The Liquor Store Serves the Montreal Jazz Festival Well

A few weeks ago, I was at La marche d’à côté to see Montreal Blues-Rock guitarist Justin Saladino. I was intrigued by the precision of his rhythm guitarist. His name was Felix Blackburn.

“Yes, I do play in another band, a jazz band,” said Felix. “It’s called The Liquor Store. We’ll be playing at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Come check us out.” I come to their second show at the festival and I am not disappointed.

I arrive at the stage at SNC-Lavallin square hoping it wouldn’t rain again tonight. The stage was outdoors; some tables and chairs are set up; and the front of the stage is cleared to make a makeshift dance floor. A huge puddle keeps the audience from taking advantage of all the space available to them. The bright red stage lights are temporarily blinding me.

A series of radio noises are played, some excerpts of songs are heard and The Liquor Store comes on stage. They waste no time and grab the crowd’s attention with a blaring horn, thunderous drums and a funky guitar rhythm.

The Liquor Store is made up of K.O.F. (vocals), Max Miller (vocals), Félix Blackburn (guitar), Rémi Cormier (trumpet), Alex Francœur (saxophone), Félix Leblanc (keyboards), Émile Farley (bass) and Jean-Daniel Thibault-Desbiens (drums). Their music is a cocktail of rap, jazz, funk and R&B. After the first song, Francœur says to the crowd: “Approchez-vous!” (come closer). Seeing that most of the audience is still at the tables after the second song, Miller teases the audience members who were too shy to come to the makeshift dance floor. Then, some women and couples begin to fill the dance floor. Miller’s jokes were partially an introduction to the song “Room for Everyone,” a song containing social commentary. The band follow up with “Hooked,” a song with a keyboard intro reminiscent of something off Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew,” some verses in the style of Lauryn Hill or the Fugees and K.O.F.’s rap style which is similar to those heard in France. Then, The Liquor Store invites soul singer Wayne Tennant to sing with them, “In the 514.” Tennant seduces the audience with his piercing yet smooth falsetto notes while Blackburn charms them with a sensual guitar solo.

Each band member showcases their musicianship through various instrumental pieces and freestyle jams. Throughout the jams, the crowd claps their hands and cheers. Miller and Francoeur, like hype men in rap groups, tell the crowd to jump and wave their arms. The band members state their names, bow and leave the stage.

It isn’t over. Just when you thought The Liquor Store had run out of brew and that the party was over, the band had more goods to deliver.

The band returns to the stage with guest singer Nadia Baldé and play a soul tune. Towards the end of the concert, the brass section borrows a page from classic heavy metal bands by playing a game with the audience they call “question and answer.” It consists of call and response patterns in which the brass section “call” the crowd by playing a short melody and the audience “respond” by singing it back to them. They sang every note accurately and almost as loudly as the brass section.

The whole concert was a series of masterfully mixed cocktails with using the finest ingredients from the most diverse of styles. Their performance was explosive. The Liquor Store doesn’t serve mojitos or beer: they serve Molotov cocktails.

Canada: a Botched Mosaic (part 2)

Editor’s note: This story about Canadian multiculturalism was originally a single 3,600 word article meant for a British magazine. I decided to turn it into a mini-series. It tells the story of Peter, a Lebanese-Canadian youth and his experience of Canadian multiculturalism. He meets different people through his life who influence his thoughts. Although this tale contains many true elements and anecdotes, it is a work of fiction. Read part 1 here.

Some two or three years ago, I was an intern at Canadian Topics magazine. I proofread scholarly articles about immigration there. I was working with recent graduates and postgraduates. I was proofreading some article about low fertility rates among Chinese-Canadian women. I wasn’t sure about what was meant by fertility so I asked a co-worker, Courtney:

Chinese head tax receipt.
Chinese head tax receipt.

“- Courtney, in social sciences, does fertility only refer to the ability to reproduce?

– No, Peter. It can also mean the number of kids women get depending on their means.”

I was surprised to read that the Chinese women who were interviewed for this study were eager to have children while in China but after living in Canada for a short while, their priorities changed. I was equally surprised when I proofread a translation of a paper about African immigrants coming to the Prairies[1]. The African immigrants tended to isolate themselves from the rest of the population and stay with people of their own ethnicity. They didn’t mingle with locals because of language barriers and because they couldn’t relate to Canadians. I thought all of this was strange, so I talked to Courtney about it.

“You know, Canada wasn’t always so diverse: there was a Chinese head tax and non-European immigrants were not accepted except for Chinese and Sikhs.”

Courtney was talking about Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s multiculturalism. Before him, Canada was only interested in accepting white European immigrants. Trudeau desperately needed to populate the country and needed people to work to pay taxes. To satisfy this need, he began accepting immigrants from various parts of the world. But how would he get these new immigrants to integrate Canada? Apply his vision of Canada: a nation made of many diverse nations that coexist within the same borders. The keyword is “coexist”. There is no place for ideology, or wrong or right. All sources of tension had to be eliminated.

Multiculturalism doesn’t seem to be an effective way to increase the country’s population as Canada’s population isn’t renewing itself. The only way to curb Canada’s negative population growth is to allow more immigrants in the country every year.

Courtney wasn’t from Montreal. She said she was from Toronto but she was really from Scarborough which is part of the Greater Toronto Area. Scarborough is an industrialist wasteland where recent immigrants settle. Courtney told me she went to a Catholic public high school that was very poor. It wasn’t uncommon to see girls of her school get pregnant before graduating. From time to time, when there wasn’t much work to do, we would talk about Canadian politics, our high school days, the news and the like.

I thought “brown people” was what Americans called Mexicans when Americans wanted to degrade them but in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s a slur towards Indians (people from India). Her experience in high school was very similar to mine: she went to a public high school in the suburb in which the students were of different ethnicities. There were two differences: she was in Scarborough, I was in Laval (a suburb of Montreal). The other difference was that most students in her school were of Indian or Caribbean origin whereas at my school, half the students were either of Greek, Lebanese Armenian or Haitian origin. The other half was French Canadian. Most students hung out with classmates of the same ethnicity as them. “I didn’t hang out with other Indians. I didn’t want to be with other brown people because their parents knew mine. They were so nosy” said Courtney. I assumed she would have liked spending more time with people of her ethnicity because she knew a lot about Indian history and culture. Yet she truly embraced the values of the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau such as “diversity” and “inclusiveness”.


[1] The provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta which are located in the middle of the country.


To be continued…

Native Comeback

Native peoples in Canada are portrayed as tragedies in the media. We get one story about the residential schools, one story about missing women, another story about how their cultural traditions are being destroyed… It seems as though they are bound for misery.

Not at all. Some communities are blooming. Native youths are resisting. Elderly Aboriginals are smiling at them.

Flag of the Iroquois confederacy which the Mohawk nation is part of.

Background of the Native Cultural Resistance

I am going to an event by COOP Le Milieu called “Indigenous Knowledge Sharing: First Nations and Tibetans.” I look around and see the tables on which colourful beads, jewellery, drawings and shawls for sale are displayed. I also find on a table the business card of an organization called Native Montreal. How exciting! They offer Aboriginal language classes; I’m fascinated by language revival and preservation projects. I ask if there is an exhibitor representing Native Montreal and I’m introduced to an elderly Mohawk woman:

“I’m not from Native Montreal but I’ll answer your questions the best I can.”

Beverly (not her real name) is a Mohawk elder, a former teacher, a former judge and has worked in the correctional system. She is from Kahnawake, south of Montreal.

“Yes, there are plenty of Aboriginal language revival projects. When I was a child in school, there was none of that,” said Beverly. “In school, I was taught I was a savage.”

In Beverly’s youth, Canadian schools taught that Aboriginals were essentially barbarians and needed to be civilized through adopting western European culture. This colonial policy was especially enforced in residential schools. Her testimony reminded me that of a white French-Canadian politician I know from Oka-Kanesatake, another Mohawk region. He told me that when he was in elementary school, the teachers used to say: “If you want to know what devils look like and how they act, just look at Mohawks”.

Beverly also talks about how such a colonial mentality damage Native men.

“You know, when I used to work in the correctional system, I worked with a lot of Native men. I taught them how to be Native men and that being Native doesn’t make them essentially bad people.”

The Situation of the Mohawk Language and Customs in Kahnawake

I have heard of elementary schools and high schools that teach Mohawk but Beverly tells me about a school in Kahnawake that has a Mohawk language immersion program. She also says that on Fridays, the students and the staff of this school, both Mohawks and non-Mohawks, wear traditional Mohawk clothing. She could barely hide the delight on her face. Also, signs in Kahnawake are in English and Mohawk. Beverly tells a story about how bilingual signs could confuse people.

“When I was a judge in charge of solving traffic-related cases, a man contested a ticket he got for burning three stop signs in a row. I told him:

’–Did you drive by three stop signs without stopping?

–Yes but they were test signs.

–What do you mean? They were regulation size, they were visible, they said stop…

The confusing Mohawk stop sign. Source: Wikicommons.

–They also read “Testan.’”

“Testan” in Mohawk means “Stop.”

Hope for the future

Beverly is optimistic about the future: “The Montreal mayor, Denis Coderre, recognized Montreal, our original hunting grounds, as being originally Aboriginal land. This gives me hope that we can someday get our land back. Well, we can’t get it back because they [descendant of European colonizers] destroyed it and made it ugly. We can at least hope to get a say in our home country.”

Aboriginal communities are getting back on their feet; that is the story we should be hearing more often.

Canada: a Botched Mosaic (Part 1)

Editor’s note: This story about Canadian multiculturalism was originally a single 3,600 word article meant for a British magazine. I decided to turn it into a mini-series. It tells the story of Peter, a Lebanese-Canadian youth and his experience of Canadian multiculturalism. He meets different people through his life who influence his thoughts. Although this tale contains many true elements and anecdotes, it is a work of fiction.

Montreal mosque entrance
The entrance of a mosque in Montreal, Canada. The name has been removed. Photo by Mark Homsany

It’s almost 11 pm. I’ve just gotten off the bus and I’m walking back to my apartment after a long day at work. There is a light breeze blowing. Some men in white tunics sporting long beards are gathering by a street corner. Some women on the other side of the street covered from head to toe were walking side by side and chatting. Then, I hear it reverberating through the night sky:

“Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Ashahadu an la ilah illa Allah”.

I was not in a Middle-Eastern country: I was walking on Laurentien Boulevard in the Cartierville borough in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Yes, Montreal truly represents what Pierre Elliott Trudeau wanted Canada to be: a mosaic of people coexisting on a same land in peace and in harmony. A nation made of many nations. A nation of people united through their differences and not divided by emotional values that cause wars such as patriotism. A country that is pleasant and that does not demand many sacrifices from its citizens.

Indeed, multiculturalism, individualism, plurality and relativism are responsible for so much social progress in Canada. Trudeau’s multiculturalism is an experiment never before attempted; we have yet to see the result.

Events such as the Sainte-Foy mosque shooting on January 29th 2017 are signs that the beautiful experiment may be flawed. Alexandre Bisonnette, a white supremacist and a supporter of far-right wing politics, opened fire on Muslims who were praying. Ordinary citizens expressed on social media that they couldn’t believe that such a killing could happen in a country where ethnic diversity is so celebrated.

In light of this these killings, the Canada Pierre Eliott Trudeau began to build seems more like a trade-off than an improvement. Was this trade-off worth it?

To be continued…