Green Gentrification: Race and Class Exclusion in an Urban National Park

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This post is part of an ongoing series called “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History.” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.


The completion of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959, with its new system of giant locks for ocean-going vessels on the other side of the river from Montreal, rendered the Lachine Canal largely redundant. Its final closure in 1970, fifty years ago this year, triggered a debate over its future as well as the future of the deindustrializing neighbourhoods that adjoin it. Who was the canal to be redeveloped for? 

The tipping point came in 1976 with the election of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois. Wanting to respond by symbolically planting the Canadian flag in downtown Montreal, the federal government announced the transfer of the Lachine Canal to Parks Canada as a national park. The canal reopened to pleasure craft in 2002.

The post-industrial transformation of Montreal’s Lachine Canal, under the auspices of Parks Canada, into a zone of recreation and leisure, with an uplifting heritage focus on the “birthplace of industry,” represented a flagship state-led regeneration project for Montreal. It was not unlike landmark waterfront redevelopments elsewhere such as Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside in the United Kingdom, Baltimore’s Inner Harbour in the United States, or Ottawa’s Rideau Canal.[1]

The greening of the Lachine Canal provided vital green infrastructure for the gentrification of Southwest Montreal. With its network of bicycle and walking paths, the post-industrial Lachine Canal was a powerful sales tool for developers wishing to attract young professionals into the area. Starting in the late 1980s, a series of closed factories fronting the canal were converted to luxury condominiums. Gleaming condominium towers followed and rents and property values in adjoining districts skyrocketed.

The reorientation of the Lachine Canal has had profound consequences for Montreal’s Southwest Borough, one of the poorest parts of the city.

Little Burgundy

The area known today as Little Burgundy, sandwiched between Griffintown and Saint-Henri on the canal’s north side, was the historic home of Montreal’s English-speaking Black community. Over the first half of the twentieth century, pervasive anti-Black racism in the city largely excluded Black Montrealers from the factories that once lined the banks of the Lachine Canal. Instead, Black men found employment on Canada’s railways as sleeping car porters, and women were largely restricted to working as domestics in the homes of the wealthy. Most settled in Little Burgundy due to its proximity to Montreal’s two main railway stations and ritzy Westmount.

For most Black men, the railway was the only job in town until things began to change in the 1950s and 1960s. Babsey Simmons’ father was a tailor before he came to Montreal from the Caribbean, but “in those days, there were no jobs for Colored men whatsoever, the only job for them was on the train, as a porter, which was a very demeaning job at that point in time. They were underpaid but they did their job with dignity.”[2]   

Quebec did not have a comprehensive system of formal segregation such as the “white’s only” signage in the southern United States, but it did have a history of slavery and pervasive anti-Black racism. Emily Amelia Robertson Heron, who came to Canada in 1956 as part of the domestic scheme, recalls that they said that Canada had no segregation, but the reality was not what she expected: “They didn’t call it segregation, but discrimination, because it was subtle business…. If you go to a restaurant, you were the last person they would come serve.”[3] She recounts one time walking into a liquor store and being mistaken for Indigenous. So, they gave her a “pass” to buy the liquor as “they did not know who we were or what we were.”

Like many racialized and poor neighbourhoods across North America, Little Burgundy was targeted for highway construction and urban renewal in the 1960s. Much of the neighbourhood was demolished as a result and public housing built in its place. It was a failed social experiment, as the newly renovated neighbourhood experienced a deep social crisis.

Its growing stigmatization as a Black ghetto led the city to target it for state-led gentrification in the 1980s, as part of its wider greening of the canal.  Railway and industrial lands, including the sprawling former site of the Steel Company of Canada, which covers much of the canal-front of Little Burgundy, were redeveloped as luxury condominiums.

In many ways, the post-industrial canal remains an exclusionary space.

But real estate developers along the canal remain allergic to any association with Black Montreal or Little Burgundy. This can be seen in the drive to carve out this area as a western extension of Griffintown (the absent Irish are real estate gold) or as “les Quartiers du Canal.”  As a result, it is viewed as a place apart by many living in public housing.

In 2015, racialized youth from Little Burgundy participating in a SSHRC-funded memory workshop, spoke of how they “don’t relate to…everything over there, to those people, to their cars, to their parks and their benches.”[4]

In many ways, the post-industrial canal remains an exclusionary space.

Industrial Heritage

None of this critical history makes it into the heritage panels erected along the canal. Parks Canada is at its most comfortable interpreting the archaeological remains or aestheticized ruins of a long dead past. Its interpretative focus is resolutely on the height of industrialism ending in 1945, politically distancing the past and present.

At each former factory site, we are told the names of the original industrialists, what was manufactured, and something about the manufacturing process. But there is nothing on workers themselves, their unions, or the wider politics of exploitation, exclusion, or empire. By valorizing the aesthetic value of industrial heritage architecture, Parks Canada contributes to the kind of cultural appropriation, or “facadism,” that is an integral part of loft-living.  These are panels that strive for neutrality, but are anything but.

Visitors therefore have no idea that the industrial canal once brought the world to Montreal’s Southwest. Many children eagerly identified the national flags flying on passing ships. Réjeanne Lemieux-Gaucher recalled: “Y avait des étrangers, y avait des noirs… Tu voyais toutes sortes de races, ça parlait d’autres races, des dialectes qu’on comprenait pas. J’connaissais pas le langage.”[5] Her brother, Yvon Lemieux, was similarly impressed by the diversity: “les nationalités qu’on voyait c’tait des Chinois, les Noirs, des Roumains, des Bulgares, même j’sais, j’ai appris à compter en Bulgare dans ces périodes-là.”

Albeit a low-budget version, Parks Canada’s approach resembles the aesthetic approach to industrial heritage taken in Europe. Germany’s Ruhr Valley emerged in the 1990s as an industrial heritage superpower. Landscape architect Peter Latz’s vision for the preservation of the decaying ruins of a steel complex as an industrial landscape park at Duisburg-Nord, emphasized their sublime beauty. Germany’s Zollverein, a World Heritage Site since 2001, even includes a ferris-wheel built into the coke ovens.  Ruin gazing has been a middle-class pastime for centuries.

As gentrification has advanced along the Lachine Canal, we see Parks Canada evolving with it. In its 2018 management plan, it now takes considerable pride in the socio-economic and physical transformation that it helped trigger, enthusing that the Lachine Canal has become “an important lever in the redevelopment of surrounding neighbourhoods and has resulted in significant benefits for these communities and for the City of Montreal.” In this regard, it has done the same political work as other landmark culture-led industrial heritage projects around the world.

Featured Image: Lachine Canal, Montreal. Source: Autharite, Flickr

[1]  This blog originates in a book manuscript under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press on “Deindustrializing Montreal: Entangled Histories of Race, Residence and Class.”
[2] Babsey Simmons interviewed by Rachel Levee, 15 November 2005. Voices of Little Burgundy Project. Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS).
[3] Emily Amelia Robertson Heron interviewed by Heather Kousik and Maureen Cant. 20 October 2017. Union United Church Oral History Project. COHDS.
[4] Atelier MapCollab. Mon Quartier, Notre Vie: Regards Transatlantiques (Montreal: Del Busso, 2018). The MapCollab website can be accessed at http://mapcollab.org/ .
[5] Réjeanne Lemieux-Gaucher and Yvon Lemieux interviewed by Paul-Émile Cadorette and Katy Tari. 20 January 2011. Mon Canal. COHDS.

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Steven High is Professor of History at Concordia University's Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

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