Hudson’s Cancel Conspiracy

Hopes rose Tuesday with the appearance of an Excavations Ali excavator at the Willowbrook site the day after a council caucus meeting was to discuss easing the freeze on the project’s first phase. Habitations Robert said Wednesday work would be limited to altering drainage and installing a temporary power grid. The project remains frozen for the indefinite future.

There’s no better example of the growing influence of environment and preservation activists on Hudson’s future than the uncertainty hanging over those who bought lots in Willowbrook.

At the Dec. 6 council meeting, councillors voted unanimously for two resolutions freezing all new development projects for the time it takes to overhaul the town’s master plan. The freeze — ostensibly for 90 days— applies to the issuance of building permits, tree felling and the backfilling of wetlands on 37% of Hudson’s 36.5 square kilometres. 

Willowbrook, the 114-door Habitations Robert development in Hudson’s Como sector, is the first casualty of the freeze even though the project had worked its way through an approval process going back to 2007. Those approvals concluded with a modified certificate of authorization from the environment ministry issued in March of this year and resolutions from the previous council giving the developer the green light for the 30-unit first phase. 

That was the basis on which Habitations Robert began selling lots over the spring and summer. 

This administration frames the freeze and bylaw rewrite as an opportunity to incorporate environmental protection in future development. In reality, the Willowbrook project underwent 15 years of study by an army of biologists specializing in flora and fauna, soil experts, hydrologists and environment ministry technicians. The studies analyzed, counted and measured everything from tree and plant species to the presence or absence of birds, vertebrates, even fish (mudminnows, sticklebacks and dace live in the wetlands and streams).

Those studies, combined with wetland and woodland data contained in the 2008 Teknika greenspace audit and 2017 CIMA+ conservation plan, formed the basis for Quebec’s approval of Habitation Robert’s application for permission to cut roads and install infrastructure for the project’s 30-door first phase.

What I find even more perplexing: the draft rewrite of Bylaw 525 pulls heavily from a 2020 report by Eco2Urb, the environmental consulting group hired by the previous council to confirm and update Teknika and CIMA+. Eco2Urb’s findings, including the existence of an unclassified wetland adjacent to rue Leger, were applied to Willowbrook’s Phase 1. In other words, Willowbrook is the first residential development to be subjected to the level of environmental scrutiny proposed by Eco2Urb — long before the interim control resolution and proposed bylaw changes.

So the question becomes why this council would ignore the science, dismiss 15 years of negotiations and refuse to address the immediate concerns of those who don’t know when —or even if — they will be able to move into the homes they contracted to buy.  

This analysis will attempt to answer that question.

Prior to the Dec. 6 council meeting, mayor Chloe Hutchison met with with Willowbrook’s developer, likely to inform them their project would be shut down by the RCI. The developer conveyed the news to their clients, setting off a Facebook firestorm in the absence of clear information of whether the impact would be temporary or permanent.

  A week after the freeze was adopted, Hudson’s new council met for a Monday-night caucus meeting to discuss the communications component of the freeze and according to one councillor, “sort through some of the misinformation.”  Buyers and their supporters were optimistic the mayor and council would reach out to those affected, ideally by allowing completion of the infrastucture already approved. At the least, they said, the mayor and/or council members should be up front with their plans for the project.

So far that hasn’t happened. Why the silence? 

Long before the freeze, the town’s relationship with Habitations Robert and its subcontractors was strained by violations of the Environmental Quality Act, including a drainage culvert discharging into a wetland. On top of that, the provincial heritage ministry intervened after conservation activists demanded protection for a 19th-century glassworks on the property. 

Work on the project was halted prior to the Nov. 7 municipal election because Hydro-Quebec had yet to install the poles required to supply power to the twin sewage pumping stations. 

The sewage pumping station opposite l’Auberge Willow won’t be connected to the power grid until Hydro Quebec deals with the aftermath of this week’s major power outages.

Early Wednesday (Dec. 15) Habitations Robert personnel and Hydro-Quebec subcontractors were on the site to replace condemned hydro poles on Main and build a temporary power grid to supply the project. As for the sewage pumping station, a Habitations Robert supervisor told me Wednesday that Hydro is prioritizing repairs to weather-damaged infrastructure, thus delaying non-essential work. He was optimistic that work on Phase 1 could resume next spring, but didn’t think the hookup to the municipal sanitary sewer system would be completed until the fall. His comments made it clear that Habitations Robert is not seeking to defy the freeze. 

Even the buyers most impacted have said a 90-day halt isn’t the problem, except that there’s no guarantee it will be lifted in 90 days. Lawyers have told the town an RCI can remain in place for whatever time it takes to draft and adopt stricter bylaws. At what point do young families who incurred serious debt to be able to afford a $750,000 home in Hudson and people stuck in rented apartments with storage units filled with new furniture and appliances they’re paying for but unable to to use, call it quits? 

This past Tuesday, one purchaser asked for the return of their deposit and prepared to move to another development outside Hudson. The longer the wait, the greater is the likelihood that others will follow. Their collective anger and frustration are reflected on social media. 

Phase 1 buyer Melanie Matte posted this to Facebook: 

“We were very excited for our first family home and to be part of Hudson. The project had already received approval from previous councils. Roads and infrastructure were underway. However last Monday the council adopted a 90-day freeze with no guarantee that this won’t be extended. This means all construction would be halted.”

Matte fears council’s intent is to cancel the entire project, beginning with Phase 1.  

“The town also started the process of changing bylaws which could affect the lots we purchased. This news has caused significant stress for our family. We are worried that we may have purchased a lot that we may not be able to build on. We have contacted the town several times but have not been able to obtain any concrete answers or information about the future of this project. 

“The mayor was interviewed last evening but only spoke about the fact that the building permits had not yet been approved. Building permits have no bearing on the issue. We are asking: will Phase 1 of the Willowbrook project be able to move forward or has council stopped it from doing the work needed to continue? Is council planning to rewrite the new land use bylaw in a manner which will make our fully owned lots unbuildable? We are hoping to get some answers and clarity on our situation.”

With a like-minded caucus majority, the mayor faces little internal opposition in her campaign to rewrite Hudson’s environmental bylaws. Nevertheless, the ruckus on social media was enough to force a meeting of the caucus exactly a week after the RCI was adopted.

“Please note that our intent is not in any way meant to cause undue consequences,”  a councillor wrote in an email to one of those affected.”It is a process we are permitted by law to activate on behalf of the protection and planning of our town. More information will follow in a timely manner.”

The RCI is a first in Hudson, although this won’t have been the first time a development freeze was discussed in caucus. Following the departure of the previous DG in August 2018, the sitting council twice considered an RCI for environmental protection purposes but was advised that it was late in the mandate (Fall 2019) to be claiming changed orientations and rushing to redraft the master plan. In both cases, it wasn’t clear what outcome council wanted once the freeze was lifted. Did they expect taxpayers to buy the property? Or were they hoping to negotiate a better outcome once the landowner had been brought to their knees? Jurisprudence has established that a municipality can’t block a project in perpetuity.

One of the legal arguments in favour of RCIs is that they offer some protection to an incoming council looking to enact or repeal bylaws, cancel contracts or lay off staff. The flip side of that is the town must have begun the process of amending the master plan when it adopts an interim control resolution for legitimate reasons, such as lowering density and reducing building footprints.The catch is that the owner retains the right to sue because they are deprived of the use of their land. Nobody has succeeded in getting an RCI quashed in court, but gambling on a favourable court outcome with tax dollars calls for a robust communications strategy so that taxpayers are braced for the fiscal hit. (Estimates of the legal cost of defending an RCI were in the $200,000 range in 2019.)

Whatever the outcome, taxpayers will be on the hook at a time when inflation is growing Hudson’s operating expenses while lowering Hudson’s welcome-tax windfall. This isn’t a good time to be incurring six-digit legal costs. Enviro activists scoff at fiscal arguments, but experience has shown that residents tend to vote down loan bylaws when they can’t see any personal benefit. 


Willowbrook has taken its current and former owners on a 12-year rollercoaster ride through four councils whose orientations ranged from strongly pro-development (Prévost), to divided (Elliott and Nicholls), to current mayor Chloe Hutchison’s election vow to slam the door on future development and cap Hudson’s population at the current level.

Opposition to development of the 17-hectare parcel began the day former owners George and Janet Ellerbeck applied for a rezoning permit in November 2006, mostly from neighbours who used Ellerbeck’s land for recreation. The property was zoned for 30,000-square-foot lots; the Ellerbecks wanted to raise the density once the sewer system had been extended to the east end. In return, they offered 60 acres of agriculturally zoned old-growth forest between the railway tracks and Harwood Blvd. — the largest single piece of Hudson land ever offered for conservation.

In July 2011, Hudson’s town planning advisory committee voted 5-3 to recommend approval of a zoning change that would clear the way for 33 single-family units on 10,000-square-foot lots. The project already had the blessing of the town environment committee, which included McGill University biology prof Martin Lechowicz. 

After inspecting the site, Lechowicz wrote: “a large part of the land slated for housing consists of tree plantations with low diversity and little value as wildlife habitat.” He welcomed the proposed expansion of the buffer zone on the north side of the floodplain, now incorporated in the project, calling it “an important greenspace for the development and for the town.”

A month later, the Ellerbecks sought permission for a revised project on 11.5 hectares. The proposal would see 37 single-family homes and 36-semi-detached units on lots ranging from 16,000 to 30,000 square feet, with an average size of 10,000 square feet.  Average density would be 16 units per hectare (the density of the current project was lowered to 12.5 units per hectare in 2017.) Both TPAC and the environment committee supported the request. 

In September 2012, the Ellerbecks withdrew their request for the zoning change after council backed a TPAC recommendation setting a maximum 12% floorspace footprint per lot. In between his rants aimed at certain TPAC members, Ellerbeck said he would wait for a regime change at town hall, but the real reason for his retreat may have been the realization that his project would be defeated in a referendum. (Revisions to the master plan in 2009 gave roughly 100 Como addresses the final word on the proposed rezoning.) Mayor Mike Elliott sided with TPAC, noting the proliferation of huge houses on tiny lots elsewhere in the Montreal Metropolitan Community. Those 60 acres of old-growth forest dropped off the table and have never returned.

Ellerbeck’s prayers for regime change were answered with the 2013 election of Ed Prévost. Under Prévost and director-general Jean-Pierre Roy, a council majority took advantage of changes to municipal competences to enact a series of concordance bylaws that would allow the rezoning of Ellerbeck’s property without the need to put it to the people. 

By bringing Hudson’s master plan into harmony with the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s master plan, the Prévost administration opened the door to multi-unit shoeboxes in the core as well as more units in the Sandy Beach and Willowbrook developments. These changes weren’t subject to approval by referendum; one of the last acts of the outgoing council was the adoption of a development agreement with Sandy Beach owner Nicanco permitting up to 256 doors. 

Ex-mayor Jamie Nicholls and council inherited Prévost’s concordance bylaws as well as department heads who persisted in pushing ahead with the late mayor’s orientations. It wasn’t until Roy’s resignation and a caucus revolt midway through the mandate that the previous council’s orientations were rejected — long after an RCI was legally supportable. After that, the mayor and the caucus majority voted to approve the Willowbrook subdivision with conditions recommended by TPAC.

This administration infers that voters handed them carte blanche to do what is required to save the environment. I see it differently. This mayor and council were elected by a quarter of Hudson’s eligible voters — hardly the strong plurality one would need to enact radical change. As we saw with the furore over the previous council’s efforts to enact a 30-metre wetland buffer, Hudsonites can get really angry, really fast when they have skin in the game and no say in what is being done to them.

Don’t think for a moment the Eco-Inquisition will stop with this. I predict that Bylaw 526, the bylaw setting ground rules for zoning and construction, will be next.  The mayor has never made a secret of her quest for tighter limits on building height, volume and architecture in the town core as well as strict enforcement of development on classified wetlands and forests of interest throughout the municipality. 

Perhaps it was inevitable the pendulum of public opinion would swing this way. In the 30 months Chloe and I shared on council, we agreed the existing urban planning framework served developers better than it did the town’s natural and architectural heritage. We also agreed on the need for change but we were worlds apart on how the town should get there. I’m sure she got fed up hearing me say it’s morally and ethically wrong to move the goalposts in the middle of the game. I know I got tired of being told I didn’t understand why routine decisions needed to turn into policy discussions. Chloe believes radical change requires radical measures. I believe change should be incremental, deliberate and based on informed analysis of the various options and outcomes.

April Save Sandy Beach rally: different projects, same organizers

I find myself wondering whether Willowbrook is being deliberately targeted to prove to this council’s voter base that they’re true-blue environmentalists and to send the message to property owners, developers (and potential residents) they’re not welcome — or irrelevant. I have documentation to support this concern, beginning with an August 2019 letter to the mayor and councillors from a group of rue Leger residents, demanding that the town change the zoning and density requirements for the project. 

“The Town has the power and jurisdiction, if it so desires, to change the zoning or set aside in a land reserve the wetlands and wooded areas of interest within the Willowbrook project so that it better reflects its surroundings,” read the letter. The author dismisses the threat of legal action, noting that Beaconsfield’s Angell Wood decision established that “the city has the power and jurisdiction  to change its bylaws at any time before a building permit has been given.”  

The letter concludes with a demand that building permits be refused until the developer agrees to a complete redesign, with changes to architecture, density, road and park layout and conservation areas.  

That was the start of the pressure campaign. A second letter to the mayor and councillors dated Jan. 8/21, contains a mise en demeure from lawyers for the group, by now formalized as Nature Hudson, “a not-for-profit corporation representing the interests of Hudson residents affected by the Willowbrook development project.”  

The cover email reads: “3.7 and 3.8 in the published agenda refer to modifications and approvals for Willowbrook. We respectfully demand these items be removed from the agenda for tonight’s meeting.” 

The mise-en-demeure contained a threat of legal action if council didn’t respond.

“Our Client hereby puts the Town on notice that any authorization or permit issued, and any agreement entered into by the Town in respect of the Project while the latter is in breach of the legal protections attaching to wetland Bi-11 (or on the basis of prior MELCC authorizations in relation thereto), should also be revoked immediately. This also requires that the Project be suspended pending a final determination on the relevant environmental concerns. 

“The City of Hudson is hereby on notice to take position (in writing) on the aforementioned measures by Tuesday, January 12, 2021, at 4:00 PM, failing which my Client will consider launching all judicial or administrative proceedings needed to protect the wetland and species at issue.”

Opponents of the project threatened council and an environment ministry engineer with legal action on the premise that a forest of interest (Bi-11) and a wetland of high ecological value (MH-12) were part of the same eco-corridor, when both were already under protection.

To reinforce their point, the email included a similar mise en demeure to Marc Leroux, the engineering head of the environment ministry’s regional municipal inspection team. It alleges “serious irregularities,” harsh words for any member of a professional order. “If they prove to be founded, these irregularities would appear to justify the revocation of the March 20/20 authorization.”

Irregularity #1 was the claim that Bi-11, a forest of interest characterized in the Teknika report, was in fact a forested wetland contiguous with MH-12, a bog of high ecological value. (The inference is that the ministry’s authorization failed to protect an eco-corridor)

Irregularity #2 was the possibility the area was home to brown bats, an endangered species. Interestingly for this account, the demand was based on an assessment by TerraHumana, the author of the flora and fauna study being cited by Save Sandy Beach and Nature Hudson in their campaign to halt Nicanco’s Sandy Beach development. None of the other studies — Eco2Urb, CIMA+, Enviro-Guide A.L., G.R.E.B.E. — confirmed the presence of the species.

Here again, the demand was to suspend the project’s authorization immediately pending revocation of the CA by Feb. 5/21 — and order the developer and the Town of Hudson to halt the project. 

Quebec’s Registre des entreprises listing for Nature Hudson identifies the president and treasurer as rue Leger residents, while the secretary is the same individual who filed the glassworks complaint with the provincial heritage ministry. The organization’s designated representative is a lawyer with the law firm Colby Monet and a director of the Legacy Fund for the Environment, the non-profit organization which contributed to the TerraHumana Solutions study of Sandy Beach. It appears to be a cozy conclave.

Taken together, these factors suggest the current Hudson council remains silent because it has nothing to say to the hapless buyers of those Willowbrook lots. If they were honest, they would tell those folks to ask for their money back and prepare residents for the first of many lawsuits.

Hudson’s new admin freezes development

Above, the colour-coded map generated by Eco2Urb in its January 2020 final report will form the basis for changes to Hudson’s master plan. Tier 1 core conservation zones, including Ottawa River and Viviry Creek floodplains, Alstonvale escarpment and wetlands at its base, the Nature Conservancy, Sandy Beach and Willowbrook are in pale yellow. Forest buffers are in pale green and blue. Montreal Metropolitan Community and Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC planning priorities are in mid-blue. The remaining dark blue sectors represent isolated woodlots not included in other categories.

Monday’s December council meeting concluded with the unanimous adoption of two resolutions that together will have a major impact on at least three major residential developments, including Sandy Beach, Willowbrook and an as-yet-unpublicized subdivision near the centre of town as well of scores of smaller holdings throughout the municipality.

Draft Bylaw 525.3 — subject to approval by referendum — proposes to amend Hudson’s master planning and land use bylaw by incorporating conservation data from three studies going back to 2008. The Teknika (2008) and CIMA+ (2017) reports together recommended that the town prioritize the protection of major wetlands and forests of interest, while Eco2Urb (2020) proposed a conservation plan based on a “connected, protected area network” of fields, forests and wetlands with the resiliancy to sustain extreme weather and emerging pests and diseases.

Council also adopted an interim control resolution (RCI) imposing a 90-day freeze on construction on, or subdivision of, any lot falling within wetlands or woodlots characterized in the Eco2Urb conservation plan. The freeze precludes the issuance of subdivision or construction permits for main buildings on all such lots as well as tree-cutting. The final determination of whether a lot is in or out will be left to third-party biologists and land surveyors.

Update: Monday’s freeze leaves at least eight of the 23 Phase 1 Willowbrook buyers with potentially worthless purchase agreements and no guarantee their deposits will be refunded. Although the town disagrees with the characterization, a number of potential homeowners contend the RCI is being applied retroactively to an unknown number of lots in Willowbrook’s first phase. They reject the town’s inference that they bear some responsibility (caveat emptor), noting that the environment ministry granted approval to a revised subdivision plan March 10/21, followed by council’s approval of the models and materials for 28 single family dwellings.

In her remarks to some two dozen residents attending the live meeting and to those participating via Zoom, mayor Chloe Hutchison said the RCI would buy the time required for the drafting and adoption of the changes to the master plan. She didn’t rule out extending the freeze if more time was needed. The RCI is needed because “the Town of Hudson wants to ensure the protection of these areas during the consultations and development of protection measures by adopting specific rules until the concordance bylaw’s adoption.”

The town’s authority to impose the freeze is derived from a bylaw adopted this past July at a special meeting of the Vaudreuil-Soulanges regional municipality (MRC). Bylaw 232 requires municipalities in the MRC to “identify, map and characterize wetlands, particularly those of 0.3 hectares and more, and adopt a wetland conservation plan under the Land Use Planning and Development Plan (SADR3 or simply schema). The latest version of the schema also requires that municipalities in the MRC “to integrate standards aiming to limit the felling of trees,” a change prompted by the previous council’s adoption of a comprehensive canopy-protection bylaw.

Asked how many properties will be affected by the freeze, Hutchison and Director-General Philip Toone were unable to provide numbers, although the mayor conceded it would be “hundreds.” A map at the back of the hall similar to the one above wasn’t large enough to allow individual landowners to identify their lot. Concerns were also raised about how residents would be able to learn whether their property was one of those affected, a situation similar to that which erupted in 2019 over a draft proposal to impose a 30-metre buffer around all designated wetlands in town.

Eventually, Hutchison and Toone agreed that a flier should be sent to all residents, informing them of an upcoming 15-day written-consultation period in lieu of a public consultation.

Despite the lack of specifics, draft bylaw 525 hints at the extent of the freeze. “According to [Eco2Urb’s estimates] concerning the natural areas most susceptible to be developed, approximately 27% (199 hectares) of the town’s woodlands are prone to being developed (…) These areas are mainly located next to the town’s urban core and include western Como sectors as well as those along Gary Cirko Trail, the Viviry River, Sandy Beach, Pointe Parsons and Bellevue Street.”

Superimposing the Teknika and CIMA+ studies on the Eco2Urb template, anyone familiar with Hudson’s topography can figure out what sectors will be impacted. Begin with the Ottawa River shoreline, including several proposed developments below the escarpment that runs between Como and Choisy. The escarpment itself runs a long yellow line the length of the town. Sandy Beach, Parsons Point, the Nature Conservancy and the Viviry Valley Conservation Area are obvious candidates for conservation. In Como, the green-zoned holdings of a dozen large landowners will be off-limits to development. Bellevue, and the wetlands that lie to the west, will be frozen.

The mayor also confirmed to Charleswood resident Louise Craig that characterizations of individual properties would result in permanent constraints on development.

Reaction to the freeze and bylaw reset was mixed. Realtor and Alstonvale resident Youri Rodrigue questioned the need to freeze development at a time when the town was benefitting from the latest real-estate boom and wondered whether it was a pretext to put the brakes on new construction.

Hutchison insisted the freeze was temporary and limited to certain sectors, based on the intention to adopt a conservation plan first voiced in 2007. “It’s time for us to take a hard look [at incorporating conservation measures in Hudson’s master plan.] As for the timing of the freeze, “…there’s less impact this time of year.”

Others voiced displeasure that council wasn’t going far enough. Pyke Court resident Adrian Burke, part of the Nature Hudson pressure group, urged council to take stronger measures to shut down the Sandy Beach project, based on a $10,000 endangered-species characterization study by TerraHumana Solutions. “Enough of these old, tired arguments of fearmongering,” Burke thundered. (I’ll blog separately on the contents of the Humana study.) Cam Gentile, whose holdings include recently subdivided lots along Alstonvale Road, urged council to stop fooling around with legalities and find the money to buy Sandy Beach from Nicanco. Main resident June Penney urged the town to “put out a questionnaire to find out what citizens want, not what the mayor wants.”

“Council has a responsibility of fiscal prudence,” the mayor replied.

At one point in the long evening, the mayor said the town was talking with Vaudreuil-Dorion about the intent to convert the exo rail line between the two municipalities into a recreational corridor. Although the link wasn’t made, Eco2Urb noted in its 2020 report that the grasslands and vegetation along the disused right of way have evolved into exactly the type of linear wildlife corridor proposed in Bylaw 525.3. If mayor Hutchison was aware of the connection, she didn’t let on.

Parting thoughts

Next Friday, my four years as councillor for Heights East come to an end with the swearing in of a new council. It’s been a wild and crazy ride, what with floods, COVID, internal bickering and a legacy of open files from the previous council. More than once I thought about resigning. I kept going because I knew the effect it would have on my colleagues and my constituents. I honestly believe this council has left Hudson a better town — administratively — than we inherited. Now I can get back to enjoying the Hudson I gave up four years ago, the place where we can all say bonjour hi without calculation or malice.  

Throughout these past four years, my spouse, partner, campaign manager and accomplice Louise Craig has been my rock and my sounding board. What they say is true — when we elect someone, we elect their family and friends as well. It’s doubly true at the municipal level. I’ll be reminding myself of that the next time I’m about to dump on an elected official or town staffer. Be tough but civil. What goes around, comes around.

October 2017: four years feel like a lifetime ago

In the 60 or so years I’ve been following municipal elections in Hudson — before and after the 1969 merger of the three villages from which it was created — I’ve come to the conclusion that Hudson voters like to see themselves as socially progressive — until they get the bill. 

The harsh reality is that Hudson has no industrial base to help shoulder the tax load and no land on which to locate an industrial park. Commercial properties account for less than 2% of Hudson’s total worth, yet already shoulder a disproportionate share of water and sewer bylaw costs. So Hudson’s roughly 2,400 residential property owners are on the hook for almost all of what it costs to run and maintain the town.  

When it comes time to pay for basic services — drinking water, public security, snowclearing, garbage removal and infrastructure (roads, ditches, sidewalks, streetlights) — Hudson residents want value for money. They have good things to say about the town’s new snowclearing contractor. They appreciate the end to watering bans. They agree on the need to control access to our public facilities. They understand the day is coming when garbage removal will be charged by frequency, weight and volume. They have indicated their support for extending the sewer system and municipalizing the maintenance and verification of septic tanks. They like seeing roads paved, ditches flowing, streetlights working — and those double sidewalks downtown.

The arguments start when it comes time to decide what’s essential, what would be nice to have and what would be disastrous. 

I’ll begin with the folly of a development freeze. Some of those seeking office maintain that growth isn’t worth the social costs incurred by taxpayers. These raise-the-drawbridge advocates insist that Hudson would be better off socially and financially if it froze development entirely or limited it to a minimum of new doors per year. 

My response: growth is critical to Hudson’s social and economic health. That said, I do have a caveat, which I’ll get to.

Truth is, Hudson is not being swamped by new arrivals. The number of households in Hudson increased by 375 between 1991 and 2016 (federal census stats). Over that period, Hudson averaged 15 new doors a year, or 7% growth over 25 years — hardly the population explosion the moat-diggers claim. 

While population data from the 2021 census won’t be released until next February, permits for new residential construction issued since the last census show an uptick reflective of the Canada-wide housing bubble. Between 2016 and 2021, Hudson added 94 single-family dwellings, four semi-detached units, 16 townhouses, one two-family unit, two multifamily dwellings and two commercial-residential buildings. Total: 119 permits representing 181 individual units, averaging 2.5 residents per unit — fewer than 500 additional residents. That’s 24 new doors a year with a collective taxable worth of more than $76 million, most of it infill development on serviced lots in the urban core. At the 2020-21 residential tax rate of 71.84¢ per $100, that represents additional annual tax revenues in excess of $550,000 on a total budget of $13.7M. 

It’s hard to argue that tax-generating low-cost development is harmful when we consider the economic challenges ahead. Start with the 2022-2024 valuation roll, the big number used to calculate property taxes as well as downloaded costs such as policing, public transit and a bevy of levies from the Montreal Metropolitan Community, and Vaudreuil-Soulanges regional municipality. The formulas used to calculate what each municipality pays — and is refunded — are partly based on its richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, an assessment of the collective value of all public and private real estate in every Quebec municipality, based on recent real estate transactions. 

Hudson’s 2019-2021 roll placed its collective value at $1.245 billion. Of that total, $1.169 billion was taxable (religious, institutional and some public entities are not taxed, depending on whether they can convince a provincial tax-status tribunal they should be exempt). Three years later, a red-hot housing market has raised Hudson’s collective worth — and the average property evaluation — by some 30%, to $1.579 billion, of which $1.494 billion is taxable. 

You read that right — the total worth of Hudson’s real estate has increased by $410 million in three years.

This doesn’t mean taxes must increase by an average 30%. The next council can maintain average tax and tariff hikes within Quebec’s 5% rate of inflation by lowering tax rates. What it does mean is that assessments for SQ policing, public transit and services provided by two levels of regional government will be higher in 2022. Some of that is hangover from the COVID pandemic but most is due to inflation, beginning with a $200k jump in debt servicing costs. With inflation baked into every contract, collective agreement and overhead expense, over 80% of Hudson’s 2022 budget will have been spent before it’s adopted sometime in January. Download and overhead increases are are out of council’s reach, so discretionary spending cuts become the only option open.

Long-term debt is another of those bogeyman issues used to frighten voters. It used to be a concern; by 2008-09, Hudson’s long-term debt had ballooned to over $35 million, the result of poorly planned capital expenditure and lax oversight (municipalities shouldn’t float loan bylaws to buy anything amortized over less than five years).The next two administrations reduced it by roughly $10 million, but at the cost of unsustainable tax increases and deferred infrastructure maintenance. Our administration slashed operating costs (by contracting potable water and wastewater treatment operations, IT, public security and bylaw enforcement), then as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Those savings allowed the town to embark on the first major infrastructure renewal program since the water and sewer works of 2007-2008. This included a new well, critical wastewater treatment plant upgrades, major drainage and storm sewer repairs and the resurfacing of 14 kilometres of Hudson’s 76 km of roads, including Bellevue and Main Road between Côte St. Charles and Beach.

Our council recognized that debt reduction would need to take a step back ($24.6M in 2019; $27M in 2020 and 2021) in order to reverse Hudson’s spiralling infrastructure deficit. The incoming council will vote on a 2022 budget which proposes to resume annual debt retirement ($24.9M in 2022; $23.1 in 2023; $19M in 2024). We approved this course of action with the understanding that the cost of repairing and upgrading Hudson’s infrastructure should be borne by both this and future generations of taxpayers. The intensity and duration of the inflationary cycle should be a factor in determining the rate of debt retirement, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of neglecting infrastructure investment. We saw how well that worked.

Residents should know the long-term debt ratio is a regulatory yardstick, not a measure of how well or badly a municipality is managing its finances. Quebec is far more concerned about how close a town is to its borrowing capacity, which is why it’s preferable to use Hudson’s line of credit for near-term expenses and the PTI to plan for capital spending. The world, Hudson included, has enjoyed dirt-cheap money for a decade but that may be over. Memo to incoming council: whittle down that electoral wish list. 

Returning to the list of essentials and nice-to-haves, is more greenspace essential? Hudson has 22 parks and greenspaces totalling 90 hectares. The outgoing council set out to double that by extending the public trail network by way of servitudes on private lands zoned green or agricultural. Over half of Hudson’s total area (1,099 out of 2,162 hectares) is zoned agricultural, and according the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s master plan, will remain so until at least 2031. Yes to acquiring greenspace — if we can do it without borrowing or spending down accumulated surplus to satisfy a particularly noisy special interest group. 

While we’re discussing land acquisition, shouldn’t protecting Hudson’s drinking water source be a priority? We’ve seen what happens in neighbouring towns where potable water conservation has become an annual ordeal of watering bans and dying lawns and gardens. I’ll expand on the need to protect the Upper Viviry watershed in the days to come, but our own struggle to find sufficient water should serve as a reminder that we can’t take it for granted. COVID put our water-meter pilot project on hold, but Quebec will persist in demanding us to lower our collective consumption by a third. A resounding YES to this essential!

Is affordable housing essential? As matters stand, the only affordable housing in Hudson is the 90-unit Manoir Cavagnal. Around the time the next council completes its term, the Manoir’s mortgage will have been paid off and its holders, the Lakeshore Legion Housing Association, looking to divest. Legally, they could flip it to a developer, who could renovate, add dedicated parking and raise the rents. Shouldn’t we be planning for that eventuality? Absolutely.

Is senior housing essential? Hudson residents average 47.7 years of age, the oldest municipal population in the MRC. Hudson’s seniors (I’m among them) hope to remain in our homes until right-sized, right-priced housing alternatives present themselves. In 2007, our elders were promised a continuing-care seniors campus in R-55, a 14-acre parcel of land bounded by Cote, Oakland, Ridge and Charleswood. The project fell through and with it, the dream of many to be able to remain in their community when they can no longer remain in their home. 

R-55 is in the process of being reborn as the demand for that acreage approaches the owner’s asking price, but it will take compromise and original thinking to make it so. Get it done.

Still unclear is the status of Villa Wyman, an assisted-care facility between the former Wyman United and Stevenson Court at the foot of Upper Maple. It was seen by the previous administration as the destination for residents who lose their autonomy but want to remain among friends and their support group. Is it still viable? It will fall to the next council to decide whether and how it can be moved forward — because it should be considered essential.

Returning to development, Willowbrook, Como Gardens and yes, Pine Beach are seen by many older residents as alternatives to leaving town when the time comes to downsize. Like it or hate it, most of the Hudson Glass condos, the vilified project next to Legg’s, are sold. Those 37 rental units on Lower Maple are occupied as soon as they’re built. Clients for these and other projects are not people looking for a fight over saving greenspace and halting development. They want a place to live in Hudson. If the incoming council wastes time and money setting out to kill Pine Beach, Willowbrook’s next phases and several other multi-unit projects either in the pipeline or on the drawing board, who are they hurting? 

Pincourt’s Pointe-a-Renard HLM: which affordable-housing model should Hudson follow?

Young families, for one. Without affordable family housing, Hudson risks losing its volunteer firefighters, its caregivers, its maintenance contractors, its service industry workers and all those who are essential to our local businesses. What should comprise affordable family housing in Hudson? A monolith looming over the former snow dump, like the massive structure in Pincourt’s Pointe-a-Renard? Cookie-cutter units like those in the developments at the southern end of Ste. Angèlique in St. Lazare? Or a uniquely Hudsonian mix of townhouses, cottages and multi-unit buildings in a treed, landscaped setting?

There’s another risk to limiting growth. If Hudson and its neighbours price or regulate themselves out of reach of young families, our local English schools will be the next domino to fall. Enrolment in the off-island English school system crested a decade ago and continues to drop. Westwood Senior, with a capacity of 1,020 Secondary 3-5 students, enrolled just 625 students in 2019-20. This won’t reverse itself without a radical shift; based on current enrolment at Westwood Jr. and the LBPSB’s nine elementary schools, the projections for Westwood Sr. are for 637 this year and 689 in 2022-23. 

A somewhat healthier picture emerges from enrolment in our K-2 and K-6 schools (Birchwood, Evergreen, Forest Hill Jr and Sr, Mount Pleasant, Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau) but it’s likely that kids now attending Pincourt’s K-6 elementaries Edgewater and St. Patrick will be bused to half-empty facilities on the West Island as the LBPSB struggles to maintain minimum enrolments. We have seen the alternative to keeping our English schools viable — the education ministry revoking the permits of those failing English schools and transferring their facilities to the overcrowded French sector. Affordable family housing is the only sustainable remedy. Limiting population growth isn’t.

A competent, productive, dedicated municipal staff is an essential. The days when the same person could serve as Hudson’s town manager, clerk and treasurer ended with Louise Villandre. Public works has come a long way from the time when Côte St. Charles wasn’t paved, Cameron was a logging track and Main Road linked summer cottages and farms in Hudson Heights and Como with Hudson’s bustling downtown. Now they’re overseeing infrastructure contracts and projects, tracking federal and provincial grant and subsidy applications and reprofiling Hudson’s drainage system by satellite. The town clerk’s office now includes an archivist required by law to oversee the documentation Quebec requires us to maintain and a part-timer who handles access-to-information requests. The treasury has made the budgeting process routine instead of an annual dogfight. 

From my perspective, Hudson’s taxpayers are well served by their public servants, with one glaring fault — communications. It was bad under Elliott, worse under Prevost and no better under our outgoing mayor. I’ve spent four years wondering how best to fix what is clearly broken. Our director-general has begun the process by initiating a trackable, interactive complaint reporting system. I’d say we’re halfway there, with a major website overhaul and a comprehensive communications policy still required. This is an essential for the next council.

Urban planning is another essential component of municipal government. That said, there are two ways of looking at an urban planning department. One is positive — an urban planning department is the only branch of municipal government with the power to generate income. Or the flip: urban planning is the portal through which developers and property owners access the approval process, thus transforming development from a series of political decisions to a bylaw-based administrative process. 

I get the impression that some candidates in this election would like to shut down urban planning, lay everyone off and post a giant NO! on the door at 64 Cedar. It has been my experience that most of those running for office have little or no working knowledge of Hudson’s master zoning bylaws 525 and 526, yet pander to their base by claiming they’ll stop this or that development. Stopping development boils down to a simple choice: either allow development according to Hudson’s existing zoning bylaws or buy out the owner. A council can impose a temporary freeze on all or certain types of development, but only if the process of redrafting those master zoning bylaws is underway.

Form-based code presentation: a template for the preservation of the look and feel of the downtown core should be completed

A priority of this council I hope to see completed was to oversee development of a process that would set design parameters for architects and developers. The core concept: preserve the look and feel of Hudson in renovations and new construction. The project began with an inventory of Hudson’s heritage buildings with a brief history of each. 

As I noted above, I favour development — but with a caveat. The previous council saddled us with concordance bylaws clearing their way for multi-residential and integrated projects as well as an agreement sticking taxpayers with the cost of connecting the Pine Beach development to town water and town sewers. It makes no sense to stick taxpayers with connection costs. Throughout North America, developers expect to pay to connect and in many jurisdictions, pay to replace the reduced capacity of the drinking water water and wastewater treatment systems they’re connecting to. Some municipalities charge developers by the day for the inconveniences their projects cause. Only in Quebec are developers still treated as if they’re doing taxpayers a favour. Impact and connection fees should be an essential component of every project. 

Hudson’s voters historically tend to elect councils who stick to the cost-cutting mantra. In the seventies, Taylor Bradbury’s council decreed big lots, and no-frills budgets. (Bradbury’s administration had the support of the populace when it turned down the opportunity to buy the 10-hectare Sandy Beach property for under $300,000.) 

With the emergence of the environmental movement following Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Hudson’s voters began hearing from candidates about the need to control development and protect the environment. In the early eighties, warring residents nearly came to blows over the rezoning of what are now Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale. In 1991, Mike Elliott’s administration famously pushed through a pioneering bylaw to halt the growing use of pesticides. But then as now, the hidden hand of Hudson special-interest groups exercised their clout and the Elliott council was voted out by a business-oriented slate headed by Steve Shaar. 

What I find interesting is that so few of Hudson’s major political shifts have resulted in regulatory changes. Bradbury’s big-lots mentality still controls density — and real estate prices — in much of town. The $50 million infrastructure deficit highlighted in the 2018 Maxxum intervention plan is the end result of Bradbury’s obsession with tight budgets, carried forward through successive administrations. Shaar’s team didn’t repeal Elliott’s pesticide bylaw. (This council overhauled it to give it the regulatory teeth it lacked.) Mayor Elizabeth Corker and council responded to Shaar’s 2001 Sandy Beach rezoning referendum by commissioning the 2008 Teknika wetland/woodland audit, taking over what is now Jack Layton Park and overseeing construction of the Sandy Beach Nature Trail (with funding from developer Hans Muhlegg.) In their second term,  Corker’s successor Mike Elliott and council worked to advance Muhlegg’s development as well as those of John Norris (Mount Victoria, Lower Alstonvale), George Ellerbeck (Willowbrook) and Sebastien Wiener’s UK1.

Whatever they promised voters, Hudson’s last three councils have failed to advance the control and shaping of development. Corker’s team replaced a catchall architectural control bylaw with architectural control zones in the French Quarter and along Main Road where the town planning advisory committee has input and council decides whether a particular project harmonizes with its neighbourhood. In most Hudson neighbourhoods, however, issuance of building and renovation permits is a purely administrative function, in which checklists set out maximum dimensions, setbacks and constraints on development such as floodplains, wetlands and landslide zones. Architecture is a by-product of the checklist approval process; neighbours do not learn of a project before it is approved by council. Even then, provincial privacy laws don’t allow a municipality to make plans public.

How will some members of the incoming council reconcile their roses-and-unicorns election promises with the realities of having to make informed, fact-based decisions? I don’t know.   Quebec requires that all newly elected municipal officers attend compulsory training in governance, ethics and the legal framework for what they can and can’t do, but there is no requirement for a mayor and councillors to familiarize themselves with the bylaws of their municipality. As a consequence, we had councillors voting on the basis of lobbying by special-interest groups or what was posted on social media. 

A council’s duties boil down to this: 

  • act as stewards of the public purse; 
  • act in the interests of all taxpayers, not just those in your district;
  • work with your staff, not against them;
  • be prepared to justify your vote;
  • don’t expect Quebec to enforce municipal governance and environmental protection laws. It doesn’t. It falls to municipal councils to enforce them.   

Meanwhile, the list of nice to haves seems to grow every year. I sense that most residents would see council continuing to support Hudson’s calendar of town events, from St. Patrick’s to Santa’s Breakfast, but where’s the cutoff point? 

For those who believe in arts and culture, access to public performing and plastic arts facilities as well as continued — and preferably increased — support for non-profits like Hudson Village Theatre, Greenwood Centre and for events such as the Hudson Music Festival, StoryFest, Hudson Film Festival, etc. 

For recreation consumers, safer bike and pedestrian zones on major arteries, conversion of the rail line between Vaudreuil-Dorion and downtown Hudson into a multi-use aerobic corridor, a bigger pool, tennis/pickleball courts, waterpark, skateboard/scooter park, non-motorized watercraft access, more dog runs, more groomed winter trails and heated public toilets. 

For nature lovers, funding for more and better maintained trails, greenspace acquisition. For animal lovers, money for Le Nichoir, A Horse Tail, dog runs and poop bags, feral cat spay/neuter programs. 

Special-interest pleas and threats to go public pose an existential challenge any council. Hudson’s Legion Branch 115 is asking for a six-figure lump-sum payment, free parking and other considerations from the town to compensate for their failure to earn tax-exempt status. The Manoir wants free public parking and tax relief for its residents. Both indicate they are prepared to use the media and public pressure to force council’s hand. It’s a slippery slope with no soft landing.

There’s a limit to the benevolence of Hudson’s taxpayers. My advice to my erstwhile colleagues: don’t be too quick to test it. You will find it soon enough. 

Pine Lake, April 6/21

Pine Lake made one of its cameo appearances last month. The proposed loan bylaw would replace the existing structure with a sixty-foot concrete weir that would raise the water level in Pine Lake by about a foot and reinforce and waterproof the earth dike along Cameron.

On the agenda for Tuesday’s April council meeting is the notice of motion for a $1.05 million loan bylaw for the demolition and replacement of the Pine Lake dam and related work. 

Residents are justified in asking why this proposal is 25% higher than its 2014 predecessor, withdrawn by the previous council after a significant number of residents signed a register demanding it be put to a referendum. I’ll do my best to explain it as I understand it.

There also appears to be widespread misunderstanding of loan bylaws and the municipal financing process. I’ll try to cast some light on this in the context of District 2 councillor Austin Rikley-Krindle’s notice of motion ‘to finance the rehabilitation of the Pike Lake dam and spillway and the environmental development of wetlands.’

August 7/06: Runoff from torrential rains caused the Viviry to overflow its banks and raised the lake water level to a record level. Note the stream cutting through the earth dike to the left of the dam. Quick work by Hudson’s Public Works sandbagged the breach before it could cut its way through the bank.


Despite repeated flood threats to the dam, dike and adjacent Cameron over the years, nothing was done to reinforce the system before April 2014, when rising water levels and ice pressure unseated the 62-year-old dam. Before the administration could agree on the best course of action, the dam slumped into the sinkhole created by the escaping water and broke away from the curtain walls directing the flow into the Cameron culvert. What’s left provides minimal floodwater retention but our consulting engineers warn that a major torrent (like those of 2006 and 2009) could displace the entire structure, possibly blocking the Cameron culvert and washing away a section of Cameron.

July 11/09: The closest Hudson came to losing Cameron. Torrential rains and runoff from upstream development raised the lake level over the dike. Again, quick thinking by Public Works and first responders saved the day.
July 11/09: This is the scenario Stantec warned could lead to the loss of Cameron.

Expert advice:

The saga is well summarized in the September 2019 Stantec report. Stantec collated the data from three previous technical studies — EXP (May 2014), Amec (August 2014) and GHD (September 2015) and a variety of options proposed in the February 2016 report by the Pine Lake Working Group of citizens. At council’s request, Stantec also looked at an alternative proposed by hydraulic engineer Miroslav Chum. Stantec then measured all options against the conditions laid down in an August 2017 environment ministry (MELCC) memorandum highlighting its concerns.  

Stantec tells us this: the volume and velocity of runoff entering Pine Lake has increased 20% as the result of climate change. The 100-year maximum flow — the volume and velocity of runoff from a catastrophic downpour — originally was estimated at 15 cubic metres per second. Based on year-over-year estimates and high-water spikes, Stantec now sets the 100-year maximum at 18 cubic metres per second. 

The studies agreed the maximum capacity of the Viviry Creek culvert under Cameron is 10.8 cubic metres per second. Council was told the only solution would be to double the capacity of the culvert at an estimated cost of between $400,000 and $500,000. 

Spring, 2014: Early risers reported the apparent failure of the Pine Lake dam after water found a path underneath. While the administration debated what to do, the dam slumped into the hole, making a quick-and-dirty repair impossible.

The other factor in Stantec’s cost-benefit equation is lake volume. The original dam was designed to maintain the lake level at 34.2 metres above sea level. Since then, the lake has silted up, significantly reducing its volume (and its ability to retain stormwater). Stantec estimates the 100-year lake level should be raised to 34.98 metres, requiring that a replacement structure be raised to 35.12 metres. To accomplish this, a replacement structure would need to be 20 metres long and the existing dike along Cameron reinforced with steel pile walls or similar and waterproofed with a high-density plastic membrane. The existing concrete spillway and curtain walls between the dam and the culvert also need to be replaced. Estimated cost: $1,050,000  — $656,700 including taxes, plus a 25% contingency buffer. 

Quebec’s municipal affairs ministry (MAMH) requires that municipalities adopt loan bylaws prior to going to tender on SEAO, the government bid tendering website. Think of SEAO as a brokerage where municipalities must post any contract over $101,000 and where contractors must obtain tender documents, usually in exchange for a deposit. These documents are based on the reports from third-party consultants, such as the engineering firms hired to find a solution to the Pine Lake stalemate. 

SEAO was created in response to the collusion scandals which led to Superior Court judge France Charbonneau’s probe, but many believe it has led to an increase in the average cost of municipal contracts. Like it or not, SEAO is the only game in town if we want to get our roads paved and our infrastructure upgraded.What will it look like?

What will it look like?

People ask me what the new structure look like. Instead of the dam, we will be seeing the Viviry flowing over a 60-foot-long concrete lip, called a weir. There will be no floodgates because the weir is designed to maintain a fixed water level in the lake and constant flow its full length. The Viviry runs all year, so there will always be water flowing over the lip. (If you want to see a weir in action, head down to the Sandy Beach footbridge and see how the beavers maintain a constant water level in their ponds with their weirs.) 

Why restore the lake?

There’s money for a lake. A couple of months before Stantec presented its report to the town, St. Lazare came to council with a proposition. Their remediation project for a landslide zone along the Quinchien River would wipe out fish habitat; Quebec’s environment ministry (MELCC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada would permit it so long as they could find somewhere similar nearby to create a similar habitat. Would Hudson be interested in restoring Pine Lake so that it would qualify? Their council approved an amount of up to $400,000. Stantec’s report was modified to include the full-restoration option. 


Council must decide at the April 6 council meeting whether to proceed with a loan bylaw for the entire amount, minus whatever we finance with the town’s accumulated surplus and St. Lazare’s fish-habitat contribution. We still don’t know how much we will receive from St. Lazare even though their council adopted a resolution providing up to $400,000 for restoration of fish habitat. Given that uncertainty, council agreed to make the loan bylaw independent of whatever we receive from St. Lazare. Whatever we receive from them will go to reduce the total amount of the loan bylaw.  

Late last month, we were told that MELCC informed the town there would be no funding for sediment control because we were receiving monies from St. Lazare. Other sources of funding are being actively explored, but MAMH still requires a loan bylaw for the full cost even if we don’t spend it. 

Another aside on municipal financing: because a loan bylaw doesn’t reflect the actual cost of a project, it isn’t added to the town’s long-term debt until it is completed. At that point, invoices are paid out of the town’s line of credit. Then, and only then, is the actual cost rolled into the town’s long-term debt and reflected in our tax bills. Estimated cost per taxpayer per year is in the $5-$6 range.

One thing has been made clear to us in the Stantec report— doing nothing isn’t an option. MELCC has ordered us to remove the original dam. The ministry has also ruled out non-conforming options, such as Miroslav Chum’s boulder spillway. If we opt to remove the dam and do nothing else, we don’t get St. Lazare’s money, but we’ll end up having to spend that much or more to double the volume of the Cameron culvert, reinforce and waterproof the dike and replace the curtain walls. And no lake.

I’ve been writing about this mess since 2014. I’ve read and re-read every one of the reports and proposals.  Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see a cheaper, faster path forward. 

Hudson’s SQ refunds? Not so fast

A month ago, Feb. 5/21, I posted the following:

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.]

Our pandemic projects

Below, Louise’s 8 x 10-foot squirrelproof veggie bunker under construction. Above, my Colin Angus Expedition rowboat.

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.

The vege-bunker in operation. The silver-coloured sheet of corrugated steel barn siding slides into the open doorway to that bees and parasitic wasps can pollenate the flowering plants. So far, the bunker has proved itself impregnable to squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs and other rodents. We still need to treat for white fly, slugs and Japanese beetles and other potential pests, but the proof of concept has been a success.

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

July 2/20: UPS delivers the rowboat kit.
Short lengths of copper wire pull the bilge strakes and floor together.
Laminating the sheer strakes to the top hull panels.
Installing the three bulkheads.
Epoxying and reinforcing the joints from inside and outside
Prep sanding prior to applying fibreglass cloth layer to hull
Ready for glassing
Verifying symmetry and fairness.
Hull glassed and epoxied
Decks glassed and epoxied.
Hatches cut and lips added.
Hatch supports provide final contours
Hatches in place, our outrigger takes shape
Final hand sanding and five coats of UV-blocker polyurethane applied.
Varnishing the decks
Prepping the hull for timting stain once we decided against painting.
Designing the sliding seat system
Three-kilo sliding seat comes together with the help of master craftsman Jamie Sage and carbon-fibre tube sections from Nancy’s Curling Masters championship broom handle. (Thanks ever, Nancy!)
Finished cockpit, with unidirectional carbon-fibre roving floor and coaming reinforcement.
Ready to launch. Like so many other recreational products, used boat trailers were suddenly in short supply last summer. We found this well-maintained 40-year-old trailer cheap north of Brockville and added new bunks and LED lights. Tows beautifully.
Maiden voyage, Hudson’s Jack Layton Park, August 28/20.

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.

SQ rebates: $600k windfall for Hudson

Sûrèté du Québec officers and agents hosting a Volunteer’s Night supper at Hudson’s Community Centre: the 20-year experiment that would see the SQ provide community policing to replace our municipal police forces has not held up with time. It has proven to be a distant, mostly absent drag on municipal budgets. Whose fault is it? (Hudson Gazette photo)

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.]

SQ Sgt. Det. Daniel Thibaudeau and Citizens Action Committee moderator Gilles Boudreau planning a Slow Down for Patricia traffic awareness campaign in St. Lazare. Thibaudeau transferred to Parthenais headquarters and Boudreau is retired and living in New Brunswick. Their dream was to see CACSP chapters throughout Quebec; if one still exists, none live in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Ask MRC mayors why that is. (Hudson Gazette photo)

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.

Until this technology lost in court, SQ patrollers didn’t have to leave their cruisers to issue a violation for an expired registration. (Hudson Gazette photo)

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. 

Holding cell at the eastern sector SQ detachment. The MRC is divided into two patrol areas covered by detachments in Vaudreuil-Dorion and St. Clêt. At any given moment on a quiet weekday night, there might be two patrol cars, each at the far end of their respective detachments. Legally, this satisfies the SQ mandate. Is it enough in practice?

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.

SQ St. Clêt detachment holds Open House for residents. Try as the SQ did to replace our municipal police forces, there was never the buy-in from our municipalities. Again, whose fault is that? (Hudson Gazette photo)

Bylaw 735: fixing the fix

Note: This post has been updated after it was first published Monday, Nov. 3/20

Hudson, St. Patrick’s Day 2014: the challenge before us is maintaining the look and feel while fixing what needs fixing, starting with sidewalks and the road itself.

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.

Above, Stantec’s vision of the downtown core as presented by Hudson mayor Jamie Nicholls Oct. 27 — 1,550 metres of linear plantings on both sides of Main Road. Below, the concept elevation, minus space for garbage bins, crosswalk or loading/unloading zones.

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.

Water leak on Main at Lower Maple: this project will include replacement of corroded connections to the water system we’ve known about for decades.

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.

Oct. 5 1970

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