Culture  On an afternoon in Montréal Nord

Angus Sharpe discusses one of Montreal’s most politically charged boroughs

Take a city map, draw a circle from Westmount, up to Outremont, over to Parc La Fontaine and back down to Old Montreal – going round the pier they use for Igloofest. Aside from a few too many god-awful trips to Ikea, you have the geographical area that I have covered since moving here. And when I leave in June, I will take my experience of this tiny portion of the island, and shamelessly sell it under the banner of “Montreal.”

My Montreal-world does not include Montréal-Nord, a recently assimilated borough of near 90,000 people touching the river in the northeast, opposite Laval. A month ago, I didn’t know what Montréal-Nord was, nor where, nor that it even existed and, from what I could tell, neither did many McGill students. Upon informing someone that I was going to the little-heralded arrondissement, the stock response was nothing but a blank face – revealing in and of itself. To be fair, three guys in the smoking area of a Crescent Street dive were slightly more vocal in their unilateral advice of, “don’t go.”

The more politically aware among you recalled something about police violence and riots a few years ago, and the most informed even hesitantly offered up a name, Fredy Villanueva.

The public legacy of the neighborhood, particularly for most McGill students, appears to reach back just a few years to August 9, 2008. On that day, under still unclear circumstances, this 18 year-old Honduran immigrant was shot dead by the Montreal police (SPVM). Peaceful protests organized in response to his death gave way to riots – cars were set ablaze and three police officers and a paramedic were wounded, one of whom was shot. In a neighbourhood with rapidly shifting demographics due to immigration, and where 20 per cent of people speak neither French nor English, ther is a precedent for the SPVM’s notorious racial profiling.

Aside from this single, unhappy event, research about Montréal Nord was slow – the internet yielded little more than a fairly bare wikipedia page and an article somewhat ironically detailing the area’s isolation. Upon departure, all I had was a metro line and bus number scrawled on the back of my hand.

Rising up the escalator of metro stop Henri-Bourassa, I gradually traded the aesthetic familiar to my narrow, plateau-centric Montreal-world for the near novelty of a major bus terminal, over which a construction site loomed large. As it happened, just riding the bus into town I was given a crash course in Montréal-Nord.

The dreary route down Boulevard Henri-Bourassa, one of three multi-lane dual-carriage arteries- – delivering a daily flow of vans, trucks, and buses in and out of Nord, is lined by a dull sequence of garage-depaneur-pizza place strip malls. The monotony of the scene, while sobering for me, was a constant source of celebration for the toddler sitting opposite me, who delighted in shouting at me in Spanglish about every car and coche that slugged by. His mother, a twenty-something first generation Mexican immigrant, had recently moved away from Montréal-Nord, and talked about it in a very defeatist tone. She described how residents come from countries where there is no respect for the police and, conversely, the police here have a negative attitude. “It’s not the sort of place you want to walk around by yourself,” she readily admitted as I prepared to alight, alone. Her son was equally reluctant to see me abandon our vehicle spotting game, “We need to find mas!”

Entirely by chance, she told me that I happened to be getting off at Parc Henri-Bourassa, the site of the Fredy Villanueva shooting, where her mother still lived. I can’t say that I walked round a large proportion of Nord’s 11 square kilometers, but neither can I say that I ever felt threatened. The neighbourhood around the park, mostly white wooden panel bungalows, is not particularly notable, and spreads in this mold with the odd cluster of similar shops tucked in here and there.

The black population is manifest; cosmetic shops advertise most boldly their range of hair accessories and the local minimarket reserves a shelf for African woodwork pots. The urban blueprint continues all the way until you reach the next mega road, Boulevard Léger, hugged by slightly larger commercial parks, and including an utterly miserable bar. No music or conversation drowned out the ringing of middle-aged men and their beloved slot machines until the bored barwoman easily sumed up the difference between her and my Montreal-worlds: “The plateau?  Everything you need you can walk to.” Outside, waiting on another bus to take me to Pie IX, the third big fat boulevard of the borough, it seems she’s not wrong.

When it was amalgamated into Montreal proper in 2002, Montréal-Nord was the only borough not to retain its logo, and its Latin slogan, “The strengths of the citizens are the strength of the city,” does feel forgotten in a borough that seems to be lacking a strong identity.

And so, that logo is not to be found flying outside the red brick Town Hall, but in a historical compendium tucked away in a library further down the Rue Charleroi, a smaller, better Pie IX offshoot. Local newspaper, Guide de Montréal-Nord and pamphlets selling a full culture calendar indicate community cohesion, though the latter is essentially just commercials.

The aforementioned millennial compendium stretches back through 85 years of Montréal-Nord history and includes a commendation from then Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, “the production of this book testifies to your pride in and attachment to your living environment and the strength of your sense of belonging.” The “you” here is the Comité d’histoire de Montréal-Nord, whose team photo lies over the page and is as covered in old, white faces as the then town council pictured opposite. Neither appear more diverse than those on the next page, the class of 1935.

It’s difficult to judge the “sense of belonging” amongst such a shifting population, but it makes sense that one route to a stronger community – especially in overcoming the civil anger at civil authority out-shouting Nord’s apparently deep history – is the election of representative officials. As of 2009, the borough council has one black member to four white, and no ethnic minorities at all on city council. Obviously a delicate, complex situation, it feels as though this might be the first step toward instilling  pride in the newer residents that is so evident in its historians, the first step to ensuring that when a future ignorant student asks the downtown public if they know anything about Montréal-Nord, no one responds, “Yeah. Don’t go.”