Montreal

Westmount's new rule restricting pool access to residents sparks outrage

Swimmers in neighbouring Montreal boroughs say Westmount is using the pandemic as an excuse to bar outsiders from its popular outdoor pool.

Mayor says COVID-19 restrictions left city with no choice but to bar outsiders

Westmount Mayor Christina Smith said with the pool's capacity drastically reduced because of physical-distancing directives and demand sky high, the city wanted to ensure Westmounters weren't shut out of their own pool. (CBC News)

The City of Westmount's decision to limit access to its outdoor public pool to residents due to COVID-19 has angered swimmers from neighbouring Montreal boroughs, who say Westmount is using the pandemic as an excuse to keep non-residents out.

Kelsey Allan, a triathlete who lives in NDG but has been training in the Westmount pool for the last couple of years, said when she first heard about the rule change last week, she drove to the pool immediately to see if it was really true.

"I was pretty horrified to find that the pool could open on Day 4 of a heatwave and that I could be running or biking by, seeing other people swimming, and I wouldn't be able to be let in," Allan told CBC News Tuesday.

Raïsa Stone, who lives downtown and is disabled, said she uses the pool for therapeutic swims to relieve pain.

"To not be able to go to the one accessible pool for miles around is a just a nightmare," Stone said.

Zoé R. Fortier, who's eight months pregnant and lives in Saint-Henri, has used the Westmount pool in the past to cool off. She says the new restrictions aren't fair. (Zoé R. Fortier)

Zoé R. Fortier, who lives in Saint-Henri, has also been swimming at the Westmount pool for the past couple of years while her neighbourhood pool has been closed for renovations

Now Fortier is eight months pregnant and aching for a swim.

"I don't think some residents should be privileged over others for a public health need. It's not fair, and it's not right," she said.

New restrictions in light of COVID

Technically, users of the pool, which opened for the season Monday, have always been required to have a Westmount facility card in order to use it. 

In order to get a facility card, you have to prove you're a Westmount resident.

But the residents-only rule was rarely enforced at the pool (although it has happened before), and residents have always been able to sign in guests.

"In light of COVID-19, we've had to put in big restrictions," Westmount Mayor Christina Smith told CBC Monday.

In previous summers the standing residents-only rule at Westmount pool was rarely enforced, and Westmounters could sign in guests. This summer things are different. (CBC News)

The restrictions mean non-residents are no longer allowed, not even as guests.

Smith said Westmount had to reduce the number of users allowed in the pool at a time this year, in order to maintain physical distancing.

Normally the pool accommodates up to 350 people, but under the new restrictions, the limit is 75.

The city set up a reservation system last week, and Smith said it's been booked solid.

 "We had to make this decision based on the demand. If we saw only half the pool was being used, then of course we would open it up to allow people to bring in guests," Smith said.

Smith said the COVID restrictions forced Westmount to be more rigid, and that meant giving residents exclusive access.

"There are community pools right across the island of Montreal. This one is going to be filled with people from this neighbourhood," she said.

Non-Westmounters decry 'elitist' attitude

Pool users from outside Westmount said Smith's explanation doesn't add up.

Some noted that when the recreation centre that houses the pool was built in 2013, half of the $40-million budget came from provincial and federal coffers. Another $6 million came from private donations, and the remaining $14 million came from a two per cent property tax increase levied against Westmounters over ten years.

When the Westmount Recreation Centre was built in 2013, federal and provincial tax dollars covered half of the $40-million budget. (CBC)

"If the pool was 100 per cent funded by the taxpayers of Westmount, OK. But it's not the case,"  Fortier said.

"How can a facility get $20 million in taxpayer funding from outside their region, and then keep those taxpayers from using their facility?" Stone asked.

 "It's this elitist attitude of only people living within this little box we drew on the map that are able to get into the pool, even though we all contributed to it with money," Allan said.

"COVID is just an excuse to try to keep certain people out."

All three people interviewed by CBC said they'd have no problem paying a non-resident surcharge to use the pool.

"I know I'm not paying taxes. I'm not a Westmount resident, so make me pay — I don't care — but at least let me go,"  Fortier said.

"There's a difference between giving priority to residents and flat out saying only residents can get in," Allan said.

Different rules for different pools

The pool-access rules differ in every municipality.

Côte Saint-Luc has the same rule as Westmount, only allowing residents access to the Parkhaven pool for now.

Pools in Pointe-Claire and Beaconsfield are allowing non-residents, but they have to pay an extra fee.

There are no residency requirements for City of Montreal pools, and many of them have free admission.

Smith said Westmount may be willing to relax the new rules if the COVID-19 public health guidelines change.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Holly Cabrera

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