citizens clean up post-flood debris

Montreal spring floods – a map of places needing volunteers

Water is rising around Montreal. With many homes in areas bordered by Lake of Two Mountains (Lac des Deux-Montagnes) and the Ottawa River at risk of flooding, as residents run pumps and generators to keep water out of their basements, citizens are working hard filling sandbags, transporting them to homes and building sandbag “walls” around homes to stave off flooding.

I live in Vaudreuil-Dorion and I remember how much people suffered during the 2017 spring floods. While my home was not affected, people living down the street and around the corner from us were. This weekend the worry is that today’s warm weather will mean melted snow will add to already high water levels. The situation may become even worse than what people saw in 2017, when many lost their homes.

I used Google’s My Maps to make it easier for volunteers to see where help is needed in the West Island and off island, in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region. I’ve given administrators of the West Island Flood Volunteers Facebook groupaccess to this map so that they may update it with new postings and remove outdated ones.


My Irish season includes Ciné Gael

I just scrapped a blog post, a boring rant about having had my fill of St. Patrick’s Day activities a few weeks ago (nothing to do with drinking, just attending several events in a row). Instead, here’s a quick post about one of my favourite events of the year, Ciné Gael Montréal’s screening of Irish short films, happening tonight (April 5).

Ciné Gael Montréal is probably one of the most confusing and enjoyable film festivals around Montreal. It starts in January and screens Irish films a few times a month until the big closing film in May. Because I don’t buy a pass, I’m not usually aware of all the screenings and I keep having to check their website to see when a film is showing. For the past few years instead of attending all the films we make a point of catching the evening of short films. It’s easy to keep track of that one date.

Ireland and Northern Ireland may not be big places, but wow, they are rich in talent. Irish films are eclectic, covering any subject you can imagine. In the past, many of the short films screened have often been very short, eight minutes or less. But some are 30 minutes long. The folks responsible for choosing them, Heather Mcdougall and Kester Dyer, pick films that are often hilarious. For instance, Shimmy Marcus’s Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion, shown at Ciné Gael in 2014, is about a little Jewish girl who wants to join other girls in having a Catholic First Communion.

One of my favourite Irish short films

They’ve chosen both funny animated films and serious documentaries.
Some films are in the Irish language and have English subtitles. Nearly all the films, animated or not, have surprising endings or showcase storytelling or reflect aspects of Irish society you don’t expect to see. I remember one film last year was a little girl who tries to save “Santa” (really a homeless man who looks like Santa). Another film was about women who lost their breasts to breast cancer reclaiming their beauty through the artistry of tattoos. Another was about a man with Aspergers who is rejected by women but his brother tries to help him by taking him to Amsterdam to see an escort.

According to the schedule, tonight’s films will be longer than some we’ve seen in the past at Ciné Gael. They’re all 10 minutes or longer and definitely a quirky mix. I won’t list them all but to give you an idea, there’s a film about a child building a Back to the Futuresque DeLorean replica before his family gets evicted, a story about a last disco(?), a film about the cruel treatment the children of unwed girls and women experienced at one of Ireland’s “mother and baby homes,” an animated film about an elderly woman drifting through her memories.

If you check them out, be sure to bring a pen along so you can mark your ballot and vote for your favourite films. The filmmakers of the winning film, the film receiving the most votes as the audience favourite, get €100 (one hundred Euros).

Note: I’m back home and have corrected a few minor errors in my original post. Tonight the organizers pointed out that some filmmakers tweeted their excitement about having their Canadian premieres at Ciné Gael. The festival is in its 27th year and the organizers admitted they weren’t too familiar with Twitter. Anyway…

R.I.P. Lucia Kowaluk

I learned this morning that Montreal activist Lucia Kowaluk passed away on Friday. She was 84.

I first crossed paths with Lucia when I wrote for Montreal’s Hour Magazine, a weekly alternative newspaper. I wrote a lot about housing and homelessness and I remember her writing at least one congratulatory letter about something I’d reported on.

In 2008 we met in real life when she hired me as a part-time community development worker, organizing social events for a social housing project in NDG. She was on the board of that organization and was the main spokesperson for the hiring committee.

I learned later that she took pity on me and hired me because she felt I needed a job, not necessarily for my abilities. I’m proud and stubborn and felt pretty insulted when she told me that. An American by birth, she was always a straight talker.

We didn’t always get along. She couldn’t understand why I felt it was important to seek tenant permission before publicly posting photos from a tenant Christmas party. She didn’t like it when I failed to fill out paperwork detailing each and every encounter I had with tenants.

I only worked 16 hours a week and I found it impossible to visit the tenants in apartment buildings located all over NDG, deal with the office, meet with Lucia, field phone calls, write reports and attend board meetings, supervise McGill social work students who hosted a seniors’ lunch in the tenant centre etc. I found the job very trying because there were politics between staff in the office of the social housing non-profit organization and its board of directors. I was caught in the crossfire and I needed her help to cut through all sorts of frustrations. I couldn’t get into the 35 buildings I was supposed to serve because no one would give me keys. The office initially refused to tell tenants I was working for the organization and tenants didn’t know who I was. I had no credibility and door knocking in the apartment buildings didn’t work at first.

She listened to my complaints but I think she found me whiny. A trained social worker (I believe she taught social work at McGill), Lucia faced down developers when the La Cité project threatened heritage buildings in Montreal’s Milton-Park neighbourhood in the 1970s. The co-op she co-founded, the Milton-Park Housing Co-op, is now the largest housing co-op in North America. To name just a few of her many accomplishments in 50+ years of community involvement and activism: she campaigned for nuclear disarmament, managed homeless shelters, helped found Heritage Montreal, co-founded Montreal’s Urban Ecology Centre, founded alternative publishing house Black Rose Books with her partner, Dimitri Roussopoulos, and just plain got involved with every life she ever touched.

It’s no surprise to discover she was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of Quebec in 2014. While we lost touch in 2010, I kept seeing her in the news. For instance, Lucia spoke out when Montreal Allouettes football games disrupted the peace and quiet of her neighbourhood. She recently fought to keep a developer from wrecking the Notman House Garden and asked the City of Montreal to turn sites such as the old Hôtel-Dieu hospital and its buildings into co-op and community housing.

She had strong opinions. I remember her expressing annoyance when the Urban Ecology Centre replaced native plants she’d lovingly procured with other, non-native plant species. If she didn’t like my attitude or the way I was doing something, she’d tell me. She told me to get a Kanuk winter coat and buy it in July when they have a sale. When I knew her she wore a purple men’s winter coat. She didn’t care about fashion, she wanted to be warm.

She was incredibly generous and loving as well. She gave tenants tickets to events she thought they’d be interested in. I remember attending a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign —she was one of their proud “grandmothers.” As I remember, every January she headed to Vancouver to see the son she’d adopted and proudly raised.

Most of all, she was unstoppable. As someone else said, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept her eye on her goals and with steely determination, reached for them. We need more people like her. She will be missed.

Montrealers, beware moving scams


It seems like every year around July 1st there’s a story about someone scammed by their movers.

Yesterday someone posted in the West Island Community Facebook group that a moving company they found via the West Island section of  the Greater Montréal Kijiji site is a scam.

The moving company’s ad says it’s charging $45 an hour for a minimum of three hours, plus one hour for transportation costs. On Facebook the poster described a move that was fairly straightforward,  since it involved a queen bed, a dresser with a mirror, a desk and chair, one big and two smaller sofas, a baby crib and some boxes, a move completed within two hours, including 30 minutes the movers apparently deliberately wasted hanging out at a gas station dépanneur. The distance wasn’t far — from Pierrefonds to Île Bizard.

But the total bill was way higher than the original quote of $300.  The movers demanded $1130 but when the poster called the police, they said they couldn’t help because it’s a civil matter. In the end, the poster paid the movers $600 but felt incredibly ripped off, with their belongings held hostage until they paid. On top of that, the poster says their belongings were unceremoniously dumped outside in the pouring rain.

The poster’s story of what happened:

I checked more than 10 times and they said don’t worry we won’t add any money to this amount.. so we will be charged less than 3 hundred according to what they said, he asked me to give him deposit of 400 $ I asked him why are you taking deposit more than the total amount? he said don’t worry we will give you money back but we need to take this because we don’t know the total number of hours we will work when we arrive to the new house, I paid 300$. our house is 4/5 and we did not move appliances, the only things we are moving were: queen bed, dresser with mirror, desk and chair, 1 big sofa, two small sofas, baby creb, some boxes… they finished ” with wasting time” in 2 hours.. they asked us to move and they followed us ” From pierrefonds to lil bizard” they asked us to stop in the gas station rue pierrefinds/ saint Jean.. they wasted 30 minutes buying refreshments and wondering around between the super market and the subway, then they said we want to give you your bill ” yes in the middle of the srteet” the bill was 1130 $ .. we told him that this is not our deal, he said it’s 45 per hour + more 45 per hour for two workers, so 45*3 per hour! plus 3 heavy boxes.. and 5 hours work! we need to pay them or they will drop drop out stuff in the middle of the street.. they only worked 2 hours in the old house! when i asked about the first deal with them, they said contact our supervisor (*******), ” it was the first time we hear his name” when we called him he said why didnt you call me tomake sure of the price .. we called the police and the police officer was shocked from the price but he said they are not able to do anything as it is a civil contract.. the company took 200 $ more plus the 300$ they took earlier, they kept asking for more and they asked me to open my wallet and took all the change from us so they took 50$ more and accepted to move when they knew I can give them 50$ more upon arrival, so 600$ in total, when we arrived the new house they said your time is up and we will leave everything in this parking since it’s your property, it was raining that day!! they dropped everything! shouted and made fun of us and left!
when you are hiring a moving company, don’t sign their contract as it is tricky and it meant to steal your money!!!

This story appears to be credible. A poster in the group researched the phone number connected with this moving company using an app called SafeCaller. According to a screen capture from the app, on June 11 someone reporting the number as “unsafe” wrote: “Fake movers. Charged 1000 CAD for one fridge and one stove, 15 minutes ride.”

Update: Someone just posted in the Facebook group a link to a Global Television report from 2016 that appears to be about the same moving company, pulling the same scam. Unbelievable!


My favourite eco-entrepreneurs

Lately I’ve been watching perhaps too much Netflix but one show I really enjoy is the BBC’s Money for Nothing, where the host visits a recycling centre quite similar to the écocentres we have around Montreal. These are places where people bring bulky items and anything they’re not allowed to put in the municipal recycling or garbage. During each show, host Sarah Moore chooses three potential items that she or another designer will upcycle so that the item, once transformed, becomes something that may be sold at a profit instead of ending up smashed up in a landfill. If the item sells, the person who brought it to the recycling center gets any profit made after labour and materials.

Some of transformations featured on the show are amazing. For instance, any piece of furniture brought to Margate designer Zoe Murphy becomes a work of art featuring handprinted painted  designs and textiles. Jay Blades is genius at giving old chairs a refresh. In one episode, Rupert Blanchard takes an old wooden door and turns into a hallway console table! Blacksmith artist Bex Simon and her husband, David, do amazing (and difficult) work turning items Sarah saves into such unique creations as a sack barrel table or a chair made from half a bathtub. The stuff Sarah tackles usually turns out well. I think silver plating the game pieces from a discarded Monopoly game and turning them into jewellery charms is brilliant. But some stuff hasn’t worked out. One item that stood out for me was a jerry can sliced in half so that it would become a lamp that stores a hip flask. It didn’t sell even though its reinvention cost a lot. I do wonder how many items featured on the show found permanent homes. I realize the episodes I’m referencing are a bit dated now, since they’re from season one but it would be interesting to discover whether the rescued and revamped items are still in use all these years later.

The show got me thinking that I’m either acquainted with or know a number of people around Montreal who are eco-entrepreneurs. Not only that, they’re all kind women who do a lot for others and for their communities. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial

For a few years now, ever since she decided to devote her summers to gardening, Tracey has been involved as a working member of the Coopérative de Solidarité Abondance Urbaine Solidaire (CAUS), a non-profit urban agriculture solidarity co-op in Verdun. Not only does CAUS follow permaculture practices in its gardens but the food they harvest is grown using no pesticides and minimal energy. She’s vice-president of the Grand Potager, a non-profit group whose mission is to run an urban agriculture resource center out of Verdun’s municipal greenhouse. The Grand Potager is a place where people not only find food security and gardening projects under one roof, they see all the key movers and shakers in Verdun’s growing urban agriculture movement working together. This greatly improves communication between the different organizations, citizens and the borough and it’s a lot easier for anyone with an idea for a new project to get a handle on what’s going on and create new partnerships.

Tracey’s website

Claudia Bijoutia

Montreal Gazette

Claudia is an incredibly talented artist and a brilliant recycler. Her materials include discarded computers and old silver cutlery she transforms into gorgeous jewellery and accessories, true works of art.  I’ve written about her a few times now, see here and here.

Atelier Bijoutia

Natalie Best

Source: LinkedIn

As president of Senteurs D’Angkor Canada, Natalie not only imports and distributes the Senteurs D’Angkor (Scents of Angkor) lines of natural, handmade and fair-trade soaps, spices, massage oils, and incense from Cambodia. Most of the product packaging comes from the sugar palm tree, an abundant natural and recyclable resource in Cambodia. By selling these items, she helps Cambodian craftspeople, many of whom are women, earn a good living.

Senteurs D’Angkor 

Tina Brooks


Tina runs Brooks Pepperfire Foods with her husband Greg Brooks, where they specialize in using fresh chili peppers and preparing Greg’s Peppermaster brand products, which include fresh pepper mashes, sauces, chocolates and even an antidote (!) in small batches. Besides a shared love of hot peppers, the two are fiercely committed to fair trade, respecting the environment and treating people fairly.

Peppermaster website

Sarah Burnell

Source: Ryan Lindsey/Flourish & Knot website

Flourish & Knot started in 2013 as a DIY and lifestyle blog. Now Sarah, a musician and teacher, has turned it into a boutique floral design business, offering floral design for weddings and events, custom arrangements and centrepieces (for instance, for Mother’s Day), DIY floral workshops where she’ll teach you how to arrange flowers and DIY event floral services for folks living in the Greater Montreal area and in Eastern Ontario. The flowers are sourced as locally as possible and she’s eco-conscious in her choices of materials.

Flourish & Knot 

Rachel Chainey

Rachel Chainey, photo credit Concordia University
Source: Concordia University

A whirlwind of energy, Rachel Chainey is not only a co-founder of successful Montreal cooperatively-run art hive and neighbourhood café, Le Milieu,  as coordinator of the Concordia-initiated Art Hives Network, she’s been instrumental in sharing her know-how about these gathering places where people from all walks of life can create art using second-hand materials on a pay-what-you-can basis, learn or share a new skill and eat a healthy snack. Thanks to Rachel, there are now over 70 art hives worldwide and in 2016 she and Le Milieu received a Community Partner Award from Concordia’s Office of Community Engagement and the Office of the Provost. Her commitment to art hives and making art accessible for all to all is so strong she wrote about them for the Master’s of Fine Arts degree she just completed at Concordia.

Le Milieu

Jane Sorensen

Source: Medium

With a blog dedicated to “living  rural in the city,” Jane cares deeply about urban homesteading and believes we need to put nature back into cities.

From April to June, she runs Rewilding, a hands-on consultancy and landscaping service that replaces asphalt conventional driveways with green driveways “that conserve water, eliminate salt, and look super-attractive from the street – expanding your yard and garden.” She replaces run-of-the-mill lawns with native plant landscaping. So instead of  grass, you have plants found elsewhere in Quebec, plants that offer food and shelter to insects and birds and that would be there if our houses and pavement didn’t exist. As she explains:


Well, as you can imagine, if you have a yard, it’s incredibly satisfying to grow your own tomatoes and other vegetables, to enjoy the beauty of a garden, and share it with birds and other wildlife. Not just the wild life of backyard patio parties (Woot!).

Jane aims to change people’s perceptions and habits so we all use fewer resources. She helps people prevent bird deaths by installing bird-strike prevention products on windows.

Rewilding, The Landscaping Service

As Earth Day wraps up, I salute these women who do so much to make this world a better place.

Sustainability – are you up to the challenge?

As Earth Day (April 22) approaches, it’s no surprise to see organizations and businesses challenging consumers to change their ways and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.

This week’s Greenpeace Canada challenge breaks with that tradition because instead of putting all the responsibility on consumers, the onus is on the companies responsible for all the throwaway plastic packaging and products that end up in our oceans, killing marine life or polluting drinking water and getting into our food:

Have you ever looked around – at the supermarket, or coffee shop, or local mall – and noticed how much excessive plastic there is? Once you start looking for it, it’s EVERYWHERE. And it’s a huge problem. This week, we invite you to take pictures of the most excessive or ridiculous throwaway plastic products or packaging you see, and post them on your favorite social media site. Make sure you use the hashtag #BreakFreeFromPlastic and #RidiculousPackaging and tag the brand or retailer responsible.

IKEA Canada is taking a slightly different approach. Their contest, open to Canadians everywhere except Quebec (!!) and running from April 22 through April 30, involves downloading the IKEA Sustainable Living App and asks people to record their sustainable actions on their cell phones (mobile devices) as they complete them in real life. The reward? One of 40 prizes, including a $2,000 IKEA gift card.


Thoughts on zero waste living

bulk food in jarsLast year my city embraced the zero waste movement. I missed the press conference but there was no way I could miss Vaudreuil-Dorion’s position on zero waste. A 2018 city calendar for citizens proudly states Vaudreuil-Dorion is the first of 23 cities in our county of Vaudreuil-Soulanges to partner with the Circuit Zéro Déchet. The city is giving out stickers for businesses to place in their windows if they let customers bring their own clean reusable containers for bulk purchases.

Intrigued, I checked the Circuit Zéro Déchet website to see how many Vaudreuil-Dorion businesses are taking part in the initiative. There are only four among god knows how many businesses. So not a lot in a land of big box stores and shopping. We were already shopping at two of the four businesses. I’ve spent years refilling bottles and trying to reduce my environmental footprint. We’ve refilled dish and hand soap bottles at the environmental store ever since I first discovered it and we sometimes shop at our local health food store.

The only pharmacy on the list is our local pick-up point for Lufa Farms. We visited the other business on the list, Cananut, for the first time last Friday and wow, they are an amazing bulk food store, selling beans and lentils, all sorts of nuts, rice, sugar, bread yeast, raisins, coffee and tea, dried fruits and spices and more. But they appear to be struggling. The folks who shop at the Costco nearby don’t appear interested in heading to a much smaller store for bulk foods, which is strange to me because Bulk Barn, located in a mall in another part of the city, is always packed. I hadn’t realized Cananut’s West Island store was one of the businesses affected when spring flooding devastated areas around Montreal last year. Their Vaudreuil-Dorion store has only been here a year and if things don’t improve, it will soon close and merge with their recently reopened West Island store.

I find Hudson, a town in Vaudreuil-Soulanges known for its fair trade stores and environmental sensibilities, is clearly far ahead of my city but for some reason neither the town nor its businesses are participating in the Circuit Zéro Déchet. If they are, they’re not listed in the directory. I don’t see my city’s culture as being terribly environmental, in spite of its pride in joining Circuit Zéro Déchet. We had to drive to a local recreation centre to get the city calendar because the city failed to deliver it in our area and when we phoned them about it, they told us we’d have to pick one up. We still don’t have organic waste pickup in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, in spite of a Quebec government plan to have it in place by 2019. And I find that often when I shop in Vaudreuil-Dorion, I sometimes have to educate retail staff about reusable bags. I’ve had disposable plastic bags handed to me even when I had a reusable bag in hand. I’ve had to give plastic bags back to store staff and I sometimes end up with an extra bag I never asked for.

I love that Cindy Trottier, a young woman from Valleyfield, created the Circuit Zéro Déchet directory. It’s a great way to show people where they can go to purchase goods and practise a zero waste lifestyle. It promotes local small businesses and gets people thinking about their shopping habits. But while I adore this initiative, I have a few problems with the zero waste movement in general.

In our home we’re noticing it’s pretty hard to be zero waste all the time, if zero waste means you’re barely producing any landfill-bound solid waste at all. And that’s because companies are creating packaging that we cannot reuse or even recycle. For instance, we have three cats who eat a lot and needs relatively fresh dry food because they’re picky eaters. It doesn’t take long for the pet food bags to pile up. The bags are not recyclable in our municipal recycling program and the only place I could find that will take them is TerraCycle, a company that recycles all sorts of hard-to-recycle waste. To use TerraCycle, you have to pay for the Zero Waste box they send you. The smallest box for pet food bags costs $88.23.

The other problem I have with the zero waste trend is that it doesn’t address class privilege. It’s a movement that especially appeals to the affluent and educated, since they can afford to participate in it and it preaches to the converted, people who are already avoiding plastic and reducing their waste. It doesn’t address cost issues for bargain hunters or lower income people or access for people who don’t live near bulk food stores and/or find bulk food more expensive than what they usually buy and who aren’t surrounded by people with similar values.

We usually buy our coffee at Costco where a bag of their Kirkland fair trade, Starbucks-roasted coffee beans costs about $13 or $14 for 907 g and lasts quite a while in our house. If we buy coffee in bulk, we often pay about double that price since, for instance, our local health food store sells bulk coffee for $31.90 per kilogram. But there’s a drawback to refilling their brown paper coffee bags. While we’re not stuck with a coffee bag we can’t recycle or easily reuse as we are when we shop at Costco, when we buy expensive coffee, our budget gets messed up. We sometimes buy loose leaf tea at Papillon Bulk Foods in Pointe Claire but the tea doesn’t always taste good because tea can go stale over time. When we buy tea leaves elsewhere, even from supposedly “eco” vendors, they either come in tins or plastic packaging and refilling these can be complicated. We refill shampoo bottles but the other members of my household don’t like the shampoo. They also hate environmental laundry detergents. As a compromise, we’re using a commercial cold water detergent but because we can’t refill those bottles, we end up recycling them. We use far more glass jars than we’d like. It bothers me there’s no guarantee they’re being recycled but we put them in the city’s recycling bin anyway.

YouTube contributor Shelbizleee (Shelby)’s recent video on  captures how I feel about the zero waste movement. Zero waste was originally all about redesigning industrial and commercial products, “a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused” and never head to landfill or get incinerated. Putting all responsibility on the individual consumer doesn’t solve anything and isn’t fair because it’s extraordinarily difficult to obtain many things we use in day-to-day life without packaging. Nor is it fair to hold people to a perfectionist standard because it’s hard to live a zero waste lifestyle in our society. Making people feel bad doesn’t fix anything. The focus on producing no solid waste whatsoever takes away from other environmental issues more deserving of our attention, such as climate change, the plight of honeybees and wasting water, Shelby says. When it comes to solid waste, what needs to happen is regulation to stop businesses from creating waste that cannot easily be reused or disposed of sustainably. Corporations need to step up and change their ways. Instead of idealizing bloggers who keep years of landfill trash in one Mason jar to show just how little garbage they’re accumulating, Shelby suggests instead a low impact movement proposed by Imogen Lucas of YouTube channel, Sustainably Vegan. Lucas’s message? Do your best with what you have available to you. Everything you do to help the environment should count and be seen as positive.

For now, I’ll follow advice from a book my mom gave me long ago, Sparrows Don’t Throw Candy Wrappers by Margaret Gabel, published in 1971. The book urges readers to send waste back to the companies that produced it. While I’ll probably mail our Kicking Horse coffee bags to an Etsy maker who turns such bags into wallets. I’ve decided to mail the Costco coffee bags right back to the source. I still don’t know what to do about our growing pile of pet food bags. They’re made of beautiful gold-coloured plastic. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.