As we deal with a North on fire, we must defend biodiversity in the south of Quebec
By Patrick Barnard
June 21, 2023
In the spring of 2023, the climate change crisis descended on Canada and Quebec with apocalyptic force. Our Arctic ice is melting, and intense fires are sweeping the North. The boreal forest burns fiercely across the country, and the northern parts of Quebec, such as the Abitibi and the North Shore, are consumed by flames. The Societé de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) indicates that one million hectares of forest has already burned in Quebec (Le Nord-du-Québec et l’Abitibi brûlent toujours, Le Devoir, 16 juin, 2023).
That’s right — one million hectares burnt with several months left in the wildfire season.
Visiting French firefighters who have come to help have been astounded by the “unstoppable” power of the natural holocaust (Unstoppable: Massive Canadian Blazes Test Foreign Firefighters, New York Times, June 18, 2023), saying the flames are “of an intensity unimaginable in France.” Smoke from Quebec and Canada has shrouded New York City, polluted Washington, and brought harmful particulates to Montreal streets.
… both Quebec and Canada have lost 90% of their urban wetlands, and such wetland ecosystems absorb up to five times as much C02 as the typical boreal forest.
Extreme climate change touches our skin, penetrates our lungs, and presses on our minds. Surely we know that we must act in every way we can because we see this necessity right before our eyes.
And yet in Montreal, immediately next to the city’s Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Airport, an invaluable wetland ecosystem is fighting for its life against the encroachment of destructive development. This is incredible because both Quebec and Canada have lost 90% of their urban wetlands, and such wetland ecosystems absorb up to five times as much C02 as the typical boreal forest. We need them badly.
The 215-hectare wetland ecosystem that is endangered in Montreal is known generically as “the Technoparc ecosystem,” and it is formed from re-naturalized farmland that was first forgotten and then reworked by nature’s resilient hand.
Birds of all kinds flocked to the marshes, the meadows, and the woods in this invaluable and unique mosaic. Then, in 2015, the ornithologist Joël Coutu was astounded to discover this convergence of habitat and wildlife and began leading groups of birders to see the rich avian biodiversity right at hand for Montrealers. His efforts led to the founding of Technoparc Oiseaux, an ornithological group that now has more than 5,000 members. And eventually, more than 200 different species of birds would be observed there, according to eBird, making Technoparc the best birding site on the island of Montreal.
Yet this spring, as stark climate change was upon us, the Hypertec company of Montreal, a computer backup operation, bought private plots in the Technoparc area and announced that they would build a large corporate headquarters there amid the ecosystem.
Environmentalists were shocked.
‘… as stark climate change was upon us, the Hypertec company of Montreal… announced that they would build a large corporate headquarters there amid the ecosystem.’
As Benoit Gravel of Technoparc Oiseaux stated to the newspaper La Presse, “It is the worst place they could have chosen to build” (C’est le pire endroit où ils pourraient construire).
On June 12, 2023, the non-partisan environmental group the Green Coalition made a formal request to Montreal mayor Mme Valérie Plante for her city to invoke a formal public consultation of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) about the planned Hypertec incursion in the ecosystem, and the whole future of the wetlands.
The following Saturday, June 17, the on-line newspaper Métro carried a story by reporter Matéo Gaurrand-Paradot, A Project Near to Wetlands Requires a Public Consultation, Organizations Say, (Un projet près de milieux humides nécessite une consultation publique, selon des organismes).
For the Green Coalition and the Technoparc Oiseaux organization, the land acquired by Hypertec is an essential buffer zone for the marsh, which is home to dozens of bird species. “It’s a place with high ecological value, and it’s incompatible with development,” explains Katherine Collin of Technoparc Oiseaux.
Strangely, the City of Montreal has just announced a new, cartographical “delimitation” extending to 219 hectares of what it calls Le parc des sources – all around the land where Hypertec said it plans to build its new corporate headquarters, but excluding the precise place that Hypertec purchased, leaving the company free in every way to build exactly there.
One of the reasons that this apparent singling out of Hypertec is extraordinary is that Projet Montréal – the city’s governing party – made an electoral promise in 2021 to use pre-emptive purchases to protect the wetland ecosystem from exactly the kind of dangerous fragmentation posed by the Hypertec development project.
It is “a situation,” Katherine Collin told Métro, that she judges to be “shocking” (étonnante).
“She wonders to herself,” the newspaper said, “about the reasons for which the City had not pre-empted the plots bought by Hypertec, as the city has the right to do.”
‘Projet Montréal… made an electoral promise in 2021 to use pre-emptive purchases to protect the wetland ecosystem from exactly the kind of dangerous fragmentation posed by the Hypertec development project.’
Members of the Green Coalition know some of the inner workings of this “shocking” situation since their organization went to court – unsuccessfully – to bring to light the strange goings-on during the last decade in the Technoparc.
Under the aegis of a municipal not-for-profit known as “Technoparc Montréal” a road was built to nowhere, marshes were partly drained, a dike was built… and all this surreal, destructive engineering work was carried out it seems for an “eco-campus Hubert Reeves” that never saw the light of day. (Hubert Reeves is a nonagenarian French and Quebec ecologist and astronomer). That activity was before Mayor Valérie Plante was first elected in 2016. Then the central city disbanded the para-public in 2018, as the Montreal Gazette announced in a striking headline: Citing “serious concerns,” city to disband Technoparc Montréal: Plante notes industrial park’s inability to raise its own funding and lack of transparency in management of its real estate activities and finances (Montreal Gazette, May 29, 2018).
In the very beginning of 2020, Board members of the Green Coalition, with their colleague and lawyer, Mr. Campbell Stuart, head of the Legacy Fund for the Environment, met with two lawyers of the City of Montreal in an attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement about the Technoparc issues.
The municipal lawyers began by putting a very large chart on a table before everyone. There, in the middle of the ecosystem, on the chart, was the famous “road to nowhere” and along its curving contour were the drawings of six very large projected buildings. The Green Coalition was told unequivocally that these buildings were going to be built, no matter what. But the municipal lawyers, when asked about precisely when that would happen, aggressively replied that the construction might be ten years away or even further. Campbell Stuart remembers that the chart and plan that he saw that day “was exactly as it had always been.”
These charts and architectural drawings had been around for a long time, and their enduring presence indicates that Montreal officials have wanted to develop in the Technoparc for a full ten years. And that the Hypertec project is the latest iteration of these ambitions.
What Green Coalition members met that day were not just two lawyers working for the city but the plans and projects of the development lobby that has always been nestled within the Montreal bureaucracy.
Now in 2023, the City of Montreal – by not exercising any real powers of pre-emption – has facilitated and encouraged Hypertec to make this disastrous choice for its corporate headquarters. However, as Global TV has just reported, neither the City of Montreal nor the government of Québec have yet given their approval for the projected construction by Hypertec.
‘What Green Coalition members met that day were not just two lawyers working for the city but the plans and projects of the development lobby that has always been nestled within the Montreal bureaucracy.’
Technoparc Oiseaux has met with Hypertec officials and is actively trying to persuade the company to locate elsewhere – nearby perhaps, but not in the ecosystem. The Green Coalition has proposed to the City of Montreal that it buy back the lots that Hypertec has purchased, giving Montreal possession of more real land in the ecosystem and supplying Hypertec with some cash to locate elsewhere.
On June 17, a public letter signed by more than 200 scientists and citizens in the paper Le Devoir put added pressure on Hypertec to really change its plans before irrevocably tarnishing its reputation. The letter’s title was Protect urban diversity, and the Technoparc habitat and the argument was clear for preserving biodiversity:
“Hypertec’s recent decision to purchase ecologically valuable land for an industrial building in the Technoparc’s wetlands and forests represents a major threat to this natural habitat and Montreal’s commitment to biodiversity.”
And the specialists explained:
“The project would involve cutting down 5,000 trees, encroaching on wetlands, and paving over some 18,500 square metres of living soil and shrubby vacant land. Yet more than 180 species of birds frequent or nest in the area alone where Hypertec wants to build. When it comes to conserving biodiversity and protecting habitats, every plot and every lot is important, especially in areas already fragmented by human activity.”
The letter concluded:
“As professors, researchers, and members of the student community, we ask Hypertec to consider an alternative location rather than contributing to the loss of habitat in Montreal’s remaining exceptional ecosystems.”
Montrealers, I am sure, stand with these scientists and with nature. As we deal with a North on fire, we must defend biodiversity in the south of Quebec, for this biodiversity is our own. This biodiversity is us.
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: Deep Rajwar
Patrick Barnard is a Board member of the Green Coalition.