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Steve Lafleur: Why housing was key to François Legault’s resounding re-election

Commentary

I was in Quebec City earlier this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful city in the country, and one of the most livable—for those who don’t face linguistic or cultural barriers, of course. But for at least a plurality of residents, things are pretty good. So it’s not surprising to me that Premier François Legault cruised to re-election. People tend not to throw out incumbents when they’re feeling good about the issues that directly impact their lives.I assume the mood is somewhat different in Anglophone and Allophone parts of Montreal, where I have not been yet this year. Given the poor showing of the CAQ in those parts, I’m guessing some of the premier’s more controversial policies are more topical. But at least in primarily francophone parts of the province, people seem pretty content. 

I have a habit of talking to locals about politics when I travel. People are usually surprisingly open to sharing their views even on hot-button issues, if you ask. So I was a bit surprised by how little anyone seemed to want to talk about electoral politics during my week in Quebec City. I gave a lot of people openings to talk about politics, but no one seemed interested.People had many thoughts on things like the state of the roads (not great) and some heavily delayed infrastructure projects. I also realized that there were no Uber drivers during the morning commute because the labour market was too tight. But electoral politics? Nope. Maybe I was just there too far in advance of the election. Or maybe francophone Quebecers are particularly guarded about talking politics with outsiders. Either way, people didn’t seem too fussed about who’s in charge. Other than some graffiti under a bridge that someone apparently spraypainted during our last night in town, the name François Legault didn’t come up at all. People seemed pretty content. So we talked about restaurants and coffee shops instead.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am not here to defend the premier or excuse the fact that a lot of voters tacitly endorsed some worrisome policies. But it’s also important to remember that most people hold political identities lightly and don’t want to spend their lives debating politics. Your job, your friends, your family, and having a decent place to live tend to matter more than which party is in office. In Quebec, the crucial variable of housing is not the same challenge that it is in much of the country.

I like to joke that if Quebec was indeed a sovereign nation, its national motto would be à louer. You can’t miss the signs in Quebec: they’re everywhere. It’s a bit disconcerting as an Ontarian. Signs like this just don’t really exist in Toronto. Apartments readily available to rent is almost a foreign concept here where you have to hunt down vacant units online and hope no one beats you to it. In Montreal and Quebec City, there’s often a phone number right outside for you to call. In this respect, Quebec truly is a distinct society. 

Relatively low housing prices in Quebec mean that shelter costs aren’t eating into middle-class paycheques as much as elsewhere. So it’s not treated like a middle-class issue. Most of the housing promises during the recent election campaign centred around social housing or other policies targeted at low-income renters and buyers and not the broad public. Housing in Quebec, for lack of a better word, is normal. It’s not a light-your-hair-of-fire issue, just one among many. Mostly one for other people. 

Contrast this with English Canada where it is arguably emerging as the issue. For a long time, it was a Greater Toronto Area and Lower Mainland issue. Over the past few years, in particular, housing shortages in those two metro areas have spilled over into adjacent markets. As a result, it is no longer just a municipal or even a provincial issue: it’s a federal issue now. Given that the Lower Mainland and the GTA decide federal elections, that isn’t surprising. 

Housing has become so dominant in provincial and federal elections that just posturing as pro-housing is enough to get elected—at least for now. Doug Ford was recently re-elected in Ontario, in part thanks to the perception that his party wanted to build while neither of the other major parties seemed to have well-telegraphed visions for the GTA. Even though the Ford government has not yet acted on the most important recommendations of its own housing affordability task force, at the very least they were able to prevent the issue from becoming a political liability.Similarly, a big part of Pierre Poilievre’s pitch thus far has been that housing prices are too high. It’s too early in his tenure to know if he’ll come out with detailed plans to address the issue, though the federal government has limited tools at its disposal. Even if he doesn’t, he might be able to win over voters in the 905 on pro-housing vibes alone. Housing has become that powerful in parts of English Canada. The parts that decide elections, anyways.

Naturally, we might wonder what sort of magical formula the Legault government has stumbled on to. Did they slash red tape? Did they undertake a herculean housing construction effort? Did they make it so hard to move to the province that they crushed demand? The answer to all of these questions is no. In fact, it doesn’t really have much to do with the Legault government at all. It’s that “missing middle” housing isn’t missing in Quebec.

Residential buildings in Quebec City representing gentle density and the inexpensive “missing middle” housing. Credit: Steve Lafleur

Take a walk through Le Plateau in Montreal or Vieux-Limoilou. What you’ll see is a mix of all different types of housing. Townhouses, three-story walk-ups, apartment buildings. Not just on main streets like in Toronto or Vancouver. Density is woven into the fabric of neighbourhoods. Rather than oceans of detached houses surrounded by islands of density in most of the GTA and Lower Mainland, neighbourhoods throughout Montreal and Quebec City have a variety of housing types. Since housing isn’t throttled like it is in much of English Canada by intractable fights, they don’t have the same kind of supply constraints

They also don’t have the same kind of prices. According to Rentals.ca, the average rent for all property types in Quebec was $1723 for the month of August compared to $2367 and $2578 for Ontario and British Columbia, respectively. Zooming into the metro areas, the average two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver cost $3694, while in Toronto it ran $3266. In Montreal? Less than two grand. 

Purchase prices tell a similar story. The Canadian Real Estate Association pegged the average home price in Ontario for August at $829,739. For British Columbia, it was $910,914. It was $484,070 in Quebec. Looking specifically at the Lower Mainland and Greater Toronto Area, the average prices came in at $1,180,500 and $1,124,600. The Montreal and Quebec City CMAs came in at $523,700 and $315,300, respectively.

That’s not completely surprising given that when it comes to housing supply, Quebec is in a far better situation than most of the rest of the provinces—and certainly compared to other large provinces. According to Scotiabank analysis, Quebec’s total private dwellings per population ratio is much higher than the national average and close to the G-7 average.

In short, housing in Quebec isn’t the policy problem that it is in BC or Ontario. So they aren’t major political issues. “Drive until you qualify” (commuting from as far as it takes to afford a home) isn’t as much of a thing in Quebec. It’s hard to overstate how much more breathing room you have when you don’t need to commute two hours a day to buy a home, let alone if you have to wait months for an apartment to open up in your preferred neighbourhood. Believe me—it’s stressful. 

Every time I’m in Quebec, I can’t help but feel jealous. Walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods tend to be the exception rather than the rule in North America. Given how few there are, they’re expensive. You’re not going to get the Brooklyn lifestyle on an entry-level Toronto wage. In Quebec, it’s much more plausible. You don’t need to earn six figures or have rich parents to live in St. Roch or Griffintown. So on some level, I can see why people are complacent. Things are pretty good—for most people.That isn’t to say that some of the government’s most controversial measures haven’t been harmful to some residents. But it’s fairly easy to tune out if you live in fairly homogenous, Francophone parts of the province. 

You might vote differently from the forty-one percent of voters that gave the premier his majority. I would have. But I can also see how someone who isn’t necessarily thrilled about the premier’s most controversial positions might just tune them out. When you’ve got a roof over your head and aren’t worried too much about the bills, you get to sleep easier at night. So easy that you might not wake up to get to the polls.

Malcolm Jolley: Ten restaurants that guarantee you a fun evening

Commentary

When Howard proposed we each draw up a list of ten of our favourite restaurants and post them at The Hub, I instantly and unequivocally agreed. Making up lists of favourite restaurants is the sort of thing I do when I daydream; it seemed like an easy and fun exercise. And, I reasoned, it would be handy to have a list committed to the World Wide Web.

I have a tendency to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights when a real person asks me for a restaurant recommendation, this way I would create a reference point for myself and others that I could effortlessly share.

How wrong I was! The first few restaurants were easy enough to conjure up, but after the first few that came to mind my inner deer returned and the panic came back. What if I forgot one? What if one my favourites had declined since the last time I was there? Would I attract the ire of disappointed Hubbists?

Also, what if most of my favourites were of the same type, or clustered in the same city? Worse than wrong, it might be boring. This list project turned out to be more difficult, than I first imagined.

Despite requiring some effort and some thought, the exercise of enumerating ten restaurants, spread around my hometown and some of the places I am familiar with, turned out to be quite enjoyable. My first criteria for a great restaurant is neither the quality of food nor service, per se. Instead it’s whether or not I have fun when I am there.

The places on this list are places where I have had fun. Of course good food (and often, but not always, wine) is important, and I would argue good service is essential. Though, what exactly is good is always up for debate. Fun, to my mind, isn’t: either you’ve had it or you have not. Revisiting these ten top restaurants was an exercise in conjuring up memories of fun.

Here they are in no particular order.

Restaurant L’Express, Montreal

I fell for the young lady who would become my wife after a long lunch at L’Express; it was a long time ago, in our last year of undergrad and living in Montreal. It is not clear to me which direction the positive association to this perfect bistro runs. Do I love L’Express in part because it’s where I began to fall in love with my wife, or do I love my wife in part because she also loves L’Express? Last time we were in Montreal, this time to drop off our kid at university himself, we traversed the black on white tiles up to the door and sweet-talked our way to the last two seats at the bar. We ordered from the big wine list, which helpfully tells you how many bottles of each listing are left and tried with mixed success not to simply order favourites like the sorrel soup, or classic Tartare. Then we craned our necks to look at the chic Montréalais eating well into Saturday night and let out a bit of a sigh.

The Anchor & Hope, London

In my humble opinion the “gastropub” is not a concept that travels well outside of the British Isles. Probably because North America has always had casual restaurants with good food and a bar. Britain (I am told) did not until the last decade of the last century, and when Londoners were offered the opportunity to eat well without linen table clothes and uniformed waiters and the gastropub boom was on. This restaurant pub is firmly in the tradition. The Anchor & Hope is two rooms: a bar and a dining room. If you’re lucky, you’ll start in the former, maybe with a pint of bitter, before heading to the bare unvarnished wooden tables of the latter for wine and fancy British food, like a salad with smoked mackerel. It’s on The Cut, by the Old Vic, near Waterloo Station on the south side of the river. It’s lovely to meet locals for a drink after (their) work and stay for dinner. But it’s also great fun as a kind of escape valve and temporary oasis from the West End and tourist London on the other side of the river. It should be mentioned that it was founded and is operated by alumni of St. John, and is loyal to that restaurant’s ethos.

Scaramouche, Toronto

Until COVID-19 wreaked its horrors on the hospitality industry, Scaramouche was one kitchen with two restaurants, with two menus: the dining room proper and the Pasta Bar. As a young(er) man, I had a number of formative meals in the dining room which were as expertly executed and served as any I have had in the étoilees in New York, California or Europe. There’s a period in one’s career as a diner, where this is very exciting. But when good friends took us to the somewhat erroneously named Pasta Bar I fell in love again, as it felt more intimate and convivial, and started to book it with regularity. (It also had excellent people watching.) Now, I hear it’s all one restaurant, and I regret I haven’t returned yet for the locally sourced, beautifully cooked food and the best restaurant view of the Toronto skyline going.

Il Sorpasso, Rome

I don’t go to Italy for modern cooking; I want it traditional and I want a lesson in what exactly is supposed to happen gastronomically in whatever town or countryside I am in. And yet, and yet… I love Il Sorpasso, which likes to break the rules, while making it clear they know exactly what they are doing. A good example of this is their pasta with butter and anchovy, the memory of which, paired with a Trebbiano Spolentino, is bringing water to my mouth as I type. Their gastronomic irreverence is matched with the shabby chic decor and friendly service from young people who know you know they are much cooler than you. It’s tucked in a quiet street between the Vatican and the Castle of Saint Angelo, which it makes it another escape pod oasis from the busy, tourist Rome. Unsurpassed, indeed.

Langdon Hall, Cambridge Ontario

Full disclosure: I am friends with the Bennett family that owns and operates Langdon Hall. I have been treated well there, but since they rest their reputation, and correspondingly high rates, on treating people well, I believe that’s par for the course of all their guests. Langdon is, I admit, a cheat because it’s my way of sneaking in an extra restaurant, apart from its renowned dining room. I love the Wilks Bar equally, and see the two dining areas, which share Chef Jason Bangerter’s renowned kitchen and extensive gardens, as a continuation of a whole. One can attack the gastronomic pleasures of Langdon by arriving in time for sandwich or a burger at the bar, as a kind of warm-up to the tasting menu at the dining room. Or, one can arrive later, dive fully into Bangerter’s tasting menu, and the myriad pleasures of the cavernous wine cellar, in the evening, and keep lunch at the bar as a civilizing restorative exercise the next day, after good long walk around the grounds.

Hotdog Cart (Various locations), Toronto

Hot Italian sausage on a yellow brioche bun with sauerkraut, raw onions, dill pickles, sliced banana peppers and French’s mustard. Particularly as a late lunch after some kind of business engagement, eaten standing up on the sidewalk in an alcove to get out of the way of traffic. I will defend Toronto street meat until the day I die, and those who speak down on it are wrong and damned to a life of joyless culinary ignorance.

The Rose Venice, Los Angeles

The Rose is an American restaurant that only Americans can do, and do well. In between the beach and Venice’s hipster scene on Abbot Kinney, it’s a really big space, mostly under a kind of tent and exudes boisterous energy, like a good party. I mean it’s fun and impossible not to get caught up in the vibe. Portions are, of course, commensurately expansive: a giant chopped salad with a really big glass of rosé, please.

Mi Mi, Toronto

A friend who lived around Broadview and Gerrard took me to Mi Mi’s in Toronto’s Chinatown East longer ago than I can remember, and it quickly became a regular Sunday lunch spot for our family in cold months when a steaming bowl of their Pho is more than worth the drive over the Don River. There are more exotically authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Toronto. Mi Mi is, I think, a kind of Vietnamese diner, it serves the greatest hits of the diaspora. Cash only, fluorescent lights and good hot food made well and they are generous with the accompaniments including a homemade garlic hot sauce. It’s never empty.

La Piola, Alba

The town of Alba, in Piedmont, south of Turin, has a number of gastronomic claims including being the birthplace of Nutella, its festival of local white truffles, and the centre of the wine region of the Langhe, which includes the prestigious appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s the latter that has brought me to this perfectly sized pretty old walled town, that lives up to its reputation for the appreciation of good food and drink. The most famous restaurant in Alba is the three star Michelin Ristorante Piazza Duomo, but my favourite is across the square on the other side of the cathedral. The release of Nebbiolo wines is typically in the spring, when it is warm enough to have lunch outside, and La Piola’s tables on the piazza are a perfect spot to people-watch and enjoy a glass or two of Arneis or Dolcetto while moving through the specialities of Piedmont, like vitello tonnato or the small ravioli of pasta a plin.   

St. John (Smithfield), London

Howard has captured the spirit of St. John so well, I am not sure how to add to it, especially having written about it in my wine column too. I suppose, like the nine places that precede it on this list, it represents an oasis (a word I have used in this list twice before). It’s an island of calm in a big city, a machine that is tuned to please its guests, if (and only if) the guests are willing to be pleased and respect the pleasure. It’s in the noise of cutlery and the standard, short stemmed wine glasses, and of course the food and service. A great restaurant calls one back. I might visit London and miss a meal at St. John, but I’d be sad about it, like I had walked by the door of a good friend without knocking on it. Long may it run.