You Shall Not Pass

Local Environmental Groups Work To Protect One Of Montreal’s Last Areas Of Wildlife

Graphic Morag Rahn-Campbell

Out near the island’s western extremity lies a diverse ecosystem few Montrealers would believe exists in their own city, but that’s exactly what the l’Anse-à-l’Orme green space is: one of the last undeveloped—and unprotected—areas on the island.

Once agricultural farmland, the woods are now a smorgasbord of biodiversity; migrating birds rely on the space, deer graze in the area, and many other insects and animals cling to it as their last bastion of hope in an increasingly urbanizing human society.

Competing with this urban biodiversity is the housing project slated to develop half of the area’s 360 hectares into a 5,000-home housing development.

This development plan has the full support of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre whose administration wants to attract families, along with their tax revenues, back to the island and away from their migration to off-island suburbs.

Although the mayor’s office was not available for a direct comment, Coderre has previously downplayed concerns on the environmental impact that the housing project would create.

“We are creating a kind of new model where we are cherishing the environment,” he said at a press conference in late June.

Coderre and his administration believe they can develop at least 180 hectares of the land near l’Anse-à-l’Orme nature park without a negative impact on the area’s ecosystem. Many environmental groups, aghast at the quick pace of development—early construction stages have led to the creation of an illegal gravel road for workers—are strongly opposing the plans.

“We are completely against the development of this natural space,” said Don Hobus, a founder of the local environmental group Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme. This group is not alone, as the West Island Green Coalition, the Sierra Club Canada, and the Green Party of Quebec, are also mounting efforts to raise awareness about the seriousness of the issue.

A relatively humble beginning for the groups has quickly snowballed, culminating with a protest on Nov. 7 that received mainstream media exposure.

“We need to stop development here for good,” Sauvons member Ross Stitt said at a protest in November.

“Coderre’s comments are just greenwashing the entire situation,” Hobus said. “The development is going to destroy the green space and create another heat island—not at all what we as a society need.”

Hobus was previously involved in a successful preservation campaign against civic administration just north of Montreal in Rosemère. He helped collect thousands of petition signatures to pressure elected officials. The tactic worked—Hobus and other Sauvons members hope to employ the same strategy to save the area around l’Anse-à-l’Orme.

“We have thousands of signatures for our petition to preserve the space,” Hobus said. “We hope to present it to city hall.”

Although Saturday’s protest highlighted the importance of the green space for locals, consequences of its destruction on a macro scale are not to be downplayed. Quebec Green Party leader, Alex Tyrrell, who was also in attendance at the protest, highlighted the importance the area has for Quebec in general.

“What they are doing here is similar to what they are doing throughout Quebec,” he said, adding that it is hypocritical to destroy nature and then call the development “green.”

“It’s similar to the provincial government’s Plan Nord—they are protecting a token amount of land and then playing with environmental regulations to fit their needs,” Tyrrell said.

He made reference to the fact that the housing development, which cuts the marshland in half, would in fact destroy the little space left undeveloped.

The destruction of the area will do irreparable damage to the migrating birds that rely on it, the 50 or some deer that live there, and the plethora of other wildlife that call it their home, he said. A successful resistance, however, could prove to be the template for all future preservation plans throughout Quebec and Canada.

People of all ages, races, and creeds had gathered to show their support for preserving the land, suggesting that protection for the area is far from a niche issue. The group’s lawyer, Ricardo Hrtschan, was smiling with confidence throughout the day, confident that a legal injunction over the illegal gravel access road will work in activists’ favour.

Sauvons founding member Sue Stacho wants to get more people involved.

“The last wild space in Montreal must absolutely be protected,” she said, encouraging people to contact the group on Facebook, go to city council meetings, and sign the petition.

“Whether you are from downtown Montreal, the West Island, or Los Angeles does not matter,” quipped an energized Hobus. “As long as you are a citizen of this planet you are able to be involved in the preservation effort.”