Montreal Waterways meets the CIRM: The St-Lawrence River, daily encounters and personal meanings

This blog entry responds to my experience walking along urban water in Montreal with The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal. I address my personal relationship with water in cities and how the CIRM’s conferences-experiences allowed me to rethink my encounters with the St-Lawrence river in the winter.

By Maya Lamothe-Katrapani

At the beginning of the summer, the Montreal Waterways group, born out of the Concordia Ethnography Lab, was introduced to The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal (CIRM) and their series of “conference-experiences” called Montréalers and Islanders, also presented as a podcast. These thematic walks along the shores of the St-Lawrence river “combine field visits with interdisciplinary and multisectorial discussions to collectively reflect on the fluvial issues of the city” (CIRM, 2022). Various researchers and water enthusiasts are invited to share their knowledge about urban life and water. As part of Montreal Waterways, a few colleagues and I attended two of these events in order to learn more about Montreal’s socio-environmental relationship with water, the rich history of the St-Lawrence and perhaps find inspiration for our own research on Île Ste-Thérèse and the connectedness that local communities have with the river (be on the lookout for our projects!). Both walks we attended were set in the South West borough of Montreal where the presence of water can be felt more strongly than in other neighborhoods where the insularity of Montreal can easily be ignored.

“Are Montréalers islanders who are ignoring their geography? By travelling on paved roads from north to south and climbing the skyscrapers of downtown, it is easy for the inhabitants of the metropolis to forget that, by travelling only a few kilometres, they can enjoy the sights and smells of a majestic river. With a history that is as rich as its ecosystem, the river presents several issues that are as ramified and complex as its waterway.” (CIRM, 2022)

Growing up in the south shore, I’ve been exposed daily to the presence of water and have always preferred crossing the river by bridge than underground; smelling its fishy odor, hearing the horns of the ships, looking at people ice fishing in the winter and cyclists on petite voie du fleuve in the summer. Seeing the banks of Montreal and the shape of the island has always made my commute to Montreal more exciting and as a kid I’ve been very proud to point, from the top of high-rises, to the bridges that take me home.

Spending time at my grand mother’s cottage in Ste-Anne de la Pérade, a municipality in the Mauricie area, I’ve also been exposed to maritime traffic and tides, watching ships through a telescope, finding their names and flags, but also to concerns of water pollution, having to ask ourselves if the water is safe enough to swim, and spraying our feet with a water hose after crossing to play on the dune. It has also been a tradition in my family to try to spend a couple days in the Bas Saint-Laurent region in the summer because everyone misses being able to see the scope of the river during the year. Besides the adventure aspect associated with seeing water, I love hanging out near the banks of the Lachine canal, finding here in the urban setting an alternative way of connecting with water, and the feelings of conviviality and peace that it generates.

St-Lawrence River, Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. Photo by author.

During my exchange in Copenhagen last year, I was struck by how much water passes through the city. Rivers, lakes and canals connect neighborhoods and invite people to linger around. Not to mention the very easily accessible Øresund strait connecting the Baltic sea to the North Sea. I am nostalgic of swimming in the harbour water after class. My architecture and urban design studies at the University of Copenhagen also gave me the chance to discuss these matters with researchers and planners and think of urban mobility in relation to water. This experience has been the catalyst in my desire to address urban water at home in my studies. Why have so many rivers been buried in Montreal? What are their histories? How can we make the banks more accessible to residents? What would it take to decontaminate our urban water bodies and make them safe for swimming? How does water make us feel in Montreal? Do we even feel its presence? Who benefits from it?

Tea by the Lakes, Islands Brygge, Copenhagen. Photo by author.
Dronning Louises Bro, Copenhagen. Photo by author.

Five months later, avec du recul, as we say in French, I joined the Montreal Waterways team and started to stir around these questions with my colleagues. I remember vividly our first picnic together in Verdun on May 14th where some discovered this access to the river for the first time. After our bixi ride and shared spanakopita lunch we met the CIRM group in Parc des Rapides. This event allowed us to further bring this discussion around the meaning attached to the St-Lawrence river. It was also an opportunity to meet people who have close relationships to water, that are not necessarily scholars, researchers or scientists. As the title of the event suggested “Nordicité fluviale montréalaise”, we discussed our relationship to the river during winter and wondered how to reclaim it during this season.  While the obstacles to accessing and using the river are numerous in the summer, what happens when the banks are covered with ice and snow? A more philosophical discussion directed by Marie-Hélène Roch (Hiver en nous), obliged us to also reflect on winter and its relation to the river not only as telling of a season, but of emotions and the limits of our comfort zone. She started off the walk powerfully by asking us: when do we know that it is winter? A question that points to the ephemerality and uneasiness associated with winter in the city. The group went on: maybe because the river freezes, maybe it has something to do with inaccessibility (slipping, not being able to walk near water anymore)? Perhaps because days are shorter and we “interpret, perceive, and feel darkness” (Garutti, 55) which raises important questions of safety in the city, especially for women? This invited us to think of seasons and temperatures as places and emotions.

The discussion around comfort, winter and the river continued with Sébastien Zappa (Respire-Aligne) who shared his practice of winter swimming and the benefits it has on mental health. Biologist Pierre Dumont then deconstructed accessibility concerns related to ice fishing stating that no expensive equipment, boat or private access to water is needed, and Rodolphe Lasnes told us about his experience walking the entire banks of the island of Montreal which he describes in his book “J’hâbite une île”. He highlighted how shocked he was that access to the river is so limited and how little resources are available around the shores which are often privatized, although they carry such potential for the enjoyment of all.

These three speakers, although in different ways, all related water to recreation, and not just in terms of play and leisure. They made it clear that re-creation is set within creation (Harmon, 2007). In other words, nature restores human life by recreating who and what we are. In this case, winter allows us (or forces us) to recreate our environments, either for questions of accessibility, or wellness or for cultural activities and practices. Certainly, the speakers all demonstrated how water is removed from the labour of town and contributes to feelings of identity. Not only is it a sustainable solution for urban design, water spaces are the ideal place of rest and conviviality in the city. People love water, why not make it an attraction during those five winter months? Maritime traffic and climate change have already reduced how we use water in the winter, making ice bridges almost impossible and limiting opportunities for skating and ice fishing. More events like this are needed in order to invite citizens and researchers alike to engage with the active and passive activities that urban water initiates, and to reflect on how to approach winter in city design to create more comfortable and inviting spaces during these already isolating months.

Now embarking on my Master’s degree journey I hope to bridge these questions, concerns and daily experiences I have with water, and further understand the meaning of water for Montrealers and their urban practices.

Finding peace amidst a pandemic, St-Lawrence River, Verdun (March 2020). Photo by author.

CIRM (2022). “Montréalers and Islanders”. Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal [webpage].

Garutti. F. (2019). Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism. Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA). Sternberg Press.

Harmon, D. & D. Putney A. (Ed.). (2003). The Full Value of Parks: from Economics to the Intangible. Rowman & Littlefield.

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