The Corner

Re: I have returned

Jonah, re your comments on Montreal: lots of great restaurants but what would appear to be an insufficient populace to support them, etc. Many Americans have made similar observations to me.

One reason is a simple cultural difference: If I recall correctly, Quebec has the highest number of restaurants per capita of any jurisdiction in North America. Our Corner colleague Peter Robinson, who used to jet in to New Hampshire from California on Dartmouth College business, would occasionally ask me where the nearest decent restaurant to Dartmouth was, and I’d reply Magog, Quebec. Accustomed to all those West Coast arugula joints, Peter would marvel: “You have to leave the country to get a good local meal?” I love my favorite North Country diners, but to be honest I sometimes envy a small town like Victoriaville north of the border which is a broken-down nowheresville loser burg that nevertheless manages to sustain a Main Street (or rue principale) hippity-hopping with a dozen good eateries.

But the second reason is more profound. You say Montreal “felt oddly under-populated”. You’re right. There was a big anglo exodus when the separatist government was first elected 30 years ago, and the city has never recovered from that population adjustment. The big corporate HQs soon followed: the Bank of Montreal is no longer headquartered in Montreal, etc. If you drive west to Toronto, you head out of Montreal on a four-lane autoroute and by the time you’re on the outskirts of Toronto it’s some crazy New Jersey Turnpike-type gazillion-lane nightmare full of feeder lanes and express lanes. In other words, the Montreal-Toronto traffic’s all one way.

And I can’t see how that’s really going to change. If you look at unionization rates in North America, the lowest I believe is North Carolina, where 3.9% or thereabouts are union members. The highest is Quebec, where it’s over 40%. 

That also explains the physical unattractiveness: The old town’s very pretty and neighborhoods like Westmount and Outremont and Notre-Dame-des-Graces and Mount Royal are delightful, but in the downtown core new construction pretty much ceased in the Seventies: It’s not old enough to be attractive, just old enough to be unfashionable and tatty.

John O’Sullivan and I occasionally discussed Montreal, and he observed that a big-city heritage without big-city overcrowding can be very pleasant: You’ve still got all the art galleries and symphony orchestras and so on. You’ve got tickets for Pavarotti at the Place des Arts. Curtain up, 7.30pm. So you leave at 7.20, park outside the front steps and stroll in. As John put it, societies in the early stages of decline can be very agreeable – and often more agreeable than societries trying to cope with prosperity and rapid growth.

Which brings me to my usual everything-comes-back-to-demography shtick. Precisely because the first stages of decline are so agreeable, it’s very hard to accept it as such. Part of the problem in Europe is that, when chaps like yours truly shriek “Run for your lives! The powder keg’s about to go up!”, etc, the bon vivant enjoying his Dubonnet at the sidewalk cafe thinks: Are you crazy? Life’s never been better. Civilized decline can be so charming you don’t notice it’s about to accelerate into uncivilized decline.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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