À nous la Malting!: A Collective Vision for the Common Good
Citizen participation is at the heart of the À nous la Malting! project—a winner of the 2022 cohort of the MIS Civic Incubator. The project targets poverty and social exclusion in a neighbourhood that has been particularly affected by gentrification.
Leaving its mark on the landscape of Saint-Henri
It’s a pink house, perched on a malting plant. You can admire it from below—safe from falling tiles—but there’s no safe way to climb it.
Photo credit: Cinzia Orsina
It was in the fall of 2019 that the former Canada Malting silo-control station changed colour. With its bright pink facade and green shutters, its flower boxes (or, in season, its holiday decorations), Little Pink is the work of a group of artists who carefully maintain their anonymity and the mystery surrounding their work. Who would dare to climb 45 metres to paint the topmost portion of the tower of this ruined building?
If this installation has attracted the curiosity of the Montreal population only recently, the entire Canada Malting site has been coveted by real-estate developers for a long time. Dating from the early 20th century, it’s the oldest disused malt house in Quebec, and the only one still standing. The imposing building, an architectural vestige of the industrial era of malting, was abandoned in the 1990s.
Ever since, the site has attracted real-estate developers, who regard it as ideal for luxury condos—in a neighbourhood whose median family income is significantly lower than the rest of Montreal’s ($56,704 compared with $64,039) and in which one out of three residents lives in a low-income situation. Between 2005 and 2011, some 2,000 condos were built in Saint-Henri—but just 147 social housing units¹. Inevitably, this sustained urban development has generated intense real-estate speculation. Rents have increased by 25 percent² since 2011. Today, 42 percent of households spend more than one-third of their income on housing.
As in other neighbourhoods in similar situations, gentrification has pervaded Saint-Henri. Affordable housing is increasingly scarce and the social fabric is disintegrating. In the case of the Canada Malting plant, the neighbourhood’s history itself is endangered.
The potential for citizen mobilization
In Saint-Henri, a neighbourhood marked by its working-class past, a majority of tenants (71 percent in 2018³) are threatened at any given moment by eviction. In many cases, they are forced to move. In 2014, when the Corporation de développement Solidarité Saint-Henri (SSH) organized a public consultation, residents and local organizations helped identify the needs and development concerns of the neighbourhood. Topics discussed included the creation of employment zones for local services and businesses, the preservation of heritage, the greening of the community, and, above all, the lack of affordable housing.
But vacant land for development is scarce in Saint-Henri, with one exception: the Canada Malting site. Today, various high-end real estate projects proposed over the past decade have finally been abandoned, creating opportunities for the community itself to develop the site. Having been actively involved in the evaluation of various plans, the Saint-Henri community envisions a completely different approach, one which would meet the needs identified during consultations and also preserve the neighbourhood’s distinctive architecture.
The collective À nous la Malting! was born in 2017 out of a conviction that the repurposing of the Malting must be done by, and for, the community of Saint-Henri: “The neighbourhood is undergoing a rapid transformation that is shaking up its dynamics and unraveling its social fabric. We are championing a project that will help to rebuild the spirit of the neighbourhood and give meaning to its development.” —Shannon Franssen, member of the À nous la Malting! collective
Adapting its activist approach
As presented in the business plan drafted by the collective, with the financial support of Centraide and the Sud-Ouest borough, the development proposal for the site involves several key steps which are subject to negotiation, starting with the setting aside of the land to keep it out of the private real-estate market. In a process reminiscent of the creation of Bâtiment 7—a leading example of the reappropriation of an industrial space in Canada—the collective sought political support and funding by championing its vision: a 100-percent community project encompassing a housing cooperative, food production, the preservation of heritage, and the establishment of services and public spaces.
These steps were meant to be sequential, but the responses of the different levels of government evolved with the mandates of various elected officials. Then the pandemic slowed down the mobilization of the collective and, in so doing, made its most active members aware of their own exhaustion. On the one hand, strenuous activism is necessary at certain times in order to bring about a socially transformative paradigm shift; on the other, the single-minded commitment this requires can cause burnout. In the face of fatigue and discouragement, keeping a collective united and anchored in a common vision—without diluting its impact strategy—can be difficult.
Relying on the Civic Incubator to break the deadlock
Mobilizing the full potential of change agents by strengthening their resilience in the face of obstacles is precisely what the Civic Incubator seeks to do.
When David Grant-Poitras and Eunbyul Park (later to be succeeded by Shannon Franssen) joined the 2022 cohort, the core group knew they had reached an impasse. Crucial steps such as land acquisition had yet to be accomplished. But the duo needed first to consider the problem itself and its stakeholder dynamics. Thomas Baracos, coach of the À nous la Malting! project, explains:
“David and Eunbyul joined the cohort looking for new ways to develop potential partnerships and also remobilize the entire collective. During workshops and coaching sessions, we worked to assemble the winning conditions for this project by imagining alternatives to direct confrontation—for example, by opening the field of possibilities through envisioning the project as a living laboratory.”
Experimentation became the project’s new dynamic. Using design thinking, a key Civic Incubator methodology based on learning loops and multiple iterations, the pair were encouraged to break down a daunting challenge into small concrete initiatives.
While preserving its initial vision, the collective gained credibility, notice, and an opportunity to bring in stakeholders as long-term partners. The Saint-Henri library was an example. In December 2022, the collective organized an exhibition there focusing on the historical heritage of the neighbourhood. This was a great opportunity to reach out to the public, raise awareness of the issues the collective is working on, and recruit new members.
“Eunbyul, Shannon and I had the opportunity to collaborate in the Civic Incubator program. Passing on our findings to the rest of the team was a job in and of itself, because this new approach is a big change, especially for people who have been activists since the very beginning! Luckily, most of the tools we developed are designed to put collective intelligence to work for the project. The appropriation of these collaborative tools has paid off: the mobilization of the collective has been rejuvenated, and we’ve been able to focus this first living laboratory on the history of the Canada Malting plant.” —David Grant-Poitras, member of the À nous la Malting! collective and participant in the 2022 Civic Incubator cohort
Buoyed by the success of the exhibition, the collective will maintain its renewed momentum through other community-oriented initiatives, among them a gardening program during the summer of 2023 on the Malting site that will buttress the community’s efforts to designate the land as a reserve.
Follow the social networks of À nous la Malting!, where details of upcoming events will be announced. If you want to contribute to the project, the collective is always looking for new members, support, and advice from organizations that have managed similar transformations. Don’t hesitate to get in touch!
¹ and ² Esprit de quartier podcast, “A (truly) affordable city,” produced by the Coalition montréalaise des Tables de quartier
³ À nous la Malting! project file