Tag Archives: Education in Montréal

City describes its own urban redevelopment project as ‘ambitious’

Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)
Montreal from the Belvedere, November 4th 1992 (credit to John Steedman)

We may have come full-circle.

The City of Montreal recently released what it is describing as an ‘ambitious’ plan to redevelop the urban core of the city – what we ambiguously, perhaps ambitiously, call Downtown (though it for the most part occupies the plateau above the old city, but I digress) – in an effort to attract new residents and increase the population of Ville-Marie borough by 50,000 by 2030.

The city wants to attract seniors, young people and families (or, in other words, everyone) to the borough, the current population being about 85,000 over 16.5 square kilometres.

The borough includes Mount Royal and Parc Jean-Drapeau, not to mention Old Montreal and the Old Port, the Village, the Latin Quarter, the Quartier Sainte-Famille, Centre-Sud, Milton-Parc, the entire central business district, the Quartier des Spectacles, Griffintown, the Shaughnessy Village, Chinatown, the Square Mile and the Cité-du-Havre.

Adding 50,000 people to the very centre of Metropolitan Montreal by 2030 would bring the population of the borough up to over 130,000. Fifty years ago, the population of this area was 110,000, at which point it was already well on its way in its dramatic late-20th century population decline. By 1976 the population was estimated at 77,000 and by 1991 the population would fall all the way to about 68,000, it’s lowest number in recent memory. The population of the borough has grown modestly in the last 25 years, with measured increases in five-year intervals ranging from 4.2 to 6.5 per cent.

For comparisons sake, the Plateau’s current population is about 100,000, the Sud-Ouest is at 71,000 and Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the largest borough by population, is about 165,000.

Queen's Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 - Michel Seguin
Queen’s Hotel, shortly before its demolition, ca. 1993 – Michel Seguin

Bringing Ville-Marie’s population up to 130,000 would be quite an accomplishment, though it’s not an altogether hard sell. Not to be flip, but it’s basically where everything is.

And it would also mean that the urban depopulation of Montreal, an unfortunate and enduring consequence of the city’s urban planning efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, will have been reversed, perhaps permanently.

To me that’s a far greater accomplishment than simply facilitating an existing growth trend, and I wish the city much success. I would like to see and feel a ‘downtown’ with a population roughly equivalent to the its last high-water mark, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. If it works, it’s reasonable to assume the population of the surrounding boroughs would likely also increase. More people living in the city, within walking distance of the services they need and the places they work, is exactly what the city should be proposing and facilitating.

But again, it’s not a hard sell, and the trends are already pointing in this direction. It may ultimately be Montreal’s saving-grace; unlike other depopulated urban centres in the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence and North-East corridor, Montreal has succeeded in enhancing the overall quality of life of its urban core and has been slowly winning back residents.

Where the Coderre administration could have distinguished itself was a concrete plan with defined targets, and in this case, prepare to be disappointed.

Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin
Former Canadian Vickers Building, ca. 1990 by Michel Seguin

The announced ‘ambitious’ plan is remarkable in how little specific information is required to attain the quality of ambition. They want to boost the population with no clear indication where they might live, nor what kind of housing will be needed (though they did make mention of Griffintown as being poorly planned, as too many housing units are too small and too expensive… who’d have thought). The plan indicates a desire for new schools and greater access to the waterfront, both of which lie outside the city’s jurisdiction in that building schools is a provincial responsibility and the Old Port is a federal one. Coderre indicated the waterfront development would require control of the Old Port to be ceded to the city. Richard Bergeron, former Projet Montreal leader and the downtown’s appointed development strategist, wants a cohesive plan for the twenty-kilometre stretch between the Champlain and Cartier bridges, with half being open to the public, and the other half available for riverside housing.

It’s been discussed before. The mayor has spoken in the past of opening a beach in the Old Port and a vague desire to emulate other cities that apparently have ‘better’ access to their waterfronts.

Of course, there is always the matter of the Saint Lawrence’s current, not to mention the periodic direct sewage dumps… I’m not convinced we’ll be lining up to take a plunge in the drink any time soon without major physical alterations to the Old Port, such as creating breakwaters or jetties, and improving our water treatment capabilities.

Oddly, despite a steady 10% office vacancy rate, the plan also includes 800K square meters of new office space and 200K square meters of new commercial spaces. Again, this strikes me as a touch odd: Ville-Marie has a surplus of both and is already well-known as the commercial and office core of the whole metropolitan region. Do we need more of the same or better use of what already exists?

And if the mayor wants the manufacturing sector to return to the urban core of Montreal, perhaps we ought to reconsider our penchant to convert every square inch of remaining industrial space into condos?

Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993
Aerial photo of Downtown Montreal ca. 1993

The other ‘specific’ ideas the city has in mind are all ideas that have been mentioned in the past: renovating and rehabilitating Sainte-Catherine Street; more parks and green space; more bike baths; a ‘greenway’ from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence; transforming disused public buildings into multi-use developments that bring new uses to old heritage sites.

None of this is really news, the city’s been talking about this for years and you’d think it would obvious and didn’t need to be spelled out. It’s hard to take the city seriously when its grand strategy for urban redevelopment consists of simply doing what we expect the city to be doing already.

Were we not already seeking to preserve public buildings with heritage value by redeveloping them for new purposes? Were we not already seeking more green spaces and bike paths? Hasn’t redeveloping Sainte-Catherine Street been a priority for every mayor going back to Jean Doré?

I agree with Mayor Coderre in that urban economic redevelopment and repopulation won’t happen without better living conditions in the urban boroughs, but the quality of life in these boroughs is arguably already quite high. Ville-Marie in particular already has great parks and is the best connected borough in terms of access to public transit. Ville-Marie is the borough that requires the least improvement in these respects: Saint-Henri, Cote-des-Neiges, NDG, Verdun, the Plateau and HoMa would all benefit immensely from serious investments to improve transit and green-space access, and given generally lower housing costs in these areas compared to Ville-Marie, it would seem to me that it would be more effective to improve the quality of life in the inner suburbs first.

City Hall ca. early 1990s - credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)
City Hall ca. early 1990s – credit to Clare and Ben (found on Flickr group Vanished Montreal)

Better public transit access and a beautification campaign could have a greater impact if applied to the Sud-Ouest, HoMa Montréal-Nord and Verdun where population density is already high and home values are comparatively low. Moreover, these boroughs already have the public education infrastructure that will draw young families. Instead of building new schools, the city could have proposed a bold plan to renovate and rehabilitate existing schools, possibly even going as far as mandating local school boards share space in existing schools. The Anglo boards have a surplus of space in well-maintained schools and the Francophone boards have overcrowded schools in dire need of renovations; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective solution to this problem (and one that would be beneficial to everyone) is to share the space. The unnecessary linguistic segregation of Montreal’s schools is more than just an ethical problem; it’s economically unsustainable and only serves to undermine the quality of education in the public sector generally-speaking.

Imagine a different scenario where the City of Montreal was directly responsible for public schools infrastructure, and school boards, while maintaining their operational and institutional independence, could operate from any school building (and by extension would no longer be responsible for maintaining the physical space of education).

Downtown viewed from Avenue du Musée - date and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s
Downtown viewed from Avenue du Mus̩e Рdate and photographer unknown; ca. 1970s

In a sense, access to public education would increase without having to build new schools. Students could be redistributed more evenly and all boroughs would be able to offer education in either language, proportional to the respective linguistic populations.

That issue aside, it’s evident any new residential development within Ville-Marie borough should certainly plan for the necessary green spaces, transit and education access that would be required by 50,000 additional residents. I would argue Ville-Marie borough is definitely lacking in school access, but not in parks or transit access.

All in all what Coderre and Bergeron announced was little more than the intention to hold public consultations and come up with some guidelines for urban redevelopment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it’s hardly an ambitious plan. I’m glad the city considers intelligent urban planning worthwhile, but without any concrete proposals they’re essentially telling us they have the intent to do their jobs. Lack of precision is politically-motivated: it’s hard to effectively criticize a mayor’s accomplishments if he doesn’t have any goals.

Getting Smarter About Public Education in Montréal

Once again, Montréal parents are caught fighting each other to keep their children’s respective schools open. This time, the parents of St. John Bosco and St. Gabriel schools, located in the working class neighbourhoods of Ville Emard and Pte. St. Charles respectively, are trying to convince the English Montréal School Board each should be saved at the other’s potential closure. How sick.

Parents should not ever be forced to fight each other for access to schooling near their homes, and unfortunately, you see this sort of thing happen frequently in the first rung suburbs of Montréal – there are and have been cases in Ville Emard, St-Leonard, Cote-des-Neiges etc over the years. Under no circumstances do I personally feel this is right or justifiable, the school board should have more sense than to do this to hard-working people who need small community schools for their children. It’s unnecessarily traumatic, can disrupt family and neighbourhood life and cohesion, and in no way serves the interests of the People it is supposed to serve. The positive public effect of small public schools intimately tied to the surrounding neighbourhood is quite simply a necessity for modern urban living, and the benefit of small class sizes is particularly desirable in situations where the majority of parents work full time in potentially unstable work environments. Children in working class neighbourhoods need strong schools integrated into the local community – ideally with teachers and staff who live in the same neighbourhood so that a fuller sense of community attachment can be established, and the apparent transition of authority from inside the home to inside the school is maintained. This is difficult to do when the children have to go to another neighbourhood entirely, and potentially never see the teachers or classmates outside of school. Moreover, by forcing these two schools to merge, it doubtless means class sizes will grow. This is far from ideal. And more often than not residents of these communities find themselves without the resources to fight the school board and save their schools. The EMSB ought to be ashamed of itself.

This is not news – Montréal parents have been fighting each other and the government (physically, figuratively, rhetorically) for more than forty years, stretching all the way back to the St-Leonard Riots of 1969-70. You’d think we would have learned something since then.

The problem is supposed to be declining enrolment and funding for the EMSB, but I’m very suspicious. The EMSB has been caught up in hot water pretty much since it was created, it is hardly a pillar of stability in the Anglo-Québecois community, not like the old PSBGM. What I fail to comprehend is why the EMSB would ever consider closing a school, which is very much a nail in the coffin of a community – and it flies in the face of most modern education theory, which stresses small class sizes as being ideal. Seriously, what are they thinking?

I don’t think we’re being very smart w/r/t to public education here in Montréal, here’s why:

For one, whereas Montréal once benefitted from public education facilities and programs that could easily compete with private schools, today incompetence, corruption and the appearance of instability have led many parents to pursue private alternatives to the weakened public system, which has led to a proliferation of private schools. This in turn has had a deleterious effect on the public system and has further led to many school closings. As such, urban neighbourhoods which have undergone substantial gentrification in the past decades are now without schools, libraries or churches (not that I’m religious in any way, but churches do make for excellent community and cultural centres) given that many have been turned into condos.

For two, we still have a linguistic divide in education, as though we were purposely underselling our real level of bilingualism and multi-culturalism. So why do we still have multiple independent linguistic boards serving a single region – it’s inefficient. If all boards were united into a single operation we’d be in a better position to keep schools open (as overflow from the French sector could be placed in what was once an ‘English’ school), and thus could mitigate the need to build new schools and pay for expensive bussing in the urban core. We could also stabilize class sizes. And all of this would still be secondary to the fact that we would finally be in position to educate bilingually, a necessity for this city. If the City of Montréal were to undertake creating a single, bi-lingual, multi-cultural school board (run as a city department), it would not only allow us to guarantee full bilingualism of generations of children, it would also provide the necessary means and operational efficiency to once again make public education the preferred option for Montréal residents. I would encourage a 75/25 linguistic instruction split for all students regardless of mother tongue, with the majority of classroom instruction talking place in French to counter the dominance of English in North American media. Ultimately, we need to fill our schools with teachers who are comfortable switching languages and can speak both with full fluency. This should be what we want for our children, who will certainly live in a world where both are fundamentally useful. Why even attempt anything less?

Finally, third point, our city needs to run private schools out of business, but this won’t happen unless we have the business sense to plan for long-term development in a city-run school board.

For me, it boils down to this. A child can’t choose the circumstances they’re born in to, and yet the school they go to will be decided by factors well beyond the child’s grasp. If current trends continue poor kids will end up in underfunded public schools while rich kids and the remaining children of the middle class will end up in various private schools, operating beyond the regulatory reach of the government. As far as I’m concerned, all elements of society, rich or poor, would benefit from future generations educated equitably, and private schools should thus be minimized and rendered obsolete by heavily investing in a renewed public system.

Education is basic human right, and I would expect the leaders of my city would do everything they could to ensure our city offered the very finest in public education. But such is not the case, and we close schools to later be recycled into condominiums, leaving neighbourhoods without the societal anchors necessary to build healthy communities and healthier families. By refusing to acknowledge some of the realities of our city, we hold ourselves back, and we’re not doing our kids any favours either.

So, let’s smarten up and try something different. It is the very definition of insanity to expect a different result after repeating an action, and it further leaves people in a rut that may seem impossible to get out of. Plus, we’re Canadian, so everyone’s too embarrassed to propose anything too radically hors-du-commun.

It’s costing us the money we can’t generally see. We could do much better.