The Rich Life of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs died on Tuesday, April 25, in Toronto at the age of 89. The following article is based on one of the last interviews she granted on May 2, 2005. She agreed to the interview because it was to deal with the toughest question in Canadian politics, namely the future of the French-speaking province of Québec.

Jane Jacobs has been described has “one of the few true originals living among us” and as “the matchless analyst of all things urban” whose seemingly “wildly eccentric ideas on cities have been vindicated so many times, and in so many ways” (The New Yorker, 2004). Ever since the publication in 1961 of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs has continued to shape our understanding of a broad range of issues thanks to her informed, straight-forward, and empirical approach to the world. Never one to shy away from difficult but essential political subjects, when she moved to Toronto in 1968, she did not hesitate to grapple with the thorniest issue in Canada, the future of the French-speaking province of Quebec. When CBC asked her in 1979 to do the Massey Lectures – other Massey lecturers have included Martin Luther King, Willy Brandt, Carlos Fuentes – Jane Jacobs chose the subject of “Canadian Cities and Sovereignty-Association”, just a few months before the 1980 referendum on the separation of Quebec. And she supported the separation of Québec.

Discussions on the political status of French-speaking people in North America, based primarily in Quebec, and their relationship with Canada and the United States go to the heart of what North America is all about. This is neither a merely Canadian issue, nor something for neighboring states and provinces to dispose of. It is the crisis of nationalities taking place in North America, similar to what is passionately discussed in Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. As Jane Jacobs said in 1979, it has an old story that began when imperial Britain defeated imperial France at Quebec City during the Seven Years’ War. Britain thereby took over some 70,000 French-speaking inhabitants living mainly along the St. Lawrence River valley, but with pockets of traders, explorers and colonists living almost everywhere across the continent.

Jane Jacobs mainly wanted to talk about Quebec’s new story that began around 1960 with Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution”. The new story tells of daring but contested legislation to protect the French language and referendums on separation in 1980 and the virtual tie in 1995, when the separatist option was defeated by a razor-thin margin, 50.6 to 49.4 percent. At the time, the Clinton administration came out very strongly against separation. With recent political developments in Canada, another referendum is a serious possibility in coming years.

As the most important story of nations in North America continues to be written, one of the continent’s most imaginative and original thinkers had ideas on how that story could be written and the problem solved in a simple and principled manner. But nobody ever wanted to hear her on that subject.

This absence of interest prompted Jane Jacobs to grant me an interview in May 2005. I

wanted to know how her ideas had evolved over the past 25 years. She had refused interview requests for years because, though she was 89, she had two book projects underway and did not like being distracted. I first asked her how people had reacted to her lectures on Quebec separatism and to the book that followed entitled The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty-Association published in New York by Random House. She answered: “There was practically no reaction. The media practically never asks me about Quebec. You’re the first one”.

In 1979 and 1980, Jane Jacobs reached the conclusion that Quebec sovereignty was necessary because of her understanding of how cities emerge and how they influence the development of nations. She looked specifically at Montreal and Toronto and foresaw the regionalization of Montreal, making it into a sort of feeder for Toronto as regional airports are to a hub. “In sum,” she wrote, “Montreal cannot afford to behave like other Canadian regional cities without doing great damage to the economic well-being of the Quebecois. It must instead become a creative economic centre in its own right… Yet there is probably no chance of this happening if Quebec remains a province.”

As an example for people to follow, be they in Quebec, Canada or the United States, she also carefully reviewed how Norway peacefully separated from Sweden 100 years ago in 1905. People forget that before becoming independent Norway was part of Denmark from 1537 to 1814 and then part of Sweden until 1905. That separation probably helped both Sweden and Norway politically and economically and it was skillfully resolved, even though the conflict could have degenerated into war since tensions were high.

Have things changed in the past twenty-five years? Can nations separate peacefully and maintain prosperity, even in North America? Jane Jacobs insisted that what she wrote then has been borne out.

“English-speaking people didn’t react to my lectures and book because of fear. They would prefer not even to think about Quebec separation. The fear is that if Quebec were to separate, Canada would disintegrate, and there would be no more Canadian identity. That’s foolish, because there are so many examples of separatism, and nothing has disintegrated, unless they went to war. There are so many cases. Without counting those in Central Asia, there have been over thirty such cases in recent times since the issue was raised in Quebec. So we have to ask ‘what’s going on here?’ I don’t think it’s pure coincidence. It’s a widespread and deeply felt phenomenon. And there are so many different reasons explaining why people want to separate. But what do they have in common? The world is usually not like this. Here’s how I see it based feedback from the world. What they have in common is that larger units are not satisfying people, they feel that these are out of control. What they’re happy about when they get it, and they calm down, which they do if they’re not taken to war, is the satisfaction at last of having their own sovereignty.

“You have to take examples. All except the would-be controlling states are very happy about this outcome. In the Balkans for instance, take the whole break-up of Yugoslavia. The only people who are unhappy about it are the Serbs and they’re unhappy because they’re not in control of all these others any more. But the Slovenes, the Croatians the rest of them are very glad to be independent.”

Having lived half of her adult life in Canada and half in the United States, she has closely observed the relationship between the two countries. “People in Canada who are frightened may be right to the extent the United States will try to take advantage of this and aggrandize and maybe scare Canadians into falling in with their plans. After all the United States is irked with Canada these days because it hasn’t fallen in with its war in Iraq. But that is not an inevitability. United States will only succeed if Canada is so scared and docile that it allows it.”

She developed the idea of smaller sovereignties in her recent book Dark Age Ahead. In it she explains how early medieval cities helped pull Europe out of the Dark Age because of subsidiarity, the principle that government works best when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses, and fiscal accountability, the principle that institutions collecting and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing money. Both of these principles have almost disappeared from the modern world. The separation of Quebec would be an excellent way to restore them, argued Jane Jacobs.

Citing, as an example, the political corruption scandal that rocked Canada since 2003 and was rooted in the near victory of separatism in 1995, she pointed out how the inability to solve the Quebec-Canada conflict in a civilized way, and thereby respect subsidiarity and fiscal accountability, has corrupted the whole country.

“One way frightened English Canadian authorities have operated in Quebec and tried to put this whole thing to rest and say it’s all settled, which it obviously isn’t, has been to try to buy off Quebec. That seems the most promising, more than the use of force. Pierre Trudeau managed it quite well saying essentially ‘forget about sovereignty, your economic interest is elsewhere’. That’s largely a matter of buying off Quebec. But when you buy people, particularly trying to change their deep principles by buying them, it becomes very corrupt, automatically, by the very nature of the transaction. However, that has been the Canadian Liberal Party’s policy, they’ll continue to do it, it’s all they know how to do.”

When she proposed the example of Norway and Sweden and basically invited all concerned to be as civilized as those two Scandinavian countries, she noted that to Sweden’s great credit, it never attempted to suppress Norwegian democracy, censor debate, interfere with communications with the Norwegian people, or poison political life with spies and secret police or corrupt it with bribes. She does not give Canada the same high marks. “You simply cannot say that about Canada. English Canada has always wanted to control French Canada. English Canada conquered French Canada.

Let’s face the fact that Canada is a conquered country, and conquered countries often never forget what happened to them. Neither the conquered not the conqueror ever really forget. Any indication of revolt on the part of Quebec was either bought off, with a good deal of corruption or suppressed in some other way. Very often it was done by trying to, and succeeding, in undermining the self-confidence of Quebecers. That’s exactly what Pierre Trudeau did.

Unfortunately the Quebec leader René Lévesque had so little self confidence in Quebec and in the people themselves that he fell for that and believed it be ruinous economically.”

As a supporter of Quebec national sovereignty and a Quebec currency – mainly because cities swing currencies and in this case Toronto swings Canada’s currency to the detriment of Montreal and all of Quebec – Jane Jacobs is not terribly impressed by the blurring of national sovereignties and currencies in Europe. “I think it’s a mistake for all these Western European countries to blot out so many currencies in favor of who knows which one will win out, maybe Frankfurt. It will not favor all those countries. Europe had something really wonderful going for it with the different currencies. Look at all the development in Europe over so many centuries. They did get into those wars and pretty well ruined it. But they also had an awful lot of relationships which didn’t involve fighting each other, but involved learning from each other, and building on each others’ successes.”

Cities must relate to each other and flourish as equals according to Jane Jacobs. That explains why European cities like Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Berlin have all had important roles, because of their independence and their equal stages of development. When cities trade with each other, they require this kind of independence or else one becomes a supplier of the other and the relationship takes on some of the terrible aspects of empire, supply cities being bound to trade exclusively with the metropolitan city. That, she adds, is the logic that governs the relationship between Toronto and Montreal. That can change if Quebec separates and Montreal gains greater independence. Done constructively, it would become a win-win situation, because trade could improve for both, and healthy trade is always a win-win situation. On the other hand, “when people get their jollies in life by fighting with other people and trying to dominate, they are very poor traders and cannot find ways for everybody to benefit.”

The need for smaller sovereignties has not changed because of some imperial discourse about “globalization”, a term Jane Jacobs says some economists and politicians bandy about. They try to make people think things have changed and avoid having to explain their mistakes. “People ignore the common threads that run through economic life. Globalization is one of the first things that ever showed up. Way back when trade began to revive after the dark ages, it was very international. Globalization has gone on since around 1200 or so. It went on in classical times, before the Dark Age.”

Jane Jacobs saw one prime downside of globalization: “it has more and more come to involve domination, which is an economic lose-lose situation. It simply does not work and so the imperial power, which is now the United States, collapses.”

What’s more, Jane Jacobs foresaw that collapse and predicted it would start out as a very banal thing. “These investing entrepreneurs want to keep doing the same thing they’ve always been doing. At one point, for example, there aren’t enough customers for the condominiums.”

As she wrote in the conclusion in Dark Age Ahead: “Societies (including our own) that were great cultural winners in the past are in special peril of failing to adapt successfully in the face of new realities. This is because nothing succeeds like success. Formerly vigorous cultures typically fall prey to the arrogant self-deception for which the Greeks had the word hubris, that we still use.”

When I read these words before I met Jane Jacobs, I wondered whether the “new realities” included Quebec’s separation from Canada. I came out convinced that it was.

Now that she has left us, I wonder whether political and economic leaders in Canada and the United States will know how to adapt to such realities or whether they will succumb to that arrogant self-deception. In any case, one of the best ways to avoid that self-destructive trap is to read and digest the seminal works of the late Jane Jacobs. We miss her already.

ROBIN PHILPOT is a Montreal writer. His most recent book in French entitled “Le referendum vole” (Les Intouchables) contains a long interview with Jane Jacobs. He can be reached at