Nathalie Collard has a column in today’s La Presse lamenting the lack of access Montrealers have to their waterways. “Les Montréalais habitent une île, mais n’ont pratiquement pas accès à l’eau. C’est aberrant,” she writes. It’s true: despite being surrounded by water, including a variety of lakes, basins, channels, rapids and one of North America’s great rivers, Montreal is one of the least water-accessible cities I know. Whatever local instinct we once had to head to the water has been quashed by pollution, industry and highways.
Things are changing, of course. The re-opening of the Lachine Canal has done a lot to reinvigorate the area around it, even if its success as an functioning waterway is limited (the number have boaters on the canal has declined every year since 2001). The demolition of the Bonaventure Expressway, which will start next year, has the potential to transform the neglected Peel Basin into a real gathering place for Montrealers. And, despite all of the waterfront that is rendered accessible in the central part of the city, there are still plenty of gorgeous river- and lakeside parks in more outlying parts of the city, not to mention St. Helen’s Island.
But what really gets to me is the lack of beaches in Montreal. Before World War II, there were more than 20 across the island; now there are just two, one at Cap St-Jacques on the West Island and the other on Notre-Dame Island, near the casino. (The latter, which has an entrance fee of $7, fronts an artificial lagoon.) The water in most parts of the St. Lawrence is actually clean enough to swim in without danger — surfers do it all the time at the standing wave behind Habitat ’67 — and I think that Montrealers would feel far more of a connection to their city’s waterways if only they were allowed to swim in them.
I think it’s time to recreate some of Montreal’s old beaches. Last year, when I wandered around Pointe Claire Village on the West Island, I came across a pleasant natural beach right next to a large waterfront park. It was fenced off. Why not open it up to the public? I admit I’m pretty ignorant of the ecological implications of turning it into a recreational beach, which would involve adding sand or fine gravel to the shoreline, but there must be some way to make it more accessible. Same goes for some of the parks along the Back River, many of which meet the water with concrete walls and fences.