(A coalition of almost 10 Montreal-based foundations support Le Projet Impact Collectif, led by Centraide of Greater Montreal, with the goal of improving the lives of Montreal’s residents while collaborating on an innovative approach to large-scale poverty reduction. The McConnell Foundation became involved in 2015 through a grant that aligned with its social innovation and social inclusion objectives.)
Driving in on the Metropolitan Highway with Denis and Myriam of Centraide, we have a preview of the larger narrative that is transforming the lives of communities and families in this part of the Island of Montreal. The “centre-ville” of Montréal-Est — which remains a separate town from Montreal proper — is dominated exclusively by industry, some of it still active, but most of it abandoned. Over the course of a decade, culminating in 2010 with the departure of Shell, the oil refineries closed down, and jobs disappeared — 3,500 direct and indirect losses, it was estimated at the time. The population of Montréal-Est has declined from almost 6,000 in 1960 to just 3,800 today.
The starting point of our tour is in Pointe-aux-Trembles, at the headquarters of La Corporation Mainbourg, surrounded by housing for approximately 230 people. One of the many benefits of the recently renovated complex is that it centralizes in an accessible way the many organizations that serve the local residents — the YMCA, services for immigrants and youth, and recreational activities.
As we embark on our tour in a small van, it becomes very clear that our hosts René, Véronique, Kémy and their colleagues know their part of the Island of Montreal at a remarkable level of detail, street by street, building by building, almost resident by resident. The socio-economic profile has been documented and superimposed on the neighbourhood maps that we’re given, and so we learn about the pockets of poverty, the relatively high drop-out rate among youth, and the balance of home renters to owners, etc.
The advantage of Le PIC is that it has supplemented and amplified efforts that were already underway to better understand and address local challenges. What has significantly improved is the level of coordination among the many service providers in Pointe-aux-Trembles and Montréal-Est, engaging residents in ascertaining urgent needs and building a growing sense of collective purpose. For example, Montréal-Est used to not even acknowledge poverty as an issue, nor did it have dedicated resources for social development. Its proximity to Pointe-aux-Trembles — with a much higher population (50,000) — means town leaders are now learning and sharing alongside their peers, while tackling common challenges.
We visit Les Habitations Séguin, a residential complex for low-income families and individuals that was completely rebuilt in 2012 after significant problems with toxic mold. It is clean, welcoming and friendly. Most residents are benefitting from housing subsidies, meaning they pay no more than 25% of their total income on rent. Our tour group sees the small community centre that offers services such as a communal kitchen, homework help, and low-cost leisure activities.
We discuss some of the problems facing local youth. The impact of the refineries is felt even here, since many families in Pointe-aux-Trembles and Montreal-Est didn’t prioritize education back when jobs were available to those without any postsecondary education. The culture of low educational attainment is a huge challenge. The negligence and mistreatment of children are even more serious issues that preoccupy our hosts. Gaining the trust of residents takes a lot of time, but without that trust, how can any professional understand what’s wrong and how to help? Kémy explains that connections are usually first built through the youth. He and his colleagues visit the local schools during the lunch break and give children time to talk about anything that is on their minds. Through these conversations, the outreach staff can find out if the children came to school hungry and if there are other problems at home. Relationships with the children can then help build bridges to the parents.
Our next stop is Coopérative D’Habitation Le Fleuve De L’Espoir in Montréal-Est. It is well under 20 years old, but already has enormous structural problems — poorly fitting windows, broken appliances, etc. As we stand in the courtyard, a passing girl — six at most — overhears our conversation. She stops and tells us that the tap in her apartment is broken and that her mom is trying to prevent flooding damage by using towels and a big green bowl. René kindly tells her that the staff of the Cooperative will fix the problem as soon as possible.
Climbing to the third floor of a local residence, the view is unnerving. This part of Montréal-Est is a tiny urban outcrop of housing on the edge of a large desert of disused industry: contaminated land, railway tracks where trains no longer run, and the huge cement monoliths — the silent and empty refineries. We learn that we are in a food desert. Getting to a supermarket requires a long car drive. It’s a similar problem for school: children have to take a long bus journey in the morning and evening. The adjacent Maison L’Échelon is a day-centre for people suffering from mental health disorders. Many of its clients come from the Cooperative.
We get back in the van and drive back toward Pointe-aux-trembles. There are pockets of beauty and vitality. In this part of town, you’re never far from water — either the St-Laurent or Rivière-des-Prairies. Today there is a big red cargo ship sitting just off the shore of the St-Laurent. We see the revitalization of Avenue Broadway and Rue Victoria — looking more and more like the busy centres of the Plateau or Verdun. We pass a community garden that has a positive relationship with the nearby Église vie d’espoir, sharing its harvest for the church’s food bank and giving free food to anyone that volunteers to work. Véronique explains that everything must be planted in containers to avoid contamination from the land.
Our final half-hour gives us an opportunity to see a low-cost but highly impactful project called Marche ta zone. As reported by Metro Media, Marche ta zone has made students at l’École François-La-Bernarde feel safer by painting arrows onto the routes that students usually use to get to and from school. At school meetings in 2014, students expressed that they were concerned for their safety; this led to Marche ta zone. And students have remained engaged throughout the project: more than 400 students collaborated with an urban planner from Tandem RDP-PAT and the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal to design the routes, which are brightly decorated in painted colours and patterns of the students’ choosing.
It’s encouraging to see the value of such work being recognized by the Montreal news media. This part of the Island of Montreal needs a major amplification of the voices of those working so hard to improve the quality of life for the children, families and seniors that call it home. It’s 45 minutes or more from downtown, poorly served by public transport, and even getting around within the district is challenging. The distances seem vast. But this is a vital part of our Island, and perhaps the one most affected by the enormous transition that we see in all of the western world: the factory and refinery jobs are fewer and further between, and a different kind of future is emerging. With the social sector now deeply implicated in Pointe-aux-Trembles and Montreal-Est, let’s hope the stories that will be told of today’s local children and their children will be ones of hope, courage and fulfilled potential.
Tour group consisted of:
Myriam Bérubé, Centraide
Denis Sauvé, Centraide
Sophie de Caen, Pathy Foundation
Laurence Miall, McConnell Foundation
CDC de la Pointe:
René Rivest, agent de développement
Véronique Colas, agente de développement
Kémy St-Éloy, coordinateur en milieu de vie