Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How a Montreal Working-Class Neighbourhood's Activists Changed Quebec and Canada

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

How a Montreal Working-Class Neighbourhood's Activists Changed Quebec and Canada

Article excerpt

Montreal neighbourhood a laboratory of activism


MONTREAL - The Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood is isolated from the rest of Montreal by the Lachine Canal and the railroad, meaning that for years it was the kind of place that many people, even other Montrealers, never visited.

But despite its relative obscurity, the working-class neighbourhood south of downtown has a history of community activism that has reverberated far beyond its borders, influencing how Quebec manages health care, housing and legal aid.

On Thursday, a three-piece band and a bicycle festooned with streamers led several dozen residents on a festive parade through the neighbourhood to celebrate 15 of the area's community organizations that are celebrating significant anniversaries on or around this year.

These included the Community Legal Services of Pointe-St-Charles and Little Burgundy, among the first legal aid clinics in the province, as well as the community medical clinic, which was the inspiration for the province's network of community health clinics, known as CLSCs.

More than 50 years later, after resisting several attempts to integrate it into the CLSC system, the community clinic remains independently managed by a board of locals, allowing it to vocally lobby for what it sees as issues of social justice, such as better dental coverage and the abolition of medical fees.

"Pointe-St-Charles has been a point of inspiration both within Quebec and beyond, even across Canada," when it comes to community activism, said Steven High, a Concordia University historian and neighbourhood resident.

While there have been organizations working in the community for over 100 years, many of the groups formed in the 1960s and '70s, when de-industrialization and the decline of the Lachine Canal caused factory closures and mass layoffs in the community.

What followed was what High calls a gradual "hollowing out" of the neighbourhood, characterized by the closure of schools, churches and stores, the neglect of rental housing, and the exodus of the population, which dropped in half between 1961 and 1991.

But at the same time, the collective suffering led to solidarity.

Groups, led by a combination of students from nearby universities and working-class residents, began forming to provide meals, clothes, health care and housing to the impoverished families who remained.

Over time, successes followed.

In the early 1970s, residents banded together to block the city's plan to run a major urban boulevard through the heart of the neighbourhood, which would have cut through a park and destroyed an old fire station.

A succession of housing activists have ensured that the neighbourhood, to this day, has one of the highest concentrations of social and co-operative housing in Canada.

And in what is perhaps the community's biggest David versus Goliath moment, the community sprang to action when Loto-Quebec announced its intention to build a $1-billion casino complex in 2005, holding non-stop protests and action until the plan was eventually cancelled. …

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