Darkness and light: Montreal, its environment, and Valérie Plante
The Technoparc Wetlands, a test case for Montreal’s mayor
By Patrick Barnard
I – The Darkness of Sprawl
The environment of Montreal is exceptional – a large island, surrounded by water, with the St. Lawrence river rushing by its southern shore and a humid climate that can be biting in winter, and semi-tropical in the summer. All across the area flow underground streams, many of them previously at the surface, but now hidden from sight.
Water is really the key to the uniqueness of this island-city, water flowing around it, and running constantly underneath it. With its relatively warm and humid climate, Montreal lies in the southwest of the province, in the centre of Quebec’s most biodiverse region, known in French as le domaine bioclimatique de l’érablière à caryer cordiforme, or “the sugar maple/ bitternut hickory bioclimatic domain.” Two-thirds of the province’s vulnerable species live here, but only 4.5% are protected.
When visitors fly in by airplane they see the various and beautiful waterways below, but also the extensive suburbs on the island and the individual houses, one after another, often with a swimming pool in the backyard. Those markers of the suburban “good life” indicate a little-known, unpleasant reality: among Canadian cities, Montreal is the champion of urban sprawl. This place is both an ecological treasure, and an example of the worst type of environmental destruction. Every detached house, every lawn, every yard contributes to an especially high “land uptake” that devours what little natural spaces are left.
More than 85% of our urban wetlands have been destroyed by the blight of continuing urban sprawl, and at this very moment, we are about to lose our last great wetland in what is known as the Technoparc area of the Ville Saint-Laurent borough, just north of the airport at Dorval. An extraordinary bird-lover named Joël Coutu has made thousands of people aware of these marshes and the birds that make it the number one birding spot on the island. (See Joël in the YouTube video, Pimento Report #123, The Last Great Wetlands) More than 150 species of birds have frequented these wetlands, some of them rare and endangered species.
These threatened marshes are symbols of everything that has been wrong in Montreal’s environmental policies.
The organization Park People published a 2019 report that showed that Montreal ranked below nearly all Canadian cities for hectares of parkland per 1,000 people, at a rate of 2.4 hectares. And the city does poorly as well for the percentage of parkland that is natural area (see The Canadian City Parks Report, Park People – Amis des parcs, W. Garfield Weston Foundation, 2019).
Detailed research indicates the scale and intensity of the problem. A group of academics based at Montreal’s Concordia University and in Zurich Switzerland have published a definitive study of Montreal’s growth pattern, “Accelerated urban sprawl in Montreal, Quebec City and Zurich” (Naghmeh Nazarnia, Christian Schwick, Jochen A. G. Jaeger, ScienceDirect, Elsevier, Ecological Indicators, Vol. 60, 2016).
‘More than 85% of our urban wetlands have been destroyed by the blight of continuing urban sprawl, and at this very moment we are about to lose our last great wetland in what is known as the Technoparc area of the Ville Saint-Laurent…’
They have found that urban sprawl “has increased exponentially in Montreal since 1951” and that between 1971 and 2011 the degree of such sprawl “increased 26-fold” – in other words, the occupation of land by a small number of individuals went up and up and up. The Concordia group also points to the 2015 article by their Montreal colleagues scholar/musician Jérôme Dupras and Mahbubul Alam, “Urban sprawl and ecosystem services” (Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, [17, 2] June 2014) that underlines the main point about Montreal – “this increase in built-up areas has reduced the amount of croplands, and forest, and has had negative impacts on ecosystem services.”
Human occupation of this sort produces radical habitat loss and the Concordia group spells out the negative effects of such urban sprawl: “Soil sealing, increasing scarcity of land for renewable energy and food production, increase in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, loss of habitats and valuable ecosystem services, lower infrastructure and public transportation efficiency, long commuting times, and reduced civic involvement in the society.”
Activists, such as the members of the non-partisan Green Coalition, have seen the bureaucrats of Greater Montreal up close, in independent municipalities, in boroughs and downtown at the core city. These urban officials are decent civil servants, but nearly all of them, with few exceptions, have no sense of the environment at all, nor do they possess the scientific training to make good environmental judgements. They are blindly in favour of development at all costs, and this deep bias is reinforced by the fact that tax revenue is property-based.
The 21st century has not been a good one for Montreal’s environment – up to relatively recently, and even now, our history haunts us.
An affable man named Gérald Tremblay was the Montreal mayor for ten years, from 2002 to 2012, until he had to resign because of revelations of massive corruption in the city. During his time he spoke loftily of Montreal’s environmental leadership, yet his actual achievements fell far short. During his tenure, he said, a $200 million expenditure was needed to conserve and acquire natural spaces, but only one-quarter of that amount was actually spent. Instead of really acquiring new natural spaces, the Tremblay regime relied heavily on simply re-designating already existing protected areas. A combination of sleight-of-hand and some acquisitions did advance the nominal, global percentage of natural spaces from 3.2% to 5.2%, but still well below Tremblay’s public aspirations.
When it came to corrupt practices, Tremblay made sure that he could always turn a blind eye while the grim machinations of the city proceeded unabated.
‘In 2015, the Executive Committee of the City of Montreal, under pressure from the Green Coalition, adopted, for the whole urban agglomeration, a new target of 10% of land to consist of natural spaces, up from the 5% then prevailing.’
Tremblay resigned in the middle of the enormous scandal that led to the Charbonneau Commission on the Awarding of Contracts. He was a man whose public reputation was crushed, but then he was followed by a mayor, Michael Applebaum, who actually did go to jail for fraud and breach of trust. This embarrassing hiatus gave birth to the tenure of Denis Coderre (2013-2017), an official who was truly terrible when it came to the environment.
In 2015, the Executive Committee of the City of Montreal, under pressure from the Green Coalition, adopted, for the whole urban agglomeration, a new target of 10% of land to consist of natural spaces, up from the 5% then prevailing. Every percentage point corresponds to 500 hectares; the new objective was an improvement, but still fell well below Canada’s national objective of 17% protection.
While Gérald Tremblay at least had proclaimed goals and made some slight progress, Coderre was a disaster, adding only 15 hectares of natural spaces per year for a total of 61 hectares over four years. That miserable performance explains why Montreal in 2017 stood at well more than 2,000 hectares short of its own, self-proclaimed target.
Urban sprawl had done, and was continuing to do, its ugly work.
II – Valérie Plante – A Bearer Of Light
While the city continued its way, as if nothing could ever change, there was a big surprise brewing.
In November 2017, Denis Coderre went down to a crushing defeat, taking with him principal allies – Russell Copeman, Richard Bergeron and Réal Ménard – all part of Équipe Denis Coderre. During its time in power, environmentalists had fought hard in City Council against the party’s anti-environmental lethargy. One of the principal groups in civil society defending nature at this time was Sauvons L’Anse-à-L’Orme, led by a woman named Sue Stacho from the western suburb of Pierrefonds. The advocacy of her group was devoted to saving the precious wet meadows in Pierrefonds, at the western edge of Montreal island (See video Pimento Report # 92 Sauvons L’Anse-à-L’Orme )
In that precise area, the well-known west island developer Mario Grilli and his family wanted to create a 5,500-unit project on land owned by them and on lots possessed by another set of smaller owners. 2017 was a crucial year because in the spring Pierrefonds was hit by massive flooding that graphically showed the characteristics of the riverine environment and the ecological value of the sponge-like wet meadows on which the massive project would be built. At that very time, in May, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) held hearings about the future of western Pierrefonds. More than 400 briefs were submitted, possibly the greatest number ever filed for such a consultation, and 87% of the submissions were in favour of conservation and against any development at all on “les prairies humides.”
Against this background, and urged on by citizens, Valérie Plante and her party, Projet Montréal, made a commitment in their electoral programme to create a “great urban park” in the west. This initiative was the first of its kind in Montreal for more than a century. And in November 2017 Plante was elected, bringing this promise with her to the office of the mayoralty.
‘… the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) held hearings about the future of western Pierrefonds. More than 400 briefs were submitted… and 87% of the submissions were in favour of conservation and against any development at all on ‘les prairies humides.’
I well remember going down to Montreal City Hall on a dark November evening to ask questions at a meeting of the Agglomeration Council immediately after the election. I arrived early and not many people were in the large room. Valérie Plante was lively, smiling, but she also looked a little lonely in the big chamber. During question period, I asked her about the campaign pledge for a park to conserve the 175 hectares of wet meadows and she said that her party very much wanted “un grand parc urbain dans l’ouest.” Then she added: “And why not in the east of Montreal as well?”
One year went by and again nature spoke loud and clear.
In the spring of 2019, the west of Montreal Island was hit by another huge flooding. Mayor Plante took the unprecedented step of having a full meeting of Montreal City Council convene in a Pierrefonds school auditorium right in the middle of the flood zone. Sue Stacho and other members of the Green Coalition addressed councillors directly, asking once again that the wet meadows be conserved.
On August 8, 2019, Mayor Plante held a surprise press conference by a beautiful small bay at Cap-Saint-Jacques and announced the preservation of 3,000 hectares of natural space in the west of Montreal Island and the creation of the promised “nouveau grand parc urbain.” She specifically mentioned the protection of the 175 hectares of wet meadows previously coveted by real estate developers and made an unequivocal statement of her purpose:
With more than 3,000 hectares in area, the Great Western Park will become the largest municipal park in Canada. It is an historical moment that marks a major turning point in terms of the protection of wetlands and the valuing of natural spaces. This initiative is part of our desire to protect 10% of the territory of Montreal.
Environmentalists felt ecstatic, with good reason.
Yes, the 3,000 hectares include 1,000 hectares on Île Bizard that will be part of a provincial program called “le paysage humanisé” – a project that the Quebec government has allowed to drag out for the last four years. And yes, another 1,600 hectares consist of already existing green areas that will be linked together in a network. But that still leaves 400 hectares where the City of Montreal has put its foot down and said no to development, no to urban sprawl. That step was entirely new in post-WW II Montreal and contrasted radically with the Tremblay and Coderre years.
‘On August 8, 2019, Mayor Plante held a surprise press conference by a beautiful small bay at Cap-Saint-Jacques and announced the preservation of 3,000 hectares of natural space in the west of Montreal Island and the creation of the promised ‘nouveau grand parc urbain.’
After the August announcement, Valérie Plante proceeded to the United Nations in New York and spoke about the Great Western Park to an international audience. She used the UN podium to set forth a new model for her city and to very publicly reject the type of development that has caused so much harm in Montreal.
“The City of Montreal,” she said, “will not go ahead with a real estate project that dates from a previous century and that would have added 10,000 cars on our roads” (Discours de la mairesse au Sommet des Nations unies sur le Climat – Panel ‘Plans for a Carbon Neutral World’,” Monday, September 23, 2019, United Nations, New York, emphasis added.)
Plante made justifiably high claims for herself and her administration, saying they were establishing “a new paradigm” and on December 12, 2019, back in her own city, Valérie Plante showed that she was for real. She announced at City Hall that the administration had purchased 140 hectares from Mario Grilli and family in the heart of the Pierrefonds wetlands. Plante said, quite truthfully, “In five months my administration has acquired more natural spaces than the city has in the last 15 years.” (See Le Devoir, December 13, 2017)
But the force, and the inertia, of the old, bad development policies in Montreal are very strong. They weigh us down, both citizens and politicians alike. Entrenched bureaucrats and wily politicos are used to the malign practices that taint our lives, and bad habits become internalized. The greenwashing and the sheer hypocrisy cling to us like a malady that we cannot shake.
Valérie Plante brought light to this gloom… but the shadows are never far away.
III – Darkness Comes Again
‘We need to ensure that not even the smallest marsh is lost.’
Prof. Rodger Titman (Natural Resource Sciences) testifying February 7, 2020 in Coalition Verte v. Technoparc Montréal et Ville de Montréal et Ministre du Développement Durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte Contre les Changements Climatiques
February 2020 has brought Montreal’s environmental movement to a deeply ironic moment.
The Green Coalition, which has so admired the actions of Valérie Plante, now finds itself in court as the plaintiff in a case against the City of Montreal. At the centre of the legal conflict is the fight to protect the city’s last great wetlands in the Technoparc area of the borough of Ville Saint-Laurent.
How can Mayor Plante, the source of so much hope for the environment, allow this destruction to happen? And why has she not intervened?
The puzzle is tied to the past history of the location and the actors. The Technoparc area is an industrial park in the borough of Ville Saint-Laurent. Just north of Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport. There is a broad street running north-south called Alfred Nobel Boulevard – yes, Nobel, the man of the prize and the dynamite manufacturer. You get to the street by exiting a highway and then you see large, undistinguished buildings that are stolidly institutional – office blocks seemingly set in the middle of a wasteland, like a scene from an Italian neo-realist film. There are cars here and there but few people to be seen. Some of the business names on the buildings are famous players in “Quebec Inc.,” such as Bombardier. Others are big fish in the Montreal pond, like the construction firm known simply as Broccolini.
At the bottom of Alfred Nobel are wetlands that are part of an extensive eco-system. Now two-thirds of those particular marshes directly to the south have been drained dry and a new concrete road points further southwards with nothing around, its only markers lampposts sticking up with no lights in them – for the moment, a road to nowhere.
The holding company managing this area – known as Technoparc Inc.– was dissolved this past December because of commercial irregularities and the City of Montreal took over its assets and liabilities. For years now, a putative “Éco-Campus Hubert Reeves” (astrophysicist Reeves, like Nobel, famous in Europe, but also in Quebec) supposedly will be built exactly where the marshes have been drained. Another irony – a research facility, named after a famous Quebec environmentalist, will supposedly build 5 or 6 buildings on the emptied wetlands, in order to be near the very nature its presence will have destroyed.
There is only one problem – Éco-campus Hubert Reeves is a myth. It does not really exist, at least not yet.
Its promoter is, or was, Technoparc Inc. and that entity no longer survives. No single developer has come forward to say that he or she will be constructing the facility. It is said that powerful financial interests are waiting in the wings ready to move into action, but they are invisible.
The main political figure in this story is the Mayor of Saint-Laurent, Mr. Alan DeSousa, an important leftover figure from the ancien régime of Gérald Tremblay.
During that period, DeSousa worked frenetically at Montreal City Council, as well as in his own borough, handling questions for Tremblay. A small, gregarious man, he could always be seen at Council, famously bobbing and weaving with words, while he used sinuous language to joust and parry for his boss.
DeSousa sees himself as a green mayor; before his entry into municipal politics, he was even Treasurer of the Green Coalition, the very same organization that is now fighting in court against one of the pet projects in the borough he heads.
After the disgrace of Gérald Tremblay, DeSousa lost his seat on the executive committee of Montreal and concentrated on the borough of Ville Saint-Laurent where he is still the mayor. He is a long-time Liberal and has an enormous network of connections in his part of Montreal, including of course the Broccolini Corporation that has built two buildings on Alfred Nobel. DeSousa also keenly supported the new Réseau express métropolitain (REM), although recently he found himself critical of the planning for this infrastructure. The transit system, promoted by Quebec’s Caisse de dépot, is probably the most unwise capital works project since the Olympic stadium.
‘… a research facility, named after a famous Quebec environmentalist, will supposedly build 5 or 6 buildings on the emptied wetlands, in order to be near the very nature its presence will have destroyed.’
The REM began as the idea of a rail connection between the airport and downtown, but now its actual trajectory goes in a huge loop that descends to a planned station at the Technoparc. From there the engineers propose to build a tunnel under the marshes, and below a major runway, only to have it emerge at the passenger terminals. The only thing that is missing is the White Rabbit to go down the hole by the runway and Alice murmuring “curiouser and curiouser.”
In the name of the REM, a whole stand of ashes – nesting places for Green herons and 30 other species – were hacked to the ground in September of 2018. Nor should we forget that the real estate arm of the Caisse is one of the largest owners of property in the whole of Canada.
So, there is really no Éco-Campus Hubert Reeves, but there is a lot of avid hunger centred on this place, and the dried-up marshes and the road leading to nowhere are the symbols of all the anticipated human gain in the place where the birds once had their nests.
Coalition Verte versus Technoparc Montréal et Ville de Montréal is an all-important legal case for the environmental movement in Montreal. It has been going on right now and the main legal arguments were heard from Monday, February 3 to Friday February 7. The presiding judge has been the Hon. Sylvain Lussier of the Quebec Superior Court, a man with a deep background in constitutional and environmental law. During the hearings lawyers for the City of Montreal and the Quebec Ministry of the Environment attempted to bar expert testimony. Judge Lussier over-ruled these objections because he clearly wanted to hear the facts of the case.
Two brave groups have undertaken this litigation: Technoparcoiseaux.org – the dynamic birders led by Joël Coutu – and the Green Coalition. The expenses of going to court have been assumed by the Legacy Fund for the Environment, a new foundation in Montreal dedicated to helping environmentalists fight legally for the environment.
The full week of testimony revealed a tremendous amount about the local and global “system” that has brought us to the environmental impasse that we now find ourselves in. Spectators saw how the shell game of Technoparc has actually functioned over the last decade. Beginning in 2013, the “promoter” – Technoparc Inc. – sought what is called a Certificate of Authorisation (a CA). As is normal, one was applied for each time an intervention in the marsh area occurred. Part of the process involves an environmental assessment from the Ministry of the Environment.
On the first day of hearings, the consulting biologist Kim Marineau was called to give her view of the Certificates issued to Technoparc. Ministry and City lawyers attempted to block her testimony. Judge Lussier rejected their objections. Marineau talked about the immense value of ecosystems, the services they provide – such as the sponge-effect of a marsh – and the significance of indicator species. Promoters, however, according to Marineau, often look at a marsh and say, “Oh, that’s just a hole in the ground.”
The biologist went on the explain that the critical period for observing the birds lies between June 1 and the end of September, and the studies at Technoparc were either done outside of the proper period, or after the destruction caused by various interventions in the marshes. Also, close attention needs to be taken to observe during the nesting period. Most of the studies submitted for the CAs were either done at the wrong time or flawed technically. She stressed that developers frequently are in a rush, so no proper care can be spent in those conditions to do the work as it should be accomplished. Furthermore, the promoter’s promised “future restoration” never makes up for the loss of the original wetland. In short, the environmental assessments, in the words of Marineau, were “inadequate.”
It struck me listening to her in the courtroom that this organized laxity is precisely how Canada has lost 90% of its urban wetlands in the last 30 years.
Why does this happen? And how common is it? At the end of the week, a surprisingly young bureaucrat from the Quebec Ministry really showed how the administrative machinery works. Under cross-examination, she said that even though she hand handled a multitude of requests for a CA, she had never refused a single one. The standing practice of the Ministry, it turns out, is to never turn down an application for a CA. An environmentalist who was in the room that day commented to me: “The Ministry of the Environment is a printing press to hand out Certificates.” That hyperbole is, unfortunately, not an exaggeration.
‘The full week of testimony revealed a tremendous amount about the local and global ‘system’ that has brought us to the environmental impasse that we now find ourselves in. Spectators saw how the shell game of Technoparc has actually functioned over the last decade.’
Another high-ranking bureaucrat, this time at the municipal level, testified at the beginning of the week. She breathed deeply as she talked of the “enormous development potential” of the Technoparc site – no mention of the birds, the marshes, or the trees.
At the end of the week – on February 7 – Joël Coutu was called to testify. Again, lawyers for the City and the Ministry sought to block his testimony, just as they had done with Marineau. Judge Lussier dismissed those objections because he obviously wanted to hear about the environment. At one point he wryly referred to the quacking sound of a kind of heron, indicating that he is a judge with a certain familiarity with birding. That was unusual as well.
The Judge allowed Coutu to bring into his testimony a birding survey over three full seasons, to show the difference in bird populations between the periods before and after the building of a dike as part of marsh draining and the diversion of water. In case after case, the bird population diminished.
It is important to remember, at the same time, that all this work by the borough of Ville Saint-Laurent is preparatory, but no real building has taken place.
Prof. Rodger Titman, an internationally renowned bird expert, testified once again at the end of the week. He stressed the crucial importance of “the biodiversity below the birds.” As a result of what happened in the Technoparc area, he said, “a significant portion of the wetland is lost.” Titman commented about his own sense of pained responsibility for the dramatic decline of bird populations in North America. “We need to ensure that not even the smallest marsh is lost,” he asserted in his quiet, yet firm voice. I felt that his obvious sense of despair touched the judge.
Again, the City lawyers and those for Quebec tried to stop Prof. Titman from articulating what he felt – and this time they were somewhat successful. But at that moment, the judge spoke in a very low voice to Titman himself, explaining that as a judge he had to work with the present “grasp of the law,” and that his job was not to legislate but to adjudicate.
In legal parlance, Judge Lussier is making his argument “appeal proof” by sticking to the case law and the issuing of the CAs, but he is doing so with a full understanding, I believe, of what is actually happening.
However he rules, Green Coalition versus the City of Montreal will go down in memory as a turning point in the history of the environment in Montreal.
In the Green Coalition there is a woman called Sylvia Oljemark who has fought for the environment in Montreal for more than 40 years. She has also written the most comprehensive history of its natural spaces.
‘However he [Judge Lussier] rules, Green Coalition versus the City of Montreal will go down in memory as a turning point in the history of the environment in Montreal.’
Sylvia knows, likes, and admires Valérie Plante. Prior to this most recent hearing, Sylvia sought a personal meeting with Mayor Plante as part of efforts by the Green Coalition to seek an out-of-court settlement through the restoration of the dried marshes – simply that and nothing more. Plante did not meet Oljemark, but the lawyers for the two parties did meet in the presence of Sylvia Oljemark and others.
The lawyers for the City of Montreal acted just as they would later do in the courtroom. They were absolutely and aggressively adamant in refusing any out-of-court settlement. There was no question of returning water to the marshes, as Prof. Titman later indicated must and should be done.
Why has Valérie Plante, the environmental mayor, not intervened here and not met with Sylvia Oljemark even to discuss the matter?
It seems that Plante and Projet Montreal are afraid of the big hitters in the Montreal real estate game. And Projet Montreal has some reason to fear because the wolves are already snapping at Plante’s heels. Her victory in 2017 was a deep humiliation for a number of people who are used to running Montreal and its environs. They would dearly like to see her downfall. But at the same time the very fine person who is Valérie Plante has gravely compromised herself in the Technoparc case, especially since “Technoparc,” that strange beast, is now Technoparc Montreal, a creature of the City.
I asked Sylvia Oljemark for her view and she told me that there are forces constraining Plante: “The city machine is still grinding away to destroy this one great and amazing wetland left.” And Sylvia added: “I think it is the system that is doing this behind the scenes.”
That remark is accurate and has been borne out in the court case. Everyone in Montreal should pay attention to what happens in the Technoparc litigation.
We live in times of darkness and some light. Montrealers need to understand how true that is for what is, after all, our “system,” the one by which we earn our daily bread.
If we are indeed in the valley of the shadow of death, as Greta Thunberg tells us, we need to lead ourselves out. No other force will do that for us.
As citizens, I think we should value Valérie Plante for who she is and what she has done. But we must also criticize her when the darkness looms again.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of WestmountMag.ca or its publishers.
Feature image: the Technoparc Wetlands, by Patrick Barnard
Patrick Barnard is a board member of the Green Coalition, a non-partisan environmental group in Montreal. He is also the editor of the video blog The Pimento report/Le Piment and a freelance journalist. He has worked in the past for CBC Radio, Radio Netherlands, and Dawson College where he taught English Literature. He is also one of 20 environmentalists and transit experts who signed an open letter in Montreal asking an end to the REM.