Poverty, close to home

I have lived in Montreal for 30 years and I don’t remember seeing so much misery in the open air. I feel like I’m back in the 1990s, the recession, grunge and biker wars. Except that at that time, almost all of Montreal was poor.

Posted at 1:02 a.m.

Updated at 6:00 a.m.

We could pull the devil by the tail and live in an old dilapidated loft in Mile End, live as a group of five in a seven and a half apartment on the Plateau Mont-Royal, rent a room for next to nothing. And until the turn of the 2000s, it was still possible for young people in their twenties to become owners. Imagine: in Rosemont, duplexes could be found for less than $150,000!

Those days are now over. Montreal has evolved from a city poor has city dear. At a time of “gentrification” and Airbnbization, while more and more people are arriving in the city without enough buildings being built to accommodate them, the most vulnerable are being pushed onto the streets. They can no longer “hide” in rooming houses and shelters, they no longer even have the “luxury” of squatting in abandoned buildings or occupying vacant lots. The holes have filled up, free spaces have become rare.

Condos and townhouses are springing up everywhere, office towers rise like spiers in the blue. The richest live high up, in their sunny lofts, while the poor stay down below, in the dark. We find them even underground, where they survive among the dirt.

The other day at Côte-des-Neiges station, I counted a dozen people sleeping on the ground. There were a few “typical” homeless people (sorry to put it that way), but also, unusually, two rather young women, lying very close to the teller, to ensure a minimum of security. At the D’Iberville station, in the east of Villeray where I live, we always find the good Michel, sitting next to the door, who collects while offering his cinema advice (he worked for a long time in a club video, which closed).

But around him, we now see a new fauna, made up of homeless people and beggars, drug sellers and users, migrants and women who roam the streets, so many people for whom the public house has become a asylum.

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By being confronted with it, we come to no longer see poverty in Montreal.

The worst thing is that we get used to this misery. Poor people, we notice them at the beginning, especially if they are in crisis or they feel, then we end up no longer seeing them, because life is pressing on us, there is better to do. And if we no longer see them after a while, it’s also because they throw back in our faces a reality that we prefer to ignore. They offer us the sad spectacle of wealth disparities, ordinary violence and indignity.

In Quebec, we still have difficulty thinking about power and power relations, and admitting the existence of social classes. The elite is distinguished by its refusal of distinction. And we like to believe that everyone lives roughly in the same conditions, that everyone is part of the same “tightly woven” fabric.

For a long time, Sunday Mass served as the great equalizer: the few rich and the many poor gathered around the rite of communion to hear the priest’s sermon. When religion fell, television took over. During prime time, it offered us – and still offers us – the opportunity to come together around a few symbols, a song, a laugh or a glass of wine. Now that the power of television is waning, what brings us together is no longer clear, and what separates us becomes clearer every day.

The famous “middle class” that everyone talks about, that politicians and the media court, is largely an illusion. Because according to the OECD criteria applied to Quebec household income, a single person who earns $31,000 per year and a couple with children who earns $253,000 per year are theoretically part of the same so-called middle class. ⁠1. Can we seriously believe that these people belong to the same world?

In recent years, it is the existence of this gap that Quebec literature has helped to reveal. I think about May our joy remain, by Kevin Lambert, who shows that class consciousness blinds us to the miseries of those who are chased out of a neighborhood, through renovations and housing projects. I think about Where I hide, by Caroline Dawson, who reminds us that in the eyes of newcomers, it is often “native” Quebecers who are seen as the masters and the favored. How can we forget this poignant scene where young Caroline, visiting a friend in a beautiful neighborhood of Brossard, realizes that after the party it is her mother, Natalia, a humble housekeeper, who will have to clean everything? I finally think of Rue Duplessisby Jean-Philippe Pleau, which reveals that poverty is not only a matter of money, but also of education and culture, that the worst barriers are often invisible – illiteracy, for example.

These authors, and others, like Sophie Bienvenu and Francis Ouellet, invite us to recognize that we are not all equally lucky, that many things in this world need to be repaired. They reveal to us a society, ours, marked by numerous “tears” (Pleau), where the wealth of some sometimes, unfortunately, causes the misery of others.

1. Members of the middle class are those whose annual income is between 75% (a single person, at $31,000 per year) and 200% (a couple with children, at $257,000) of the median income. These figures were compiled by the Observatoire québécois des inequalities using data from Statistics Canada.

Read Marie-Eve Fournier’s column “How much do you need to earn to not be poor”

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