Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

The Conversationalist: Interview With Alex Norris


Last summer, the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough announced that it would ban the new construction of billboards in the neighbourhood. Then, in September, the borough administration passed another billboard-related bylaw, this one stating that all existing billboards also had to go as well. The decisions were popular on the Plateau, though not without controversy. The advertising companies who own the Plateau’s billboards—Astral Media, Pattison Sign Group and CBS Affichage—are obviously not pleased with the bylaws, and are lobbing threats in the Plateau’s direction. Alex Norris, Mile End City Councillor and the borough’s point person for the billboard issue, spoke with Maisonneuve about why the borough is standing its ground.

Amelia Schonbek: Could you walk me through the history of the billboard ban legislation in the Plateau? And the motivation behind it? What will the benefit be of getting rid of billboards in the borough?

Alex Norris: There were two steps to our strategy. Initially, we banned new billboards throughout the borough while maintaining the existing forty-five billboards. Our second bylaw orders the operators of existing billboards to dismantle them within one year at their own expense. We don’t think that this form of visual pollution has any place in our community. We want to protect and enhance our public views, our heritage architecture, and our green spaces, and the presence of massive industrial structures on top of and on the sides of old buildings runs counter to that objective.

This is a very densely populated borough, there are many artists who live here, creative people who live here, people who care about their visual environment, and want to see it improved, and so we’re acting with that in mind. And there are examples of billboards that are particularly ill-suited to their location. I think of the one at the corner of Villeneuve and Parc…

AS: I was wondering if you’d mention that one—I live right down the street from it.

AN: Oh do you? Well I bike by it every day. It’s absolutely ridiculous that such a thing is there. In the summer the foliage [masks] it to a certain extent. But now that the leaves are falling off the trees, instead of seeing the beautiful slope of Mount Royal, you see this massive ugly billboard that blocks the view of one of our most precious assets. We see no reason to continue to tolerate this type of visual pollution in our borough, and we’re acting to get rid of it, and we’d had a favourable response from people within our community.

AS: Last week, a coalition of three advertising companies sent a notice to the borough threatening a lawsuit if the billboard ban isn’t repealed, and many commentators have suggested that this type of legal action was a foregone conclusion. Was the borough expecting this kind of pressure from the advertising industry? And how do you plan on dealing with them?

AN: We were not surprised that the billboard industry—the three very powerful advertising corporations that operate billboards in the borough—reacted badly to this initiative. We weren’t expecting them to celebrate. They did send us a legal warning letter, but there’s a big difference between sending a lawyer’s letter, which is very easy to send, and actually taking out legal proceedings. We do not believe that it is in the interest of the billboard corporations to launch protracted legal proceedings against the borough administration. We believe that if they do, they will lose, not only in the courts of law, but also in the court of public opinion, and that this will backfire on them very badly. I think they’re aware of that too, and I think they’re facing quite a dilemma about what to do now. They’ve made these threats, are they going to follow through on them? We think that would be very ill-advised.

AS: Do you think the any of the coalition’s arguments are valid, or might hold up in court? They’re discussing this as a free speech issue…

AN: No, we don’t think that their arguments have any value. What we did when we received that [lawyer’s letter] that they sent us was we submitted us, via our senior civil servants, to the city’s legal department, which examined the arguments contained in the letter and found them to be baseless. The argument that the messages found on these billboards are some form of sacrosanct form of free expression…those arguments are ridiculous. These are silly arguments.

First of all, many places have already banned billboards. We’re not the first place to ban billboards in Canada. You will find no billboards on Prince Edward Island. The city of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, expressly bans billboards in its signage bylaw. Is the city of Victoria suppressing free expression? I don’t think so. Is the state of Vermont? The state of Maine? Alaska or Hawaii? Have they snuffed out free expression by banning billboards? I don’t think so. What they’ve done is protected their most precious asset: their landscapes. And that’s one of the main reasons those states are seen as particularly attractive places to go. I think you could argue that the billboard ban has made these places more attractive to tourists, and hence more prosperous.

There’s not a single idea that gets expressed on billboards that wouldn’t find expression somewhere else if billboards were banned, and never before have advertisers had as many different ways of getting their message out. To claim that billboards are the only way for certain kinds of idea to get expressed is utterly ludicrous, and the public knows it.

AS: At the same time as this is taking place, the Plateau has announced that it will raise parking rates and use some of the revenue to deal with a budget shortfall. Does the borough have the resources to deal with a possible long legal battle over billboards?

AN: As I said, we don’t believe it’s in the interest of the billboard companies to launch legal proceedings against us, and if they do, we are confident that we will prevail. We do have the resources, and we’re not going to back off from this plan simply because of some threats from a spokesman for three powerful advertising corporations. The role of a municipal administration is to represent the public interest, and we believe the public is solidly behind is on this initiative, so we intend to proceed.

AS: But hypothetically, have you thought about a point at which you’ll have to make a decision about continuing to pay for a legal battle versus providing services for the people living on the Plateau?

AN: I think the question is premature. The bylaw has been adopted, and we are giving the billboard operators one year to take these eyesores down. That’s our position, and we’re maintaining it. Threats from Jeannot Lefebvre to the effect that he’s going to try to bankrupt our borough, or the city, are threats that we don’t believe should be taken seriously, because we don’t believe they have a leg to stand on. If legislators backed down every time a private interest group made threats of this nature, who would be there to defend the public interest? We were elected to defend the public interest, and that’s what we’re determined to do.

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