Collecting Stamps in a Networked Era

The last time I saw a postage stamp, the summer of 2015 was coming to its end. It was on a postcard featuring a picture of an Italian coast. A friend travelling there had sent it to me. On it he had written teasingly that I could have been there too, if I did not spend so much on gear.

I received the postcard after my friend had come back. The stamp was from Canada. International stamps were too expensive; especially for communication so trivial it could have been dealt with by email, Facebook, or even Instagram.

Today, encountering a stamp is a rare thing: most of what we get through the post is either bills, government communications, or advertising. And most, if not all of it, is sent in pre-paid postage enveloppes.

But certain people are in constant contact with stamps: philatelists, the stamp collectors. To them, one could say stamps are a not a rare thing. After all, they have whole binders full of them. Still, they can also be extremely rare items: some are worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, depending on the global offer and demand for scarcer stamps.

What makes some people collect stamps in the digital, networked age? Is it nostalgia for a simpler, slower time? Is it a way to preserve history? Or a certain form of art? Or is it an obsessional, compulsion-driven hobby?

It is, maybe, the first, and the last philatelist club there will ever be in Montreal.

Norman Caron has been twice president of the Union des philatélistes de Montréal, a Montreal-based stamp collector association: from 2006 to 2008, and from 2010 to 2012.

The first time he bought stamps with the mindset of collecting them was in the late 50s at a corner store.

"I do not know why I bought them. They came in small pouches, and I took three of them," Caron says. "Some people buy chocolate bars on a whim, I bought some stamps. They cost something like five cents."

He joined the Union in 1982, after being a member of other clubs.

The history of the Union des philatélistes de Montréal goes back to 1933, when its headquarters were based in a room inside the Café Saint-Jacques on 455 Sainte-Catherine Street.

"It is, maybe, the first, and the last philatelist club there will be in Montreal," Caron says.

Some people tried to make money with it, but no one makes money in this.

The first club in the province opened in 1931 in Quebec City, and an anglophone one had opened around the same time called the Westmount Stamp Club.

In the 80s, there was a large number of stamp collectors clubs. There were even some reserved to kids. They are all closed by now, except the Union.

Today, the Union presents stamps expositions every year in Montreal. "They used to be elitist event," Caron says. "There were medals and a trophy for the best expositions."

Now, they gather record-breaking attendances, with easily 350 to 400 people visiting the yearly EXUP (EXposition Union Philatéliste), and they are a lot less competitive then they were: they gather vendors and collectors, and the Union offers workshops and meetings for members and visitors alike.

"Other expositions gather less then 100 people," Caron says. "I even saw once a stamp exposition with only eight visitors. We make sure to publicize our expositions to everyday people; sometimes they already have a very small collection, and they learn here that there are other people like them."

On every meeting, the association brings in around 100 people, and there are new members each time. "As other clubs close, some of their members join us," he says. The median age of the Union members is around 65 years old, and it used to much older than that.

"Most of them are baby-boomers who just retired and are looking for a hobby," Caron says. "Millenials do not collect things, and I mean by that anything. It is just not something they do."

Mr Caron says that on 100 younger people who inherit a stamp collection, 99 of them will usually sell it, while only one will join the association and preserve the collection.

"We should not put our hopes on younger people to take stamp collecting further in the future," Caron says.

He is dumbfounded on why stamp collectors collect stamps. "Years ago, stamps were one of the only ways to open yourself to the rest of the world. But today, with the Internet, we can see the Eiffel Tower in 3D."

We should not put our hopes on younger people to take stamp collecting further.

"Some people tried to make money with it," he says. "But no one makes money in this."

He makes a comparison with people who collect paintings, even though they do not have wall space available anymore. "It might be a desire for possessing, accumulating, manage," he says. "Often, once someone's collection is complete, they lose their interest in it. They lose the thrill of finding a new collection piece."

"But it is truly incomprehensible," Caron says. "I have a friend who is a psychologist. He wrote a book about it. He never found the reason why people do it."

The 42nd exposition of the Union des philatélistes de Montréal, EXUP42, will take place on April 21 and 22, 2017, at the Maison du citoyen, 7501 François-Perreaul.

Gentrification Issue in Rosemont

Forty per cent more. That is how much rents on average upstretched compared to 15 years ago, as estimated by the Comité logement Rosemont, a non-profit activist organization protecting renter's rights. And now some people who lived here for decades are forced to leave, pushed away from an increasingly gentrified area.

Retirees, low-income families, and individuals on welfare are moving to Saint-Michel, Saint-Léonard, and even to Longueuil and Shawinigan where rents are lower than in central boroughs, for now, said Sébastien Laliberté, Comité logement Rosemont’s coordinator. “If we were talking about two populations of different languages or religions, one evicting the other, we would be calling this an ethnic cleanse,” he said on the phone. “They should not be displaced because they have less money.”

There are 1,500 condo units under construction in Rosemont, each of them generating greater demand for specialty groceries, yoga centers, and gyms, thus raising the living cost in the area. Of them, 20 per cent must be affordable low-rent housings. That is unique to Rosemont; the requirement elsewhere on the island is 15 per cent. “But there still is 80 per cent of them that are condos, and we fear that these lower-income zones will be like ghettoes surrounded by BMW drivers,” said Laliberté.

If we were talking about two populations of different languages or religions, one evicting the other, we would be calling this an ethnic cleanse.

Every year, around 3,000 people who claim they are faced with landlord abuse turn to the Comité logement Rosemont for legal counseling. “This only is the tip of the iceberg,” Laliberté said. “Most renters leave their apartment after being harassed or accept illegal rent increases without complaining and do not come to us. So there is this huge gap that we cannot record.”

This concern is not exclusive to Rosemont. All central boroughs in Montreal have to deal with gentrification. According to numbers provided by Céline Magontier, an organizer of the FRAPRU, Montreal’s largest activist organization for affordable housing, two families out of five allocate 30 per cent or more of their income on their rental payments in Montreal. Furthermore, rent accounts for half or more of one in five leaseholder’s income in Montreal; that is 143,900 households in the city.

There still is 80 per cent of them that are condos, and we fear that these lower-income zones will be like ghettoes surrounded by BMW drivers.

When vacancy rates are low, landlords have the long end of the stick when they negotiate with renters because more people are looking for apartments than offered. Rosemont’s vacancy rate now seems normal, around three per cent, said Laliberté. However, it was not from the year 2000 until last autumn, where it was much lower, around one and two per cent, and it still has effects in Rosemont. “It brought rent prices up,” he said. “At that time, I even witnessed auctions for apartments. Proprietors never advertised them like it. They just put an ad in the paper saying 'open house' and waited for prospective renters to come by and outbid each other.”

Another cause for higher rents is the conversion of apartment blocks into condos, further reducing the number of available rooms. There is a moratorium right now in Quebec on the transformation of apartment blocks into divided condos: that is where each level of a single block is divided into, for example, three separate properties.

However, there is a glitch in this law: indivisible condos, where an individual proprietor finds three buyers for the same building whom will accept to each endorse a third of the building’s mortgage. “This is how most buildings are converted into condos these days,” said Laliberté. “It does not go against the moratorium, and in fact, they only receive one tax account."

"Mayor François Croteau said last year that he has no control over this,” said Laliberté. But it is the city that gives the permits required for these transformations, and they give them as if they were letters sent through the post. “And he lives in an indivisible condo. We think and expect from him that it does not influence his decisions. He has been fairly receptive to our demands so far, but let’s say we do not always agree with each other.”

Concerns Raised over Infrastructure's Decay in Westmount

Westmount Conservatory and its adjoined greenhouses’ current state of decay are “the canary in the coal mine” for the city’s infrastructure condition, according to councillor Patrick Martin. “And the bird is very sick indeed.”

“Their delicate construction reminds one of a Victorian birdcage. They require proper maintenance, failing which they fall apart,” Martin said during Tuesday’s council meeting’s opening. “Power outages, leaking sewers, cracked and crumbling streets and sidewalks, and greenhouses that are now deemed unsafe and off limits to residents, all testify to the poor state of our infrastructure, and to its chronic underfunding.”

Martin’s speech was a response to Westmount Mayor Peter Trent’s annual tax letter sent to the city’s residents last week. Trent had argued that Westmount’s current infrastructure problems are not caused by underfunding, but rather by a lack of proper execution of the city’s already approved projects. He wrote that Public Works and Hydro Westmount had underspent this year and had generated over $6 million in surplus, which was not spent to fix roads, buildings, and power installations due to many slows downs of the work on construction sites by Gaz Metro, Bell Telephone, or the CSST.

Their delicate construction reminds one of a Victorian birdcage. They require proper maintenance, failing which they fall apart.

However, Martin, who is the city’s commissioner of Public Works and Utilities, opposed him. He said the city’s Public Works have been plagued year after year by hiring freezes, restricted maintenance budget and insufficient allowance for the city’s assets deterioration, adding that it was all derived from a careless attitude that has persisted for decades. It is this attitude that, according to him, hindered Westmount’s ability to accomplish new projects, maintain existing infrastructure, and supervise finished work’s quality.

Trent reacted bluntly to Martin’s speech, telling him “to read the second page of his letter,” which showed how the city’s roads and Hydro Westmount consistently spent less than budgeted. “If there were a problem of spending, at least, they would have spent the money we had already approved,” he said. “We approve a budget and then every department is supposed to use it. If they do not use the money, it goes in the surplus,” Trent said. He recognised, though, that the city could not deliver on its new projects.

“Of course, I read the second page of the mayor's letter,” Martin later said in an email. “I think the mayor is, or should be, embarrassed at the $30 million of surpluses accumulated over the last five years, and he would like to point fingers at others. If you budget properly, you do not have such large surpluses.

He is a politician and a master at clouding the issue of the surplus.

He talks about incomplete work by Public Works. In fact, in that five-year period, there is only one project that is still incomplete. It is the $500,000 project to repave Prince Albert Avenue, which was delayed by Bell Telephone and Gaz Metro.”

Martin said during the council meeting that delays in the completion of projects by a fiscal year’s end do not contribute to surplus over time. He added that the resulting unused money should just be added to the next year’s budget since it still will be necessary for those projects’ completion. He also said that a surplus accumulating and growing every year only indicates residents and businesses pay too many taxes.

Trent “is a politician and a master at clouding the issue of the surplus,” Martin openly said through email. “I am an engineer with 40-years experience in infrastructure projects, and I tell it like it is.

He does not always like that.”

The Night of the Gun by David Carr


“‘You know that part about where you dust yourself off and take over the world?’ he asked. ‘That shit is sooo boooooooring. Nobody wants to read about that.’” This is Sam, David Carr’s boss at the New York Times when Carr told him about writing The Night of the Gun.

And he was right.

The book, a 400-page New York Times Bestseller that came out in 2008, is Carr’s memoir: the story of a violent drug addict and dealer who became a world-famous columnist for the New York Times. Carr’s column, Media Equation, discussed the media and its relation to society. He collapsed last February in the New York Times newsroom and died at age 58 from lung cancer and a heart condition at St-Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital that same day. He had been the editor of Twin Cities Reader and the Washington City Paper and had written extensively on the media in The Atlantic Monthly and New York. A fellowship in his name has been founded by the New York Times last September to promote the growth and development of young journalists.

Carr took his rigorous reporting and incisive writing and set himself up at investigating his own life, only to discover that human memory is fallible and might bend the truth a bit, especially when under the influence of alcohol and crack cocaine.

Carr took his rigorous reporting and incisive writing and set himself up at investigating his own life.

The Night of the Gun, divided into two parts, first takes us through the darkest period of his life: starting with that exact night where he recalled having his best friend shoving a gun to his face. Turns out he was the one with the gun.

The rest of this part is on his slow and maddening descent into cocaine addiction: first snorting it, then smoking it, finally shooting it. Witnesses he interviewed for the book come and go one after the other, their testimonies either adding details to Carr’s story or plain opposing it. Testimonies sometimes feel frustratingly unreliable. As one of his old friends from the time puts it: “I don’t know, you’re asking one guy who is drunk and stoned if his memory matches the other guy’s who’s drunk and stoned.” Carr interviewed more than 60 people, family, friends, and fellow coke addicts, to support his reporting. You also get to inspect police and medical reports, photos, and other documents throughout the book.

Carr describes vividly at times what he calls “the Life” of the addict: “After two minutes, or two hours, or two days, supply dwindles and desperation sets in. The spoon is scraped, and if people are geeked enough, they fall to their knees and claw the carpet for a crumb that might have been dropped. As if.”

However, as fun as the parties might be, as a reader, the excitement of it goes thin pretty fast. Addiction is pretty repetitive after all: going through endless cycles of highs and downs, pockets full of coke, then empty.

However, as fun as the parties might be, as a reader, the excitement of it goes thin pretty fast.

The second part of the book, relating his recovery after his fourth detox, falls flat. To write about happiness is a tough endeavor for any writer, and it shows. He gets back custody of his two twin girls, marries a beautiful wife (who gives him a third child,) and gets a prestigious job. Then he starts drinking again, is sent back to detox, and goes sober for good. But Carr, trying to give attention to every detail, becomes borderline boring in his recollection of happy events. And let’s face it: the addiction part, with the descriptions of its mechanics and systems, still is far more entertaining than the story of a single father.

As Carr himself writes, all recovery stories go down the same track: “I had a beer with friends. Then I shot dope into my neck. I got in trouble. I saw the error of my ways. I found Jesus or twelve steps or Bhakti yoga. Now everything is new again.” I appreciated David Carr’s care for details and serious reporting. But is that part when he takes over the world “so boring?” Yes, a bit. But happiness always is, in some way.

Carr’s memoir certainly isn’t the most entertaining of its genre. However it is, at least, one of the most carefully reported, and there is some merit to that. 

The Night of The Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.
By David Carr
400 pages. Simon & Shuster.

An Urge to Speak

Kent Stetson C.M., playwright

Kent Stetson worked as a lifeguard and taught swimming on Prince Edward Island to put himself through school. He appreciated one of his students, Graham, who was 14 when they first met.

Fifteen years later, in 1984, Stetson had moved to Halifax. One night, he and his partner went bowling. Across the alleys, Stetson recognized Graham. He was with his partner, a man named Bob, “A great, lovely guy.” Graham remembered Stetson taught him swimming when he was a kid. They became friends.

Graham died six months later. He was 29 years old. He died of AIDS.

“Society started getting very ugly. The way the world was treating people with AIDS, and gay men, in particular, was horrible. Especially people who were sick,” Stetson says. It was the 1980s. Stetson was losing friends; gay men were falling like flies. Some, too weak to take care for themselves, lost their jobs, apartments, families, and friends. “How could I help?” Stetson remembers thinking. He felt an urge to speak.

He wrote the most crucial scene of his first play, Warm Wind in China, in one night. It became the first Canadian play about AIDS.

It “really was about putting a human face” on the disease, he says. It also became one of the most important Canadian plays dealing with gay issues. Productions occurred across Canada, the United States and in England. Stetson was interviewed on CTV where, as part of the segment, he came out on national television.

Society started getting very ugly. The way the world was treating people with AIDS, and gay men, in particular, was horrible. Especially people who were sick.

I met Stetson in his cozy apartment on Christophe-Colomb Avenue. Inside, we could hear kids playing across the street on Sainte-Arsène primary school’s playground. I could smell lentil soup cooking. “A vegan friend is coming over for dinner, so I need to make her something good!” he says with his usual enthusiasm. The 67-years-old man leads me to his study. Portraits of long-time friends cover one forest-green wall, facing bookshelves filled with so many books I wonder how come the whole thing isn’t falling apart. He sits in a Victorian chair after dislodging the big, hairy, neighbour’s cat from it. I sit in a leather recliner, facing him.

I notice the numerous award certificates in wooden frames on the wall behind him, between a large window and the shelves to his left. To date, he has received, among others, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Award for his play The Harps of God, the Queen’s Jubilee Award, and he is a member of the Order of Canada. “It’s a humbling and inspiring honour... if a bit confusing. You never know who nominated you,” he says, “so that element remains a mystery forever. But it is such a complete surprise that like all major honours one feels he must double-check the name to see the committee got the right guy! Then you hear from friends and colleagues that though it may be a surprise to you, it comes as no surprise to them.”

Before becoming a full-time writer, Stetson was a stage, television and radio director. The job required him to read a lot of bad scripts. “They took the young guy because somebody has to read it. And I told myself ‘I could do better than this,’” he says. So he started to work as a freelancer, churning out half-hour dramas for the CBC, broadcast across the country. Playwriting was for him the natural next step in his career.

They took the young guy because somebody has to read it. And I told myself ‘I could do better than this.

But the screenplay practice came out to be useful, as shown by his latest project Northern Lights / Lumières du Nord, the multimedia bilingual show projected on Parliament Hill that premiered this summer. Nathalie Gélinas, vice-president, and producer for the Montreal firm Idées au cube who got the commission for the show, says that working with Stetson gave them access to a particular kind of poetic and dramatic vision. She says that he is a demanding, passionate man, and that “he put his colour throughout the project.”

The show wasn’t his first writing collaboration. He co-wrote the crime novel Meat Cove with his older brother, Paul Stetson, a retired RCMP officer and now manager and senior investigator of the Prince Edward Island Office of the Police Commissioner. “Aside from the sibling rivalry in the early days we have had a great relationship over the years. I consider Kent to be my best friend and confidant,” Paul Stetson says. “I no longer say ‘How hard could it be for an author to write a few pages a day?’ The hardest part was the long distance collaborating, but it was a great learning experience for me.”

Kent Stetson is indeed far away from his native Prince Edward Island. When I ask him why he chose to move to Montreal, he exclaims jokingly “Well, for the sex!” He says, laughing, that he finds Toronto to be boring, and that Halifax was too small for his ambitions, and appetites. He has strong Scottish roots and Montreal’s culture appeals to him. “I love Montreal,” he says, “and also, there is a history in my family that when they run away, they run to Montreal.” His aunt, and his mother did.

He says his greatest challenge in life has been to remain hopeful and optimistic “but not in an idiotic way.” He lost his teaching jobs at McGill and Concordia University to budget cuts, and his two book publishers collapsed. But he set up a bookstore on his website with some success. “I am not going to make a fortune out of it…” he says, “or I might! What do I know?”

Kent Stetson's work is available on his website: