Seventeen MRC municipalities, including Hudson and St. Lazare, will be getting significant refunds on their 2020 Surêté du Québec bills — and a more equitable assessment system in the future. Besides receiving a $610,000 rebate sometime this month, the budgeting change means Hudson’s taxpayers will see the annual cost of the town’s SQ bill ($1,750,000 in the 2021 budget) reduced by roughly a third.
Since then, the six municipalities benefiting from the grotesquely unfair assessment structure currently in force — Vaudreuil-Dorion, Pincourt, Les Coteaux, St. Zotique, Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac and Pointe-des-Cascades — have adopted resolutions to launch legal action with the aim of annulling the Feb. 3/21 MRC resolution that would have meant a fairer method of taxing MRC municipalities for SQ policing services.
Their core argument: given that the current system has been in place since 2006, immediate changes to the structure unfairly burden their taxpayers by forcing the six to reimburse amounts already budgeted for 2020 and 2021.
The new deal was approved at a stormy Zoom meeting of the MRC’s 23 mayors by a double majority — two-thirds of municipalities representing 55% of the MRC’s total population. They were being asked to vote online on a proposal — first presented to them in November — that would reimburse 17 MRC municipalities for overbilling on their 2020 SQ assessments.
Even mayors of some subsidizing municipalities recognized the fiscal impact on towns having to find funds in their 2021 budgets to reimburse their neighbours. The mayors of 11 municipalities — including the six that benefited from the current assessment structure — supported an amendment that would have delayed application of a more equitable sharing structure until the 2022 fiscal year. It was narrowly defeated.
Voting on the original resolution, Vaudreuil-Dorion’s Guy Pilon and others opposed a proposal for a more equitable sharing of the costs of SQ services across the MRC. In 2019, the MRC’s total SQ bill was $25,972,945, including a MAMH subsidy which resulted in a collective overpayment from the 23 MRC municipalities of $7,470,008.
By making the bylaw retroactive, those six municipalities now have to find savings in their 2021 budgets to reimburse the 17 others for their 2020 SQ policing services — Les Coteaux $115,500; Pincourt $113,717; St. Zotique $135,700; Pointe-des-Cascades $24,809; Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac $13,468 and Vaudreuil-Dorion $1,788,389.
As of Friday March 5, lawyers for Bélanger Sauvé had not yet filed notice of whatever action they propose to take, but one can be reasonably sure they will seek immediate injunctive relief as the MRC sends out rebate cheques based on the MRC majority decision reached last month. Also this past Friday, Hudson received what I assume is the final MRC rebate cheque for 2019 — $360,000 minus $155,000, for a total of $206,000. (The $155,000 represents monies already rebated under the existing redistribution agreement.)
I don’t think it’s prudent for our town to spend the $610,000 we seem to be owed for 2020 until the money is in the bank. It’s a reasonable assumption that the six allegedly injured municipalities will try to convince a court that they stand to lose more if the 2020 reallocation goes ahead than any fiscal discomfort suffered by the 17 others if it doesn’t.
Either way, a legal test of Quebec’s internal equalization system for SQ policing is long overdue. The formula under which the 23 member municipalities in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC are taxed for SQ services is part of a Quebec-wide equalization scheme that has wealthy regions subsidizing the cost of policing in rural regions where sparse populations are spread out over vast areas.
On average, Quebec municipalities policed by the SQ pay 53% of the cost, Quebec the rest. But wealthy MRCs (we’re one) are assessed approximately 112%. Under the original deal, individual municipalities were refunded half of the difference between 80% and 112%.
Originally, each MRC municipality received and budgeted for SQ rebates. That was changed to the current system in 2006. Rebates are no longer refunded to individual municipalities but to MRCs, which distribute them on the basis of a formula which considers a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, along with population and density.
The scheme underwent a significant makeover with changes to the Police Act (Chapter P-13.1, article 77: Règlement sur la somme payable par les municipalités pour les services de la Sûreté du Québec). Basically, the overhaul ensures that municipalities should be able to plan well in advance for any increases in cost, including rebates. Adopted in December 2019, the changes took effect June 14 2020, but for whatever reason, the MRC didn’t get around to dealing with the fallout until most municipalities had wrapped up 2020 and were almost done their 2021 budgets.
In November’s presentation to MRC mayors, it was explained that Hudson’s RFU is the driver behind inequitable SQ costs. Hudson, with about 5,300 residents and 37 square kilometres, has an RFU of close to $1.4 billion, a number based on the triennial property value assessments and registered real estate transactions. As a result, Hudson pays a higher per-capita cost for all RFU-based downloaded services, including SQ policing.
Hudson, with 5,300 residents, has an RFU near $1.4 billion. In 2019, its SQ bill was $1,582,568. (According to the MRC’s own numbers, Hudson’s overpayment was estimated at $610,000.) Ile Perrot, with more than twice the number of people (11,298), was billed $1,544,894. Rigaud, with just under 8,000 residents, paid $1,481,713. Les Cèdres, with 7,040 residents, paid $1,106,252. St. Zotique (8,600 residents) was charged $1,244,600.
The 2020 redistribution was even more egregious. Last year, Hudson was billed $1,617,346 for SQ services. Compare that with Rigaud, $1,531,757; L’Île Perrot, $1,624,616; Les Cèdres, $1,153,712 or St, Zotique ($1,270,846.)
[RFUs, as well as other numbers useful for comparison, are available for every municipality in Quebec on the MAMOT website.]
If there is one thing I’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that keeping busy helps keep one sane and grounded..
My 2020 began with a resolution to have my book on Quebec’s 1970 October crisis out in time for the 50th anniversary. This would be on the heels of a writers’ anthology due out in May.
David Sherman’s Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past was published by Toronto’s Guernica Editions at the height of the first lockdown. Absent any possibility of a book tour and the usual hoopla, the book and my contributions to it went nowhere.
At the same time, the town council I sit on was having to make pandemic-related decisions regarding staff layoffs and shutting down public amenities such as the town beach and public pool in the midst of the hottest July on record. As a result of several confrontations, I developed symptoms that required that I be tested. The results took four days to confirm I didn’t have it. It was the warning I needed to get serious about mask wearing, distancing and who we were comfortable being around.
Meanwhile my non-fiction October Crisis project was going nowhere. After losing key segments of my manuscript to sloppy file management, I realized I had forgotten how it feels to write instinctively. I was utterly defeated by the thought of having to press on with the project now in its fifth year. I walked away from my publisher and stopped communicating with my sources. I was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and shame and stopped answering phone calls and emails.
At the same time I found myself pulled in a dozen directions by picayune calls on my time. We had sold our beloved Herreshoff Nereia in September 2019 to an American in Buffalo, but he couldn’t cross the border to get it (eventually he had it shipped by truck). In the meantime I had to babysit a boat that was no longer mine. We tried to maintain a semblance of family life with outdoor visits with my daughter and son and their families, but they had their own challenges. Town business occupies at least a week a month, what with quick meetings on Teams and regular/special council deliberations on Zoom. The lack of public consultation — decreed by the Quebec government — generated angry recriminations from people I respected and liked.
I decided I would self-isolate emotionally, filling my time with achievable projects. First, I built a vege-bunker and vertical trellises, a pestproof garden centre in our back yard where Louise spent the summer growing tomatoes, beans, cukes, squash, greens and herbs and learning farmer’s tricks from the internet, books and pros like Peter Robinson. I had an excellent reason to get the backyard farm done quickly. Unbeknownst to Louise, I had ordered an expedition rowboat kit from Colin and Julie Angus, a Victoria B.C. couple who had designed and built two prototypes to voyage from Scotland to Syria. Over the course of the next two months, I rushed to get the thing out of the garage and teach myself how to row a sliding-seat craft with feathering oars. We biked or we walked when I wasn’t building the boat or working on town files. It was a summer of daily excursions and tiny expeditions. We figured out how to sleep comfortably in the back of the SUV. I figure the summer of 2021 will be similar.
When one’s hands are busy, one’s mind has the opportunity to wander off to play by itself. Once I was no longer agonizing over The Book I found it kept coming back in flashes of insight into how it should be structured and improved. The October Crisis 50th anniversary brought the expected crop of derivative rehashes by the usual hacks but it has also prompted comment from principals who had remained silent until now. They allowed me to make plausible deductions to fill gaps in what I knew. I’m back to writing with enthusiasm I haven’t felt in months — proof of that adage that when you want something done, ask a busy mind.
Mission: build a boat in two months
The Fleet circa September 2020. Bert, the tubby little dinghy on the left, was acquired as a tender in 1998 but had been sitting behind the garage for the past several years before I converted him into a sailing dinghy in between stages in the rowboat’s construction. Another pandemic brainfart.
Bert’s first test sail as an eight-foot sportboat with a boardsailing rig and deep daggerboat and rudder. It was like dropping 500 horsepower into a Corolla. Unbelievably fast for its size, seriously unstable — and laugh-out-loud fun. We had Bert almost sold to a couple who had a cottage on a lake up north. The deal died in the ruckus after some fool tried to drive his car across the Jack Layton Park footbridge to squash a cyclist he claimed had ripped him off on a drug deal. Another offer came in and Bert is now the star attraction on a private pond in the Eastern Townships.
Seventeen MRC municipalities, including Hudson and St. Lazare, will be getting significant refunds on their 2020 Surêté du Québec bills — and the promise of a more equitable assessment system in the future. Besides receiving a $610,000 rebate sometime this month, the budgeting change means Hudson’s taxpayers will see the annual cost of the town’s SQ bill ($1,750,000 in the 2021 budget) reduced by roughly a third. The new deal was approved by a double majority (two-thirds of 23 mayors representing 55% of the MRC’s total population) at a special meeting Wednesday, but not without some argument. They were voting online on a proposal — first presented to them in November — that would return the overpayments made in 2020 to 17 MRC municipalities, part of a Quebec-wide subsidy framework approved with the signing of the MRC’s first SQ contract with the Public Security ministry in 2005. The mayors of 11 municipalities — including the six that benefited from the current assessment structure — supported an amendment that would have delayed application of a more equitable sharing structure until the 2022 fiscal year. It was narrowly defeated. By making the bylaw retroactive, those six municipalities now have to find savings in their 2021 budgets to reimburse the 17 others for their 2020 SQ policing services — Les Coteaux $115,500; Pincourt $113,717; St. Zotique $135,700; Pointe-des-Cascades $24,809; Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac $13,468 and Vaudreuil-Dorion $1,788,389. Voting on the original resolution, Vaudreuil-Dorion’s Guy Pilon and others opposed a proposal for a more equitable sharing of the costs of SQ services across the MRC. In 2019, the MRC’s total SQ bill was $25,972,945, including a MAMH subsidy which resulted in a collective overpayment from the 23 MRC municipalities of $7,470,008. The current formula for sharing that rebate includes a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU. In the November presentation, it was explained that Hudson’s RFU is the driver behind inequitable SQ costs. Hudson, with a 2020 SQ bill of $1,850,000 paid by 5,300 residents, has an RFU near $1.4 billion. Ile Perrot, with more than twice the number of people (11,298), paid a 2020 SQ bill of $1,624,616. [RFUs, as well as other numbers useful for comparison, are available for every municipality in Quebec on the MAMOT website.]
How much did it cost us?
We may never know. We do know we don’t have the policing we used to. Ever since Hudson lost its 12-member municipal police force 20 years ago next year, our town has failed to receive the level of community policing we were guaranteed when the PQ government of the time forced Vaudreuil-Soulanges mayors to choose between a regional police force or the SQ.
At that time, a majority of Vaudreuil-Soulanges towns already policed by the SQ got a cheap rate, so there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a likely more expensive regional police service, which had to include an investigative division and other specialized units.
In 2005, the county’s rural/urban split ensured the regional-police option couldn’t pass, and after the 2002 takeover of local police forces, some 100 SQ personnel assumed the policing of 850 square kilometres and fewer than 90,000 residents. (Today, Vaudreuil-Soulanges numbers 160,000 residents and will see its own 404-bed regional hospital opened in the fall of 2026. The MRC’s two detachments have expanded to maintain a ratio of one agent per 1,000 residents.)
The SQ of 2005 talked up that period’s buzz phrase — community policing — and what it would look like on the ground. Out here saw SQ families buying homes and enrolling their kids in school and becoming part of the community. SQ officers took an interest in the goings-on at our local schools and served lasagna at Comedy Night suppers. We saw our SQ help launch public awareness campaigns such as the ‘Slow Down For Patricia’ courtesy stops and a policy to ensure that qualified medical personnel are on call to mediate in mental-health crises. St. Lazare had a citizen’s public security committee. As the editor of Hudson’s iconic Gazette I got the impression that the SQ was doing its best to help us stop missing our local constabulary.
We knew we overpaid for SQ services. How much, I could never be sure. I was one of those locked out of the MRC meeting where the mayors reached agreement on their first SQ contract. I’ve been writing for years about how wealthy MRCs subsidize policing in have-not regions, but it was only last November when I learned that we were also subsidizing some of our own MRC colleagues to the tune of roughly $6 million a year.
Just before Christmas, the local media carried planted stories of how much Sûréte du Québec policing services are costing our region compared to other parts of Quebec.
Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon led the tax revolt, using terms like ‘illogical’ and ‘almost illegal’ even though the current taxation formula has been in place since MRC mayors signed the deal — behind closed doors — in 2005.
What Pilon chose not to mention is that Hudson taxpayers were subsidizing SQ policing in Vaudreuil-Dorion and several other Vaudreuil-Soulanges municipalities to the tune of $610,000 in 2020 — and would have continued to subsidize V-D’s SQ bill for the foreseeable future.
The formula under which the 23 member municipalities in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC are taxed for SQ policing is part of a Quebec-wide equalization scheme that has wealthy regions subsidizing the cost of policing in rural regions where sparse populations are spread out over vast areas.
On average, Quebec municipalities policed by the SQ pay 53% of the cost, Quebec the rest. But wealthy MRCs (we’re one) are assessed approximately 112%. Under the original deal, individual municipalities were refunded half of the difference between 80% and 112%.
Originally, each MRC municipality received and budgeted for SQ rebates. That was changed to the current system provincewide. Rebates are no longer refunded to individual municipalities but to MRCs, which distribute them on the basis of a formula which considers a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, along with population and density.
Hudson, with about 5,300 residents and 37 square kilometres, has an RFU of close to $1.4 billion, a number based on the triennial property value assessments and registered real estate transactions. As a result, Hudson leads the list of generous donors to the cost of SQ policing in the rest of the MRC.
On Nov. 30, I asked council to mandate the mayor to vote in support of the resolution in favour of a more equitable redistribution of the MRC’s overpayment of its annual SQ policing bill. I’m happy to say Mr. Nicholls voted for equitable sharing and against delaying it.
The MRC did the right thing in turfing the current system. It makes no legal or ethical sense to maintain a system that burdens Hudson taxpayers with the cost of policing services they themselves don’t receive — especially when the lack of SQ presence in our municipality requires us to budget an additional $100,000 for private security over and above those inflated SQ costs. Until we know exactly how this happened, it bears watching closely to ensure it doesn’t creep back in.
Note: This post has been updated after it was first published Monday, Nov. 3/20
Hudson’s iconic Main Road is the quintessential small-town gathering place, a venue where Hudsonites and their guests visit, shop, socialize or hang out. For those of us who live here year round, it’s also a reminder of what was and a tantalizing glimpse of what could be if we can reach a consensus on what needs to be done.
Hudson’s downtown core underwent its last major facelift in the mid-eighties, when new water mains, storm sewers and sidewalks were installed. The project dug up much of Main. It would have been the ideal time to have installed a sewer system but the administration of mayor Taylor Bradbury — the same crew who decided against buying Sandy Beach for $275,000 — decided it would be too expensive. It was also decided not to install or replace steel waterline connections with bronze fittings even though steel has a shorter life in clay soil.
In 2006, mayor Elizabeth Corker’s administration landed federal and provincial funding to push forward with a sewer system, treatment plant and major upgrades to the potable water network. Repaving and new sidewalks were left for the Elliott administration, but the economic downturn — and the imperative to replace the 50-year-old firehall in response to warnings from health and safety inspectors — led to unsubsidized debt which effectively ruled out downtown revitalization. Instead, it was decided to repave Côte St. Charles at an unsubsidized cost of $600,000. Despite decades of complaints about the lack of an adequate shoulder for pedestrians and cyclists, the facelift didn’t include any substantial improvements.
Jump to now. At the Nov. 2 council meeting, I presented a notice of motion for Bylaw 735. If adopted at the next regular council meeting, Bylaw 735 will authorize the expenditure of not more than $3,805,000 for the repaving and other infrastructure works on five Hudson streets — Bridle Path, Carmel, Roslyn, Seigneurie and Main Road between Oakland and Beach.
Bylaw 735 wasn’t born yesterday. Here’s a rough timeline of how we got to this point and why it has taken this long to accomplish what should be a simple task.
Spring 2019: Council adopts long-delayed intervention plan and directs administration to draft a five-year repaving program based on Maxxum report.
Summer 2019: council agrees to make Main repaving and sidewalk reconstruction its first priority. The new DG and finance team present plan allowing this to be done by reallocating operating revenues instead of adding long-term debt. DG informs council that $1.32M has been earmarked for Main rehab.
Fall 2019: Council agrees to delay Main a year to allow public consultation with stakeholders, citizens. Mayor proposes use of $100,000 from CMM to fund consulting process. After two months of debate, council majority agrees. Council approves proceeding with paving of Bellevue and Main between Quarry Point and Vaudreuil.
Spring 2020: Engineering cost estimates double the likely cost of repaving Main east and Bellevue. Council votes to rebuild Bellevue and a small section of Main to solve the ferry lineup issue.
January-March 2020: Stantec presents analysis of constraints to major reallocation of width on Main through the core. Council agrees to sidewalks on both sides, measures to slow traffic through the centre of town, safer crosswalks and less on-street parking in sectors with off-street public parking.
March 2020: Stantec presents constraints and options to business owners and citizens at back-to-back public consultations.
March-September 2020: Stantec, Mayor Nicholls, urban planning and public works directors draft cost estimates based on consultations.
Last Tuesday, Oct. 27, Mayor Nicholls presented the proposed project to citizens. Council was provided with the mayor’s powerpoint 48 hours prior to that. The proposal included elements not approved by council and overlooked essential components such as space for garbage and recycling bins outside businesses, curbside space for vehicles to load and unload and safety zones for cyclists.
Since then, council has been meeting to discuss and debate revisions based on ongoing citizen input. Major changes: adding service pullouts to accommodate garbage and recycling bins, ensuring safety areas where traffic can pull over to allow passage of emergency vehicles and loading/discharging. The mayor agreed to cut by half the 1,550 metres of linear plant beds contained in the original cost estimates and shown in the powerpoint.
Still in contention: where the remaining 775 metres of ‘hell strips” will be located. I should emphasize that the re-greening of Main with plantings and trees was part of council’s orientations when Stantec was hired. The linear plant beds will be reduced by at least half but will be retained where other space requirements allow.
Council won’t know the exact configuration until the location of service pullouts, crosswalks and loading/unloading zones are established by engineering studies. Issues to be addressed in the traffic engineers’ plans and specifications: — The downtown core has more than 100 sidewalk cuts of all sizes to allow access to public and private parking, businesses, residential projects and everything else in the core. Many require wide radii to accommodate delivery vehicles. — The need for garbage and recycling trucks to be able to access the blue, green and brown bins now parked on sidewalks two or three times a week. This will require pushouts — extensions of the sidewalks out to curbside. How many? Where? — The need to plan loading/unloading zones at dozens of locations through town. Does it make sense to narrow the town’s main commercial artery without adequate pullover space? All this to say that the location and length of linear planters will be determined by the engineers.
Some residents are pushing for a further delay to allow more consultation. A council majority agrees it would be a mistake to delay the reworking of Main for another year. The pandemic shutdown has reduced traffic in the core and allowed the town to make the economies to complete this project at a time where the impact is mitigated. Now is the time.
Others insist that the enabling loan bylaw be made subject to approval by referendum. Quebec requires that we adopt a loan bylaw even if we don’t borrow a penny, but because it’s for infrastructure maintenance, it isn’t subject to approval by referendum. As for more consultation, the project has already been the subject of two public consultations; what would more accomplish, other than delaying a project already delayed long past reasonable. The cost (approximately $2.8 million of the $3.8 million total, with the remainder going to repave Bridle Path, Carmel, Roslyn and Seigneurie) will be borne by operating revenues and assigned surpluses.
That doesn’t mean the project is cast on concrete, to mix a metaphor. Once Bylaw 735 is adopted, the Town will invite engineering firms to tender on the plans and specifications required for all five projects to be posted on SEAO, the government’s official tendering website. The intermediate step will ensure that traffic engineers sign off on all aspects of the project, from drainage and aqueduct accessibility to public security considerations.
At this point in the project, the minimum width of Main at choke points through the core will be the same as Cote St. Charles. That may change. We already know there cannot be a dedicated cycling lane because Stantec warned us that there would not be sufficient width to ensure the 1.5-metre minimum buffer. Instead, council has agreed that the repaving of Lakeview include a dedicated bike lane to allow cyclists a safe alternative. Council has agreed the repaving of Lakeview should be given priority once the Main project is completed.
A personal note: I cycle most of the year. I recognize that many of us would prefer a dedicated cycling route through the core. At the same time, I respect the need to make our town friendlier to pedestrians. Stantec and Town staff did good work in generating the data required to make fully informed decisions; I know from experience that the traffic engineers drawing up the technical plans and specifications for the actual construction bids will see things that we didn’t.
We need to get this done and I’m optimistic that the outcome will be a vast improvement on the current shabby state of the core of our beloved village. I do not believe we should delay the best possible in a quest for perfection.
Fifty years ago today marked the start of the October Crisis, a pivotal moment in Canadian history. Half a century later, we’re no closer to the story of what really led to the kidnapping of James Cross, the imposition of the War Measures Act and the truth surrounding Pierre Laporte’s murder.
The following is one of my contributions to Fish Wrapped, David Sherman’s anthology of Canadian journalism published by Guernica Editions this past spring. The usual public events that would have accompanied its publication were drowned in the chaos of the COVID pandemic.
By day, I was a sociology sophomore at Loyola College. At night, I was a Montreal Gazette police reporter. I spent most of my shift working the phones, asking cops whether they had anything going on. Usually the answer was nothing. Occasionally I’d write a filler on a holdup. Once in a while I’d get a tip on a big story, usually ending up reassigned to a general reporter. We had a term for it: bigfooted.
The Gazette police desk competed fiercely with our opponents at the Montreal Star. Usually, we beat them because we worked our butts off. The police desk was the newsroom’s go-to Rolodex. We knew how to get the names of owners, and occupants, neighbours, addresses and phone numbers. We called next of kin. We had an ancient bell wired to the fire department’s alert system. We chased sirens with our Bearcat police scanners cranked up.
We were three of us on the Gazette police desk — Eddie Collister, Albert Noël and me, the rookie. Collister was terrific at talking to people. He could reach police brass and mob lawyers. His contacts were everywhere. He would meet a Station 10 detective in the privacy of a X-rated film house near Atwater and a Mafia mouthpiece above a drug den. Albert and I had worked together at the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, where I spent a summer learning Quebec’s official language from its glorious women. When he quit the Chronicle to join the Gazette, Albert didn’t drive and I was still picking up québécois French, so we’d double team — Albert because the cops took to him like a brother, and me because I had a fast car and a camera.
I was between classes on that Monday when my Pagette beeped. I ran for the closest pay phone and called the desk. Eddie answered. “A British diplomat (James Cross) has been kidnapped from his house on Redpath Crescent. How fast can you get over there?”
“Twenty minutes, tops.”
The poor man’s Maserati, my burgundy Volvo 123GT with the whip antenna poking out of the centre of the roof, was illegally parked nearby. I shot around the foot of the mountain, then past the Montreal General as I headed for the ritzy enclave of brick half-timbered homes a brisk walk from downtown. The street outside 1297 Redpath Crescent was packed with reporters, photographers and cameramen. The high point of the stakeout was watching the cops apprehend two men engaged in a personal activity on the mountain. By then it had gotten too cold to sleep in the car so I headed back to the newsroom.
Gazette photographer Garth Pritchard was asleep on my desk, a Montreal phone book as his pillow. He’d turned down the police radio; I turned it back up. He woke up spouting threats and grabbing for his photo gear. We jumped into the Volvo. I cranked up the Bearcat and we headed across the Jacques Cartier Bridge to Montreal’s South Shore.
We had no clue what we were looking for. We drove streets we didn’t know, looking for police activity, something, anything.
It was past midnight when Garth put his hand on the gearshift. “Duffer, this is stupid. We don’t know what we’re looking for. Let’s go get Dilallo burgers.”
As it turned out, we didn’t have to go looking for news. For that first week we ran — to the SQ’s brutalist bunker on Parthenais, to RCMP headquarters in Westmount, to CBC studios in the old Ford Hotel where an announcer read the FLQ manifesto, to Canadian Army command at Longue Pointe. By the end of that long first week, we came to realize the cops had no more idea of what they should be looking for than we did. I didn’t return to university for the rest of 1970.
On the 10th, four Chenier cell members snatched Quebec’s deputy premier, labour and immigration minister Pierre Laporte while he was tossing a football with his nephew. A week into the crisis, the Gazette police desk was a 24/7 operation; we napped and ate on the fly as Ottawa and Quebec fought over how far society should go in appeasing terrorists to free Cross and Laporte. By now, the newsroom was spread so thin that I was assigned to cover pro-negotiation rallies and demonstrations at Centre Paul-Sauvé and Université de Montréal. I saw for myself the groundswell of support for the FLQ, for negotiating the release of 23 convicted terrorists in exchange for the lives of Cross and Laporte, for a provisional government to replace Trudeau and Bourassa.
Oct. 15 was a Thursday; at around 10 p.m., I got a call from a usually reliable source — Claudia, the gun-toting wife of SQ tactical squad’s Albert Lisacek: get my ass down to the entrance to the underground garage at the SQ’s Parthenais bunker.
Others got similar tips. When I got to the garage, reporters and photogs were gathering. The word in the crowd was that we could expect a huge police operation. We huddled for warmth in the shelter of warehouse loading docks until 5 a.m. Friday, when an armada of police cruisers roared up the ramp to mark the official start of the War Measures Act’s imposition. By noon on Oct. 16, 1,200 police officers had arrested approximately 450 individuals and carried out 170 searches.
That Saturday I was taking a few hours off with my date. We were watching Love Story at Place Bonaventure when my Pagette went off. I called the desk. No answer. I called the newsroom. They’d found Laporte’s body in the trunk of a car near the St. Hubert airport on the South Shore. Pritchard was there. He had photos of Laporte’s body.
The next night we received another call from Mrs. Albert. Drive to St. Hubert’s Armstrong Blvd. Investigators had found the house where Laporte had been executed. We jumped in the Volvo. Garth was riding shotgun. TorStar photog Graham Bezant was in the back seat. I saw an SQ cruiser and pulled in behind it as men in plainclothes swarmed us. I rolled down the window and was digging for my driver’s licence when the cop on Garth’s side told us to freeze. Bezant, who didn’t speak French, reached into his jacket. The passenger-side cop cocked his .38 and put it to Garth’s head.
Suddenly, we heard Lisacek’s familiar voice: “What the fuck are you boys doing here? Good thing my guys were feeling relaxed. You could be dead.” He told us a Volvo like mine had been posted to the SQ watch list after a patrol saw one cruising through Longueuil the night Cross was kidnapped.
I asked Garth if he was okay.
“I will be once I get my hands around your throat. You were laughing, you moron. You thought it was funny.”
— from Fish Wrapped: True Confessions from Newsrooms Past, Guernica Editions, May 2020
With today’s closure of Bellevue for repaving, the only alternative to Cameron and Montée Cadieux is Montée Manson, especially for motorists bound for the Oka ferry. So I biked over to Hudson’s oldest road to watch the rally.
Montée Manson stretches for about three kilometres between Main Road and the traffic light on Harwood Blvd. at Bédard. There’s a consensus among local historians that the road predates the Conquest and likely follows a track that existed before the European invasion. If so, Montée Manson hasn’t seen much improvement in all that time. It’s your typical rutted, muddy farm road, wide enough for a tractor and haywagon, but certainly not for two-way traffic most of its length. Apart from the approaches to the train-a-day-each-way exo rail crossing, it is unpaved. It’s not ploughed in winter, giving snowmobilers and ATVers a route to and from the Lake of Two Mountains. This time of the year, hunters make up most of the out-of-town traffic.
Over the years, there’s been talk of making Montée Manson into a useable thoroughfare. A 2006 plan called for ending the AMT line at a transport terminus to serve St. Lazare and Hudson commuters. That would have allowed the line west of there to be converted into a recreational corridor. Of course, Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon didn’t like it. He still wants everything to terminate at the grossly congested terminus on de la Gare and he sits on the CMM public transit committee. Hudson’s train may be a deuce, but it’s a wild card in this poker game. There may never be a Montée Manson terminus, but there will be a railway crossing as long as there’s a train.
Latterly, Hudson has come under pressure from the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC to upgrade Montée Manson. About a third of the way down from Bédard, there’s a concrete culvert that can no longer handle the flow of water coming down from St. Lazare, Added to that is the runoff from adjacent farm fields since the advent of government subsidies for agricultural drainage. It allows farmers to work their fields earlier, but all that runoff has to go somewhere.
The result is a spectacularly muddy and potholed stretch of maybe 500 yards. You can tell the drivers redirected to Montée Manson by their GPS plotters. They’re the folks sitting bolt upright, white knuckles death-gripping the steering wheel at 10 km/h as they try to avoid the massive washouts in their once-pristine vehicles.
Then there are the locals. A woman at the wheel of a white GMC Yukon drove the gauntlet of mud like it was any Hudson street. Not fast, not slow, just steady.
The daredevils revel in the challenge of blasting through the gumbo. My favourite photo from today, at the top of this page, was the sport in the black pickup who gunned it so he could splash me as he barrelled through the filth. I was already filthy, so I stood my ground to get the shot. He reminded me of Hudson’s great rallies and wonderful times driving roads like this.
A minority wants Montée Manson kept open. If we do nothing, the culvert will eventually wash out. Replacing it represents a cost to Hudson taxpayers of somewhere north of $200,000, and that’s to keep it as a muddy three-season farm road. Widening, draining and repairing the surface would easily swallow a million bucks and that doesn’t include paving. Even gravel roads need annual maintenance — grading, adding gravel, spraying dust suppressants in summer and ploughing in winter.
Add to that the cost of patrolling and cleanup, because roads in uninhabited areas become dumps for those who have no scruples against dumping construction waste, junk and trash to avoid having to truck it to an eco-centre or pay to have it removed. A pile of junk is an open invitation for more piles.
Mayor Jamie and I are among those who think Montée Manson should be closed and turned into a linear park. Farmers with fields adjacent to the road could be given keys to the gate and responsibility for ensuring that nobody else has vehicular access. It would be open to pedestrians and cyclists. That failing culvert could be replaced with something less expensive than the structure the MRC wants us to pay for.
I guess the question is whether we’re losing something if we close Montée Manson to vehicle traffic. I don’t think so, and I suspect the majority of Hudson taxpayers would agree it’s the best path forward. There’s something timeless about Montée Manson, especially when there’s no traffic. I’ve felt the same feeling on the Old Gosford Road between Quebec City and Sherbrooke, on the Old Stagecoach Road between Knowlton and Lake Memphremagog. There’s something magic in walking a path used over the centuries.
In the mist that settles into the hollows after a fall shower, one can conjure up visions of native families, French and English soldiers and settlers, making their way to and from the protected bay that gives onto their highway, the Ottawa River. A road like this deserves better than traffic in a hurry to get elsewhere.
Global’s Brayden Jagger Haines was in Hudson this morning to report on the state of our roads and citizen pressure to fix them. I met him at the corner of Como Gardens and Shepherd, one of many stretches of Hudson’s nearly 80 kilometres of roads with chronic pothole problems.
I showed him the patchwork of pothole repairs at that corner. It tells a story repeated all over town. The road was built with inadequate drainage and never upgraded. Cracks went unsealed, allowing the freeze-thaw cycle to pry asphalt apart down to gravel. Crumbling shoulders were never built up. Subsequent repairs never went deep enough to last.
Our residents should be aware that Hudson has never adopted a formal plan to invest annually in road maintenance and upgrades. It wasn’t until I began covering municipal politics that I learned that cities and towns try to anticipate problems before they occur with constantly updated preventive maintenance programs. Nor do we invest in essentials, such as safe walking and cycling shoulders alongside our major arteries so that citizens have a secure alternative to risking their lives. Our sidewalks are a public disgrace. Our storm sewers are approaching the end of their useful life cycle. Our potable water and wastewater collection and treatment systems failed to receive the regular maintenance and hardware/software upgrades essential for their dependable operation. In short, one can’t correct decades of neglect in four years. And where to begin?
I explained to the Global reporter that Quebec requires municipalities to draft a plan to prioritize what needs fixing first. An intervention plan rates infrastructure according to the work required to bring it to a townwide standard. The plan’s metrics rank roads as A, B.C or D, A being the best. Hudson has no A roads and a few B’s. The rest are C or D.
Until this council took office, the town didn’t have an infrastructure plan to address this infrastructure deficit. Our previous DG and council had started the ball rolling, but they still went ahead and paved streets before the intervention plan was in place. We got it done, thanks to the efforts of our new DG and infrastructure department director, but those years of dereliction cost us credibility with MAMH and MELCC, Quebec’s municipal affairs and environment ministries. Trust, once lost, requires scrupulous attention to reporting requirements in order to be restored.
I sympathize with residents angry about the state of Hudson’s roads. I ran for council because I wanted to fix this mess once and for all, not just by applying a coat of asphalt, but by going as deep as necessary to repair and upgrade storm sewers, water connections and anything else down there that needed work to bring it up to acceptable standards. Only then should it be repaved.
Estimated cost of bringing Hudson’s Cs and Ds up to an acceptable standard is somewhere between $20 and $40 million. The same federal/provincial fuel excise tax rebate program which covered part of the cost of the 2007-2010 drinking water network upgrades and the sewer treatment system may cover part, but not all. Taxpayers can count on $1.6 million every four years. The rest has to come from loan bylaws.
In a perfect world, we would not be forced to borrow to pay for paving. I see borrowing to pay for paving as akin to buying groceries on credit; sooner or later, one runs out of food and must tap the line of credit yet again. Hudson takes in approximately $12 million in tax revenues every year but with more than 80% of that already spent on downloads, salaries and services, there isn’t that much disposable income, which is why previous administrations incurred $36 million in long-term debt.
Thanks to strict fiscal discipline, an extremely competent administration and yes, COVID-19, Hudson is in good shape fiscally. (Details will be released following our meeting with the auditors prior to next week’s live-to-air September council meeting, which will include an interactive question period via Zoom Webinar.) We have the funds to leverage a certain amount of infrastructure renewal every year. It is sustainable as long as revenues maintain their current level, but as we all know, that can change in a heartbeat.
At our August meeting, Council approved a $100K expenditure to repave Main between Cote St. Charles and Oakland as well as a badly degraded section of Como Gardens and several other bad stretches of side streets. This went to tender and Council awarded the bid. As of this morning, our Public Works crews were replacing broken manholes prior to the contractor starting work. Some of them have been broken for years.
Originally, we had hoped to repave Main Road through the downtown core this year. The administration assured Council we had the funding to leverage a $1.32 million infrastructure upgrade and repaving contract. This fell through because Council wanted the commercial community and residents to be consulted on what they wanted the downtown core to look like. This led to the $100,000 Stantec contract and decisions regarding parking, sidewalks, cycling lanes, trees and streetscaping. I’m hopeful that council can agree on those factors in time to adopt a downtown-core repaving bylaw in time for the November 2021 municipal elections.
Instead of redoing Main through the core, Council then proposed to spend the $1.32 million on repaving Main between Quarry Point Road and the Vaudreuil-Dorion border, plus all of Bellevue. This option died when two reports from consulting engineers placed the total cost at well over $5 million.
In the end, Council approved a $2.2M loan bylaw to repave Bellevue. The contract went to tender, the low bid was accepted and work can begin as soon as we get final approval from MAMH, the municipal affairs ministry. I have been told we can expect it by the end of next week. The bylaw covers base remediation, culvert work, widening and repaving of Bellevue and a section of Main Road in Como. The loan bylaw doesn’t include an emergency bypass lane which will be opened to vehicle traffic in the event of another flood similar to those in 2017-19 which forced the closure of Main at Sanderson; this will be funded out of general revenues.
As I said, I don’t blame residents for bitching and moaning about Hudson’s roads. Our neighbourhood and all of District 5 has some of the crappiest roads in town. My constituents joke about this being the price for electing a shit-disturbing councillor, but as long as the process of ranking what needs doing most is impartial, I’m okay with that.
This past Monday, July 6, Hudson council voted to release biologist Eco2Urb’s report and recommendations on how residents and administrations can best prepare to deal with the environmental challenges facing the town. [Go directly to the report at the foot of this post.]
Eco2Urb introduces us to the concept of resilience planning, “an approach that aims to optimize an ecosystem’s ability to resist and recover from disturbance. It ensures a natural area’s ability to keep providing ecosystem services despite environmental stressors such as invasive pests and disease, drought, and floods. Resilience planning maximizes an ecosystem’s biodiversity (including genetic, species and functional diversity) to better adapt to change.”
Commissioned in June 2019 at a total cost of more than $90,000 and delivered to council Jan. 21, 2020, the 97-page report builds on the 2008 Teknika HBA wetland/woodland audit and the 2016 CIMA+ conservation plan to provide the technical basis for a comprehensive approach to land use and management planning in all sectors of Hudson.
The study’s objective was to prioritize and rank natural areas for conservation across the entirety of the town’s natural areas in harmony with the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s goal of conserving 17 per cent of its total surface area. [The MMC’s Metropolitan Land Use and Development Plan (PMAD) seeks to concentrate development in sectors already supplied with roads, potable water, sewers, public transit, schools and businesses.]
“This prioritization will help inform urban planning initiatives and achieve the objectives set by PMAD, promoting biodiversity, ecosystem services, connectivity and resilience,” the report states. “Certain key elements of interest emerge from this extensive work, namely the importance of maintaining and expanding the network of blue-green corridors naturally found within Hudson due to its waterways and surrounding green infrastructure. This would contribute to supporting biodiversity while providing essential ecosystem services in suburban contexts.”
Two workshops and innumerable discussions later, I have come to see Eco2Urb’s report as a practical guide for this and future administrations in the resilience planning required to deal with the social and environmental challenges we all know are coming. I can assure conspiracy theorists the report’s release was delayed by the need to have it translated and council briefed on its contents and implications.
Only a fool would deny the growing pressure from environmental challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is fuelling flight from cities to regions like Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Most of the undeveloped land in the county is zoned agricultural, raising the pressure to develop environmentally sensitive areas. Climate change and incoherent upstream development threaten the Viviry watershed, the source of our drinking water; over the last five years, residential projects in St. Lazare and Vaudreuil-Dorion have transformed replenishment zones for the Vaudreuil aquifer.
A study which would have allowed a 10-year comparison of production and consumption was cancelled, likely because it would have questioned the sanity of adding users by allowing development in the very production zones that once refilled the water table.
Warmer winters, invasive species and incompetent forest management are killing Hudson’s green canopy. A third of Hudson’s forest cover are ash trees, doomed to slow death by the emerald ash borer. Our beeches, pines, hemlocks and even our maples are at risk from pests and disease. The only way to get ahead of the problem is by managing Hudson’s forests in collaboration with private landowners and developers. I proposed that the town consider adding forestry engineering expertise that would go a lot farther in maintaining our canopy than writing tree-cutting permits and tracking down rogue chainsaws.
Applied at the policy and operational levels, resilience planning:
— Conserves wetlands to improve overall tolerance to waterlogging, especially in the flood zone along the Ottawa River;
— Promotes tree functional group diversity to improve forest resilience;
— Favors a range of forest management practices (e.g. planting, selective harvests) that
contribute to stand- and landscape- level habitat diversity;
— Focuses conservation efforts on forests with higher levels of functional diversity;
— Focuses restoration efforts on forests with poor resilience;
— Sensitizes residents as to vectors of invasion for exotic pests and diseases (e.g. firewood), and on how to identify main biotic threats;
— Restores blue-green corridors between fragmented habitat patches;
— Conserves fragments of quality habitat that can serve as steppingstones facilitating animal movement;
— Protects ecological corridors essential to biodiversity.
Eco2Urb begins its report by identifying some of the global drivers of the environmental challenges to conservation: “Many of the challenges faced by [Hudson] are expected to grow in severity in the next century. A 3.1◦C increase in mean annual temperature is predicted for the municipality by year 2070 under a high carbon emissions scenario, which is expected to lead to more frequent flooding and drought events. […] Invasive pests and diseases, such as the emerald ash borer, are already impacting Hudson’s urban canopy. Additional accidental imports, such as the Asian longhorned beetle, have been recorded in southern Ontario and threaten the integrity of the Town’s forested ecosystems.”
Added to that, habitat fragmentation caused by urban development facilitates the widespread propagation of exotic plants that displace native species. “In a context of urban expansion and global environmental change, science-based solutions are needed to help maintain key natural areas, biodiversity and ecosystem services (e.g. climate regulation, flood control, recreation).”
Is Eco2Urb worth $100 grand? It depends on how we put it to use. The Prévost administration spent $70,000 plus on a strategic plan sitting unapplied and forgotten on the town website. I want to see Eco2Urb’s applications applied, embedded, integrated, operationalized. This may require changes to master plan bylaws 525 and 526 as required. It doesn’t mean freezing everything until someone gets around to it.
I can see linking blue-green corridor connectivity with the need to protect Hudson’s potable water source. I see Eco2Urb being applied in debating which infrastructure needs immunizing, which sector requires remediation or which issue demands regulation.
I can see the need for specialist intervention in ensuring the long-term health of Hudson’s forest canopy with a policy of diversifying the number of species with an emphasis on overall sustainability.
I insist on the need for a scientific basis on which this and future councils can direct development in harmony with our architectural and natural heritage. Eco2Urb has introduced us to measurement tools allowing Hudson’s urban planners and property owners to identify environmental constraints on a lot-by-lot basis.
If we stay on Eco2Urb’s core message — environmental protection as a component of the planning process — it was cheap at the price. If not, it’s another strategic plan.
At 1 p.m. this afternoon, François Legault hit his first false note when he announced a three-week extension (until May 4) of the forced closure of all businesses deemed non-essential.
Until today, Legault led the country and the continent in his measured response to the developing coronavirus pandemic. Quebec was the first jurisdiction in North America to tighten the net on public gatherings, then lock down most public activities in mid-March, when the rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths continued to accelerate. Legault waited until March 23 before ordering non-essential commerces and businesses to shut down until April 13. He was careful to characterize measures taken to overcome community resistence as being required for the common good. Political peers from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Doug Ford and Jason Kenney listened to what Quebec’s premier had to say.
At every step, Legault and his team had the unquestioning support of the majority of Quebeckers, a big reason why Google Analytics credits Quebec with leading the continent in containment measures.
I have no doubt Legault’s lockdown extension is based on good medicine. With 94 deaths and almost 8,000 confirmed cases, Quebec’s curve is showing no sign of flattening. With more than 500 COVID-19 patients (154 in intensive care), Quebec’s emergency care system is nearing its capacity to cope, especially if a significant percentage of the population refuses to take basic precautions — distancing, remaining at home, wearing masks, hand-washing, etc.
Yes, Legault has good reasons to extend the lockdown — but only if he and his staff redefine what’s essential and what isn’t.
Is Pratt & Whitney’s South-shore turbine plant essential? Why? To whom? The private jet industry and the holy grail of nonstop flights anywhere on the planet to protect the ultra-rich from the grubbiness of people suffering? Why are the SAQ and cannabis outlets essential? Why are some workers deemed essential enough to have to struggle into work while others in the same office can work from home? Why are big-box home improvement franchises essential but my neighbourhood garage isn’t? The essential/non-essential designations need rebalancing in light of what we now know about this virus and society’s reaction to it.
A month into this nightmare, I’m seeing governments assisting the monopolies at the expense of small and medium-sized businesses. Consider Ottawa’s measures to encourage businesses not to lay off their employees. How does that help any business that isn’t on the essential list and thus can’t open for business? How does that help a business whose clients are themselves having to close up shop or work from home? Will Ottawa cover the mortgage, the business loan, the rent? Will the banks defer payment on the commercial landlord’s mortgage? Talk to your bank, not to your politicians.
I’m seeing our supply chains being altered, possibly for good. Our local IGA struggles with the volume of shoppers, including people from out of town who shop in Hudson because they think small towns are safer. My daughter, who lives in a COVID red zone in Montreal, shops in Ile Perrot for exactly that reason. After our phoned-in order was delivered half-filled, with wierd substitutes (tangerine-flavoured IPA?) our neighbours suggested we try the Vaudreuil Walmart. I’ve always shunned Walmart because of the impact it has had on local business but this pandemic has that effect on principle. South of us, most Americans think Trump did the right thing in ordering 3M to stop exporting masks to us. Most Canadians think we should retaliate by cutting off 3M’s crucial supply of wood pulp required for N95 masks.
In a pandemic, do two wrongs make a right?
A new definition of irony: national governments bailing out the airlines, who allowed this pestilence to invade our homelands at the speed of jet travel and assigned their untrained employees the responsibility of deciding who should be allowed to infect a planeload of passengers. It’s no different than the 2007 bank bailout after their dodgy practices destroyed the economy and shattered the social contract. Why are we not billing the feckless cruise industry with the cost of repatriating the nationals their lax hygiene measures aboard their horizontal hotels made sick? Why are people being repatriated to Canada by the feds and their airline buddies not being tracked by provincial health authorities? Instead they’re being asked to honour a promise to self-isolate, which from what I’ve seen in my home town, means diddly squat. When did the Privacy Act trump my right to life? Pure political bullshit. South Korea requires these repatriates to wear electronic tracking devices — and bills them.
At today’s briefing Legault was joined by Industry Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon, who touted his Panier bleu campaign to encourage Quebeckers to shop chez nous before buying imports. Fitzgibbons’s prescription was more political fabulation. Listening to his quackery, one might believe the salvation of our local economies lies in more bureaucracy.
As I rode through Hudson this afternoon, the streets were empty except for a handful of diehard exercisers and a Manoir resident tottering down the centre of Main Road. I wondered how many of the shuttered businesses will survive. Much is made of the generosity of those who buy meals at the local frites joint with a Post-it note but the truth is that an extended lockdown until May 4 may mean the difference between life and death for our local businesses. It is immoral to pretend they’re not as deserving of help as a salaried employee.
People are trying to work around Legault’s edicts. I ran into a Hudson contractor whose phone never stops ringing with work. Word of mouth. He told me he’s chosen to stop working. The $10,000 fine has a lot to do with it. I saw others still at work, perhaps in violation of the decree. On a Sunday, when the COVID cops are taking a break.
On Sandy Beach, a couple of young women were distancing themselves from a trio of young men ignoring the town’s six-foot distancing edict. SEPAQ, Valerie Plante and the forces of quarantine have shut down Mount Royal, Ile Notre Dame and all but a handful of the island’s greenspaces. I can only imagine what our town will look like if this slow-motion disaster lives on into the summer and four million people desperately seek somewhere to breathe. Will Hudson be able to open its municipal pool, operate its day camp and proceed with our usual calendar of public events? Montreal has already cancelled the Tour de l’Ile, the Francofolies, the Jazz Festival, Osheaga and rescheduled Just for Laughs to the fall. What do you think?
I guess I can’t burden Legault with all this. I think he’s doing his best and I hope this was a one-day slip. But it would have helped if he had announced a proposal that would ask all 125 National Assembly members to take a 50% pay cut for the duration. Symbolic, but in light of the sacrifices the rest of us are making, significant. It might even trigger a similar action in Ottawa and the other provinces.
This coming Tuesday, Legault will be giving Quebeckers the long-term prognosis on how he and his experts see the pandemic playing itself out. We’ll get death estimates, just as Doug Ford shared last week. It was the only time in the past month that someone upstaged Quebec’s premier. I hope it’s the last.
To remind us of how things have evolved, here’s my March 23 journal entry:
March 23, 2020: Today I’m loving my country. Team Canada led the world in announcing we won’t be sending our athletes to Tokyo in July. The PM has just announced $192M for research into vaccines. Research teams across Canada are experimenting with antivirals and compounds to calm the human immune system’s reaction to the coronavirus. The pandemic has our politicians working hand in glove with doctors, scientists, business, industry and unions as each new day brings new challenges and the need to make the right choices.
We need good news. Economically, Canada was already fighting stiff headwinds when the COVID-19 tsunami hit us. Pipeline protests cost billions and cost jobs. Two major fossil-fuel megaprojects were cancelled or lost partners. Parliament resumes tomorrow for emergency debate on financial relief; here’s fervently hoping our MPs remember they’re there for Canadians, not politics. Will the money go to help working Canadians already struggling in a shifting economy? Will it be used to offset new fiscal challenges facing Canadian municipalities?
We’re seeing signals of bailouts to industry. From the scramble to repatriate stranded Canadian, you know Air Canada, WestJet and their affiliates are on the list. Banks, too. Manufacturers are jostling in the rush to board the medical-supplies gravy train. Some sectors of the Canadian economy may even profit from coronavirus.
There seems to be a dawning awareness in government that the measures required to reverse the rate of infection may end up killing small business. Anything which impedes consumers from consuming targets the service sector and their employees. That’s why it’s not enough to offer wage subsidies and worksharing to businesses that can’t operate. What good is filing a BDC loan application when one’s bank won’t extend a business’s line of credit? Who has to swallow the cost of cancelled contracts, of unsold inventory, of unfilled seats? If the aviation industry is offered a bailout, why not the hotel and restaurant sectors?
I dare to hope this is the crisis that will force us to rethink how wealth is distributed in a capitalist democracy. One of the first acts of the Ford Conservatives in Ontario was to scrap a guaranteed-minimum-salary pilot project that would have helped its participants cope with the cost of social distancing. All levels of government need to keep in mind how the coronavirus ignores equal-opportunity guidelines.
Como Bog was frozen solid, glittering in the bright sun under a thick coating of ice this past Saturday — ideal conditions for a walkabout on the site of Hudson’s controversial housing development on Como Gardens.
A clay berm surrounding the project appears complete, one of the provincial environment ministry’s conditions for a certificate of authorization. The theory behind the impermeable berm is that it will block the flow of water between the 13-bungalow project and the surrounding bog.
As housing projects go, this is tiny, but it has taken a decade to reach this point. It never would have gotten this far if Quebec’s current wetland protection regulations had been in force when Sebastien Weiner, the original developer of what was then known as UK2, had set out to make it happen.
Some 10 years back, Weiner took possession of 8.5 hectares of the 9.73-hectare Como Bog, then came to an agreement with Quebec’s transport and environment ministries which would allow him to deforest roughly 3.4 hectares, strip-mine the peat and backfill to a level 18 inches above Como Gardens before starting construction of a dozen or so single-family units. (How that and similar wetland-trade deals were possible back then is another story, which I’ll get to.)
In return, Weiner agreed to donate five hectares of the bog to the Transport Ministry, which would then sign it over it to the town or recognized conservation organization for a dollar. To compensate for the part of the bog he proposed to develop, Weiner paid an undisclosed sum to protect 7.45 hectares of wetland in Rigaud.
Details of Weiner’s UK2 development were first presented at the September 2012 town planning advisory committee (TPAC) meeting. Although there only two items on the agenda, it would be a busy evening for councillors Robert Spencer (chairman), Madeleine Hodgson and Tim Snow plus committee members Susie Aird, David Croydon, Joyce Galliker, Andrée Bourassa, Brian Grubert, Marcus Owen, Dianne Laheurte and Phillip Avis. Besides UK2, TPAC would be presented with the latest version of George Ellerbeck’s Como subdivision – the Willowbrook development. According to the minutes, mayor Michael Elliott, urban planning manager Nathalie Lavoie and town engineer Trail Grubert were also in attendance.
Weiner presented his case for UK2. He pointed out the land was already zoned for single-family residences. There would be an easy connection to the new sewer system via the pumping station across the street. He maintained that the wetland trade allowing development was none of the town’s business, seeing as how he already had the required authorization certificates from the environment ministry.
Long before the meeting, public opinion was running against the project even though the town stood to take ownership of 80% of the bog. Residents pointed out that Weiner’s land was identified in the June, 2008 Teknika greenspace audit as part of MH-25, a 9.73-hectare peat bog characterized as the most environmentally sensitive wetland in Hudson. How, they demanded, could the town allow development of part of the bog to save the rest if development threatened the entire ecosystem?
Mayor Elliott and council maintained their fallback position — that Hudson had no jurisdiction over the provincial shell game that allowed Weiner to develop the bog. At one point, council asked Weiner to sell them all 8.5 hectares at 14 cents a square foot. Weiner’s counteroffer: I’ll sell the town the proposed building lots, but at fair market value. [Uninformed guesstimates ranged between $1 and $2.5 million.]
To understand the Como Bog file, we need to go back to April 2012, when Liberal environment minister Pierre Arcand tabled Bill 71 permitting the development of a wetland in exchange for the protection of a wetland of equal or superior value in the same watershed. The act was in direct response to a Quebec Superior Court ruling earlier that year in the case of a cranberry producer denied the right to expand his operations.
Bill 71 gives the environment ministry the power to require compensation measures to restore, protect or enhance a wetland, a body of water or a piece of land as the price of the right to develop. Once the law came into effect, anyone looking to develop a wetland MAY be required to include compensation measures when applying for a certificate of authorization.
Because the ministry customarily required developers to implement compensation measures on projects affecting wetlands, the government made Bill 71 retroactive. This means that any compensation measure imposed in an authorization or a certificate of authorization issued prior to March 12, 2012 remains valid despite subsequent changes to Quebec’s environmental protection, municipal jurisdiction and land use legislation.
Fasken Martineau’s analysis of Bill 71 observes: “Interestingly, the Bill contains no clause allowing for derogation from Section 6 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms concerning fundamental property rights.” In other words, the right to develop trumps a municipality’s right to impose restrictions on development — but only for wetland trades with certificates of authorization issued prior to March 12/12.
All over Quebec, developers with wetland to trade and legalists who saw money to be made — legally, with Quebec’s blessing — rushed to take advantage of the wetland-flip loophole before it slammed shut. [Residential developments in several of St. Lazare’s most sensitive wetlands and critical aquifer replenishment zones were authorized during this bleak period of state-sanctioned environmental despoilation.] In the case of UK2, it was the government itself doing the rushing. In its haste to complete the westernmost Highway 30 section between Chateauguay and Vaudreuil-Dorion, the transport ministry was forced to backfill several wetlands. It was at this point that Quebec’s transport and environment ministries entered into the agreement that resulted in certificates of authorization permitting the development of part of the Como Bog.
Fast forward to the Hudson council meeting of March 5, 2018. Item 3.4 on the agenda was a resolution regarding the subdivision of the Como Gardens project, more specifically whether the Town should take the mandatory 10% park/playground tax in land, money, or a mix of greenspace and cash. The developer offers council three options: 14 lots (13 residential lots and one lot representing 6.1% of the total land area for park purposes); 13 residential lots but no park and a third option comprising 6.1% of the total land area in parkland, with another perpetual conservation covenants of non-construction at the promoter’s expense.
Deeply divided over the options, council voted to refer the file to the natural infrastructure committee for further study and recommendations. The vote to defer bought time, but no clarity. At the April 3, 2018 council meeting, confusion over what constituted parkland vs. land under conservation led to a serious misunderstanding which prevails to the present. The environment ministry’s certificate of authorization requires a conservation servitude totalling 1,385 square metres between the building lots and the bog. This is NOT part of the 1,171- square-metre (13%) parkland allotment, which includes a 700-square-metre corridor running between the conservation zone and the bog, plus a 471-square-metre triangular greenspace at the southwest corner of the project. The conservation area includes a major spring which feeds the bog year-round.
Together, the conservation servitude and the parkland ceded to the town exceed 28%, with 13% of that total ceded to the town. But that wasn’t the resolution council voted to approve. At that meeting, the former director-general left the hall to have a brief discussion with the developer, then returned to announce that the town would be getting what amounted to a 25% greenspace allowance. The minutes of the April 3, 2018 meeting reflect this confusion:
WHEREAS the promotor is offering a land transfer representing about 25% of the surface area; CONSIDERING a clay wall will have to be erected by the promotor; WHEREAS the promotor will have to establish the validity of his certificate of authorization;
It is moved by the Councillor for district 2 (Eastern Hudson) Austin Rikley-Krindle Seconded by the Councillor for district 5 (Eastern Heights) Jim Duff
TO APPROVE, in satisfaction of article 304 c) of By-Law 529 concerning permits and certificates, a land transfer representing 10% or more of the surface area of the land on the condition that the promotor meets the requirements of Section 46.0.9 of the Environment Quality Act.
Subsequently, both sides have struggled to correct the impression that council and residents were deliberately induced in error in order to get the project approved. Since then, agreements concerning infrastructure hookup and remediation have been successfully concluded.
Never Another Como Bog! has become the rallying cry for those who push for wider wetland buffers and tighter restrictions on deforestation, excavating and backfilling in Hudson. They’re not wrong, but their fixation on the Como Gardens development as an example is misplaced and misleading.
Begin with Bill 71, An Act Respecting Compensation Measures for the Carrying Out of Projects Affecting Wetlands or Bodies of Water. After its adoption, municipalities saw firsthand the folly of wetland flips. A series of hearings in 2012 resulted in major changes outlawing same-watershed trades. In 2017, adoption of the Act regarding the conservation of wetlands and watercourses imposed a new framework of analysis based on the ‘no net loss’ concept. Under these changes, Como Gardens would not have been permitted.
Municipalities are also having to deal with the blowback from uncontrolled wetland and shoreline development. As our climate gets warmer, it gets wetter. The more we develop, the greater and faster the runoff, necessitating increasing investment in degraded, inadequate infrastructure.
In Hudson’s case, we should be worrying about the velocity and volume of runoff from upstream, beginning with the Viviry. Within a decade, we’ll see an additional 500 doors built on the Viviry watershed. We saw what happened when a midwinter thaw destroyed the Pine Lake dam. We have no choice but to replace it and re-engineer Pine Lake into a retention/detention basin if we don’t want to see Cameron washed away — and that’s just the beginning.
Some people I talk to believe Hudson is just fine with fewer than 6,000 residents. They may be right, but as someone who believes in budgeting for reality and spending within our means, I warn that Hudson’s current level of expenditure and priorities are not sustainable with the current population level. One can’t oppose development while continuing to burn money dreaming of grandiose projects.
Yes, Como Gardens is a lesson to this and future councils — a lesson in the need to make the hard decisions quickly, decisively and without second-guessing. It may be right, it may be wrong, but at least it’s a decision. Move forward and stop agonizing over the blowback.
The following stories ran in the Hudson/St. Lazare Gazette in October 2010:
Hudson, developer clash over peat bog
By Jim Duff
HUDSON — The Town of Hudson and developer Sebastien Weiner are crossing swords over a proposed housing development on Como Gardens opposite the new Palliative Care Centre, on land classified in a 2008 wetland audit as the most ecologically sensitive peat bog in the municipality.
Weiner has reached an agreement with Quebec’s transport and environment ministries that will let him deforest roughly 3.4 hectares, strip-mine the peat and backfill to a level 18 inches above Como Gardens before starting construction of 10 or 11 homes.
In return, he’s agreed to give five hectares of the bog to the Transport Ministry, which would then donate it to the town or recognized conservation organization for a dollar.
As a further gesture of good faith, Weiner has offered the Ministère du développement durable, de l’environnement et des parcs (MDDEP) 7.45 hectares of land in Rigaud.
Details of Weiner’s UK2 development were presented at the September town planning advisory committee (TPAC) meeting. He pointed out the land is already zoned for single-family residences, with easy connection to the new sewer system via a pumping station across the street.
The town is dead set against the deal even though it would mean getting roughly five hectares of Weiner’s 8.5-hectare total, including the deepest part of the bog contiguous with two town-owned lots. They want him to sell them all 8.5 hectares at $0.14 a square foot.
Weiner has offered to sell the town the proposed building lots, but at fair market value.
“I’ve turned the world around to make everybody happy on this. Now they want all of it for free?
“An unscrupulous developer could mine the whole bog, put in new roads, put 30-40 houses, he added. “I’m protecting it, free to the town because of the transport deal, only using existing infrastructure….It’s really a win-win deal for everybody.”
Weiner said he doesn’t need the town’s permission to cut trees, mine the peat, backfill and build. Peat, he explained, is considered a mineral resource, like gold or oil; “Peat bogs fall under the provincial mining law, putting them beyond municipal jurisdiction…Legally, it is a mine.”
“Saying that peat bogs are in danger is false. They’re not,” he added. Peat bogs — either carex or sphagnum moss — make up 17 percent of Canada’s total land area — 117 million hectares — and nine percent of Quebec. Ninety percent is untouched. Of Quebec’s 12 million hectares, 174,000 hectares are exploited — 1.45 percent. Hydro-Quebec accounts for 120,000 hectares of that total.
He recognizes that the town may try to block the deal by refusing to allow him to connect to the sewer system even though there’s a pumping station across the street.
“Are you going to put a septic system 50 feet away from a sewer line? It’s just common sense here.”
He says he’s ready to discuss details of the peat-removal operations with his one neighbour, the Palliative Care Centre. “I’ll go talk to them…obviously it is not going to be done at midnight, it’s going to be done during normal regular hours. If there was a house being built across the street, there would be the same shovel, the same noise, the same everything.
“The land was zoned residential, from way before [the Centre] was there. The point is to be a good neighbour. I live across the street from it…I did recognize there was a compromise to be had.”
Weiner notes he was born here, grew up here and decided to live here, so he’s aware of Hudson’s desire to preserve things the way they are.
“I spent two years of my life negotiating a compromise whereby more than 80 percent of the peat bog would be protected for free for the town of Hudson. I structured a deal between the Ministère des Transports, MDDEP and myself whereby Transport would create a conservation zone — and give it to the town for free.”
Why the Ministry of Transport? Weiner said it appeared that it was “some kind of old IOU for an old project between the two ministries and this fit the bill.It has nothing to do with the Town of Hudson…the Town of Hudson just ends up being the beneficiary.”
MH-25 tops 2008 Teknika list
Sebastien Weiner’s land was identified in the June, 2008 Teknika greenspace audit as part of MH-25, a 9.73-hectare peat bog characterized as the most environmentally sensitive wetland in Hudson.
That characterization was reached on the basis of points assigned for size, diversity and rarity of flora and fauna and the nature of the peat subsoil, which reaches depths of approximately 11 to 12feet in the centre of the bog. The audit identified four plant species as well as four wildfowl species characterized as vulnerable. There are approximately 12 million hectares of peat bogs in Québec (9% of the province) of which 98.55% are virgin. Peat is a mineral substance as defined in the Provincial Mining Law. As such, extracting peat is considered a mining operation which benefits from special privileges and is governed at a provincial not municipal level.
Weiner’s six-sided lot is bounded by Como Gardens, Hodgson, Main Road, the Canadian Pacific right of way and a town-owned lot stretching from Mullan to the Canadian Pacific track.
His agreement with both the Ministère du Développement Durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs (MDDEP) and the Ministère des Transports (MTQ) allows him to extract the peat from a band of land, approx. 100 feet wide, along Como-Gardens and Hodgson roads.. After backfilling to the same level as the Palliative Care Residence across the street, he can then subdivide the 100-foot strip into roughly a dozen 30,000-square-foot lots.
Because the area is already zoned residential, Weiner needs no zoning change.
Under the terms of the deal he’s proposing, the town would get roughly 5.8 hectares at no cost — 5.4 hectares from the MTQ, including the area of mature trees and the four identified plant species as well as the deepest part of the bog and another 0.4 hectares as part of the 10-percent greenspace allowance the town is entitled to when a property is subdivided.
The town has the choice of where it will take the 10 percent, or whether it will take it in cash.
Also part of the deal, Weiner has worked out an agreement with the environment ministry to acquire and transfer to the an area of equal size in Rigaud.— Jim Duff