We know that the operations of a metropolis like Montréal run at the pace set by the circulation of capital. Condos sprout up where factories have disappeared; neighbourhoods become the domains of artists clinging to money and power, while more and more public space is given over to the industry of the spectacle. We already know how each new project announced by the City of Montréal will end: concrete, cash, and ‘spectacle’. And yet, Montréal still houses interstitial spaces between its rigidly defined allotments, places where the planners of mega projects, the financial sharks, and their police do not yet have a say. It is the case for the Terrain Vague, located in the east of the neighbourhood of Hochelaga and baptised as such by those who make free use of it. Against the entire logic of private use, this empty space is inhabited by a multitude of life – youth gather to play, families picnics, joggers go for runs, wild gardens grow, and parties are thrown at night. It is home to an all-too-rare fauna and flora, existing outside the ‘green plans’ of the metropolis.
One part of this territory – referred to as the Steinberg woodland – is situated to the east of Hochelaga, caught between residential and industrial zones, and it has been promised a darksome fate: serving as one of the pillars of the Logistique du Capital. In effect, the city and its traditional allies, the Port of Montréal, the CN, and the Chamber of Commerce, plan to build a Cité de la Logistique, which has now been renamed Éco-Parc-Industriel in an attempt to give it a ‘green’ aesthetic. In the last few years, despite ecological and regulatory obstacles that should have slowed the progress of work on the site, all of the south zone has been torn up by the construction company Ray-Mont Logistique. The government has even amended several laws to remove legal roadblocks that would have put the brakes on this destruction.
All in all, the project consists of extending the port of Montréal to accelerate the flow of merchandise. More precisely, on September 23rd, the CAQ initiated bill 66 aimed at relaunching the Québécois economy through the acceleration of infrastructure projects. The ‘improvement of access to the port by the extension of Souligny Avenue and Assomption Boulevard in the Hochelaga-Mercier-Maisonneuve district’ is one of the highest infrastructure priorities on the Island of Montréal. Among the work sites in preparation are, a new access ramp to highway 25 and a new Hydro-Québec station.
Many consider recent protest in the Steinberg woodland as simply a critique of the developmental vision of the city and its parks, pitting investors and ‘reasonable’ business people against a handful of angry citizens, with the latter often painted as inveterate malcontents. In reality, what is currently unfolding in the Terrain Vague is of an altogether different magnitude. The project for the enlargement of the port is part of the Maritime Strategy of the Saint-Lawrence established by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. It functions as a new project for the colonisation and modernisation of the territories, a continuation of the famous Plan Nord announced years ago by the Charest government. The goal is to enlarge the port while excavating the river to allow for the passage of even larger ships which will permit the acceleration of mineral extraction in the north.
This new version of the Plan Nord for 2020-23 has been announced under the ignoble title, ‘Inhabit our North’. To inhabit this north, ‘our North’, the government plans to invest one billion dollars over three years in logistical and highway infrastructure. This represents 76% of the budget of the Plan Nord, while 18% will be allocated to populating the territory. To add insult to injury, the Plan Nord seeks to reserve 30% of the northern territory ‘to environmental protection, to the safeguarding of biodiversity’ but above all ‘to the enhancement of diverse forms of development’. The real menace weighs heavily on the north, and it is quite clear that its opening to extraction is being orchestrated by the government. Defacing 70% of the territory, funnelling its resources towards the south to enrich multinational developers, incentivising industrial workers to settle in a permanent manner, and reserving large portions of the lands under the pretext of protecting them while, in fact, only accelerating their exploitation.
The extremely reductive designation of the ancestral territories of numerous Indigenous Peoples to the term ‘the North’, erases distinctions that have existed for thousands of years: the Inuit Nunangat, the Eeyou Istchee, the Nitassinan, the Nitakinan, and the Nitaskinan. For the government of Québec this territory remains simply the indistinct northern zone of a project it has repeatedly been unable to realise, what Louis Émond Hamelin once called a 'Québec total'. Obviously, the Whites are not going to the north along natural routes; the roads they are planning entail massive cuts to the forests, and open onto the territories that are slated to be mined. The function of the apparatus that the government and business are implementing with their plans for the development of the North will ensure its integration as a periphery and its subsequent transformation into little more than a reservoir for resource extraction. This is a process which has been renewed for decades, or more accurately, centuries, and one that places these territories into a relation of dependence with the metropolitan centres of the South.
Despite the severe consequences in relation to indigenous sovereignty or climate change, the objective here remains to go as big and as fast as possible. At the heart of the Maritime Strategy, which aims to expand the capacities of the ports on the Saint Lawrence, the Terrain Vague is destined to become the anchoring point for this ‘new economy’ of destruction. While struggles are being waged against extractivism elsewhere, the metropolis is developing its space to accelerate the transport and financialization of those resources. Apparently, when it comes to the ‘end of the world’, some only want to accelerate its realisation.
Away from that cacophony, the Terrain vague is carried by a gentle magic, whose secrets the inhabitants of the area share with one another. Its uses are fertile and multiple. Over time, this small territory has become a life-giving place, a space to escape noise, make a fire, celebrate, walk one’s dog, letting them run beyond the limits of a leash, or quite simply to find oneself a shelter from the frenzy of the city. It is rare to find on this slab of concrete we sometimes call ‘Montréal’ the existence of a space that is allowed to just be, a place of life that resists its destruction, a place of magic where we can still hear each other’s whispers. It is easy to understand the meaning of the actions that have multiplied in the Terrain vague this fall: tree planting, the construction of structures, protest rallies, displays of banners, ceramics workshop, and walks centred around the identification of animal and plant species… and even a blockade of the construction work one sunny morning. However, despite the plurality and the force of the protests in recent months, every day the space remains under greater threat. Given its strategic importance to the neo-colonial economic plans of the next few years, much more will be needed to truly defend this place.
In 2012, in the middle of a revolutionary crisis unleashed by the student movement against proposed tuition fee hikes, riots erupted against the announcement of the Plan Nord by the Charest government. At that time, the Plan Nord was recognised for what it was, that is, a new extrativist push by the Québec state. At the same time, the riot squad of the SQ, the provincial police, brutally intervened to dismantle the highway blockade of route 138 in Innu territory. Opposed to a work site for new hydroelectric lines, the protectors of the Innu territory were once again brutalised by the colonial police. At that moment, against a renewed push for the modernisation and colonisation of the territories, voices were being raised everywhere and met with repression. Yet at that time, no alliance could be made. Even if a few might have pointed out the connections between these struggles, no one succeeded in uniting or channeling the power that emanated from these outbursts of anger. The Terrain Vague in Hochelaga offers us the opportunity for a second chance, and it calls to mind the wisdom of alliances.
A distant bell tolls
as a historic reminder
of an improbable alliance
between First Peoples and settlers
and the destructions they carry
the Terrain Vague belongs to no one
Neither does Turtle Island