City's underpasses present sexual assault danger

The death of cyclist Mathilde Blais in a collision with a transport truck in an underpass last week has brought to light another kind of danger associated with crossing under the city’s viaducts — sexual assault.

Talk of cycling dangers encouraged sexual assault survivor to tell her story to CBC Radio's Daybreak

Montreal's underpasses are being called a threat to both cyclists and pedestrians, namely women walking alone along their darkened elevated walkways. (CBC)

The death of cyclist Mathilde Blais in a collision with a transport truck in an underpass last week has brought to light another kind of danger associated with crossing under Montreal's viaducts — sexual assault.

CBC Radio’s Daybreak was contacted last week by a listener for whom coverage of Blais’s death brought back memories of her own terrifying experience under the Van Horne viaduct, which crosses over Parc Avenue, on a sunny afternoon as she went to collect her children.

In an interview Monday morning, the listener — who used the name Maria on-air to disguise her identity —  told Daybreak host Mike Finnerty how a man in a ski jacket approached her and asked her for the time as she was about to walk into the underpass.

“He was wearing a ski jacket on a warm day and I remembered feeling a bit uneasy,” she said. “I told him I didn’t have the time and kept walking walking under the underpass.”

Midway into the elevated sidewalk that runs alongside the underpass, the man pushed Maria against the wall.

“He exposed himself and started to assault me,” she said.

Maria said her attacker stopped when another pedestrian entered the underpass.

“He ran. Or I ran. I can’t even recall. But he released me,” she said.

Maria said she didn’t recall being hurt or shocked. What she does remember is the fear of not knowing what her attacker intended to do to her.

“It wasn’t so much the shock as the absolute vulnerability of the moment. [Not knowing] is he going to rape me, stab me, shoot me? I had no idea what the outcome would be,” she said.

Trembling, Maria went on to get her children. Rather than going to the police, Maria said she initially tried to move on.

That such an assault could happen on a busy Montreal street in the middle of the afternoon is one of the many dangers of the city’s underpasses, Maria said.

“The infrastructure itself is dangerous,” she said. “How is it possible that at three in the afternoon with cars going nonstop beneath me, that I was being assaulted and no one had any idea. In the middle of the city. I’m above ground, in the dark. Vehicles can’t see me. Pedestrians who might be adjacent wouldn’t know what’s going on.

Daybreak also spoke with Helen Fotopoulos, the former mayor of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, about safety improvements that she worked to see implemented in the neighbourhood.

She said a big part of the problem is the fact much of Montreal's infrastructure dates from the 1950s and 1960s and was built with cars in mind, not people.

That includes its underpasses.

"The car was king, human scale was out the window [during that period]. And now we’re left with that reality," she said. 

One improvement that she pointed is the city's gender equality policy.

"It targets gender analysis, which says what’s good for women is good for everybody. It did well on the whole aspect of making a safe city for women," she said. 

Daybreak contacted numerous officials with the City to Montreal to inquire about better security for pedestrians and especially women in the city’s underpasses.

Daybreak was told no one could comment until the city had a solution to the problem. At the moment, it does not.