“Short Shorts Forbidden by Law in Verdun.”
Montreal, city of sin, snowbound speakeasy, Tijuana of the North… Montreal is often perceived from the outside as a liberal city of fun. The reputation in the English-speaking world dates from the prohibition era in the United States, when New Yorkers and New Englanders would slip up here for a harmless tipple in much the same way San Diego college students trip over their nearest border today. The modernisation of Quebec - the avalanche of social change that liberated women, gays and others - further contributes to the reputation of the city as a place where individuals are responsible for their personal sense of morality.
However, as always is the case in Quebec, history has been woven with at least one other thread. This Radio-Canada report from Verdun in 1963 covers youth’s opinions to a by-law that would ban “short shorts.” The mayor is interviewed and he is unable to describe what “too short” is, and admits that no citizens had filed any complaints about the “problem.” It was adopted on advice of the police chief.
Your editor watched for over three minutes before he realized that this bylaw targeted women, not men, as the reporter interviewed very few women indeed. I wonder if she was caught in the paradigm where men define women, or if she was trying to subtly pass a second message about this paradigm? I choose to believe that it’s the latter. And when we look at American legislators trying to regulate how low men’s trousers can be worn, what does that tell us about social change? Anything?
It would be easy to dismiss this video and the attitudes portrayed in it by referring to the false dichotomy which reigns over many people’s vision of Quebec, and particularly its history: English with its pantomime of personal and especially economic freedoms on one hand, French with moral duty to the collectivity and the especially the Catholic church on the other. But the reality is that tough social codes prevailed over all Quebecers in order to preserve the existing power structure, a structure that prescribed cultural, social and financial drudgery for hundreds of thousands of people.
What can be said then of “Red Light” Montreal? Yes, it was a space of relative freedom for some. It was also a space of horrendous abuse for others - forced prostitution, substance abuse, violence, corruption, and all the other hideous realities that are associated with the mafia. Some people lament the area’s demise - they have a romanticized vision of what some refer to as the city’s glory years. Your editor, however, thinks that the space has been hollowed in tandem with the fulfillment of Quebecer’s social rights and freedoms, and symbolizes the provinces transition to a place where “sin” is a positive and self-defined notion, not a negative, affected one.
Thank you to Discover Verdun for the video reference.