Projet Montréal’s Ugly Spring
Party breaks its promise to protect Technoparc wetland ecosystem
By Patrick Barnard and Richard Swift
May 25, 2023
In April 2023, Projet Montréal broke one of its fundamental campaign promises made only two years before – by destroying its own pledge to buy private land to protect and enhance an invaluable wetland ecosystem north of Montreal’s airport.
Instead of fighting against biodiversity loss, Projet is facilitating it.
Picture the scene.
Beyond the tarmacs of Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport lie 215 hectares of forests, marshes, meadows, and woodland known generically as the Technoparc wetland ecosystem – including unique Monarch butterfly fields.
Technoparc Oiseaux, a local birding group of 5,000 members, has sighted more than 220 species of birds in the ecosystem, making it the prime observation area in Montreal.
But the ownership pattern is complicated, spread over two jurisdictions, the City of Dorval and the borough of Ville Saint-Laurent, and with property rights split between the Canadian government, the City of Montreal and a number of private owners.
Fragmentation is the great enemy of biodiversity, as the American naturalist E.O. Wilson showed empirically a generation ago. And this typical dissolution is well underway at the Technoparc.
A massive skytrain project has been building a Réseau express métropolitain (REM) right there, tunnelling like mad moles underneath the very marshes. The REM is a harbinger of environmental destruction wherever it goes, and here it clearcut a whole wood of ash where herons had been building nests. The borough of Ville Saint-Laurent drained marshland, and a road was built to nowhere, pointing, in its desolation, south to the airport.
Fragmentation is the great enemy of biodiversity, as the American naturalist E.O. Wilson showed empirically a generation ago, and this typical dissolution is well underway at the Technoparc.
Green Coalition and Technoparc Oiseaux both saw the looming destruction and an unsuccessful legal case was brought against the City of Montreal because it was thought the Certificates of Authorization (CAs) enabling this spoliation had been wrongly issued in 2013. It was believed that a false distinction was made by experts exalting one part of connected marshland as possessing “ ‘high ecological interest’ ” and devaluing another exactly similar section by describing it as having “ ‘low ecological value’ ” (see Barnard, Despair and Hope: A Story of Montreal’s Natural Space, in Montréal: A Citizen’s Guide To City Politics, Black Rose Books, Montreal 2021, P. 56).
But there was no basis for stigmatizing one section of the integrated marsh system as ‘sub-optimal’ except for supplying a rationalization for developing right upon it.
All this bad history took place before Projet Montréal assumed power in the city as the pro-environment party.
In 2021 Projet Montréal was in full possession of the facts. And they chose very deliberately to make the vigorous defence of the Technoparc wetland system a major campaign promise in the municipal election campaign.
A detailed communiqué appeared on October 24, 2021: Municipal elections 2021: Projet Montréal will protect the natural spaces of the Technoparc and triple the size of Sources Nature Park (authors’ translation). The Nature-Park Project would be “nearly as large as Mount-Royal Park” and there was the firmest of promises to “Work with the private owners to purchase natural spaces in the protection zone envisaged for the nature-park.”
Imagine the shock then of Technoparc Oiseaux when the news became public in May of 2023 that a high-tech industrial company, Hypertec, had bought land rights in the marshland.
‘Projet Montréal failed to buy this sensitive land, although they had vowed to do so and also had two full years to effect their promise.’
Then a story in one of Montreal’s papers of record, La Presse, appeared like a bombshell on May 18, 2023: A ‘sustainable’ building envisaged for natural spaces (Un batiment ‘durable’ prévu dans les milieux naturels) by Jean-Thomas Léveillé. The picture with the article showed a huge building labelled as the new headquarters for Hypertec “that describes itself as the most important manufacturer of technological products in Canada.”
The opening paragraph of the news item told the story:
The planned construction of a new business headquarters on the lands of Technoparc Montréal situated north of Montreal-Trudeau airport, containing natural spaces that the Plante administration had committed to protect, is deplored by the group Technoparc Oiseaux, who are especially worried about the “complex of wetlands” that is found on the site.
Katherine Collin of Technoparc Oiseaux told the paper that “to mineralize an already highly fragile area and to put a company headquarters there is unacceptable,” and she added, “What they want to do will fragment a natural space.” Another leader of Technoparc Oiseaux, Mr. Benoit Gravel, said: “It is the worst place that they could have built.”
Projet Montréal failed to buy this sensitive land, although they had vowed to do so and also had two full years to effect their promise. All interested parties knew pre-emptive purchase by the City was necessary. Then, when Hypertec plunged in, Montreal did nothing to really ensure that the company would build outside of the wetlands, despite claims to the contrary.
In fact, the “development wing” of Projet Montréal had enabled Hypertec to move on the marshland.
‘… these wetlands and natural spaces, if left intact, are an invaluable local tool for sequestering carbon.’
The pre-election communiqué of 2021 promised to protect and expand the wetlands while simultaneously saying, “Projet Montréal will take advantage of the arrival of the REM to concentrate the development of the Technoparc outside of sensitive and protected zones in order to create the greatest centre of innovation in all of Canada [emphasis added].” The municipal party committed itself “to aid in the installation of research centres,” all in the name of “sustainable development” and the “ecological transition.”
Sound familiar? It should. This is the mantra that our political class lives by. The Environment – we are for it. Jobs – absolutely. We embrace modern technology. We want to encourage high tech. We are inclusive. We are for growth but only in a thoughtful sense. We are against poverty. We are for affordable housing for everyone. We are also for the free market and incentives for business. We are against corporate misbehaviour and corruption. We are in favour of regulation but with a light hand so as not to discourage private sector innovation.
There is an old Trinidadian expression: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” So it is with our political class at all levels – municipal to federal. The idea is to give a little bit to everybody so as not to alienate large sectors of the electoral opinion. It’s all about balance. But like it or not the time for balance is in the rearview mirror as we face climate collapse and ecological catastrophe.
We now face two kinds of climate denialism – the outright type has lost ground but the notion peddled by so many, including Projet and its corporate allies, for a green growth compatible with ecological sustainability has taken its place. But the fact is that these wetlands and natural spaces, if left intact, are an invaluable local tool for sequestering carbon. The health of our biodiversity is a matter of species survival (including our own) and is incompatible with this supposed “green” growth.
This need for true commitment was made crystal clear during the biodiversity summit held in Montreal in the fall of 2022, when Inger Andersen, the Executive-Director of the UN Environment Program, concluded in her closing remarks:
Excellencies, we cannot live without nature and biodiversity. Nature provides the very essence of life. Technology cannot replace the trees, the soil, the water, and the species that teem in them. We have no other world to flee to. When the web of life falls, we fall with it. In the coming days, you have a unique responsibility to deliver: to agree on the plan to make peace with nature. This responsibility is not a choice between something or nothing. It is a choice between everything or nothing.
Montreal is not delivering in the Technoparc wetlands. What is happening to these invaluable natural areas is a travesty.
‘[Valérie Plante] has successfully carved a reputation for herself as an environmental leader, but that reputation will crumble unless her administration takes strong action to put the Hypertec plant elsewhere.’
The mayor of Montreal, Mme Valérie Plante, is a fine woman, and she knows full well that environmentally an ugly spring has come upon us and upon her. She has successfully carved a reputation for herself as an environmental leader, but that reputation will crumble unless her administration takes strong action to put the Hypertec plant elsewhere. Close by – but definitely not in the wetlands.
On Monday, May 15, 2023, environmentalists went to Montreal City Council to seek answers from the mayor and her administration. Observers, including veteran reporters, saw a Projet Montréal that was brittle, defensive and sullen. Valérie Plante appeared drawn, looked down at the floor, and left the chamber early.
Both Technoparc Oiseaux and the Green Coalition have asked to meet with the mayor. Obviously, the solution is for Projet Montréal to buy back the lots now owned by Hypertec and that purchase would enable the company to protect its reputation and find a proper place for its planned headquarters.
Mme Plante, we think, is worried and troubled by this situation – and so she should be. The 5,000 members of Technoparc Oiseaux have come to know the wetlands really well. And those people are hardly likely to vote for Projet. Nor are the many individuals who are part of the Green Coalition network. People have believed in Mme Plante and her party, and now they may be deeply disenchanted – unless the mayor and her party do the right thing.
Truly, Valérie Plante and Projet Montréal, when it comes to the Technoparc wetland ecosystem, face “a choice between everything or nothing.” Let us hope they can make the right choice.
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: artist’s rendering of Hypertec’s planned Éco Campus that the company intends to build on Technoparc land – courtesy of Hypertec
Patrick Barnard is a Board member of the Green Coalition.
Richard Swift is an author and writer for the New Internationalist magazine of Oxford, in the United Kingdom.