A CITY OF IDENTITY AND INNOVATION
Although I was born in Rimouski, I’ve always been a Montrealer. My father grew up in Rosemont and my mother, in Saint-Henri. I spent my primary and secondary school years south of the MercierBridge, but Montréal was where we hung out, shopped, skateboarded, danced and worked. Then, I lived in Montréal, with an actual address on the island. Montréal has always lived in me, even when I was in California.
As the saying goes, no one is a prophet in his own country, and maybe that’s because you need some distance to understand, analyze and get perspective. A few years ago, I had the chance, for a few years, to live and work in San Francisco. I was happy to leave Montréal to see from afar if I was still there. I found myself on the Pacific Coast, in the birthplace of skateboarding, Silicon Valley.
Leaving, for me, is moving forward, and also going inside yourself. We don’t all leave for the same reasons. Some people leave because they want to be somewhere else, or because they reject their origins. Not me! I love who I am, where I come from. What I am is profoundly coloured by where I have been. My roots are stronger than my branches.
I love where I am and where I come from
But the idea of not having to be rooted, to explore the possibilities, to open the windows and feel the wind outside, is also a sign. I am a Montrealer. Being someplace else doesn’t change anything; I was a Montrealer in San Francisco. In my apartment near Golden GatePark (half the size and twice as expensive as my apartment in Outremont), I listened to Cohen and Charlebois without headphones. I wrote in French on the Internet. I wasn’t that far away. Distance emphasizes; it highlights ideas, words, desires and needs.
And every time I had the chance to come back to Montréal, I always found the same enjoyment in rediscovering the je ne sais quoi I had missed so much.
I’ve been back in Montréal for three years. I decided to grow start-ups in our community garden (figuratively) at the Maison Notman, a technological entrepreneurship hub. In the morning, I take my bike or a Bixi to the corner of my street, and usually, I get my best ideas somewhere along the bike path between home and work. Especially in January. Wintertime biking on a bike path where the snow is cleared for you—there’s nothing like it to get your innovation going.
The grass isn’t greener on the other side
Is Montréal a more innovative city than San Francisco? Or less innovative, but still very innovative, nonetheless? It’s a creative, wellknown city, open-minded, festive, an image and sound hub… But is it an innovative city? I hate the idea of us being a pale imitation, a copy of what people are doing elsewhere. No “SiliconIsland” or “St. Lawrence Innovation Valley,” no thank you! We need to know our history, appropriate our victories, recognize our challenges, sow our seeds on the fertile ground beneath our feet.
I’ve always been proud of us being different, of the fact that we aren’t a city like all the others. Montréal isn’t the twin of New York or Paris, or even Toronto. Maybe it’s a cousin of Berlin or Barcelona. It’s a quilt of neighbourhoods. It’s a city where French, English and other languages are spoken. And that’s what gives us our unique colour. We are a city of immigrants. All of us are immigrants, or almost all of us. Hochelaga was Iroquoi for centuries before it was home to Dead Obies. A land of welcome, of men and of women. Often a progressive society, sometimes a retrospective society.
If Montréal is innovative, it innovates in its own way, in its own social, cultural and historic context. It takes years to change something that significant. Innovation is difficult. It takes a lot of time. Sometimes it’s painful, and at the beginning, it often seems insignificant. That’s why a lot of experimentation is required, trial and error, false starts and flashes in the pan. I was very inspired by what the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor did in Montréal. After attaining (huge) international success, they opened performance halls (including Casa Del Popolo), launched a music label (Constellation) and opened a studio (Hotel2Tango) in Montréal. They helped build the elements that were needed for a culture, sound and music from Montréal to emerge. This is just one example among others, but it illustrates the effect of how international success can have a positive domino effect on a local, human scale.
More start-ups. More entrepreneurs. More cheap rents in neighbourhoods that weren’t that nice 10 years ago. More lofts, garages and basements. More Fringe, Voix d’Amérique and Fantasia. More Foufounes électriques. More Théâtre La Licorne, Cinéma Beaubien and Cinéma du Parc. More ELEKTRA, Pouzza Fest and Startupfest. More cool, relaxed co-working. More coffee. More Guru and Rise. More microbreweries and breweries. More urban agriculture, on roofs or elsewhere. More Champs des possibles. More ambition and more humility. More roots.
Less mega. Fewer corporations. Less ego, stress and fat. Less arguments. Less uniformity. Fewer social strata. And… more cold. But Montréal, even when you’re cold, I love you.