|Montreal: Housing Action Re-Appropriates Empty Downtown Building|
MONTREAL, July 28, 2001 (12:45am) -- At least 100 people still remain at a squat action at a three-story historic building in downtown Montreal. At the time of this writing, squat participants are continuing to clean and re-decorate the newly re-appropriated building, located just south of Rene-Levesque Boulevard, on Overdale Street, near an upscale shopping and hotel district. Other supporters are participating in a rave party – with an outdoor sound system and portable generator -- or enjoying the shared food and drinks in the large lot just outside the building.
A small delegation of riot police had earlier threatened to disperse the squatters and their supporters, but they have not yet carried out their threats. During an impromptu outdoor assembly some hours after the squat began, at least 100 people raised their hands to indicate they intended to stay in the squat at least overnight. Many of the action participants are street youth, who were predominant among the many indicating their desire to stay.
The squat action, much anticipated for most of the post-Quebec City summer in Montreal, was organized by le Comité des sans-emploi (the Committee of the Unemployed), an anti-poverty group based in the low-income Centre-Sud neighborhood. The action began at Carré St-Louis (St-Louis Square), itself a symbol of Montreal’s rapid gentrification and attacks on the poor and marginalized [see the “Housing, Gentrification and Public Space” backgrounder, to be posted soon].
The late afternoon gathering brought together about 500 people, including several children. In addition to the Comité des sans-emploi, many local housing and activist groups lent their presence and support, including a social housing group representing several neighborhoods in southwest Montreal (St. Henri, Little Burgundy, Ville Emard, Côte St-Paul), FRAPRU (a province-wide housing rights coalition), student activists, and members of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (CLAC). There were also individuals from Quebec City, as well as a group from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto -- continuing the solidarity and mutual support between the Comité and OCAP that has existed for several years.
In what’s becoming a predictable pre-demo ritual in Montreal, three uniformed police officers attempted to speak to the demo leaders (no one claimed the role, although several pet dogs were offered). Groups like the Comité des sans-emploi refuse to obtain protest permits, or collaborate with the police, on principle, and assert their right to protest publicly without police or city permission.
Speaking over the constant heckling of the gathering crowd, one officer declared, “We need to know where you’re going to protect you”.
For many, the comment was particularly humorous, as police spokespersons had bragged earlier in La Presse (Montreal’s main French daily newspaper) that their sources had revealed where the squat would be (they allegedly pinpointed two potential options). As it turns out, the final location of the squat remained a well-kept secret right until the building in question was re-appropriated en masse, and without any police intervention.
The crowd soon took to the streets, marching south along St-Denis, and then west along Sherbrooke Street, right into the heart of downtown Montreal, past McGill University. The demo route -- into downtown, rather than out into one of the neighborhoods -- kept many demo participants speculating about where the eventual squat might be. As it turns out, the Comité had scouted several potential locations, just in case the police were ready at any particular place.
A large sound system pumped music (mainly French hip-hop and punk) to the crowd during the 30-minute march. The sound system and music was organized by the local “Association for the Liberation of Teckno (ALT)” -- an anti-corporate collective of DJs and musicians who, along with the CLAC Cultural Committee, helped to organize the street parties at the anti-FTAA protests in Quebec City. Another Quebec City-affiliated affinity group, the Anarchist Marching Band, provided background drum and cymbal beats, and at one particular point, were accompanied by consecutive sequences of accidental car alarms.
The demo stopped symbolically just outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which prompted the concierges to lock the doors as bemused and concerned hotel guests peeked outside at the rabble. It was at the Ritz, and it’s nearby district of galleries and posh shops, that a few demonstrators began to spray-paint slogans and symbols on various stores (including the Galerie Claude Lafitte, and a Ralph Lauren/Polo window display). There was some pushing and shoving between protesters and a security guard.
[Some of the French graffiti was written with English speakers in mind; for example, “Fuck les riche$$$!”]
The demo eventually turned south on Mackay Street, and past an empty lot that was the site of an apartment block whose tenants were suddenly and summarily evicted just last October, and which was recently razed [for more info, consult the “Housing, Gentrification and Public Space” backgrounder to be posted soon]. Another potential squat, an empty theatre at the corner of Mackay and Ste-Catherine, owned by Concordia University, was also passed.
As the demo reached Mackay and Rene-Levesque, the target was announced, and many started running towards an abandoned and boarded three-story building on Overdale Street, between Mackay and Lucien L’Allier (near the métro on the orange line). The building is at the end of a downtown parking lot, within site of the Molson Center hockey arena, and the Sheraton Center Hotel (the site of many mass demos in recent history, including last October’s G-20 protest), and just down the street from the Youth Hostel.
At the new squat, several people started ripping off the wooden boarding, while other tools – ladders, hammers, crowbars – were revealed and used to enter and secure the space. Very quickly, as hundreds gathered around, the building was occupied, and many began to attach banners, placards, as well as spray-paint slogans and images, onto the re-appropriated building. A sign over the main entrance read: “Housing is not a luxury; it’s a right!” One small group arrived with plants to decorate the new home.
Two local groups, Food Not Bombs and the People’s Potato, organized an outdoor kitchen, and a collective meal was soon prepared, including lots of boiled corn-on-the-cob (which was husked on the spot). Across the street, residents of neighboring condos observed the scene with surprise. Some expressed mild hostility at the incursion, while others actually offered utensils and water. One resident, quoted in La Presse, sympathized with the need for social housing.
During the demo and squat opening, there was a constant police presence, but at a distance. There were several police vans nearby, as well as uniformed bike cops, but compared to other similar protests, the police intervention was low-key. Many speculated that the police were caught by surprise by the location of the squat, and were also preoccupied with a busy, summer Friday night in the city, which includes the open-air Francofolies Festival. The late-night news has reported one arrest, but none was observed at the squat itself.
Several older activists recalled the significance of the Overdale Street location. In the late 1980s, it was the sight of a major, years-long mobilization to protect a block of housing in what came to be known as the Battle of Overdale (see the “Battle of Overdale (1987-89) backgrounder, to be posted soon).
In the end, Overdale residents were forcibly evicted and the housing was razed to become what is basically an overpriced parking for hockey games. The only remaining building of the original block, which is now squatted, survived only because of its historical significance.
[The building was the family home of Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine, a pre-Confederation politician and lawyer. In the accounts of mainstream history, Lafontaine -- along with Robert Baldwin -- ushered in the area of “responsible” government for white men in colonial Canada.]
The squat organizers were speculating that their newly acquired building, as a historically significant if neglected and empty structure, is probably owned by Heritage Canada, making the Government of Canada the “legal landlord”.
As it stands, the squatters continue to organize themselves for the weekend, and are encouraging supporters to maintain a constant presence to discourage a police eviction or attack, and in support of cheap, affordable housing in Montreal.
- written and reported by Jaggi Singh <firstname.lastname@example.org>, for Indymedia Montreal and the Quebec Alternative Media Center (CMAQ)
- for updates and photos, please check the Montreal Indymedia webpage at http://montreal.indymedia.org
Background reports on “Montreal’s Housing Crisis”, “The Comité des sans-emploi”, “The Battle of Overdale (1987-89)” and “Housing, Gentrification and Public Space in Montreal”, will be posted in this space soon.
ripped from <montreal.indymedia.org>
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