June 10, 2020
Guest Blog

Do Not Underestimate The Social Capital of Montréal-Nord

By Diane Alalouf-Hall, PhD student in sociology and researcher, PhiLab Québec, 
and Jean-Marc Fontan, Professor of Sociology, UQAM, and Co-director, PhiLab Network

Beyond frailties linked to age and underlying health conditions (chronic diseases), the coronavirus epidemic’s impact is more severe both among those whom society has made more vulnerable and the people who care for them. It is not so much the age of residents of nursing homes (CHSLDs) that is the reason for the COVID-19 outbreaks as it is the lack of a proper policy on aging and the need to dedicate the necessary quantity and quality of resources to our elders and their caregiving personnel.

Montréal’s neighbourhoods are not all equal in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. There are currently 2,287 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Borough of Montréal-Nord, which equates to nearly 9% of total cases in Montréal and 5% of those in Québec, and 170 people have died, which represents 4% of all deaths from the disease in Québec. Montréal-Nord, one of the most disadvantaged places in all of Canada, is now the neighbourhood with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Québec. Given the severity of this situation, what can be done to assist this hardest hit of Montréal’s boroughs? To seek answers to that question, Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) organized a webinar, held on May 28, 2020. It was titled COVID-19, Montréal-Nord et la riposte de la philanthropie québécoise(“COVID-19, Montréal-Nord and the Response of Québec Philanthropy”) and moderated by Félix-Antoine Veronneau of PFC, with participants Steves Boussiki, Director of the Table de quartier de Montréal-Nord, Bochra Manaï, Director of Parole d’excluEs, and Christine Black, Mayor of the borough of Montréal-Nord. The following is a summary of their remarks.

        1. Montréal-Nord has seen its share of crises

Montréal-Nord is currently suffering greatly in the midst of the pandemic crisis, but of course, this is not the first crisis the community has faced. Poverty, police violence, racism, unsanitary conditions in the rental housing stock, and lack of public security are the components of a longstanding crisis, which reached a peak in 2008 with the death of Fredy Villanueva as the result of a botched police operation. That tragedy sent shock waves through and beyond the community, and clearly showed the borough and its people’s ability to learn, as well as their resilience.

        2. Montréal-Nord has a tight-knit social fabric able to combat COVID-19

In response to the current epidemic, local and neighbourhood solidarity, already strong in Montréal-Nord, has been amplified since March. Bochra Manaï and Steves Boussiki can testify to this because of the work their respective organizations have done on the ground.

Two initiatives illustrate the magnitude of that outreach in the face of the present health crisis. First, the local work begun by Parole d’excluEs with the porte-voix (megaphone) initiative developed jointly with Neighbourhood Police Station 39, the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec and the SCFP-Québec labour union. The goal is to ensure that information about quarantine and physical distancing measures reaches all residents in the language in which they are more comfortable.

Of further note is the work being done by citoyens-nes relais (“forwarder citizens”), who are acting as go-betweens linking local citizen groups and public authorities. Despite the challenges of the lockdown, and complementing the porte-voix initiative, having these forwarder citizens in place has ensured that vital information reaches people who lack Internet and even telephone access.

        3. General prevention guidelines on COVID-19 have meant more exclusion in the area

In a pandemic situation, being able to keep one’s job can be considered a mitigating factor – provided that one can perform that work safely. Personnel in health and social services institutions are more vulnerable to the disease and more likely to spread it by community transmission. This situation is quite prevalent in Montréal-Nord, where a significant number of frontline workers are active in so-called essential positions. These positions are mostly filled by visible-minority women.

After two months in lockdown in very urban housing, families in the borough are going out again to visit parks. However, there are fewer parks in Montréal-Nord than in other Montréal boroughs. Complying with physical distancing requirements becomes very difficult when there are 85,000 residents sharing about 20 parks with small surface areas. Mayor Black wonders how green spaces can be created when resources to purchase large lots are lacking. If greater justice and equity are the goal, the keys include improved land-use planning and access to green spaces in sufficient quality and quantity.

        4. “Give me a lever long enough . . . and I shall move the world”

Montréal-Nord has shown exemplary resilience many times in past crises and the current one. From the start of the coronavirus health crisis, citizens began developing mutual assistance and solidarity actions, including help with grocery shopping and meal distribution to families. The municipality has taken measures to improve safety (installation of safety corridors, access to masks, and testing) and transferred funds to organizations with detailed knowledge of local challenges (Centraide du Grand Montréal and Fonds Desjardins). Community groups have had to adjust their practices to ensure the links with the people they serve to remain intact.

This webinar provided the opportunity to amplify a call to anyone who will listen:

  1. We must not underestimate Montréal-Nord citizens’ capacity to respond to exceptional crisis situations;
  2. Public and social funders must continue addressing inequalities through their support of actions and advocacy work by local groups;
  3. Private and public service providers need to take preventive actions to forestall the emergence of geographical environments, like the northeast part of Montréal-Nord, and organizational ones, such as nursing homes (CHSLDs), in which neglect and underfunding have led to crisis situations where happiness and well-being should be the norm.
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