Last week I attended the Parti Québécois’s last big rally of the campaign. It was at the Metropolis nightclub on Ste Catherine St. A familiar venue. It’s a big old music hall with a capacity of about 2,200 and superb sightlines, so politicans of all stripes like to rent it when they think they can fill it, but mostly it’s one of the city’s most popular entertainment venues. The last two shows I saw there were Jean Leloup and a Men Without Hats reunion. It’s a second home for a lot of Montrealers younger than me.
I was prepared to do my I’m-with-the-press spiel to get into the Marois rally but there was no need. Hundreds of people streamed in, cheerful, chatting happily. Partisans like to be with partisans. It makes you feel like you’re doing something right. I stepped into line and wandered in.
Last night, before the shooting started, the PQ was tweeting the location of their victory rally and urging anyone who wanted to come see the next premier of Quebec. This morning there’s a little talk about the cost of lax security but that’s pure 20/20 hindsight: there is no place in Quebec where you’d have less reason to expect trouble, and that includes during partisan rallies. The No side used Metropolis for a rally during the 1995 referendum, no problem. The Bloc Québécois was there often over the years, no problem. Montrealers’ passions sometimes overheat, but usually they are world champions at treating strangers in public with distracted benevolence.
“What about the language tension?” I asked Gazette editor Ray Brassard when he interviewed me for a summer job in 1989.
“Most days, if we weren’t writing about it you’d never know it was there,” he said.
The exceptions are searing, and you never really forget them. I returned from a trip to Toronto in 1989 to find that the entire Gazette newsroom had been sent to the Ecole polytechnique and to area hospitals to plumb the depths of the atrocity Marc Lépine had committed. Our story meetings for a week after felt like group therapy. I remember the joking exchange of emails I was trading with a fellow newsroom cynic when she sent me a message saying something bad had happened at Concordia. That was Valery Fabrikant.
Montreal has no more of these sad tales to tell than any large city does. But this city’s maniacs often manage to hitch their demons to some political post. Lépine fancied himself a member of the anti-feminist men’s movement. Fabrikant thought he was striking a blow for reforms to academic credit in research papers. Last night’s horrible fool seems to have thought he was correcting injustices against Montreal’s benighted anglophone minority.
Most Montrealers I know have an exquisite sense of proportion in political debate, honed through a lifetime of trial and error in a never-ending succession of conflicts and controversies. Most that I’ve heard from last night, not all but most, are eager to isolate last night’s assassination attempt from the broader discussion about the conflicting rights of francophone and non-francophone Quebecers. If we’re lucky, that will be as easy as it was to separate Fabrikant’s madness from a healthy and necessary debate over proper footnoting. There are honest points of view on every side of the language debate. There are frequent excesses of language on every side. Honest points of view aren’t murder. Excesses of language aren’t murder.
What I loved about this election campaign was that just about everything that Quebecers should be thinking about in the public space got a thorough and extended talking-about: education, taxation, culture, the nature of identity in a complex world, the right place of Quebec in a new century. Of course it was a sloppy conversation, facts got bent or ignored, tempers got heated. That’s how we know we’re human. There will be people who try to hang the Metropolis shooting on their favourite political enemy. That’s human too. They’re outnumbered by those who understand that after every flash of horror, the rest of us have to keep figuring out how to get along.