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Global Inequality: How the REM Asks Whose Voices Need to be Heard

Mirren Bodanis

Voices Editor

Photo via Global News.

Earlier this year, I had the unfortunate experience of having to help my father clean out my late uncle’s apartment. My uncle was unable to work, living off government aid. The meager allowance provided to him by the provincial government housed him in a tiny studio situated nearly on top of the Decarie Trench. Adjacent apartment complexes lined the decades old, perpetually congested sunken expressway, with only the apartment’s thin glass windows to separate tenants from the ear-splitting roar and visibly oozing pollution that emanates from the 6 lanes directly at their fondation.There is much beauty in the neighborhood. My uncle had shared with us stories of all the amazing people, pets, and shops that made place into home. But the inhumanity of the urban design is undeniable.

In the end, it is the public and the media who have the power to choose whose homes and neighborhoods we develop and improve. That is just the nature of public infrastructure. When a community has a problem, they make their voice heard. If it’s loud enough for “traditional” media (newspapers & TV networks) to care, they’ll start running it through the press, and once it’s loud enough in the press, politicians can’t ignore it or else they won’t get re-elected.

Theoretically, the people have more power than the media, but the media inform the people, and thus inform our votes. If, say, Montréal-Nord is unhappy, that is 84,000 people who might cost the mayor a vote. But if just TVA posts about it on Instagram, suddenly that’s 160,000 followers whose votes might be swayed. Radio-Canada another 217,000. Le Devoir another 140,000. Politicians listen to the people’s voice, but it is ultimately the news media who decides whose voices get heard. They hold decisive power, not just in how they tell our stories, but whose stories they tell.

Now we arrive at the REM. Are there valid criticisms of the project? Being the largest public transport project in over half a century, built around the communities of millions of people… of course there are. But, it is a radically massive change in the urban landscape of our city that will bring about positive transformation to communities for the next century. The planet is burning. The dystopian flavor of the phrase “cost of living crisis” has melted and relaxed into our daily vocabulary. We cannot keep building sprawling suburbs where the average home is 1.5 million dollars. We cannot keep using slave labor to mine cobalt and build electric cars, and we can’t keep pumping toxic gas into the air while we drive gas ones. Given our current policies, without the kind of transformation the REM will bring, we are not only dooming ourselves, but affecting those around the globe. We know this. We need more transit, and transit-oriented development.

So, given all this, when the first white-and-lime train glided across the Champlain bridge, whose voice was amplified to reach the millions of voters across and around our island?

“Bad vibrations: Griffintown neighbors want the REM to pipe down” headlines the Montreal Gazette.

“Montreal residents of Griffintown concerned over loud noise from REM trains,” reads Global News.

“Le bruit, c’est partout, tout le temps” - La Presse

These complaints may appear minor, but they hold significant influence. The REM de L’Est was supposed to be a significant extension in the north-east portion of the island, providing a long-overdue development to what has been, historically, an extremely marginalized set of communities. Protests, mostly in wealthier regions, campaigned against the fact that the train would run above-ground (just like roads!) A new underground plan was proposed, leading to a substantial increase in project costs (building tunnels is massively more expensive than building viaducts), people protested the cost (“At $36B, urban planners say REM de l'Est project needs a rethink” headlined CTV News) and now the project is less likely to happen.

You know who didn’t get headlines about noise and ugliness? My Uncle & his thousand neighbors.

All experiences should be equal, yet we are at a time of unparalleled inequality. The REM is loud, and the Decarie Expressway is loud and pollutes to a lethal extent. An above-ground train is ugly, and so is a highway and it costs thousands more a year for people to use. Taking the bus might add 10 minutes to your commute, but how many minutes would Yellowknifers wait to keep their community from turning to ash?

We are at a turning point in history, and we face choices. The best choices are made through hearing everyone’s voice, but we are not listening to everyone. So, my question to the CTVs, the TVAs, and the CBCs of our world is: Are we listening to those who pay the highest rent, or the voices of those who need to be heard most?



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