In the Right Place with Blue Metropolis
Published on July 15, 2022
Introducing the „In The Right Place“ Blog Series
‘In the Right Place’ is a blog series of the COM-Unity project featuring conversations with our partner organizations. In each conversation, we try to get a sense of how belonging takes shape in their organization and the communities they work in, and how the places we inhabit shape us—and how we, in turn, shape them.
Part 1: Listening for the Future
with William St-Hilaire, President-Executive Director and Artistic Director of the Blue Metropolis Foundation
Today’s conversation is with William St-Hilaire, the President-Executive Director and Artistic Director of the Blue Metropolis Foundation, which, among a wide array of phenomenal year-round programming, hosts its famous literary festival in Montreal every spring bringing together writers from all around the world and Quebec. William comes to her work at Blue Met with a strong entrepreneurial vision and the belief that art and literature are places where imagination can work to loosen the tangles—like ecological and social issues—that politics sometimes fails to.
The conversation with William showcased the way that Blue Metropolis thoughtfully approaches its work with both place and time in mind. This is evident in its deep commitments to sustainability and inclusion and in its Year 3 COM-Unity project, “NEXT”, which fosters the next generation of English-speaking writers in Quebec. We are delighted to have Blue Metropolis and its wealth of experiences join COM-Unity as a partner for our third year!
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
C-U: Let’s start with the basics of place. Where does your organization carry out its work?
WS-H: First of all, we have a Montreal-based office in a charming location, which is on rue Rose de Lima in St. Henri. And, while people like to work from their homes now due to COVID, they also like to gather at the office when they can. So we get together every Monday for our official meeting of the week, and we get to have conversations together.
We also have events of course, and during the festival, our head office is HOTEL 10, which is a boutique hotel with a very inspiring story. And it's right in the middle [on Sherbrooke St.] of West and East, which is historically the divide between Anglophone and Francophone Montreal, so I guess it incarnates our values that we bring together all of Montreal, all sides.
For our kids’ events, we are pretty much all over the city in greater Montreal, and we also reach out to the rest of the province either in digital format, or in person. We go into schools and community centres, but mainly public libraries. We have in-school programs, you may be aware of Quebec Roots— it's been our flagship for more than 20 years [fostering writing skills in English-speaking Quebec youth] — and through that we work in northern Quebec and Nunavut as well.
C-U: How has being in such a bilingual city influenced the work that Blue Met, as a literary organization, has been called to do, or been able to do?
WS-H: It's funny you ask me—I'm a girl from Quebec City, and a Francophone, and that came as a shock to some people when I first got the job, of course, because I was not an Anglophone. But first, let's say that Blue Met is more than bilingual. It's trilingual, it's multilingual: we mainly have events in French in English and Spanish, but we also have Italian, and we have Portuguese, we have writers speaking in Arabic and other languages as well.
But we have to give the credit [for the multilingual success of the organization] to the very smart and inspiring Linda Leith, who is the founder of Blue Metropolis: she was very good in convincing friends that were well-connected people, because of course, a great idea without supporters doesn't go very far. So, they really got the party going! And then it's the writers who deserve the credit. It's because of who they are: they come up with ideas, they come up with books, they change the world. Now these days, they're on social media, of course, they're creators, and they raise debates that generate all kinds of interesting conversation. And they bring the subject of linguistic diversity and if they feel that they don't have enough space at Blue Met, they will call up and bite my head off! (laughs) And I will find a solution!
We’re in Montreal, and I like to think of Blue Met as an institution—not a big one, we're not a museum, we’re not a big fancy university-- but one maybe like the public library. And either you go to the public library or you don't. You want it to exist in your city. Nobody wants to shut down the public library. So sometimes I like to say that people may come to Blue Met and love it, or they may come and not agree with the programming. But they're passionate about it because of this linguistic cultural mix. They feel that it's a place for a conversation, not necessarily for all to agree on the same topics, but to have important conversations on those topics.
C-U: Do you think literature gives the opportunity for people from all different kinds of backgrounds to feel like they're part of something here? Like they have a sense of belonging, or they have a stake in the conversation?
WS-H: Two years ago, we had a focus group with some poets and the younger generation that was tapped into the Anglophone community, because it was brought to my attention that some people were not very happy with Blue Met. I would like to know these things so that I can fix them! So, we gathered two or three groups of those young activists, and let me tell you, they were not happy customers!
And David [Bradford-- now employed at Blue Met as the NEXT program coordinator] was one was one of them. And one thing that was mentioned in that conversation is that [as young Anglophone writers], ‘we don't want to be kids invited to the adults’ table, we want to be sitting with the international stars and we want to participate!’-- and that's how I got seduced by his complaints. And if you really want to change things, you just hire the person that complains the most! (laughs). And then allocate money-- because if you don’t assign a budget, nothing will ever change!
C-U: And here you’re talking about the NEXT program—the project that Blue Met is bringing into your partnership with COM-Unity—right? The program that is fostering the next generation of writers writing in English in Quebec?
WS-H: I don't know if it's a program or if it's a platform! As far as we were concerned with COM-Unity, we had the opportunity to choose between all the exciting things happening at Blue Met in English, and we decided to do that through NEXT. NEXT includes a lot of programs, including workshops, showcases, and there'll be [a program called] Carte Blanche, for instance, where David will seek projects from small publishing houses and community arts—people who create shows but need a little bit more money and more bit more marketing support to create something bigger, and better pay their writers! People will have to pitch their idea, and it will have to fit our criteria of quality, and of the type of writers we want to support—but we will not curate the events. There will also be some podcasts on ecology issues with writers who will be paid to write their texts, and others will be paid to create the balados [the podcasts], and we pay for the rights.
And of course, we have a community of international writers, translators, publishers, even program directors of international events. They come there, to Blue Met, and we want them to be exposed to the talent and ideas of the younger generation—in this case, Anglophones whom we want to make sure get noticed. We always keep the sense of community, we want people to meet and chit chat after events, and say, ‘yes, I'll buy your book’ or ‘why don't you meet my friend?’ and so on.
Overall, though, I thought that our contribution to COM-Unity was to, yes, create space for Anglophones to meet Anglophones. But more interesting: Anglophones will be seen by Francophones and be seen by international movers and shakers! Because at some point, our young generation of writers wants to get out. I mean, they want to get out, they want their book to get out. And so, our work is to make that community of connections, for here and abroad, and for now and for the future.
Remember to follow us and Blue Met on social media to stay in touch with our Year 3 projects!
And check out our events calendar for all public events related to NEXT and our other partner projects!