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Via The Gazette

 

Lachine Canal was once Canada’s industrial heartland

 

BY PEGGY CURRAN

THE GAZETTE

MAY 16, 2014

 

As midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, mothers and fathers in St-Henri, Little Burgundy and Point-St-Charles opened their doors to let in the roar of neighbouring factories.

 

At Redpath Sugar, Belding Corticelli, Stelco, Dominion Textile and Northern Electric, on passing CN trains and freight barges, horns honked and whistles blew to welcome another year in southwest Montreal.

 

For St-Henri natives Suzanne Lefebvre and Thérèse Bourdeau-Dionne, the clarion call is one of those “mysterious and fascinating” memories that pull them back to childhood and the traditions of a time not so very long ago when the neighbourhoods bordering the Lachine Canal were Canada’s industrial heartland.

 

Today, construction cranes dominate the landscape as long dormant factories are converted into luxury condominiums. The canal, upstaged in 1959 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, has become a rambling waterfront park dotted with walkways and bike paths, a favourite of pleasure boaters and urban fishermen. Every year, more traces of the area’s working-class origins vanish.

 

“This whole zone along the canal is an area of tremendous change,” says Steven High, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Oral History at Concordia University.

 

“Of course, that brings controversy. For the working-class neighbourhoods of Point-St-Charles, Little Burgundy and St-Henri, there are a lot of questions.”

 

Two years ago, High and the team at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling began interviewing about 50 people who grew up, lived, or worked in the area — the first phase in a major project examining local history and the consequences of post-industrial transformation in the working-class neighbourhoods that flank the canal.

 

The first phase of their research, prepared in conjunction with Parks Canada, features an audio walking tour that allows users to listen to some of those stories as they loop back and forth on a winding 2.5-kilometre trail between Atwater Market and the Saint Gabriel Locks.

 

“The canal was the industrial heart of Canada,” High said during a recent tour. “When the factories started closing when they built the Seaway, this became redundant. So what do you do with this thing? It had a slow death from ’59 to about ’72. They finally closed it. They opened up all the gates and it became basically a big ditch that was a dumping ground for all the factories that were still here.”

 

After debating several options — including a plan to fill in the canal and build another highway — Ottawa handed over control to Parks Canada, which reopened the canal for small vessels and built cycle paths, paving the way for gentrification.

 

“We are looking at the loss of jobs and the old industrial story, but also the subsequent story of rebirth and change, and what that means to the neighbourhoods around the canal,” High said.

 

“The population of the southwest was cut in half between 1960 and 1991. You see how dramatic the change was here and how quickly jobs were lost and factories were closed.

 

It didn’t help that the government was demolishing neighbourhoods, whether it was Little Burgundy for public housing, or making way for the Bonaventure and Ville-Marie Expressways.”

 

Speaking in their own words, some residents recall forbidden joys, such as a furtive swim in the canal or “tours de pont,” which involved jumping on the Charlevoix Bridge as it swung in half to make way for a passing boat.

 

For others, memories are painful. One man who reflects on the racism experienced by black families in Little Burgundy unable to secure work at the factories in their backyard.

 

Then there’s the chilling tale of the prolonged labour conflict at the Robin Hood Flour Mill in summer 1977, where eight unarmed strikers were shot. A man hired as a replacement worker during the eight-month dispute describes the daily journey into the plant by train. Security guards with the physique of wrestlers wore fingerless gloves packed with brass knuckles.

 

“It was an important moment in Canadian labour history,” High said, standing beside the train tracks just beyond the fence surrounding the Robin Hood plant. “Out of that confrontation, we had the first law in North America against replacement workers — the so-called anti-scab law.”

 

While the audio guide is available with narration in English or French, a decision was made to use the oral testimonials in both languages. “People speak in their own language. So when we walk into Little Burgundy, it is more English, in other parts it is more French.”

 

Interview subjects include a broad cross-section of ages, backgrounds and perspectives.

 

“One of the issues in these kind of tours is that there is often a focus on community — that community is good. But how do you get at these stories that maybe divide people, where you haven’t got consensus?

 

“We tried as much as possible to be true to our interviews, in a sense that people were saying different things. One person would say: ‘I live in this condo and they are making a real contribution.’ Another would say: ‘Those condos have their back to the neighbourhood.’ You get to hear these different voices.”

 

High said the structure of a walking tour adds another dimension.

 

“When you are actually listening on site, you are hearing what was, you are seeing what is — and it ain’t the same thing. There is a friction there. It’s political.”

 

This summer, the Concordia team will venture deeper into Point-St-Charles, Little Burgundy, Griffintown and Goose Village, where they will walk around the neighbourhood with interview subjects.

 

“It is another way to get people to remember. You can remember just by sitting down over a table, but sometimes that is more chronologically organized, more family-based memories. But if you are out in the neighbourhood, it brings out more community stories.”

 

High expects those interviews to form the basis for a second audio tour. Meanwhile, Concordia drama and art history students will be working on companion projects for neighbourhood theatre and visual arts events.

 

As an historian who also happens to live in the Point, High said he is interested in the way people have responded to the dramatic changes that continue to shape these post-industrial districts.

 

“In Point-St-Charles, what we saw was a lot of community mobilization. It is very much associated with community health movements, social economy movements. So there was a lot of mobilization. Whereas in other neighbourhoods, you have community demobilization and fragmentation. I want to know why. Why is it like this here and like this there?”

 

But High is also drawn to the simple, compelling truth of people telling their stories.

 

“Ordinary people live extraordinary lives. We forget that.”

 

To learn more about the canal project, or to download a copy of the audio guide and accompanying booklet, go to http://postindustrialmontreal.ca/audiowalks/canal

 

[email protected]

 

Twitter: peggylcurran

 

© Copyright © The Montreal Gazette

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Le 2020-08-02 à 14:55, Anderson a dit :

Le narrateur: un vrai accent montréalais 😁 (devant un r, les è sont prononcés en a-ï et les eu en a-u, les r sont souvent roulés, les i sont raccourcis, etc.). C'est l'fun d'entendre ça, ça change de l'accent radio-canadien.

C'est bien une des première fois que je me fais dire que j'ai un accent. 

Excusez?

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17 hours ago, ProposMontréal said:

C'est bien une des première fois que je me fais dire que j'ai un accent. 

Excusez?

J'pense qu'il veut juste dire que ca fait changement vis-a-vis l'accent "traditionnel" qu'on entend sur des reportages radio-canadien


Exemple: 

 

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Il y a 23 heures, ProposMontréal a dit :

C'est bien une des première fois que je me fais dire que j'ai un accent. 

Excusez?

Pas élégant de ma part. Mes excuses. J'aurais dû dire d'entrée de jeu que moi aussi, je trouve que c'est un bon vidéo. Bravo ProposMontréal.

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