Archive for the 'Montreal' Category


“I’ll give you two choices: either I smash your face in or you tell me what’s going on.”

What to do when given a choice like that?  Any self-respecting non-masochist would readily choose option two: explain what is going on.  But here, as with most stories, context is everything.

Earlier that Monday (Nov. 22) I had been covering the preparations for État d’Urgence (State of Emergency), an annual event organized by the art and activism group Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable (ATSA) or Socially Acceptable Terrorist Action.  The four-day event set up a 24-hour shelter for homeless people and provided the basics of food, shelter and medical attention.

The event’s theme was “Tout(s) Inclus,” playing on the fact that everyone was included, but also that the organizers were satirizing the idea of an all-inclusive resort.  A martini glass with a parasol was pictured on the cover of the event pamphlet and activities were to include concerts, workout sessions, haircuts and massages.

Promotional art for Etat d'Urgence

After finishing my live hit from the event site, I headed back to Concordia’s Loyola campus for a meeting and a few more hours of work.  I left for home after dark and got off the metro at around 8 p.m.  But my evening took a strange twist just as I arrived in front of my apartment.

Under the stairs that led up to the entrance of my place stood a man smoking the tail end of a cigarette, just next to the door of the ground floor apartment.  My assumption was that this was someone my neighbours knew and who was about to ring their door bell.  But as I got closer, I realized that the man had been looking through the garbage that was due to be picked up the next day.

Tall, with wavy light brown hair parted in the middle and a full complement of facial hair, the man in his late 20s or early 30s glared at me.

“You’re all smiles aren’t you.”

I hadn’t even noticed I was smiling, but after realizing it wasn’t my neighbour’s friend staring me down, the grin no doubt evaporated.  The man stepped towards me.

“I’ll give you two choices: either I smash your face in,” he said, as I tried to imagine what the next choice could possibly be.  “Or you tell me what’s going on here.”  That’s precisely what I wanted to know.

I wasn’t given time to respond.  The Heath Ledger lookalike with sandy brown hair came at me.  Exasperated, I told him I didn’t know and that I was sorry as I raised my arms to brace for a blow.  He pushed me back and swung at me, hitting my arms which I’d brought up to block my face.  I retreated as the man began yelling obscenities and charging after me.

I live on St. Hubert street, very near the corner of Ontario in the border zone between the Plateau, Montreal’s popular and trendy borough, and Ville-Marie, the downtown borough.  Around the corner from my apartment the Cheval Blanc bar and microbrewery buzzes at most hours of the day.  Trying to escape my bizarre persecution, I stumbled towards the bar, knowing that there are never fewer than two or three people smoking outside.

By this time I’d also flipped open my phone to call my girlfriend and explain why I was later than expected.  Thinking the jarring experience was over, I let my guard down.  But an instant later the man came around the corner towards me and yelling at me for calling the cops.  I quickly told my girlfriend that I was coming home, loudly enough so that my attacker would hear and know it wasn’t the police.

Instinctively I tried to ally myself with the two men smoking as the man approached. He was not deterred.  He bounded towards me, pushing and swinging fists, and I found myself calling out for help in French and English and yelling that I didn’t know the person who pursued me.  The smokers glanced sideways, didn’t move and didn’t say a word.  I can only assume fear compelled them to stay silent and do nothing.  I backed away as the man yelled at me to go home calling me a few more names for good measure.

By now, I thought I was home free and I dashed around the corner and over to the alley that led me back to the front of my building.  Halfway up the steps to my door he came around the corner and up St. Hubert.  “So that’s where you live!” he called out as he headed in my direction.  I didn’t wait.  I flew back down my steps and up the street towards Sherbrooke.

I began to feel I was in a nightmare, for only in a cruel dream had I ever been chased like this.  I walked quickly up the hill and glanced backwards.  The man was running after me.  I couldn’t believe it and I was suddenly gripped by a terrible survival instinct.  I ran.  I ran up the hill and turned sharply on Sherbrooke.  I ran to the next street and turned sharply again, being sure to look behind me as I did.  I ran wildly and broke into sweat, taking a lesser-known route back to my apartment.

I was frantic.  I called my girlfriend, explained quickly and told her I’d take the back door.  I ran into the yard, shut the gate and leaped up the metallic spiral staircase.  She had the door open as I hurtled in.  She closed it and locked it behind me.  Drenched in sweat and heart racing, I peeled off my clothes and began to explain.  With some perspective and some time between me and the incident, I’m able to write about it.

What happened was shocking, an attack with unclear motivations, but more than anything a bizarre coincidence involving a person in a socially vulnerable position.  I can only guess that mental illness played a part in the attack, but perhaps also the misinterpretation of a smile by a person who rarely receives such an expression from strangers.

This brings me back to État d’Urgence (State of Emergency).  The event is meant to bring, “street people and non-street people,” together, according to co-founder Pierre Allard, and has been doing so since 1998.  This year, however, is likely to be the last État d’Urgence because Heritage Canada has removed $40,000 of funding that is crucial to the mainly volunteer-run event.

a homeless man pictured in promotional material for the Etat d'Urgence event

Come on's a party?

Held at Place Émilie Gamelin, across the street from the Montreal bus terminal, the event gives homeless people, “a break,” as Allard put it, from not knowing where the next night will be spent or if a hot meal is in the cards.  Such living conditions are fertile ground for the development of depression and other types of mental illness.

And faced with societal pressures like high unemployment rates, a push for higher tuition fees and a drop in funding for events like État d’Urgence, there may be no choice but to fall into a life like that of the man whose path crashed into mine that November night.

Listen to Pierre Allard, co-founder of État d’Urgence, talk about what the event means and its goals:


Citizen groups demand Quebec shale gas moratorium, petition numbers rise

Citizen groups in Quebec are disturbed by the provincial government’s gung-ho approach to shale gas development.

“With shale gas the government refuses to say, ‘Maybe it’s not a good idea,’ and it’s distressing because there are a lot of citizens saying, ‘Stop it!’” said Kim Cornelissen, vice-president of the Quebec Association Against Atmospheric Pollution (AQLPA), speaking before a meeting of the Council of Canadians on October 5.

Cornelissen was making a presentation in the wake of public hearings on Quebec’s shale gas development that began in early October in Saint-Hyacinthe, southeast of Montreal.  Organized by the Commission of Public Hearings on the Environment (BAPE), the meetings have garnered attention not only for the heated discussion between citizens, government and industry representatives, but because hundreds of people have been attending.

“I’ll be honest, I’m very worried,” said Cornelissen, who has also attended the meetings.  She said the BAPE is supposed to be an independent commission, but that in the case of shale gas the commission is sidestepping important questions on risks and consequences in order to move forward quickly with development.

The commission’s mandate, conferred by Pierre Arcand, minister of sustainable development, environment and parks, starts with the assumption that shale gas is a resource the province wants to explore and exploit, and this is precisely the approach that Cornelissen’s organization and other citizen groups are criticizing.

“From what we’ve seen now the president [of the commission] is quite aggressive with the public and is asking the industry to answer the questions,” said Cornelissen.  “There’s a conflict of interest that is quite big there.”

The public’s main questions pertain to the potential for long-term chemical contamination of groundwater and drinking water, since the shale gas exploration and extraction processes involve sending a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals between 500 and 2000 metres underground to fracture the shale and release the natural gas.

Shale gas is characterized by multiple horizontal wells underground, whereas traditional natural gas extraction digs one well to tap into a large reservoir in one place.

Questions also remain with regard to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with drilling and the mass industrialization of rural landscapes.  Cornelissen said nearly 600 permits for exploration have already been granted for most of the territory across southern Quebec, including Montreal, Laval and all of the south shore.

And the way the hearings are being handled could cost the commission a great deal of credibility. “The BAPE is a good idea, in general, but if you pervert it in a way, then people could say, ‘Let’s get rid of the BAPE,’ and that would be a big mistake, so I hope that’s not what is intended,” said Cornelissen.

A moratorium, the central demand of citizens at the Saint-Hyacinthe hearings, has yet to be obtained, but Cornelissen said citizen groups have been learning a lot in the process.  She said that each time a stakeholder makes a move in the debate, citizens learn more about the issue, referring to a threat by the industry to sue the government over a moratorium that was quickly exposed as having no basis.

A moratorium in Quebec would follow a similar hold put on shale gas development in New York State.  Shale gas development has propagated widely across the U.S. in the past several years, with about 500,000 wells in place today in 34 states.  “Last year they were beginning to do films about it,” said Cornelissen.  “I think one of the best ways to reach people is through films and I think Gasland has done its job,” she said, referring to the documentary that chronicles the rise of shale gas in the United States and its consequences.

Though Quebec groups have learned much from the U.S. experience, Cornelissen said she is impressed at how informed people at the hearings have been and stresses that the moratorium request is not a knee-jerk reaction. “[It] is not for nothing,” said Cornelissen.  “We’re asking [the government] to stop.  Let’s see both sides of the issue.  If it’s good, great, we’ll do it.  If it’s not good we won’t.”

On October 5 the call for a moratorium received parliamentary support.  Québec Solidaire member of the national assembly Amir Khadir submitted a petition to the national assembly to enact a full moratorium on shale gas development.  The petition had early momentum and has now received over 18,000 signatures.  It remains open for signatures until December 6.

Cornelissen believes that the best thing concerned individuals can do is to sign the petition to support the moratorium.  “If everybody signs it – there are a lot municipalities asking for it, there are a lot of environmental and social groups asking for it – if everybody keeps on asking for it, they won’t have a choice but to do it.”

Sound: Listen to a shale gas report broadcast earlier this month on CKUT, 90.3 fm with reactions from the Council of Canadians and the New Brunswick Conservation Council.


Compost Montreal: Helping Montrealers feel good about themselves, five bucks at a time

“We’ve cut down to one a month, with the compost,” says Isabelle Moncion, proudly stating how many garbage bags she and her boyfriend are producing, thanks to Compost Montreal.  While many now take recycling for granted in Montreal, composting is still in its early stages.  More and more, however, people are taking responsibility for the waste they produce and this is precisely the market that entrepreneur Stephen McLeod and Compost Montreal have stepped in to serve.

“It’s quite a grey area as far as doing business goes.  It’s an environmental business and I don’t think there are a whole lot that are quite the same as we are,” says McLeod who started out in 2007 with a small-scale residential compost collection service powered by nothing more than a bicycle, a trailer, and a heavy duty garbage container.

McLeod had originally branched out as an entrepreneur in his previous field as a Montreal bike messenger, but quickly found that even an innovative approach was not enough to make it in the competitive bike messenger market.  He would need to try something else. “We composted when I was kid,” says McLeod. “It was just normal for me and certainly I always wanted to do something that was going to be, you know, helpful.”

Sitting in the meeting room of an apartment turned office space in Saint-Henri, conversation is briefly interrupted by the sound of a freight train rumbling by.  The goateed McLeod then turns in his chair to point out the areas on a Montreal map that his company has grown to serve, including Saint-Henri, the Plateau, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Rosemont, Outremont, Villeray, and Hochelaga.

Compost Montreal logo

Compost Montreal logo by Lucas Fehr (Lucworks), copyright Compost Montreal

“We just very recently celebrated our 1000th residential client,” says McLeod, which represents about 75 percent of the company’s business.  And that client base has been growing fast mainly by means of the company’s website and word-of-mouth.  “Within the second quarter of 2009 we were running about half the residential [clients] that we are now.”

At five dollars per week, this means Compost Montreal is taking in about $260,000 annually from the residential service.  The company also offers a slightly discounted $60 for a 13-week full season commitment. The remaining 25 percent of the business lies with commercial and institutional clients.  “We want to focus our efforts more on the diversification, developing the commercial, the institutional and then working with the cities as well to get more centralized plans of services up and running.”

McLeod didn’t really have a business strategy in the conventional sense when he started out.  “I sort of went pretty intuitively,” he says.  “A big advantage I had in being able to do that was that I didn’t really have any start up capital.”

“I think that’s a very valuable exercise, to start with nothing and see if you can actually generate something that’s going to allow you to arc and generate proper working capital,” says McLeod, “rather than starting with money from wherever and running the risk of messing up.”

Matthew Bruno, one of Compost Montreal’s eight employees is happy with the way the business is going. “I could not ask for a better job,” says Bruno. “Everyone here is easy going, enthusiastic, pretty knowledgeable and of course, super friendly.  The work is never the same and the company is still young so things are changing quickly and evolving nicely. We are all building this business together.”

At one garbage bag per month, customers like Isabelle Moncion must be feeling pretty good about themselves, and even though Compost Montreal isn’t selling it, that feeling may just be the most valuable product they offer.

Sound: Listen to Stephen McLeod tell us about his favourite part of the job and about just what happens after you put your compost bucket on the doorstep (hint: it starts with “s” and ends with “ustainability”), enjoy!

Thanks to Nick Ward for the interview sounds.


Close Saint-Laurent More Often, Montrealers say

As the late summer sun went down on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the crowds came out to enjoy the Mix’ Arts street festival, which had the bustling boulevard closed to cars and open to pedestrians from August 26-29 between Sherbrooke Street and Mont-Royal Avenue.  Full of music, food, art, drinks, and especially people, the four-day festival is the Société de développement du boulevard Saint-Laurent’s way of showcasing the street’s mix of shopping, restaurants, bars and culture.

“We need it, we need it more often, we have to enhance the business, you know,” said Bill Fernandes, owner of Papas Tapas and Martini Bar, echoing the sentiments of business owners up and down the Main.  “It should close all the time.  It should be a closed street.”

Daniel Ma, part owner of Dyad Electric Scooters and Bicycles, noted that the street festival is even more important for new businesses.  “Because we just opened, we need more people to know the products.  A lot of people pass by and ask and try, and so it’s good advertising”, said Ma.

crowds stroll along St-Laurent boulevard

Yes, that's St-Laurent boulevard

The Montreal Urban Ecology Centre advocates creating more public spaces like the street fest, spearheading projects like Green, Active and Healthy Neighbourhoods, aimed at increasing public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.  The Centre’s website states, however, that, “In order to make this transition possible, adequate infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists is a prerequisite”.

Montreal graffiti artist, Fluke, was on the street for the June version of the street festival displaying his spray-painting skill on a temporary wall set up for demonstrations. “We just came to show off a little bit of our skills and showcase what we do”, said Fluke.  He also said local artists have a long history with the street festival.  “It’s helped us a lot over the years because there’s a lot of downtown crowd that passes through here that we don’t necessarily have a chance to talk to and show our stuff to on a regular basis”.

Visitors were also enjoying the pedestrian space.  In town for the weekend, David Ryning of Edmonton, Alberta said, “This is fantastic, from a tourist’s point of view”.

Of course, not everyone in the area was walking on sunshine.  Colleen Steacy has lived in two apartments on the Main and says noise is the main problem. “The last place that I lived was better because my bedroom was at the back of the apartment,” said Steacy.  “At the new place that I’m living I’m bothered by noise constantly and it’s the reason I’m moving.”

She plans to stay in the area, however, and said she loves the shopping available during the street festival.  Even at the quietest of times Saint-Laurent is buzzing, but with cars removed from the equation the Main showed it has the potential to become an even more vibrant public space and showcase for Montreal’s best.

Watch and listen to a mash-up of the sounds and voices of the Mix’ Arts St-Laurent street festival:


Rogers Cup serves up an ace of a green plan

Even before spectators arrive at the gates of Uniprix Stadium for the Rogers Cup tennis tournament in Montreal this week, they may already have become part of Tennis Canada’s ambitious green plan for 2010.  That’s because ticket-holders ride free of charge on the Société de Transport de Montréal’s (STM) network, which many spectators take advantage of to get to the big event.  Maryse Lemay, head of Tennis Canada’s green plan, says the site is also equipped with a special event Bixi bike station and a bicycle parking area.

These are all parts of the tournament’s green plan aimed at cutting transportation emissions and encouraging public and active transport.  Last year, nearly half of  the tournament’s 200,077 spectators used public transit at least once to get to the site.  “This year, Tennis Canada has committed to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions related to the air travel of players, in partnership with the Women’s Tennis Association,” says Lemay, “so both organizations will share the cost of carbon offsets for the air travel emissions.”

The green plan’s main objective, however, is waste reduction. “We’ve done some more focused awareness-raising in terms of waste reduction to encourage people to use the recycling bins and the composting bins more frequently,” says Lemay.  Though recycling has become a common feature of major events in Montreal, the Rogers Cup is one of the first to include composting for public use to help divert more waste from landfill, which began at the tournament in 2009.

four people and a mascot

Green team members and the triple bins at the Rogers Cup

Food vendors have been cooperative in purchasing a variety of mainly compostable food containers. “They’ve replaced all kinds of items like take-out platters that were difficult to recycle with corn-based compostable containers,” says Frédérik Bélanger of RCI Environment, the tournament’s waste management service.  “You’ll also find all plates, containers, and utensils are compostable, the wine glasses are recyclable, compostable fry and poutine platters, which mean that food providers are creating almost no waste that will go to landfill.”

“Last year we sent 47% of our waste to landfill and we were able to divert 53%,” says Lemay.  “This year we are trying to raise that level to 60% diverted from landfill.”  In order to achieve the waste reduction goal, the number recycling and composting bins has been increased all over the site and more signs dot the grounds at entrances, in bathrooms, near eating areas and on many of the bins themselves.  However, signs are conspicuously absent at concession stands where visitors could look at them while waiting in line and before they eat.

The tournament does have a team of volunteers helping to raise the public’s awareness of environmental issues and what Tennis Canada is doing, especially in terms of waste reduction and properly sorting waste at the source.  “So [green team volunteers] walk around the site on the patios and near the concession stands and advise people where to put their empty beer cup, in the recycling, because it’s a number 5 plastic, for example.”

Several other measures have been taken to raise awareness including humourous ads on the giant stadium screens encouraging composting and recycling, and ‘did you know?’ tips in the daily program.

2010 is the final year of Tennis Canada’s three-year green plan and in the fall the not-for-profit organization will be releasing a complete report on all its green plan activities and results.

Sound: Check out the sounds of the Rogers Cup and Tennis Canada’s green plan


Central Canada gets a lesson in seismology from Mother Nature herself

An earthquake in China, Haiti, or Chile, though tragic, seems far from home and difficult to imagine, even given the flood of multimedia that came from each of these disaster areas earlier this year.  On June 24, it all became frighteningly clear for residents of Quebec and Ontario.

“I was in the kitchen.  I was having a late breakfast,” says Albin Dzurnak, resident of Ottawa who experienced his first-ever seismic event in June when a magnitude 5.0 earthquake hit the region, with an epicentre near the Ontario-Quebec border about 60 km north of Ottawa.

“It was kind of strange, things were shaking, so I figured, well, this is not normal so it must be an earthquake,” says Dzurnak.

While media reports often focus on the magnitude figure of an earthquake to communicate its strength, the shaking is the first thing one feels.  And this is also central for engineers.  “From the engineering point of view, the magnitude of the earthquake is not the controlling parameter and becomes almost irrelevant information,” says Carlos Ventura, professor of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia.

“What is important is how far from the epicentre or from the rupture zone a building is located and the severity of the shaking at that location,” says Ventura.  “For example, the level of shaking experienced by the [8.8 magnitude] earthquake in Santiago, Chile [this year] is very similar to that experienced [there] in 1985, which was 7.8-magnitude.

Earthquake magnitude is a measure of the energy released by the seismic event, but the amount of shaking this creates in a given location depends on many factors, says Professor John Clague, Canada Research Chair in Natural Hazards Research at Simon Fraser University.

Shake map and location map for Ontario-Quebec earthquake

The ShakeMap and location map for the June 24, 2010, 5.2-magnitude, central Canada earthquake (depth: 16 km)

The severity of shaking depends on the distance from the epicentre, its depth, and other factors. Around the recent earthquake, “The crust is not as highly faulted and broken up, it’s less heterogeneous,” says Clague. “You’re right in the middle of a plate, the North America plate.”

“You’re not in an area where the crust is overly thickened, where it’s [not] particularly hot, and that allows seismic waves to propagate with less attenuation, less loss of energy over larger distances,” says Clague, which is why the central Canada quake was felt as far as New York City. “On the west coast, an earthquake like [that] would not be terribly remarkable.”

Most people have heard of the Richter scale for measuring the size of an earthquake, but in fact, the popularized scale, which originally applied mainly to California’s seismic landscape, has long been supplanted by the more accurate moment magnitude scale.

“If you’re to think of a fault as being the slipping of two surfaces, one against the other, the moment magnitude is the product of the area of the whole fault, times how far it slips, times how strong the rock was that it broke,” says professor and seismologist Olivia Jensen of McGill University. “The stronger the rock was that it broke, the stronger the earthquake.”

“For big events the numbers would be pretty much the same as Richter numbers,” says Jensen.

Summing up his feelings on his first earthquake experience with tongue slightly in cheek, Dzurnak says,  “I was happy about the earthquake and I wish there were more of those so that people are reminded that, ‘hey this is Mother Nature talking to you,’ and you have to deal with it.  You either deal with it or you die, that’s how it works.”

Sound: Listen to Professor John Clague to find out how a train can end up beside its track instead of on it and how man-made reservoirs and oil exploration can make earthquakes more likely:


High Rollers: Montreal Roller Derby soars through its fourth season

Standing in line to buy a t-shirt the atmosphere begins to sink in: driving rock music, a buzzing crowd, squealing wheels and a decidedly tough team cheer.  Welcome to Montreal Roller Derby.  Picture it: a flat donut of a track with five scantily clad women per side bumping and bruising to prevent the other team’s “jammer” from skating past them and scoring points.  And next Saturday night (August 7), the city’s Mile End neighbourhood will welcome people from all walks to watch local teams Les Contrabanditas take on Les Filles du Roi for the Montreal Roller Derby championship.

The all women’s league has come a long way since its first season in 2007 and though some things, like clever player names and cheap beer, haven’t changed, others certainly have.  “The skill level has improved tremendously and a lot of the people that weren’t necessarily athletes then have turned into athletes,” says league founder Alyssa Kwasny, who goes by Georgia W. Tush on the track.

Logo for Montreal Roller Derby, a roller waitress with a skull on a platter

Montreal Roller Derby

This year, the New Skids on the Block, the league’s top travel team, became the first international team to join the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in the U.S.  “We went from a little road team, a little cutesy team from up north to a very competitive team,” says Cheryl Gladu, captain of Les Contrabanditas, whose player name, Ewan Wotarmy (you and what army) is representative of the league’s tough but playful reputation.  The “we-think-we-can” attitude is what roller derby is all about.  Gladu, who is also the communications person for the league, says, “The resurgence of derby is a do-it-yourself kind of sporting league and it’s one that’s run for the players by the players.”

And in Montreal people have taken notice.  The frequently packed house at Saint-Louis Arena lines up early to secure good seats.  Why not try the “suicide” seats directly next to the flat track? You might get to meet a player as they crash into your lap.  The key is not to knock over one of the beer can “beeramids” that rise up from around the track as the night rolls on.  And just behind the suicides, the kids run back and forth, making the most of the electric atmosphere and the open space.

With such popularity and a string of sell outs, the league is now toying with the idea of moving to a larger venue to accommodate its growing fan base.  What is certain, however, is that no matter who you are, derby is a whole lot of fun.  Thirtysomething fan Tanya says, “It’s very exciting and there’s so much to look at, even if you’re not looking at the girls skating. It’s fun.”  Tanya’s silver-haired mother Erika, attending her first derby, agrees. “It was fascinating, oh yes I loved it.  I certainly would like to come back.”  And with an atmosphere as entertaining as Montreal Roller Derby, you’ll certainly want to as well.

Check out the Sounds of Montreal Roller Derby with this rockin’ radio mini-documentary:

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