How 1950s moralizing is still impacting Mount Royal's trees

Montreal announced earlier this week that 4,000 ash trees will be felled on Mount Royal Park. But this won't be the first time the mountain lost huge swaths of woodland.

'Morality cuts' of 1954 may have helped the growth of ash trees, food for the invasive emerald ash borer

Former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau cut trees on Mount Royal in 1954 to ensure people couldn't use the mountain for any illicit activities. (Montreal Archives)

Earlier this week it was announced that 4,000 ash trees will be felled on Mount Royal Park because of an invasive species eating away at them — but this may not have been necessary if it weren't for mid-20th century morality.

Huge swaths of the mountain were felled 60 years ago because Montrealers didn't like the idea of what people were up to in the brush.

According to the 1988 book La montagne en question: "In 1954, citizens and the press openly denounced the presence, in Mount Royal Park, of undesirable individuals, 'perverts and alcoholics.'"

"A campaign was launched to clean up the 'jungle' and make the mountain safer for women and children."

The solution, according to then-mayor Jean Drapeau, was to clear trees and bushes from the park.

"Under the influence of the church, the mayor in the 50s did some profound felling of trees and underbrush in order to make it impossible to hide," said Hélène Panaïoti, spokesperson for Les Amis de la montagne.

While secret lovers and other benefactors of the woodland may have been disappointed by the move, the disappointment has been more far-reaching than that.

"It had a terrible impact on Mount Royal and it left whole areas exposed to the proliferation of invasive species," Panaïoti said.

This undated photo called 'the bald mountain' shows Mount Royal after the 'morality cuts.' (City of Montreal)

The name "bald mountain" stuck for years and because of it, there was plenty of space for new trees to grow — perhaps disproportionately.

Ash trees may have taken advantage of the space and grown more quickly than other trees, Panaïoti said.

5,000 cut in late 1990s

Although losing 4,000 trees may seem devastating for people who love the mountain, Panaïoti wants Montrealers to remember that only 20 years ago it endured worse.

During the 1998 ice storm, 86,000 trees were damaged and 5,000 were felled.

"We survived the ice storm, we will survive this," Panaïoti said.

Many trees in Montreal were heavily damaged during the 1998 ice storm. (Robert Galbraith/Canadian Press)

"We make mistakes and we learn and the important thing is to understand our forest, our ecosystem and make sure the right decisions are made," she said. 

With files from Elias Abboud