Commentary  Water and our society

On Montreal’s crumbling water systems

Water management in Montreal has always been a difficulty. McGill has been flooded by breaks in the reservoir, and currently traffic on Sherbrooke is bottlenecked because of an unexpected water pipe failure. And who would believe, in this day and age, that we are still dumping raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River?

A visit to the urban sewer explorer Andrew Emond’s website,, shows how ancient our system – and how systemic the decay – is. Not that the current municipal council has been altogether ignoring the problem, but the recent resignations have cast doubt on the spirit in which water management is conducted: short term repairs, plenty of advertising, and minimal follow up.

Case in point: The Lachine Canal was a crucial waterway that put Montreal on the map in the 19th century. Ships from all over the world used to bypass the Lachine Rapids by this route in order to go on to Detroit or Chicago, or to come from the Great Lakes to export grain. The canal’s banks were filled with manufacturers and industrial complexes that led the Canadian economy through the age of progress, but unnoticed at the time was how the canal was built to absorb industrial waste. Environmental standards back then were not at all what they are now.

The waterway remained relevant well into the 20th century, until it was dwarfed in 1959 by its much larger counterpoint, the St. Lawrence Seaway on the South Shore. Generations of this industrial exposure left the sediments at the canal’s bottom ridden with heavy metals and fecal matter. Though now heavy metals (copper, chromium, lead, zinc, mercury) have stopped being dumped, contamination by fecal matter is still an issue because of systems like the Rockfield Overflow or the Vézina/St-Patrick conduit diverting raw sewage to the canal after heavy rainfall. Jurisdiction is another factor that plays into the Lachine Canal’s complex state, because though most of it is owned by Parks Canada, the Old Port regulates the eastern part, and each conduit into the canal is administered by its respective borough.

A 1996 study on the Lachine Canal established the water quality as hugely substandard but, due to weak population density in the area and elevated cost-benefit margins, called for no action at the time, and rightly so. But by 2012, gentrification has happened. Old factories are now the skeletons for huge condominium complexes alongside the canal, from the Old Port all the way to Lachine. Business is booming by the Atwater market, and people from the Plateau are moving to St. Henri! Just take a walk to the bottom of Guy to see the massive tracts of land that await the new developments.

So, where is the committee to reevaluate the necessity for reinvigorating the canal’s waters, now that, 16 years later, there is no excuse to let the issue sit? What concerned real estate owner doesn’t understand the monetary value of useable waterfront? The canal presents a great opportunity for communities to interact with nature and participate in a variety of recreational activities. Each summer there is boating, fishing, chess, biking, running, et cetera on the banks and above the canal, but no one ever dares to get in the canal.* Now is the time to begin rousing the public interest, and galvanizing everyone to action, for a clean canal, but also for societal issues in general. Because hell, as we all know, debates in Montreal that surround real change only happen over the winter, where the cold keeps us inside and makes us care.

*As it happens, there is a group that wants to swim in a clean canal, co-founded by Anteneh Meshesha, a graduate student in Bioresource Engineering at McGill. Their website is:

Declan Rankin Jardin is a U3 Arts and Science student. He can be reached at