Culture  Step right up to the three-ring landfill

A closer look at the history of Montreal’s greenest circus

La TOHU is a circus built on a landfill. Take your worst entrepreneurial idea – the girls-of-Red-Lobster calendar, talking sneakers, the “You Were Adopted!” greetings card – publicly tie them to the mafia and set them on fire; they’d still sound marginally more marketable than a circus built on a fucking landfill. At least they don’t conjure images of clowns dancing atop hordes of used condoms and empty cereal boxes.

On the flip side, that makes it much easier for me to recommend that you go, if only to shatter those deeply unfortunate first impressions. With the bar set that low, it’s all the more pleasing to find that La TOHU is nothing short of a global example for environmental activism and civic renewal; a ray of light within Montreal’s least valued neighbourhood – St-Michel.

For one thing, you couldn’t tell about the landfill from the sight of the place. Sticking out like a sore thumb among the area’s kitsch seventies residences, the rather imposing TOHU building stands completely isolated, halfway between the Metropolitan highway and the St-Michel Environmental Complex. The latter, I’m told, is what’s left of that infamous landfill, which the city finished covering up in 2004. Today, a vast spread of pavement and – in summer – patches of greenery are all the eye can see.

Still, you can imagine how the awkward locale – chosen for its proximity to La TOHU’s various parent organizations – conferred the organization its environmental and civic pedigree. Born as a non-profit expansion to Montreal’s circus industry – with the specific purpose of diffusing the circus arts across the city – La TOHU acquired the remainder of its raison d’être shortly before construction commenced on its headquarters.

Certified as a “green” building by the Canada LEED program, the structure now represents most of La TOHU’s environmental commitments, flaunting a long list of environmentally-friendly contraptions – such as the ice bank that provides its air-conditioning, or the geothermal pipes that regulate its temperature – as proof. Meanwhile, the landfill’s converted gas secretions help provide the TOHU’s heating, a heartening move reminding us how environmental blights can occasionally be converted into (limited) blessings.

But La TOHU’s activism extends further, frequently manifesting itself in its selection of expositions and performances. For instance, last summer saw the presentation of Cindy Diane Rheault’s environmentally conscious photographs, arranged into a 100 per cent recycled-carton installation. And this summer will mark the return of La TOHU’s Fête Bio-Paysane, described as Canada’s largest eco-friendly event, uniting farmers, environmental groups, and green enterprises into a medley of workshops and conferences.

Though one would hope that La TOHU’s exceptional efforts are part of a part of a broader trend, the rest of the city has yet to catch up and make landfills a thing of the past. Just recently for instance, the city has allowed the Lachenaie landfill to continue expanding far into 2012, at its current rate of 1.2 mega-tonnes per year – a move which threatens not only the environment, but the area’s residents.

While it may not yet represent the norm, it’s quite clear to me, after having spoken to several of La TOHU’s employees, that the organization takes its environmental mandate to heart, considering itself to be a distinct part of the St-Michel neighbourhood’s cycle of renewal. As one public relations official was careful to note, the landfill marks but one era of the area’s history, soon to be corrected by the city’s concerted efforts to transform its remains into Montreal’s second largest park. La TOHU, then, simply seems grateful to be helping St-Michel reach its peak, one that will hopefully free it of its environmentally scarred past.