITIQ (Canadian Rights in Quebec), a non-profit organization formed just over a year ago following the election of the Parti Québécois.
Shapiro and the other CRITIQ members aren’t prepared to sit back and watch the city they love continue to go downhill. They believe the economic slide can be reversed if everyone sets aside their political and linguistic differences and works together.
CRITIQ is about to launch the “Notre Montréal” campaign to reignite civic pride and a sense of shared purpose.
The logo is a tweaked Montreal flag. The red cross on a white background has been kept, along with the blue fleur-de-lis in the top-left quadrant in recognition that Montreal is “a French city first and foremost.”
But the English rose, Irish shamrock and Scottish thistle have been replaced by a red maple leaf for Canada and its freedoms; a green globe symbolizing diversity and openness to the world; and a purple heart, suggesting “our values of tolerance, care for each other and love of life.”
Shapiro hopes the business community will get behind this campaign – he calls it a movement – and that all citizens will wear the logo on pins, flags and hats that will be sold by CRITIQ.
“Montreal is in serious decline. Why would anyone move their business here? It’s not for the politics, the weather, the infrastructure, the taxes – and now we have these religious restrictions,” he said referring to the proposed values charter.
Montrealers, especially the young, are leaving Quebec in large numbers again, he thinks. He wouldn’t blame his four adult children if they did as well.
“Whatever else, we used to get along, we spoke ‘franglais’, we all cheered for the Canadiens, but we’ve lost that now because the government is trying to divide people,” he said, and the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec aren’t much more sympathetic to anglophones and allophones.
In other words, federalists in Quebec can’t rely on the political class, Shapiro said.
He believes the majority of Quebecers remain generous in spirit, but are afraid to break their silence, and anglophones, he regrets, have become fatigued.
CRITIQ is trying to fight that apathy.
“If we care about this city, we have to stop complaining and do something,” said Shapiro, who heads a large air-conditioning and ventilation business founded in 1957 and has been active for many years in the Jewish community.
CRITIQ isn’t an anglophone rights group – 30 per cent of its 17,000 members are francophone, he said.
Its first priority is improving the economic life of Montreal – now.
CRITIQ proposes “special status” for the city – not “partition,” said Shapiro, who favoured that route after the 1995 sovereignty referendum but realizes now it would take too long to negotiate, if it were ever feasible.
Rather, it envisions a “city-state” that has control over provincial taxation, keeping more of the revenue collected in Montreal. CRITIQ believes the city should be officially bilingual, exempting businesses from the more restrictive language laws and allowing all children to attend English schools.
Special status, he believes, would be attainable much sooner and apply whether or not Quebec remains in Canada.
“The logic is irrefutable,” said Shapiro. “Montreal is the engine of Quebec.”
Shapiro’s own business has suffered.
“In the past 10 years, we have not been able to grow the business. We’re just trying to hang on. My business goes as the economy goes. It’s dependent on new construction, and people just don’t do the same maintenance [on existing buildings] in a bad economy,” he said.
This past summer, CRITIQ commissioned an Ipsos-Reid survey at a cost of $30,000, a high price for an organization with few resources (it relies on donations, but does not have charitable tax status).
The great majority (74 per cent) of those living on Montreal Island think the city deserves special status, the poll found. More than half of those in the rest of Quebec agreed.
CRITIQ, run by a committee of about 30, recently hired an executive director, Yaffa Tegegne, daughter of the late Ethiopian Jewish activist Baruch Tegegne, who works out of an office in Shapiro’s business.
Shapiro said he’s encouraged by the words of new Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre: “We have to focus on that which unites us, as opposed to what divides us; to celebrate our mosaic…and our incredible joie de vivre, to be able to dream once again, and restore our pride.”
Shapiro said he’d like to see a Notre Montréal button on Coderre’s lapel.