The Early Days of the Mile End Citizens’ Committee

Mile End has had several citizens’ committees over the years. At the beginning of the 20th century, residents banded together to preserve the exclusively residential character of Park Avenue and opposed the proliferation of businesses and drinking establishments. In 1967, Hubert Falardeau, (nicknamed “the priest of the poor”), along with activists from the Action sociale etudiante created a new citizens’ committee. Its goal was to defend the interests of those who lived in a neighbourhood that was then considered one of the most disadvantaged in Montreal.

The current committee was created by young mothers in 1982. Along with the Milton-Parc Citizens Committee, it is probably one of the oldest such groups still active in Montreal. Its first demands concerned quality of life in a neighbourhood that had been neglected by the municipal authorities. The Committee’s activities initially focused on the northwestern part of Mile End: it defined the boundaries of its territory by Hutchison Street on the west side, St. Laurent Boulevard on the east, and Van Horne and Laurier avenues on the north and south.

In 1985-86, the municipal administration undertook a reform of its commercial zoning. This reform would have completely transformed the vocation of Fairmount Avenue and Saint-Viateur Street. In response, the Citizens’ Committee organized its own, vast public consultation and collected dozens of testimonies from neighbourhood residents. The exercise led to a brief that defended the existing character of these streets and explained their role in the identity of Mile End.

The Citizens’ Committee was primarily concerned with issues related to the quality of life in the neighbourhood: cleanliness of streets and alleys, beautification and creation of green spaces, and traffic issues. This last theme was the one that initially mobilized the most energy, because western Mile End was flanked by two high-traffic arteries, Park Avenue and St. Laurent Boulevard. The Committee reaffirmed the residential character of the neighbourhood’s streets, which crosstown motorists were using as high-speed shortcuts to bypass traffic congestion on the main arteries.

Following serious car accidents involving children, the Committee called for the pedestrianization of the alley known as Groll Street, between Jeanne-Mance and Saint-Urbain, and the installation of stop signs at various intersections on Saint-Viateur Street. In every case, the activists were initially opposed by municipal traffic engineers, who considered such measures to be detrimental to the flow of automobile traffic. A first victory was achieved in 1985, when Groll was pedestrianized and stop signs were installed at its intersections.

Claudine Schirardin, Nancy Ellis, Diane Lasnier and her two daughters. The first victory of the Mile End Citizens’ Committee, this stop sign at the corner of Groll and Waverly streets. (Photo: Robert Frechette) Liaison Saint-Louis, 29 May 1985

That same year, the City of Montreal undertook a major reform of its commercial and residential zoning. In Mile End, Fairmount Avenue and St. Viateur Street were to become exclusively residential (existing businesses would be allowed to continue due to acquired rights, unless destroyed by fire), while the commercial, non-residential character of Park Avenue and St. Laurent Boulevard was to be reinforced. In response, the Citizens’ Committee then conducted an unofficial, but broad, consultation process that allowed it to define its vision for the neighbourhood. The result was a brief, written by Elaine Cote, Diane Lasnier and Claudine Schirardin, entitled La parole des residents (Words from the residents). It was submitted in May 1986 during the public hearings on the new plan. The introductory chapter, “Our Village”, summarized their assessment:

We live in Mile End, but we can just as easily say that Mile End lives in us, because our neighbourhood, or rather, our village, is very special and endearing. […]

Saint-Viateur Street is undoubtedly, in our opinion, the “Main Street” of the village, its emotional and, in that sense, vital core. Bernard and Fairmount streets are its northern and southern boundaries, while particularly serving nearby residents. […] Our residential streets have always lived in harmony with each other; they all depend on each other and reflect one another.

These streets are full of commercial establishments of all kinds, from small cobbler’s shops to big pharmacies, travel agencies, billiard halls, fabric stores, fish shops, and kosher stores, etc. [our translation][1]

Cover of the brief prepared by the Mile End Citizens’ Committee, May 1986.

In the name of this village vision, the Committee therefore opposed the residential reclassification of Fairmount and Saint-Viateur streets. It considered these to be the main locations for local businesses serving the residents of the neighbourhood. The Committee was also concerned that limiting the commercial zones to Park and St-Laurent Boulevard would set the stage for anonymous, soulless large stores: “We refuse to live in an exclusively residential sector that would be surrounded by chain stores. We chose to live in this neighbourhood precisely because of its heterogeneity and its mix.” [our translation] And this heterogeneity was, above all, its multi-ethnicity. According to the Committee, this was what fundamentally differentiated Mile End from Outremont or neighbouring Plateau Mont-Royal:

This neighbourhood reflects an astonishing diversity where the very special spirit of its residents shines through. One is first struck by the diversity of our ethnic origins, which easily span all continents […]. This part of Mile End has been, since the turn of the [20th] century, the first port of call for new immigrants, and it remains so today. On our streets we hear all kinds of languages, meet people of all races and colours; many religions coexist and different traditional and modern cultures live side by side. In harmony. […] Greek and Vietnamese families, Haitian and Hasidic, old Polish couples, young Québécois and Italians. […]

Is it all this mixture, or the narrowness of our streets, or the density of our houses and flats; or is it all of this together, or something else altogether, that explains the warmth and sympathy that emanates from our neighbourhood? People know each other, sometimes very well; children play and bicker and grow up together; neighbours talk to each other or argue: they rarely ignore each other. There are networks of sociability between friends and families, circuits of mutual aid; the small bistros and clubs serve as meeting places, as do the stores […] In a word, our neighbourhood is a village, full of life and colours, full of activities and people that we like to rub shoulders with and get to know. [our translation]

The City of Montreal was facing pressure from developers to turn Park Avenue and St. Laurent Boulevard in Mile End into commercial ‘destinations’. On Park Avenue, bars, restaurants and nightclubs had been springing up since the early 1980s, and one developer even wanted to turn the Rialto Theatre, now a classified historic monument, into an upscale shopping mall, l’Atrium du Parc. The new zoning would allow businesses to expand by reclaiming apartment space above the first floor of the avenue’s buildings, space that was a remnant of the period when Park Avenue was exclusively residential. A few blocks east, other investors wanted to create, between Laurier and Saint-Viateur, ‘Le village du Milieu’: their ambition was to turn this derelict portion of St. Lawrence Boulevard into a mecca of Montreal nightlife and even attract the ‘international jet-set’.

The Citizens’ Committee opposed this vision. It argued that speculation was displacing the small businesses that had served the neighbourhood for decades and given the neighbourhood its unique colour: “We cannot accept economic development projects — as beautiful and chic and modern as they might be — that kill the multi-ethnic spirit, the immigrant reality and the grassroots foundation of this part of Mile End.” The City at first tried to compromise by proposing metropolitan artery status for Park Avenue, on the grounds that its property owners had acquired rights and invoking its ethnic character, and by limiting businesses on St. Laurent Boulevard to local commercial use, thereby limiting their size. The City would also maintain the status quo on Fairmount Avenue and St. Viateur Street.

The Montreal Citizens’ Movement (MCM; in French, Rassemblement des citoyens de Montreal – RCM), which came to power in the fall of 1986, went further by imposing a moratorium on new permits for bars and restaurants on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, north of Mount Royal Avenue. It also protected the residential use of the storeys above the ground floor of the buildings on Park Avenue. However, it was primarily the recession of the early 1990s that put an end, temporarily at least, to the ambitions of the developers. A new phase in the evolution of Mile End began in 1997, symbolized by the establishment, that year, of the French multinational Ubisoft in the former Peck clothing factory.

The Citizens’ Committee continued its activities throughout these periods. Between 1986 and 1999, it organized ‘La Saint-Jean dans le Mile End’, a celebration of Quebec’s national holiday that emphasized the neighbourhood’s multi-ethnic diversity. The Committee also fought for the preservation of Park Avenue institutions such as the Church of the Ascension, now the Mordecai-Richler Library, and the Rialto Theatre, as well as for the retention of the YMCA in the neighbourhood. In 2009, a new generation of activists launched a vast consultation, focused on the revitalization of the eastern part of the neighbourhood. It was to lead to the creation of the Champ des possibles natural park and to initiatives for the preservation of artists’ studios in some of the old factory buildings. The Committee also played a key role in commemorating the memory of singer Lhasa de Sela, which led to the renaming of Clark Park after her. We discuss these themes in other articles.

1980s and 1990s : The Rebirth of a Forgotten Neighbourhood

[1] Elaine Cote, Diane Lasnier and Claudine Schirardin, La parole des residents, brief on commercial zoning presented by the Mile End Citizens’ Committee, May 1986.

Translated by Joshua Wolfe

This text is a translation and adaptation of an excerpt from Histoire du Mile End, by Yves Desjardins, Éditions du Septentrion, 2017. With the gracious permission of the publisher.