Montréal-Nord in exile: Public transit and social exclusion

Montréal-Nord or Bust
« Le permis de conduire est devenue le diplôme le plus discriminatoire sur le marché de l’emploi. »
– Éric Le Breton

We citizens of Canada, living in one of the world’s safest countries, and belonging predominately to the ranks of the middle-class, take our mobility for granted.

If I need to go to work, I walk 15 minutes up the relatively pedestrian friendly avenue du Parc. If I were in Mexico City, where the pedestrian death rate is 3 times higher than that of Los Angeles (and L.A. is by no means a walker’s paradise), going to work would be a life or death decision.

If I need to go to school, I climb Mont Royal (which is more a large hill than an actual mountain) by bicycle, reaching my destination in less than 15 minutes. If I were in Gulucan Village in West China, the everyday walk to school would require navigating a narrow and winding path carved into a cliff. On one side, rock; on the other, a 5000-foot sheer drop.

If I need to escape the monotony of the Montreal entertainment scene, I board a bus, rent a car, take a train, or catch a flight to any destination in Québec, Canada, or the world; and do so at a low-cost. If I were in Iqaluit, leaving town would involve embarking on an epic journey. Despite being the capital of Nunavut, it is not connected to any other Canadian city by road. One must rely on boat during the short 2-month period when the waters surrounding the town are ice-free, or depend on a combination of dogsled and snowmobile the rest of the year. And, with flights to other Canadian urban centres at a premium, flying almost becomes a privilege bestowed solely upon the rich.

Clearly, as the previous examples illustrate, we all do not profit from the same degree of accessible mobility. These differences consequently have a tremendous impact on the style and the quality of life one leads. Increased mobility affords greater opportunities for one to become an integrated member of society. This raises the question: What happens when one lacks or is denied the same mobility as their fellow citizens? The answer: Social exclusion. Would this be the case for the residents of Montréal-Nord, one of the most densely populated areas in Montreal not linked to the city-centre by a rapid form of transit, and home to what many consider some of Montreal’s most serious social problems?

Girls just wanting fun
Social exclusion:

  • « a multidimensional process of progressive social rupture, detaching groups and individuals from social relations and institutions and preventing them from full participation in the normal, normatively prescribed activities of the society in which they live. »

These activities include, but are not limited to, employment, a stable and permanent income, housing, citizenship, democratic participation, humanity, and respect.

There are many causes of social exclusion:
low income (insufficient financial resources to access inclusion)
physical barriers (physical difficulties to access inclusion)
communication and information (inability to understand the necessary language to access inclusion)
transportation (difficulty in getting to spaces of inclusion)
discrimination (rejection by the majority group of the society)
social isolation (the psychological feeling of exclusion).

The ramifications of social exclusion echo across society and they are too numerous to provide an exhaustive list:

• A Scottish study attributed poor educational skills, low income, inferior housing, family problems, and generally a general reduction in quality of life to social exclusion

• An English study demonstrated a correlation between criminal activities, poverty, and unemployment and rate of social exclusion

• Health Canada reports that the health of social excluded individuals tends to deteriorate, leading to conditions such as hypertension and drug abuse

The case of Montréal-Nord
I have always been fascinated with Montréal-Nord. Sensational headlines describe the borough as a « quartier difficile » : Le spectre des émeutes hante encore Montréal-Nord; Un adolescent noir aurait été maltraité par des policiers à Montréal-Nord; Fusillade à Montréal-Nord: personne ne collabore; Coup de feu sur une voiture du SPVM. By following media reports, one could conclude that the community is rife with « problems » ranging from street gangs to troubled schools. Tensions with local police forces due to accusations of racial profiling and bullying have not made the situation any better. The Fredy Villanueva incidient of 2008, in which a 17-year old was shot and killed by police officers in a local park, only served to highlight some of the hostility felt in the area. All things considered, it would be easy for this high immigrant and visible minority population to become social excluded, with or without good public transit; in general, the area has become a long forgotten corner of Montreal.

If transportation could help bring about solutions to the issues stemming from social exclusion, why have our political leaders allowed public transit to remain so inaccessible in Montréal-Nord? I posit that it is because investing in public transit infrastructure is not as easy as just wishing for a safer and more family-oriented borough. Investing in public transit infrastructure is not as immediate as giving money to sports, cultural, and social services for youth and families in the area. Public transit infrastructure cannot be realised in a day. It takes months, sometimes years of planning, in which case, the politician who provided the spark for such initiative may have already been voted away. Investments in public transit therefore take vision; something that is sorely lacking from most of our so-called leaders in government.

Why is transportation mobility an important question facing Montréal-Nord?
In the 2006 census, it was revealed that 73% of workers from Montréal-Nord travelling during morning rush hour leave the borough for work; 38% of students leave the borough for school; 52% of residents leave the borough for entertainment.

« Where do all these people go? », you ask.

The vast majority of these trips are made to the boroughs of Ville-Marie, Villeray―Saint-Michel―Parc-Extension, and Ahunstic-Cartierville. In fact, the amount of people who travel to Ville-Marie to work equals the amount who work within Montréal-Nord.

The real question becomes: How do these people arrive at their destinations?

Let’s take, for example, a sample departure point from Parc Henri-Bourassa. This park is over 8 km from the nearest métro station (Henri-Bourassa), which, according to Google Maps, translates to a drive of about 12 minutes, a bus trip of 30 minutes, or a walk of 1 hour and 37 minutes. This is just to arrive at the métro station; do not forget to take into account the time it takes to get from métro Henri-Bourassa to one’s final destination. To put this distance into some perspective, Parc Henri-Bourassa is almost as far from métro Henri-Bourassa as métro Henri-Bourassa is from métro Sherbrooke.

If one chooses to take the bus, be prepared for a cramped ride. I decided to test out our public transit facilities one afternoon after finishing my work day in the Plateau. I caught the métro at Laurier around 5:30 pm. The cars were so packed; I could barely squeeze myself in. I descended at métro Henri-Bourassa where I was greeted by long queues waiting to board one of the buses. Two (2) buses filled up and departed before I was able to get on one. Packed to the rafters, the bus set off to Parc Henri-Bourassa.

More of the same, my return trip provided no relief. One bus drove right by the stop I was waiting at, for it was bursting at the seams. As luck would have it, the next scheduled bus arrived late. I was fortunate enough to even be able to board the bus; the others I left behind would have to wait until the next one saved them.

I certainly could not imagine doing such a commute, day in and day out. The forced occasions in which I take public transit annoy me to all hell. From what I hear, the bus on Pie-IX is no prize; but for now, I will have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Despite the favourable weather, there is no way that I will be repeating this same experiment.

On the other hand, if one chooses to walk, be prepared for quite the trek. An hour and a half is a lot of time to waste, especially when you are commuting to work. Sure, there may be a few trees and grass planted in the median of boulevard Henri-Bourassa, but this « boulevard » is nothing more than an 8 lane autoroute. The sidewalks almost feel like urban planning afterthoughts.

So I suppose the only option for our fellow citizens living in Montréal-Nord is to own a car. This is the only viable option in a borough where 57.8% of the population « survive » on a low income.

What can be done?
The Ville de Montréal has finally begun to do its part. Recent announcements include the construction of the Agence métropolitain de transport (AMT)’s fabled Train de l’Est, which would include a station in Montréal-Nord along with other underserved areas of the city. The Pie-IX/Henri-Bourassa viaduct will be reconfigured into a human-scale intersection that will hopefully be more pedestrian-friendly. And one must not forget the plans to revive the Pie-IX reserved express bus lane.

Now, transit is not the only thing fuelling the social exclusion in which the community exists. Rivière-des-Praires, Pointe-aux-Tembles, St-Léonard – in fact, the entire eastern portion of the island of Montreal suffers from the same transportation isolation as Montréal-Nord. However, what makes Montréal-Nord’s situation special is the population’s vulnerability. Mobility or lack thereof, is just another element, on top of race, ethnicity, immigration status, and language, which is feeding the process of social exclusion in the borough.

Overall, cities must view mobility equality as a basic human right all persons deserve. Our leaders must also act with vision: Instead of just trying to curry favour and buy votes, politicians should be working to create a better quality of life of all citizens in order to build great, sustainable cities. However, as long as politicians are only in the politics game for career aspects, good pensions, and prestige, communities like Montréal-Nord will probably not see any tangible improvements anytime soon.


  1. Il y a aussi les autobus articulés qui sont placés dorénavant sur les lignes 69 et 139 dans le but d’accueillir plus de passagers.

  2. Il est évident (pour ne pas dire essentiel) que Montréal-Nord devrait etre desservi par le métro non seulement parce qu’il est important de rejoindre l”ensemble des quartiers populaires de la ville par ce moyen de transport abordable mais aussi parce que c’est un endroit dense et qu’en court de route le métro traverserait plusieurs autres quartiers urbains et denses.

  3. Good points. But let’s face it if you want to succeed you will overcome the obstacles you face, nothing is easy in life. No one will ever force you to become a failure. Better public access would help the work/school access situation, but public transport access is not the determining factor here.

    Otherwise, how would you explain the people from West Island, or places like Rosemere, who have a much worst commutes and do not have similar social issues, and I’m not talking about high income ile-Bizard folks, but average 40-50k families. Moreover not everyone works downtown. Montreal-Nord has decent access to industrial areas like Laval and Anjou. In the end, it has everything to do with a few bad apples who create a bad public image for the area, and that’s not gonna change no matter how many metro stations they have. Just to make it clear the few cops who are morons (and the higher ups who refuse to take responsibility for them), like the idiot who decided to make a final judgement on someone’s life, only contribute to that problem, so it goes both ways.

  4. Jack, that’s ridiculous. The people in West Island who apparently have “much worse” transit but “do not have similar social issues” are well off, have cars and CHOOSE to live in that area because they like it there. And yes, the “average 40-50 k” family is well off, believe it or not. They can afford to live wherever they want and they can afford to drive when they need or want to leave home. Low income people rarely have the means to choose what area they would truly most like to live in, and are limited to living wherever they can afford rent. Efficient, frequent transit really would help the residents of an isolated low income neighbourhood much more fundamentally than it would help the median suburban families who have the means to make more choices about their locality and form of transportation. It’s just not a reasonable comparison at all.

    And to assume that low income people are “failures” is a really piss poor attitude.

  5. Here is a Montreal Tramways Map showing streetcar service to the North end, some of which had been place since the 1890s.

    It was single-track East from approximately Montee St Michel to Rue Pigeon opposite St Vincent de Paul until the end of streetcar service in April 1959, the station shelter was on the East side of Pigeon at Gouin.

    There was a Wye to turn the streetcars back West to ‘Limites’, Ahuntsic and downtown situated at Rue Pigeon and Boul Leger.

    Until Pont Viau was constructed there was ferry across Riviere des Prairies to service St Vincent de Paul and the jail located at that location.

    Here is a photo from the Internet showing a Westbound streetcar coming off the single-track approaching the terminus at ‘Limites’ where double-track began to the West through to MTC Ahuntsic Station at Millen and then South toCremazie. The large brick school with the cross in the right-rear of the image is still extant on Boulvard St Michel just South of Henri Bourassa.

    The streetcar in the photo would be about at Rue Oscar on present-day Henri Bourassa.

    Back in the Ffities we would journey to Ahuntsic, and occasionally to the end of the line at Rue Pigeon, and I would ride the empty Motorman’s seat at the controls on the rear end of the car and watch the rails and ties spew out behind as we rolled thru the countryside.

    There was a passing siding, and we would wait there on the return trip at night.

    Once the motors stopped, it was totally quiet.

    Then the electric air compressor beneath the floor would start with a Clunk-clunk-clunk rousing the weary.

    A slight hissing could be heard in the roof as the sound of the trolley pole pulley running on the trolley wire on the approaching car transmitted thru the trolley wire to the trolley pole on our stopped car and down thru the pole to resonate thru the roof itself.

    That car would flash by in a blur of light, and our Motorman would turn on his headlight and proceed to Limites. It was an extra fare East from Limites to Rue Pigeon.

    At one time CNR offered ELECTRIC train service to and from Central Station thru the Mount Royal Tunnel to Montreal North.

    All from many years ago when you could ride in electric comfort from Montreal North to Downtown.

    Thank You.

  6. Oh please!!

    Montreal Nord has langelier, lacordair, pieix, and st michel buses that either go to the green or blue lines or take henribourassa to the metro.

    It is nowhere as hard to get downtown as it is in rivieres des prairies or even pointe aux trembles.

    Mtl Nord was a fine and nice place to live in the 70s and 80s, very italian, very family oriented. Just like in St.Leonard you had to know which way the wind blew if you ran a business and were willing to pay for the privelege of running a business (protection).
    But it was no different than St.Leonard.

    My best friend lived for over 30 yrs right next to the park where Villanueva was killed and it changed the past 20 yrs.
    its not a poor neighborhood, nor is it fallin apart…nothing even on the same planet as the slums of NY, Chicago and most US inner cities.
    Poverty? Please…. everyone has either cable or satellite on BS,….
    it is nowhere close to being a slum.
    but people who chose to identify with ‘hoods’ and barrios make it sound like its the Bronx.

    I know full of families that came over to Canada with nothing and yet managed to make somethinf of themselves. Fine, we will say that asians are superhuman and that their discipline and respect for education is a different (BS) than other cultures but if my illiterate italian neighbour could work 3 jobs to buy a house for both his sons or the chinese lady who babysat me whose whole family consists of lower education members who all have children who graduated university, the whole Mtl Nord myth is nothing more than whining.

    I lived right by Lacorrdaire and Henri Bourassa for 2 years in the 80s and my buddy lived next to Calixa Lavalle and getting downtown was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay easier that it was for friends who lived in the waste island who need a train to get to town.

    St Leonard has had its Bronx around the HLM’s of Viau and Robert for years and no one said it was because of social exclusion. This is nothing more than making excuses for peoples inabilities to cope with life.

    yes, its hard to be an immigrant but many of us are and have done well for ourselves. we dont need to make excuses.

    Of course, when the bus pass reaches 100$ we will have to deal with exclusion because of cost.

    Do we need more and affordable public transit? Of course we do.
    In Mtl Nord, Lachine, Pierrefond, RDP, PAT, Montreal est, and elsewhere.

    But public transit will not serve the pity party that people throw at Mtl. Nord.

    I dont blame the italians in Mtl Nord who are all very, very racist nowadays. They lived in a beautiful city with nice duplex and triplex that they worked hard (italian post WW2 immigration was largely manual laborers) and when ‘others’ came it all went to hell. It may be simplistic and unfair but with the violence and fear and crime of the past 2 decades its hard to blame them.

    Public transit will not bring back the place they moved in decades ago.


  7. Ummm I live in montreal north and there are buses everywhere, most of which go to metros (subways) which lead to more buses to go almost anywhere on the island of montreal and of course Downtown… center. Someone up there in the comments mentioned the west island, it’s true, i lived their too, buses their are far fewer and much less frequent, yet these social issues that you’re linking to transportation largely don’t exist, at least not to the greater degree they do in montreal nord. We are most certainly not in exile out here.

  8. Another Montreal Tramways Photo.

    Account a head-on on the Millen Route South of then-Kelly back in the Twenties, Montreal Tramways was loath to operate much single-track.

    However, a long section of single-track was operated east from ‘Limites’ near Ave Oscar to Rue Pigeon at Gouin opposite St. Vincent de Paul and it’s Penitentary until May 3, 1959, when the route was discontinued.

    Here is photo of the Tramways single-track at Avenue London. ( The original photo said Ave. Paris, which was not there yet. ) about 12 blocks East of Montee St Michel.

    Photo from the Internet.

    Here is a link to a modern-day image at present-day Henri Bourassa and Avenue London.,-73.645134&sspn=0.00503,0.023389&ie=UTF8&radius=0.68&split=1&rq=1&ev=zi&hq=perras&hnear=&ll=45.593246,-73.644512&spn=0,0.023453&z=16&layer=c&cbll=45.593328,-73.64475&panoid=sxEy3Wg3_ukrIBnG-Nn1Aw&cbp=13,56.49,,0,4.14

    The white house to the right with the two windows on it’s upper floor is the same structure in both images.

    Thank You.

  9. Sinners, Steeples and Streetcars.

    If it was not for sinners there would be no need for churches.

    Pass the plate and receive absolution, S’il vous plait.

    Montreal has lots of churches.

    Add Google Earth, and one can identify locations in old photos without leaving your chair.

    Thank God for churches!

    This Link shows an Eastbound streetcar on Route 25 approaching Limites Station, the beginning of Route 40 and single-track.

    Note the church steeple with the angled device atop to the right above the streetcar.

    By using Google and following the images Eastward towards Limites on present-day Henri Bourassa the church steeple appears as one crosses Avenue Vianney.

    Limites next stop!,-97.15369&sspn=18.989653,62.314453&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Ahuntsic,+Communaut%C3%A9-Urbaine-de-Montr%C3%A9al,+Quebec&ll=45.579776,-73.652086&spn=0,0.023389&z=16&layer=c&cbll=45.579933,-73.65197&panoid=BANQ_TZQTFTlBtMhAj6QhQ&cbp=12,35.9,,0,-6.87

    Merci beaucoup.

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