Montreal·Montreal Together

Visit the century-old place where deaf Montrealers come to talk to each other

Step inside the Centre des Loisirs des Sourds, a second home to Montreal's deaf community for 116 years and counting.

Since 1901, the Centre des Loisirs des Sourds de Montréal has been 2nd home for deaf Montrealers

The deaf world

6 years ago
Duration 3:08
A video about a Montreal community centre for deaf people.

Montreal Together is a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal. This story is the work of a team of student journalists.

It's a cold winter night in Villeray, but an eclectic group has braved the snow for a few rounds of poker in a church basement.

Drinks are scattered around the dimly lit tables. The atmosphere is cheerful, but silence reigns, interrupted only by sporadic cheers and bursts of laughter.

​The silence isn't because these poker players are particularly lost in thought. They are, in fact, having an animated conversation.

At the Centre des Loisirs des Sourds de Montréal — a leisure centre for the deaf — sign language is the preferred way of communicating.

From the street, the centre is easy to miss. The entrance is tucked away on the side of the Saint-Vincent-Ferrier Church, its presence indicated only by a sign bearing its initials.

But this modesty hasn't prevented the centre from becoming a cherished place for many deaf Montrealers over the past 116 years.

Bringing community together

The centre aims to provide another home for its members, who often feel that their deafness excludes them from the rest of the world.

"It's easy to feel isolated when you can't join a conversation," said Gilles Boucher, the centre's director.

Like many members of the centre's administrative team, Boucher began as a user of its services.

The current treasurer of the centre, Ginette Gingras, first came as a high-school student.

Members of the Centre des Loisirs des Sourds at their Friday night poker game. (Eléonore Riffe)

"I was very lonely at the time, but I've been coming here ever since," said Gingras. "I don't know what it would be like without the centre."

For Boucher, the centre is much more than just a meeting place. It is where younger deaf people can be exposed to, and interact with, deaf role models.

"It's important to welcome deaf children, in order to transmit the culture from one generation to another," he said.

Linguistic minority in its own right

The centre traces its origins to the Cercle Saint-François de Sales, which was founded in 1901. It was initially overseen by priests and was part of the Montreal Institute for the Deaf.

By mid-century, and under a new name, the centre decided to part with its religious dimension.

This was part of a broader shift in public perceptions about deafness. The deaf community wanted deafness to be seen less as a medical condition and more as a culture, on par with any other linguistic minority.

"Sign language belongs only to the deaf world," Boucher said. "It's our language. Why use our voice or read lips if we can look at something else to communicate?"
The centre traces its origins to the Cercle Saint-François de Sales, which was founded in 1901 to help graduates from the Montreal Institute for the Deaf. (Archive from Saint Francois-de-Sales)

Communication between deaf people has never really been a problem, but much of the material world was designed for people who can hear.

That means daily activities that many of us take for granted can be a struggle for deaf people, such as noticing when a baby is crying or knowing when there's someone at the door.

However, technology has made such challenges easier to overcome.

At the centre, each time someone rings the doorbell, a light turns on in the administration office. A light flashes, too, when the office phone rings.

The advent of smartphones has also broken down traditional barriers for the deaf community.

Being able to communicate through texts has been a huge relief, Boucher said, taking his cell phone out of his pocket and displaying his conversations.

It makes it easier to communicate with both the hearing world and with other deaf people.

Sometimes, when talking with other deaf people, Boucher said he will simply record a video of himself signing and then send that along.

'It's easy to feel isolated when you can't join a conversation,' said Gilles Boucher, centre. (Eléonore Riffe)

Overcoming audism

While technology has helped, it has also raised profound questions about the nature of deafness.

Many deaf people are opting for surgical cochlear implants, which provide a representation of sound and allow speech to be understood. 

They have allowed some deaf people to interact more easily with the hearing world. 

"Life was different before I had them," said Gingras. "I have non-deaf friends, and I've been living with cochlear implants for the last five years."

But Boucher worries that the recent focus on implants reinforces the perception that deafness is purely a medical condition.

Whether or not they have implants, Boucher said, deaf people still have to confront audism, the notion that the ability to hear is superior to deafness. Implants won't end the stigma that deaf people face.

"This is why the centre is important for us deaf people," Boucher said. "We organize our own activities, we know what we need, what deaf people want."

Montreal Together is a collaboration between the Department of Journalism at Concordia University and CBC Montreal.

Undergraduate students and graduate-diploma students in a graduate-level multimedia course found and produced original stories about different Montreal communities.

Working in small teams, they spent the winter semester developing their stories in text, audio, video, photography, infographics and maps.