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The Walrus Talks: will Montreal listen?

by Matthew Civico April 23, 2015
The Walrus Talks: will Montreal listen?

Normally when you roll a walrus in crude oil you get an ecological disaster—we got The Walrus Talks instead.

From left: Nantali Indongo of Nomadic Massive, Eric Prud’homme of Enbridge, and Shelley Ambrose of The Walrus. Photos by Matt Civico.

On Monday, April 20, Concordia’s D.B. Clarke theatre played host to The Walrus Talks, an ongoing trans-Canadian lecture series by the non-profit Walrus Foundation, as a part of the 2015 Blue Metropolis Festival.

For the uninitiated, The Walrus is Canada’s premiere general interest magazine with a focus on arts, culture, and politics. It has been called Canada’s The New Yorker, and for good reason. The Walrus is the country’s most awarded magazine and claims to be fearless, witty, and thoughtful. It’s also distinctly Canadian.

The evening’s topic, “how to animate a city,” was expounded on by the likes of author Terry Fallis, Montreal’s Steve Galluccio of Mambo Italiano fame, and Concordia’s own Steven High among others. The seven featured guests spoke on diverse topics; they considered how to bring “cities to life through art, culture, heritage, and design” but it was Terry Fallis who established the thematic thread of the night: storytelling.

Whether it was Fallis laying out the scientific evidence for humans as story-formed beings, or High’s reflection on the changing face of Montreal’s traditionally working-class neighbourhoods, storytelling was front and centre. So, how do we animate our city? I left convinced that we do so in telling stories about our past, diverse present-tense narratives and dreaming about the story we want to be a part of.

However, the evening was not without controversy. Prior to the talks, the Facebook event page was filled with questions and denunciations directed towards the event’s principal sponsor: Enbridge. It’s a fair criticism, given that The Concordian just covered a large anti-petroleum march in Quebec City, but I can report that there were no Big Oil boogeyman at The Walrus Talks—just good ideas about how to make our cities more human.

Photo by Matthew Civico (@mattcivico) on Twitter.

Photo by Matthew Civico (@mattcivico) on Twitter.

Unsurprisingly, or perhaps surprisingly for some, there were no plugs for Big Oil aside from opening remarks by Eric Prud’homme, senior public affairs manager for Enbridge in Eastern Canada, reiterating support for the Walrus Foundation. I referred earlier to The Walrus as a nuanced publication, and this can be seen in their choice of advertisers. Yes, there are ads by Enbridge, but there are also ads from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (which, in couched language, encourages readers to not vote for Stephen Harper’s conservatives), First Nations art initiatives, an environmental foundation, Manulife, CBC Aboriginal—you get my point.

The Walrus Talks was trying to have a conversation about how to make our cities better places to live. The quick and concise format was like a series of very short TED Talks, but I wonder: how many of the negative commenters on Facebook refused to join this particular conversation because of the Enbridge logo atop the program?

I think that is unfortunate, but even more unfortunate is the fact that the Walrus Foundation—by financial necessity—goes to ideological opponents for funding. I see no evidence of the smears of Big Oil’s black hands on The Walrus’ editorial integrity, but I do see a failure to appreciate nuance—and to put our money where our mouths are. By virtue of being a non-profit entity, The Walrus Foundation must raise its operating budget through charitable gifts and, by necessity, advertising revenue. The magazine is not bankrolled by Big Oil, at least not from what I can see in its pages, which are not overwhelmed by ads, but perhaps a link to a donation page should have been provided for those in the Facebook event group with uneasy consciences. It is, as it always has been, easier to tear something down than build it up.

The Walrus Talks were far from boycotted as the D.B. Clarke theatre was packed, but anonymous pamphlets were passed out decrying the many sins of Enbridge. There are good and valid reasons to oppose Big Oil, and I support doing so, but I’d rather lift up something—someone, in this case—worthy of emulation rather than dwell on political leanings of The Walrus.

Enter Nantali Indongo, of Montreal’s multilingual and multicultural hip-hop collective Nomadic Massive. She embodied the spirit of the evening, managing to drop some spoken-word poetry and redirect everyone’s attention to people and groups doing visionary work to animate our city in a punchy seven-minute presentation. Indongo humbly told stories not her own; she placed herself on the periphery to put others in the centre.

Here are a few of the stories she shared:

  • DESTA Black Youth Network, a community-based non-profit run by Francis Waithe and Shanna Strauss, which serves marginalized youth in Montreal.
  • The “Talk to Me” Project by Kai Thomas, Elena Stoodley, and DESTA, a radio project which aims to record and share the stories, thoughts, and opinions of Black men who are or have been incarcerated.
  • We Are The Medium, an immigrant artist collective that hopes “to aid in the cultural representation of the ‘other’, the new citizen.”
  • Articule/HTMLLES/Montreal Monochrome, a trio of initiatives doing anti-oppression work in Montreal’s art communities.
  • Climate Justice Montreal, which held a climate justice Rap Battle this past March entitled “Slam the Tar Sands.”
  • The Colour of Science, by Dr. Frederic Bertley. The program highlights the scientific “contributions of underrepresented groups, including women and persons of colour.”

These are some of the people and groups that animate our city towards justice and restoration. “Animate, like: create, motivate, agitate, celebrate,” said Indongo during her speech, while urging people to be “a bridge between communities separated by socio-economic and educational backgrounds.”

That’s how you animate a city.

We mustn’t be quick to tar The Walrus with the sins of Enbridge if we aren’t also willing to paint the magazine with the virtues of participants like Indongo. It would seem that contempt is more contagious than integrity, and that nuance is such hard work. I for one am glad that The Walrus took a bit of Enbridge’s money if it gives me a chance to hear from people like Indongo. Perhaps others who needed to hear what I heard stayed away to avoid fraternizing with the oily, losing out on a night of insight and artistry for fear of cross-contamination.

I find it far more difficult to be inspired than to get upset, but the results of inspiration are usually worth the squeeze—even a slight squeeze of my environmental conscience.

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