À Nous la Malting

Community Groups Organize to Save the Canada Malting Factory

The abandoned Canada Malting Factory stands above western St-Henri. Photo Nikolas Litzenberger

You’ve definitely seen it before.

The Canada Malting factory sticks out like a sore thumb, standing above the rest of western St-Henri. It serves as a reminder of the area’s industrial past, of a time when the south-west was Montreal’s economic centre. Even from a distance, though, you can tell that it’s a fraction of what it used to be.

“With the months, the years that pass, the portion of the Malting that can be saved diminishes,” explained Anne-Marie Sigouin in French. She is a city councillor in the south-west borough of Montreal as well as Projet Montreal’s design and heritage critic. With each inspector’s report they receive—and they are currently awaiting a new one—the borough is told that more of the building has gone past the point of no return.

Anti-gentrification groups from the area are now organizing to save its rusty remains and have the land turned back towards the community. During a workshop organized by Solidarité Saint-Henri on Saturday, Feb. 10, Montreal residents gathered to discuss what they would like to see in place of another new condo development.

Fred Burrill, an anti-gentrification organizer and PhD student at Concordia, explained that at the workshop, a new neighbourhood committee—tentatively titled À nous la malting—was formed and they will be meeting in the coming weeks to develop a vision for the site.

Right now, he said, “the consensus that came out of the meeting yesterday is that everyone involved feels like that industrial heritage of the canal has been largely lost to condo development.”

“We would really like to save it,” he said, but the group would not want to do so at the expense of the needs of the neighbourhood.

Rather, they would prefer to find alternative means of acquiring the land, which is still privately-owned, so that it can then be used for community-based projects, such as social housing, local businesses and co-ops, meaning that they would likely have to steer away from private developers.

“At least the basic consensus is that the community’s needs should be prioritized and if in doing so, we’re able to preserve parts of the building itself, that would be really great,” Burrill said.

Saving the structure would also mean saving a unique piece of architecture, Sigouin explained. The terracotta silos, hidden on the interior of factory, are some of the last of their kind. They hold a distinct architectural and historical value, she added.

“We’re on a very large site with very fragile buildings, which also hold a lot of patrimonial value. It’s a very complex and emotional issue.” —Anne-Marie Sigouin

Burrill reaffirmed that saving these elements is not their number one priority. “In our opinion, a private development that successfully preserves the terracotta silo is not a goal.”

He continued, “The real struggle is acquiring the site.”

The land on which the Canada Malting factory sits is currently estimated to be worth between $5 million and $6 million, according to Sigouin. That, she said, doesn’t include the possible tens of millions of dollars necessary to decontaminate the land.

Unlike other decommissioned factories along the canal, Burrill explained that the Canada Malting factory never went through the same shutdown process. Rather the Malting factory’s silos were left stocked with soya after its closing in 1989, which gives the structure its distinct smell.

“That’s why urban explorers or people who do graffiti refer to the Malting factory as the Big Stinky,” he said. “You can really tell you were in a grain storage area.”

He also explained that up until about three years ago, the land on which the McAulsan Brewery now sits, which is adjacent to the factory, was home to a chemical manufacturing plant. This brings with it its own set of contamination-related challenges. “Contamination of soil and water,” he said, “are part in parcel to the city’s industrial past.”

The community group’s plan of attack, though, is to go beyond the borough and look towards the three larger levels of government—the municipal, the provincial and the federal—in efforts to acquire the funds needed to save the building.

“We’ve been focusing our organizing efforts more on the city centres, like the Coderre administration, who over the last few years have started putting small amounts of a couple million here and there into the municipal budget for acquiring empty lots and buildings,” Burrill said.

Photo Nikolas Litzenberger

The group would still like to see more. Burrill explained that this project could be of particular interest to the federal government, due to the Canada Malting factory’s location on the Lachine Canal National Historic site, which is under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada.

Sigouin is unsure, though, that the government can solely fund their eventual project. “Can it be 100 per cent public? Would it be 100 per cent public housing? I doubt it,” she said.

“We’re on a very large site with very fragile buildings, which also hold a lot of patrimonial value. It’s a very complex and emotional issue,” Sigouin continued. “We have to take all these factors into consideration.”

The money problem, she said, continues far past the acquisition of the land. There is still the question of who will continue to fund the maintenance and development of site.

“Often times, the government says we’ll allot X amount of dollars for the project, but the project needs to live on for 20, 40, 50 years,” said Sigouin. “If we only receive public funds, the financial foundation [of the project] is fragile. A private partnership might be worth considering.”

Craig Sauvé, the city councilor for St-Henri and also of Project Montreal, insisted that as long as they’re still in office, they would remain opposed to private developers building condos on that site.

“In terms of development in the neighbourhood, there’s been mostly condos and I’m not convinced that we need more condos,” Sauvé said. “But we need to find a way to make the project viable.”

With files from Noëlle Didierjean