✕5 ESSAYS | Monocle

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Taras Grescoe

on learning to love the city

Despite mismanagement and awkward urban planning, Canada’s cities are experiencing a timely renewal.

Canada has long been an urban nation in denial. It sells itself to the world as an outdoor playground of mighty rivers, expansive forests and pristine lakes, and to itself as a friendly federation of Prairie whistle-stops, Québécois parishes and Atlantic fishing villages. But the reality is that 81 per cent of Canadians live in cities. The Great White North is now more urbanised than either Germany or the UK.

Until recently Canadians seemingly had good cause to turn their backs on their cities: they were poorly planned and atrociously run. The former mayor of Toronto, the late Rob Ford, became an international punchline for his crack-smoking, big-picture-neglecting ways. Thickets of haphazardly planned condo towers, compacted amid neighbourhoods of single-family houses, have led to congestion nightmares in Toronto and notoriously out-of-hand housing costs in Vancouver. Montréal, with its crumbling expressways built half a century ago, was still grappling with its poor reputation in 2012 when a corruption scandal forced then mayor Gérald Tremblay out of office.

Yet Canada’s major cities have always had a lot going for them. Halifax, Québec City, Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto boast walkable and densely populated cores. Prairie centres such as Edmonton never experienced the full-on flight to the suburbs that depopulated comparable cities in the American Midwest. Per capita ridership on transport such as Vancouver’s Skytrain and Calgary’s wind-turbine-powered C-Train is typically double that in the car-dependent US. In Vancouver activists fought off a freeway through Chinatown in the 1960s, making it one of the few North American cities free of downtown expressways. Pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs did the same for Toronto, successfully leading the charge against the Spadina Expressway.

Mirroring an influx of young people to urban centres, the next generation of planners and municipal politicians are bringing new energy to the cities. The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, who has made the case for a national Ministry of Cities, has inherited Jacobs’ mantle as the nation’s highest-profile urban thinker. Both Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat and former Vancouver planner Brent Toderian fight hard to make the case for intelligent density, while charismatic mayors such as Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson and Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, who has overseen the expansion of a cycle track network in his city, have brought their resource-economy cities international reputations for bright-green thinking.

This new-found urban outlook is timely. There is a growing consensus that the way forward lies not in more roads but in better facilities for cycling, walking and mass transit. Government funding is making city-changing transit projects across the nation possible. Ottawa, a pioneer in busways in the 1980s, is set to open a new light-rail line in 2018. By decade’s end, Montréal will have an automated elevated subway, the most ambitious transport project in years.

There are still challenges but the era of urban denial has passed. And the beauty of this new embrace of the city is that – this being Canada, eh – those mighty rivers, pristine lakes and endless forests are never very far away.

The writer:
Canadian Taras Grescoe is the author of "Straphanger" (2012) and "Shanghai Grand" (2016). He lives in Montréal.


Stephanie Nolen

on Justin Trudeau

Canada’s new prime minister – smart, friendly and rather easy on the eye – is a beacon of hope for a brighter, more progressive politics.

I awoke in Brazil on 20 October 2015 to a text message from a friend in New Delhi. It was a picture of her morning newspaper with the headline, “Global warming? No, that’s just Canada’s new PM!” The paper featured an archive photo of Canada’s new prime minister Justin Trudeau posing before a celebrity boxing match, shirtless and in full smoulder. My own local newspaper in Rio de Janeiro ran a similar photo, Trudeau all bare chest and tattoos, urging readers to “Get to know Canada’s new prime minister!” For me as a Canadian, this was deeply unfamiliar territory.

A Canadian election has never, in my lifetime, caused any international excitement. But Trudeau – 43, with leading-man good looks, a glamorous backstory and a relentlessly hopeful message – caught international attention immediately. And as his first year as prime minister has unfolded, the interest has only deepened; in Trudeau, and his determinedly progressive and positive politics, much of the world sees something to envy.

In his first days in office the new PM swore in a cabinet that was the closest Canada has ever come to having a government that reflects the country. He appointed a minister who uses a wheelchair and one who is blind; ministers of half a dozen ethnic origins including an Afghan who came as a refugee and a turban-wearing Sikh for the defence portfolio; a health minister who, as a doctor, has championed safe injection sites for addicts; and a precisely equal number of men and women. Asked why the gender balance mattered to him, Trudeau replied, “Because it’s 2015.”

Then, in quick succession, he dispatched a team to climate talks in Paris where his environment and climate-change minister helped broker the eleventh-hour deal on lowering greenhouse gas emissions and he pledged that Canada would admit 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of the year.

I have been a foreign correspondent living abroad for most of the past 20 years. And in that period, no one has ever coveted my prime minister. Yes, in the Bush years, some Americans spoke wistfully of Canada generally but there was no Canadian leader anyone particularly admired. I went overseas at a time when Canada’s image as a boring but worthy global goody-two-shoes was beginning to erode. It had been a long time since it was best known for deploying peacekeepers to international crises or for welcoming boatloads of desperate refugees.

When the affable but forgettable Paul Martin lost the 2006 election to Stephen Harper, Canada’s international image shifted markedly. Harper and his Conservative government rejected our international commitment to cutting greenhouse emissions; suddenly Canada was on the list with China and India as the countries that blocked a climate deal. Harper shifted the emphasis of Canada’s foreign policy from advocate-for-peace-and-pluralism to that of an aggressive seeker of trade deals unconcerned with human-rights records. Harper sent Canadian planes to bomb Isis and shifted the country’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far to the pro-Israel end of the spectrum. He cultivated divisions within the country as well, making overt references to “old stock” (ie white) values, and in his last run for office he started a furious debate about whether Muslim women had the right to wear the niqab.

And then Trudeau won a surprisingly large majority and Canada’s image, both of itself and abroad, shifted again. Trudeau’s physical appearance and youth contributed of course. His personal history as the son of magnetic intellectual Pierre, one of the only other Canadian prime ministers ever to attract much attention, and Margaret, best known for ditching Pierre to go party with the Rolling Stones, helped too.

But the people who ask me about Trudeau – and it’s the first thing people ask when I mention that I am Canadian – are interested in more than the shirtless holiday pictures. When Justin Trudeau dances with the crowds at a gay pride parade or refers to himself as a feminist or talks about the need for an entirely new relationship with Canada’s indigenous people, it’s clear these are not just values he has identified as politically expedient but represent his actual world view. Trudeau embodies progressive and inclusive politics that stand out in the era of Trump and Brexit and the burkini ban.

But Trudeau has not, in his first year in office, been as progressive as his supporters may have hoped. He let an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, initiated by Harper, go ahead even though human-rights organisations argued it directly fuels the kingdom’s war in Yemen; he has not moved to roll back Harper’s aggressive anti-terrorism bill that gives sweeping powers to police and prosecutors either. Meanwhile his critics are aghast at his carefree embrace of deficit spending. Yet Trudeau has helped revive a sense that Canadians long nurtured about themselves as tolerant, progressive people and as quiet leaders. Even Canadians who don’t share his domestic politics appreciate international headlines such as the one in The Guardian not long ago that read, “There is a vision of what a progressive Britain could be. It’s called Canada.”

It has been decades – or maybe even forever – since Canada was so interesting, so admired and perhaps so influential. In the quintessential words of Canadian praise, it’s not bad at all.

The writer:
Stephanie Nolen is Latin America bureau chief for the "Globe and Mail". She is a seven-time winner of Canada’s national newspaper award.


Christopher Frey

on becoming Canadian

What does it take to become a citizen of the Great White North? Our Toronto correspondent provides some handy tips.

It’s a common refrain among liberal Americans who are unhappy with the state of their nation: “I’m moving to Canada.” Indeed, during the George W Bush years there were reports of frequent spikes in the number of US citizens enquiring about a move north. A tide of fleeing Americans never quite happened but as the US faces the prospect of a Trump presidency and nervous liberals begin to again consider a northern escape route, just how easy is it to become a Canadian?

Changes introduced under the previous Conservative government have made it a little harder to secure a Canadian passport but the country still boasts one of the highest naturalisation rates in the world. Some 85 per cent of residents born abroad eventually become citizens; in 2014 it was more than 250,000 – a record high. Canada is also one of the few western nations that has a positive target for annual immigration: this year it’s 300,000. If you want to join them, here are a few tips.

Pick the right province. Many of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories have campaigns to encourage would-be residents to choose their part of the country as the best place to call home. For instance, Ontario is looking for entrepreneurs who will start new businesses.

Be patient and persevere. There’s a chronically long backlog of applicants waiting for their paperwork to be processed (you’re obviously not alone in your quest to be Canadian). It can take as long as a decade to achieve citizenship from the time you first take up residency.

Be present. In one of the Conservatives’ requirements, citizenship applicants now must have had residency in the country for at least four of the past six years (and be able to prove they have been actually present in the country for half of each), up from three of four. The changes were introduced largely to address concerns that some immigrants were merely becoming citizens of convenience, with little intent to live in the country.

Love. Marrying a Canadian is always an option as long as your love is true – and you’ll be asked for proof. It doesn’t automatically grant you citizenship but it helps clear some hurdles toward getting there.

Join the army. Fast-tracked citizenship is available to residents who enlist; the same goes for foreign nationals already on exchange with the Canadian Forces. Test prep. Applicants aged between 14 and 64 must be able to demonstrate proficiency in at least one of Canada’s two official languages: French or English. The Conservatives’ changes to the citizenship exam now mean more questions about the military and monarchy that even native schoolchildren might struggle with.

Show the queen some love too. In 2014 a would-be new citizen took the government to court over the need to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II as part of his citizenship ceremony. The judge upheld the oath requirement on the grounds that it is a largely symbolic gesture (sorry, your majesty). But he allowed that new citizens have a right to publicly renounce said oath as soon as they walk outside.

The writer:
Christopher Frey is monocle’s Toronto correspondent, the founding editor of "Hazlitt" and author of the forthcoming book "Broken Atlas".


Jeremy Klaszus

on refugees

Canada’s long tradition of accepting refugees has shaped the country and formed its vibrant identity.

For Belal and Rodena Shikh, the road from their war-torn city of Damascus led to a cosy row house near Calgary’s eastern edge. Their new place already feels like a home with kids’ artwork by the stairs and school calendars pinned to the refrigerator. Out front, the children ride bicycles they received through a local bikes-for-Syrians campaign. “Everybody is helpful here,” says Belal, whose work involves building furniture for restaurants, a job similar to the one he had back home. “Neighbours, people in schools, everyone.”

Canada has taken in more than 30,000 Syrian refugees since the Liberals swept to power in 2015. Most of the new arrivals, including the Shikh family, are directly assisted by the government, which supports them financially for a year and connects them with local ngos. But more than 11,000 have arrived through a programme unique to Canada: private refugee sponsorship. The screening process is the same but the financial costs are borne by individual Canadians and organisations such as faith groups, who commit to supporting refugees in their first year.

The Syrian influx is in keeping with a humanitarian tradition in Canada, beginning long before the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Waves of Ukrainians fleeing oppression arrived from the 1890s onward, mostly settling in the Prairie provinces to farm. The émigrés who followed from all over the world have become Canada’s leaders, business people and artists, including former governor-generals Adrienne Clarkson, whose family left Hong Kong when she was a girl, and Michaëlle Jean, whose family fled Haiti.

“An important part of our identity is recognising that we welcome refugees and that many Canadians are people who came as refugees – or whose ancestors did,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Montréal-based Canadian Council for Refugees. “It’s a question of seeing them as part of who we are.”

That vision has become deeply embedded in Canadian society. Since the Second World War, Canada has taken in Hungarians, Czechs, Chileans, Bosnians, Cambodians and Kosovars. And while you won’t find Americans on the official lists of regugees, tens of thousands of Vietnam War draft dodgers fled north and were given immigrant status too.

Canada’s response to Syria finds its closest parallel in actions during 1979 and 1980, when the country airlifted more than 60,000 Vietnamese to safety. Private sponsorship had just been introduced and Canadians embraced it enthusiastically. Like many Canadians, my grandparents were affected by reports of people fleeing Vietnam’s communist regime in rickety boats, arriving at swollen refugee camps if they managed to survive the sea. Moved to action, they sponsored a family and in doing so they joined a broad national movement. “People ended up in many different communities across Canada,” says Dench. “So many lives were touched by that. And now there’s a new generation who are sponsoring Syrian or other refugees so there’s a new point of contact for many Canadians with this refugee experience.”

But even though Canada has been shaped by other nations’ human-rights failures, it has shameful chapters of its own. The country is working through a difficult Truth and Reconciliation process with indigenous peoples in the wake of colonisation and cultural genocide. In 1939 Canada denied entry to more than 900 Jews who arrived by ship. They returned to Europe, where many died in concentration camps. And Canada had explicitly racist immigration policies that favoured whites to the exclusion of others into the 1960s.

For refugee advocates the past decade has been a throwback to the nation’s darker eras. Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, policies became harsher toward refugees who were often portrayed as threatening and burdensome. During his campaign, Trudeau depicted Canada as a welcoming nation, promising to bring in 25,000 Syrians by the end of 2015 (though the target was met in February 2016). His portrayal, if a little rosy, rang truer than the Conservatives’ xenophobia. Though bureaucracy bogs down the private-sponsorship programme, Canadians are still pooling their resources and lining up to assist, just as my grandparents did in 1980. As Belal and Rodena have learnt, it’s still who we are, who we aspire to be.

The writer:
Jeremy Klaszus is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. He has won two national magazine awards in Canada for his work.


Zach Dundas

on Cascadia

An imaginary land conjures up a wistful vision of an alternative way of life for Canadians and Americans alike.

Keep your eyes peeled as you travel through the northwest of America and you will spy the Doug flag – perhaps as a bumper sticker or maybe fluttering above a bungalow in some leafy Portland neighbourhood. The horizontal tricolour – blue, white and green, bisected by an endearingly gawky Douglas fir tree – represents Cascadia. It’s a nation that is missing from official maps but it is sketched in the minds of a few Northwesterners who wouldn’t mind becoming just the tiniest bit Canadian.

Those in Oregon and Washington have always cast a fond eye north of the 49th parallel. Back in the 1820s, a fur-trading route called the York Factory Express linked what’s now greater Portland to Hudson’s Bay. For a time the UK and the US lumped all of present-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia together into a frontier tract that they called the Oregon Country. (Indigenous nations were not consulted.) The colonial powers co-owned it until diplomats divided the northwest with their arbitrary line in 1846.

Cascadia represents a new version of the old Oregon Country: the notion that the whole of the Pacific Northwest and its mountainous interior comprises a nation of its own. The northwest’s Canadians and Americans share forests and watersheds, a moody climate and an apparently immortal love of plaid flannels. We face the same geologic faults too; don’t mention the Cascadia Subduction Zone unless you want a grim half-hour conversation about earthquake preparedness. Vancouver, Seattle and Portland give Cascadia a metropolitan centrepiece of thriving Pacific Rim cities; in tranquil spots such as the islands of the Strait of Georgia or the entwined national parks overlapping Montana, Alberta and British Columbia, the idea of a boundary seems irrelevant in the face of nature. We speak – with due respect to those glorious Canadian diphthongs – more or less the same language.

All this shared patrimony led Oregon geologist David McCloskey to chart the “bioregion” in 1988. The chunk of continent on McCloskey’s maps has a mighty look about it, stretching from the Yukon to northern California, scooping deep inland to gather bits of Idaho, Alberta and Montana, claiming more than 15 million people as residents. This notional national clout inspires a certain wistfulness among Cascadia’s partisans; as McCloskey writes, “The life of our bioregion has been obscured, split up by boundaries and separated into categories, the matrix dismembered.”

Perhaps Cascadia can be taken too seriously. Mostly though it is a nation of whimsy. The Doug flag attains its highest degree of public visibility on the terraces during the tense football matches between the top-division clubs representing Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. The three even vie for a trophy – unrecognised by Fifa but coveted by supporters – called the Cascadia Cup. In some seasons the unofficial championship of an imaginary country is all any of the three can hope for. The other notably tangible manifestation is a beer invented by the region’s brewers, known as Cascadian dark ale.

A light-hearted longing for a different reality may, in fact, be Cascadia’s defining trait. While this finding remains unscientific, it seems to me that Cascadian sentiment runs stronger on the US side of the border. To many in liberal-leaning Oregon and Washington, adding some Canadian sanity to our American brio seems like a good idea. When US politics enter a particularly florid phase a good number of Northwesterners look up to the neighbours and wonder what might have been. National health care? Rational gun policy? French on cereal boxes?

Yet we Cascadians relish our status as a geopolitical phantom, a land of football, beer and unrecognised flags. As a native of Greater Cascadia – McCloskey’s map just barely grabs my hometown in Montana – I say non-existence is for the best. Reality can keep its militaries, diplomats and real-life separatism. From a Cascadian perspective, the future of the nation-state is imaginary.

The writer:
Zach Dundas is editor in chief of "Portland Monthly" and a monocle correspondent.

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