As Montreal's calèche ban comes into effect, horses face uncertain future

On Jan. 1, Montreal's ban on horse-drawn carriages, known as calèches, goes into effect. Alison Northcott looks at what happens to the horses.

On Jan. 1, horse-drawn carriages will be outlawed in the city, marking the end of a popular tourist activity

Denis Murray with his horse, Sissi. (Denis Murray)

When Denis Murray walks into the horse stables on Montreal's Basin Street, he sees an empty stall where Sissi used to be.

"We were very connected. Really, she was like my baby," Murray said in a recent interview.

For 17 years, Sissi pulled tourists in a carriage along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, guided by Murray. 

On Jan. 1, the city's bylaw prohibiting horse-drawn carriages, known as calèches, goes into effect, marking the end of the popular tourist attraction. 

Ahead of the ban, Murray, 65, decided to retire and take up the city on its offer to compensate owners.

He gave Sissi up for adoption in exchange for $1,000, as part of a compensation program run by the city.

"It was really hard," Murray said of his decision to let Sissi go. 

"She was happy to work, that's what people don't know."

Calèche horses used to be a frequent sight in Old Montreal, but that's set to change come the new year. (Morgan Lowrie/The Canadian Press)

Murray opposes the ban. He said calèches are part of the city's heritage and called the decision to get rid of them "stupid."

Still, he is encouraged to know Sissi is doing well in her new home, adopted by two veterinarians in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Years of controversy

The City of Montreal's move to shut down the industry comes after years of debate and pressure from animal rights activists.

The previous mayor, Denis Coderre, put in place a moratorium in the summer of 2016, but after calèche owners won a court injunction, he backed down. 

His successor, Valérie Plante, announced in 2018 that a permanent ban would come into effect at the end of this year.

"We don't constitute that it's safe for the animals in the streets," Coun. Sterling Downey, the city's deputy mayor, told reporters recently. 

Downey said heat waves, extreme cold and the number of vehicles on the roads raise safety concerns for the city. 

"There have been multiple incidents over the last three or four years that have been well-documented by the media and by citizens, where animals have been injured or hurt or in distress in the city," he said. 

"These are issues that have really preoccupied and concerned us."

Where will all the horses go?

Downey said there are about 50 calèche horses certified by veterinarians to work in the city. 

The city and the Montreal SPCA are hoping more calèche owners like Murray will take up the city's offer for compensation.

"We have set up a program that will allow these horses to be adopted out into permanent retirement homes and give them the kind of life that they deserve after all these years of service," said Sophie Gaillard, director of animal advocacy at the Montreal SPCA.

"We didn't want these horses to end up at the slaughterhouse."

Luc Desparois rents the land where his stable is located, in Griffintown. He is fighting Montreal's ban on horse-drawn carriages, which goes into effect on Jan. 1. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Downey said the city would like to see the horses adopted "into homes, on farms with people who will take care of them and they don't need to work anymore for the rest of their career."

But he expects some of the horses' owners will continue to have them work in other areas where there is no ban. 

"Whether it's an apple orchard, whether it's a cabane à sucre, whether it's any of these other things that you can think about, these animals are still working and are still being rented out," Downey said.

Some calèche owners say the city's compensation offer isn't enough to make up for their lost livelihoods and are challenging the ban in court. 

They asked a judge for an emergency injunction earlier this month to suspend the ban, but their request was rejected. 

Horse owner Luc Desparois, who filed the injunction, has vowed to continue his legal fight.

Sissi's new home

Murray was the first owner to accept the city's offer, but he still hopes for more compensation for his permit, which he now can't sell.

The city has said it will help owners transition to new jobs in the tourism industry.

Sissi in her new home in the Eastern Townships. (Denis Murray)

Murray said Sissi is happy in her new home in the country. Though he misses Sissi, Murray said he is glad the new owners will keep the horse active and allow him to visit. 

"I promised her a nice retirement," he said. "I really wanted her to be in a good place, that was my goal."


Alison Northcott is the national reporter for CBC News in Montreal.


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