When the largest demonstration in Canadian history happened, Montreal’s car traffic came to a standstill. It was predictable — hundreds of thousands of people were expected to descend on the downtown that day, conditions that aren’t exactly ripe for the free flow of cars.

It was a sort of poetic justice, considering that the demonstration on Sept. 27 was in favour of dramatic action on climate change, a phenomenon caused in large part by the personal-use car. That poetic justice was only amplified when the City of Montreal announced, in the leadup to the demonstration, that it would be making all public transportation free for the day.

“We need to make transportation a human right, and make housing a human right”

It was, above all, a symbolic measure, meant to demonstrate the city’s commitment to fighting climate change and its support for the strikers, as well as offset some of the transport-related havoc engendered by 500,000 people in the street. The metro trains were packed that day, often filled with sign-carrying youth on their way to or from the demonstration.

Green New Deal of the North

What if the city wanted to move beyond symbolism? According to Dru Oja Jay, an organizer with Courage — a coalition of leftists who mostly operate within the NDP — cities like Montreal should be moving towards “free public transit and decommodified green housing.”

“We need to make transportation a human right, and make housing a human right,” Oja Jay says. “And leave the profit out of it.”

Just what that might look like, and how cities might arrive to that point, was the subject of a public forum that took place in Montreal on Oct. 6. Organized by Courage and other local community organizations, the forum drew local residents, experts in the field, and NDP candidates in the ongoing federal election.

For event organizers, the forum is a part of a broader campaign to enact a “Green New Deal of the North,” an ambitious campaign to transition off fossil fuels and also “address the structural inequalities and improve lives in communities marginalized by the current system,” according to its outline document. Housing and free transit are just some components of a program that would enact “a transition that’s not just away from fossil fuels, but towards a more just society that actually makes people happy,” Oja Jay says.

“The reason for that can be both ethical, in the sense that you want a society that’s better for everybody,” says Oja Jay, “but it’s also practical. If you do a climate transition that happens at the expense of poor people and the working class, there’s going to be backlash.”

Why housing and transit?

For urban planner, author, and teacher Jason Prince, “housing and transit are inherently linked.”He says it’s increasingly rare that city planners will look at them in silos.

That notion checks out, at least within the Communauté Métropolitain de Montréal, which comprises all the municipalities in the greater Montreal area. In 2012 the CMM launched its first urban plan to coordinate development across municipalities. The word of the day was “transit-oriented development,” or TOD, a framework in which urban planners concentrate new housing development efforts in designated public transit hubs, in order to encourage their use and move transport away from reliance on cars. In its initial document, the CMM designated 155 TOD zones in the greater Montreal area that could be subject to densification.

“If you fly over Toronto in a helicopter, around every metro station you see towers,” Prince says, describing high-rise housing units. “That didn’t happen in Montreal, but now [the city is] going to try to provoke it.”

This comes in tandem with various city-led efforts to increase capacity for public transit, including the extension of metro lines and the construction of a new Pink Line, the cornerstone of Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante’s election campaign.

For Prince, this increase in capacity is a necessary first step towards fare-free transit. If fares were to be removed tomorrow, he says, the system would be overwhelmed. More transit options means more capacity to adapt to the groundswell of new riders that fare-free systems imply.

While increasing housing density around transit hubs might seem like an end in itself, speakers at the forum clarified that, without other protections, that style of development would almost certainly displace residents of poor and working-class communities due to rising housing costs. Prince advocates for designating certain areas as “affordability zones,” with greater protections against rising cost-of-living associated with new housing developments and public transit hubs.

Milton-Parc (Photo: ccmp-mpcc.com)

Dimitri Roussopoulos, founder of Black Rose Books and long-time community organizer in Montreal’s Milton-Parc neighbourhood, has some experience guaranteeing long-term affordability in zones that would otherwise be affordable only to the wealthy. He helped organize — and win — a campaign in the 1970s to turn Milton-Parc, just outside downtown Montreal, into a community land trust, the largest cooperative housing federation in North America.

“The Milton-Parc project is not just another social housing project,” Roussopoulos says. “The Milton-Parc project is fundamentally an anti-capitalist project. You know why? Because we established a land-trust.… Private property has been abolished in Milton-Parc.”

In the years that followed the establishment of Milton-Parc, other communities in Montreal attempted to form their own land trusts. They were outmaneuvered by the municipal government of the time, which was led by the left-leaning Montreal Citizens’ Movement. Roussopoulos is now organizing with his community to turn the site of Montreal’s first hospital, the now-closed Hôtel-Dieu, into a community land trust.

Local NDP candidates speak in favour of proposals

After Sep. 27, federal political parties in the midst of an election immediately seized upon the new political reality in front of them. By some estimates nearly a million people — or almost 3 per cent of the Canadian population — had taken to the streets that day, in cities and towns from coast to coast. The environment would be front and centre in the federal election.

Justin Trudeau announced that, if elected, the Liberal Party would plant two billion trees over the span of 10 years, financed with the revenues accrued from the Trans Mountain pipeline, which his administration purchased despite large-scale opposition.

“He comes to take poor people’s votes, but does nothing for them.”

The move didn’t impress Christine Paré, the NDP candidate running against Trudeau in his riding of Papineau. Paré was one of a group of around a half-dozen Montreal-area NDP candidates who showed up to the forum and spoke in favor of free public transit and social housing.

Christine Paré with NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice

Having lived in Parc-Extension — a largely immigrant neighborhood that makes up a section of the Papineau riding — for 17 years, Paré says that the pipeline purchase was one example among many of Trudeau’s misplaced priorities with regards to the environment and the people in his riding.

“Instead of using federal transfers to build social housing, he bought a pipeline,” Paré says. “He has priorities that are completely different from the people he represents.”

Paré says that, since Trudeau was elected to the riding in 2008, poverty in her neighbourhood has not improved. The area is currently facing a severe housing crisis and has long been one of Canada’s poorest.

For her, free transit and public housing represent concrete ways to fight the social inequalities that plague her community. She has watched her neighbourhood rapidly gentrify due to the construction of a university campus and an influx of tech companies, and says she would use government power to guarantee housing for community members.

Trudeau, she says, only shows up occasionally for parades. “He comes from the 1 per cent,” Paré says. “He comes to take poor people’s votes, but does nothing for them.”