There’s something we need to talk about. The city of Montreal likes to position itself as a cultural mecca. They finance enormous already-profitable events, spend billions renovating large touristic spaces and pay millions of dollars to light up a bridge. All of that has economic value and I understand why they do it. But, tourism and culture are two different things.
The underground arts community is where every superstar has cut his, her or their chops and where real cultural evolution takes place before it works its way into mass media. Over the last few years, the city’s policies have inadvertently been hurting Montreal’s arts scene. Whether we’re talking about complications related to noise regulations, zoning bylaws or licensing issues, most people in the underground arts community have stories that paint a different narrative.
My story starts about eight years ago. Before Facebook became ubiquitous, independent artists and event presenters had one crucial and affordable way of promoting their events: posters. The city provided little to no space for community announcements and so artists and event presenters used public lampposts to promote their activities. The problem, of course, was that this was illegal.
A group of independent event producers that included Pop Montreal and the Montreal FRINGE Festival were so aggravated by repeated fines imposed by the city that they formed C.O.L.L.E., a working group to address the issue, in 2010. This allowed a conversation to start about a question that disproportionately effects underground creators, since most don’t have the means to buy expensive advertising space.
That same year, the Quebec Superior Court ruled Montreal’s anti-postering law to be illegal and unenforceable. The decision found that unless the city provides space for its residents to display posters and community notices, a regulation limiting their distribution on city property violated its citizens’ free speech rights. After this decision, the city stopped fining event presenters and bands, putting the question to bed temporarily.
The court’s decision gave the city six months to rewrite its postering bylaws. Seven years later, that has still not happened and public postering spaces have not been installed in numbers that come close to satisfying the court’s requirement – this despite numerous proposals and pilot projects presented to the city by members of its cultural community. City employees, though, have again started operating as if the activity were illegal.
I run a cultural business with a few different departments, one of which is a street marketing agency that distributes materials in print and digitally to indoor and outdoor spaces around Montreal to promote cultural activities. We have some clients that are big companies. But, most are independent festivals, labels, venues and artists with limited means. Postering can represent a significant portion of their communications and our work promoting their event on their behalf is unjustly effected.
The city seems to have overlooked this legal precedent and the moral imperative it sets out. Municipal employees seem to still believe that postering is illegal, a falsehood that prompts harassment from city works employees, garbage collectors and most often the police.
The city also prints and installs signage on lampposts warning would-be posterers of that activity’s illegality, citing a regulation that to the best of my research no longer exists – and if it did, it would be unenforceable. It spends time and money installing ridged lampposts meant to make postering more tenuous covered in anti-adhesive paint. It spends hundreds of thousands (and possibly even millions) of dollars every year hiring staff to rip posters off of its lampposts; money that is not counterbalanced by revenues from postering fines, which would be illegal to collect given the current legal context.
In short, this problem from 2010 has resurfaced in a slightly different context. Montreal is, to my knowledge, the only major city in Canada that does not provide public postering space to its citizens. There have been proposals presented by Montreal’s cultural community, including one from myself, which would, it should be noted, not only eliminate costs but generate revenue for the city and which I would be glad to talk more about. But, the city has never dealt with the problem despite the efforts of its creative class to resolve it.
Why should you care? There are three reasons. Firstly, it is your money being wasted. The city spends our tax dollars as it sees fit and bears a serious fiscal responsibility. There are so many city workers now charged with keeping posters off lampposts on major arteries in the city centre that posters are often torn down within the day or even a few hours.
Second, this is a liability for the city and it is your money that will be at risk should a group of citizens decide to sue the city for having supplanted their free speech rights.
Lastly, and this may even be the most important reason, it’s essential to recognize the cultural enrichment being withheld from the public. Emerging musicians, comedians, dancers and visual artists can’t afford to buy ad time on TV, the radio, in the metro or on the sides of city buses. Postering is the one analog real-world promotional avenue in a digitized media-scape that is accessible to our city’s artists and creators. It is affordable, democratic and honest.
I hope you’ll understand my frustration and please know that I’m available to continue the conversation. I’m confident that the municipal government is not indifferent to this issue, since we can all agree that Montreal’s place as a creative hub forms an essential part of the city’s identity. I would like to work to bring about solutions that strengthen our arts community and invite the city and its citizens to join the conversation.