In working-class Park Ex, fight over bike path exposes deep rifts

One expert on citizen involvement says the situation in Park Ex is different, and tackles what she deems one of the toughest issues of the 21st Century: how to implement environmental sustainability without further harming working-class people. 

Race, class play into rising tensions over parking spaces in neighbourhood resisting gentrification

An old man wearing a newsboy cap and a wooden cane stands amid a crowd of protesters carrying signs in favour of bike lanes and against the removal of parking spaces.
Duelling protests outside the Villeray-St-Michel-Parc-Extension borough office Tuesday were attended by people from all walks of life. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

A group of residents in Montreal's Parc-Extension neighbourhood is fundraising in the hopes of launching legal action against the city to halt work that has already begun on a bike path removing 250 parking spaces. 

In the span of a week, the group, called Coalition for Democracy Park Extension, has raised $5,000, a 10th of its goal.

The bike path project has caused a fervour rarely seen in municipal politics, except perhaps for other initiatives to remove parking. Thumbtacks were found strewn across one of the completed bike lanes on Querbes and Ball avenues, and several police officers showed up after some residents sat in the lane with camping chairs and coffee.

But one expert on citizen involvement says the situation in Park Ex is different and tackles what she deems to be one of the toughest issues facing the 21st century: how to implement environmental sustainability without further harming working-class people. 

"Most people are not in favour of global warming," said Caroline Patsias, a political science professor at Université du Québec à Montréal. "But the ecological transition, in daily life, can have an extremely high cost for a certain category of population."

And Patsias said most of the people who live in Park Ex belong to that category of population: people who are part of immigrant families, make modest incomes doing jobs in service and manufacturing industries, often outside the city at odd hours; people whose highest-value possession is a car, not a home, and who do not have access to private driveways; those who are aging and have mobility issues.

Climate change disproportionately affects marginalized people everywhere, but at times well-intentioned environmental policies can end up adversely impacting poorer people's daily lives and privilege the already privileged, Patsias explained.

Of cars and jobs

Sia Spanoudakis, 53, who grew up in Park Ex after her parents moved to Canada from Greece in the 1960s, helped launch the fundraiser after she found out her parents' disability parking spot would be moved to another street. Her father is 91.

Two bike lanes on either side of a one-way street.
Work to revamp bike lanes on Ball Avenue in Parc-Extension was recently completed. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

"This is not a a neighbourhood where you have households with three or four luxury vehicles. This is a working-class, immigrant neighbourhood. People who have cars need them to get to work, need them to take care of their families. This is their livelihoods. They're not against the climate. They're not against bike paths. They just want to live and earn a living," Spanoudakis said. 

In June, the borough sent residents postcards notifying them about an information session on the bike lanes that would be implemented in September, but it did not hold a consultation session, which the Coalition for Democracy group says goes against Montreal's Charter of Rights and Responsibilities.

Tuesday evening, Catherine Dion Richard, a single mother of two young children, appeared at the borough council meeting for Villeray-St-Michel-Parc-Extension and attempted to lay out how difficult her life would become if she were to get rid of the car she uses to ferry her kids to their father's place in another neighbourhood, to their school and to get herself to work. 

For starters, she would need a shed installed outside her home to store a bike or several bikes, which she says she looked into and was not legal in her area. She said taking public transit alone with the two children would require carriers and would involve an amount of energy and time she struggles to picture herself mustering, especially in the winter. 

Borough Mayor Laurence Lavigne Lalonde, a member of Projet Montréal, who has faced a myriad of similar stories, replied that she was aware the parking spaces' removal would affect her constituents' lives but that the project aims to rectify an imbalance in bike safety and public space in the district.

Montreal police officers on bicycles monitored the protest on Tuesday evening in the borough of Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Outside the borough office on Ogilvy Avenue, duelling protests totalling about 300 people raged on, with the larger, more culturally diverse crowd chanting, "We want parking!" in a loudspeaker and banging on drums and the other, smaller, whiter crowd yelling, "We want bike paths!" 

Neighbours divided

A dozen police officers wearing bright vests and carrying bikes created a line separating the two groups, following a few heated confrontations. 

On both sides of the divide, protestors said they were unhappy with the tensions the issue has caused in their neighbourhood. 

Sarah Milis, whose five-year-old daughter Nina bounced on her shoulders on the cycling side, said she expected to run into neighbours she loved on the pro-parking side. 

"I understand why people need to have a car because, some, they do have to go far to go to work and sometimes, you know, they don't have the physical ability to bike — I'm lucky, I do. So I don't want to hurt my neighbours, yet we need to find a way," to have safer bike lanes, she said. 

child and woman protesting
Sarah Milis attended the protest in favour of the revamped bike lanes with her five-year-old daughter, Nina. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Milis's daughter has been learning to bike in parks and on bike paths outside the city, but the mother said she wouldn't allow her daughter to bike in a lane like the one that used to be on Querbes, demarcated only by a thin white line painted on the pavement.

Wassyla Hadjabi was on the bike side of the protests Tuesday, as well. She lives on the border between Villeray and Parc-Extension in the borough and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. She said she sees Villeray's many bike paths as yet another inequality between the two neighbourhoods that coexist in the same borough. 

A woman wearing a colourful headscarf and matching patterned dress smiles in a wheelchair.
Wassyla Hadjabi, 57, uses bike paths to get around in her motorized wheelchair. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

"There are a lot of heat islands [in Park Ex] so it's important to make things greener and make bicycles a priority," Hadjabi said, adding she now uses bike paths more than sidewalks because they are usually less bumpy and less slippery in the winter.

Xavier Richard, a Park Ex resident who came upon the thumbtacks while walking on Querbes, said the tension has reached a worrisome level to him. He preferred not to attend the meeting and protests for that reason. 

"It affects the democratic climate and prevents some people from wanting to express themselves," Richard said over the phone.

'We just want a solution to have both'

Ajitha Thavalingam, a 25-year-old who was born in Park Ex, said her group isn't against secure bike paths and is tired of it being portrayed that way.

"We just want a solution to have both," she said. 

Thavalingam drives about 28 kilometres every day to work at a software company in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville on the South Shore of Montreal.

A neighbour and family friend standing next to her, Vashika Vaithilingam, who moved to Park Ex from Sri Lanka eight years ago, said her husband needs their car to drive home at midnight from his restaurant job across the city. 

Both women live on Durocher Street, a block east of Querbes. They'll soon have to compete with 250 other cars to park in the already packed area. Park Ex is fenced in by a highway to the north, the affluent Town of Mount Royal to the west and a railway to the south.

When Thavalingam heard someone had found thumbtacks on the bike lane, she and several neighbours rushed outside to try and find them and clean them out of the way, she said. 

Two women smile at the camera with protestors behind them.
Family friends Ajitha Thavalingam, 25, and Vashika Vaithilingam, 36, live on Durocher Street in Park Ex and expect to compete with 250 people for parking spaces in the coming days. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

In Montréal-Nord, a borough east of St-Michel, a similar debate has been playing out. There, Borough Mayor Christine Black, who is part of city opposition Ensemble Montréal, attempted a compromise by implementing a secure bike lane that removes roughly 100 parking spots only three seasons a year — not in the winter. 

Angry residents still showed up to her council meeting this week.

When asked about it, Mary Deros, who has been a city councillor in Park Ex since 1998, said, "It would be better than nothing." Thavalingam, too, said she would prefer that option to losing the 250 spaces. 

Deros also wondered aloud why the borough had not chosen already wide one-way streets, such as Bloomfield and Champagneur avenues, for the bike lanes. She said she only found out about the project shortly before it was announced, despite knowing Park Ex "inside out." 

"I was never put in the loop," she said.

Some on the cycling side have accused Deros of politicizing the issue and enflaming tensions by throwing her weight behind the pro-parking side, but Patsias says the councillor — and residents — are doing their work as the opposition in the democratic process. 

Deros said she called for calm and denounced vandalism and intimidation in an address at Tuesday's council meeting. 

Patsias, the UQAM professor, says these types of debates will continue to pop across the world.

"Electric vehicles, they have a cost. We won't all be equal in accessing them," she said, listing as an example a man in another Montreal working-class neighbourhood, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, who was upset after losing his parking space to a charging station for electric vehicles most living there wouldn't be able to afford.

The issue is complex and requires complex solutions, she said, but taking class and privilege into account when implementing environmental policies may make doing so easier.

"When you have a lot to lose, you're going to defend yourself a lot," she said.


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

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