By Allie Wainer and Melissa Gordon
In May 2019, a group of 18 students and faculty with Tufts New Economy and community members from the Solidarity Economy Initiative traveled to Montreal for a weekend to exchange ideas with organizations putting solidarity economy values into practice. Instead of traveling to an academic-style conference, we explored Montreal alongside people working in organizations with shared values to our own. We visited a range of initiatives, including a community land trust with cooperative housing (Milton Parc Community), a creative placemaking organization (La Pépinière), Quebec’s social economy network (Chantier de l’Économie Sociale), an urban food justice coalition (Notre Quartier Nourricier), and a shared artists space (Ateliers Creatif).
We were interested in Montreal because of the social and solidarity economy that has been growing in Quebec since the mid-1990s, rooted in a long history of cooperatives and community and regional economic development initiatives. Thanks to funding from Tufts (Graduate Student Council, Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, and Tufts Institute of the Environment) and Center for Economic Democracy, we rented several vans, drove north out of the U.S. and spent two nights and days in Montreal.
Our first morning began with a visit to the Milton Parc community, one of North America’s largest cooperative housing developments with over 600 units and 1500 residents and that sits on a community land trust. Our guide, Dimitri Roussopoulos, led us on a walking tour of the neighborhood’s wide streets and backyard alleys, pointing out the architectural details of the brick and stone rowhouses that are a part of the coop. He taught us about the history of how the space was hard won in the 1970s through neighbors coming together and fighting back against developers who wanted to demolish this downtown residential neighborhood to build high-rises and a shopping complex. These activists, including Dimitri, were able to keep six blocks off the speculative market.
Milton Parc’s apartments now provide an affordable place for folks under a certain income threshold, who want to be part of a community and live in a prime location in the city. We had a hard time imagining this being possible in Boston. We got pleasure from seeing beautiful and evocative street art, as well as compost bins lining the curbs for pick up. It was wonderful to learn about long-standing, well-located, high-quality cooperative housing, and the support that members can provide for each other.
We next visited the Chantier de l’economie sociale, a non-profit that supports what Quebecois refer to as the social economy. This includes collective organizations, cooperatives, and social enterprises, in the private and non-profit sectors, that employ some form of collectivity–ownership, decision-making, etc. The popularity in Quebec of social economy, we learned from Chantier, may be a result of the fact that Quebec is a French-speaking province in a majority English-speaking country and has a long history of cooperativism and innovation to survive. In fact, Quebec passed a law in 2013 setting a legal definition of social economy, which has helped the Chantier advocate for social enterprises in all sectors of the economy. The Chantier, which receives significant support from the provincial government, estimates that the social economy in Quebec includes 11,200 enterprises employing 220,000 people. Chantier opened up our imagination for a government-supported solidarity economy network in the US as one way to change our current extractive capitalist system.
We ended the first day with a visit to “the beach.” La Pepiniere is a placemaking organization that creates spaces and art projects to bring people together to take ownership over their community. One of their most popular events is setting up a faux beach on an asphalt lot along the St. Lawrence River with food and drinks served from booths made of shipping containers and interactive games. One of their goals is to change the way public spaces are managed by breaking with the unidirectional way planning is done in the city. They work with residents to collectively imagine and design ways that they want to use the space in their own communities.
Our second day began in the Centre Sud neighborhood with a stop at CDC Centre Sud, the non-profit community development organization that hosts a food equity coalition: Notre Quartier Nourricier (NQN), “our nourishing neighborhood”. We went on a walking tour of the area to see various projects of their member organizations. A farm stand right outside a metro station sells produce as well as $2 prepared vegetarian meals each Friday. The tour leaders told us that each week, the plaza around the station is crowded with folks sharing food together, prepared by and for the community. They also told us about a shared kitchen space that community members use. Next, we visited a greenhouse and garden that are used for youth job training and that was filled with thousands of seedlings to distribute to for Montreal’s short warm growing season. We ended our food-themed tour sharing a lunch with our hosts at the CDC Centre Sud. We were inspired by how food has such potential to bring people together, to be at the base of social enterprises, and to provide living-wage jobs to the community.
Our last stop in Montreal was to a shared artists’ building developed by Ateliers Creatif. They have developed a number of buildings to provide affordable, adequate, and sustainable workplaces for professional artists in the visual arts, crafts and cultural organizations. We spoke with and toured a women’s shared printmaking studio, a painter’s studio, and a filmmaking company. They all emphasized the importance of public funding to support professional artists and the affordable space to sustain a vibrant arts and culture community in the city. The tour ended with a group art project where we used markers, pens, and cutouts from magazines to make a collage documenting our experiences in Montreal.
Reflections and Learnings
A striking theme across every visit was the government support for each organization in the solidarity economy. It seems that there is more political feasibility and financial resources behind social and solidarity economy initiatives in Canada than in the U.S. Many examples we learned about only survived because they received government funding–demonstrating the power of a public investment in the types of services that help communities thrive. And, in part because of the more supportive political environment in Quebec and Canada, these programs were able to flourish when windows of opportunity arose.
Some of the organizations we visited did not seem very radical, as they were basically non-profits working within the constraints of the current system. So they were not quite what we had expected, compared to how we have experienced solidarity economy work in the U.S. But we saw how embodiments of solidarity became models for more widespread participation or new government policies over time. These were some of the most inspiring topics we learned about, giving us hope that the work we do at small, local scales may eventually be even more impactful than in our immediate communities.
While we were inspired by and admired the organizations we visited and their projects, we also had several critical questions. First, we wondered about the racial dynamics and role of racism in this work. Most of the organizations we visited were rooted in white working class Quebecois (French-speaking) neighborhoods. We learned that immigrants of color were concentrated in other parts of the city and wondered what kinds of solidarity economy initiatives were happening in those communities. We also wondered about whether these projects, particularly the creative placemaking ones, contribute to gentrification, and whether they are conducted with an anti-displacement lens.
Though it has been a year and half since our visit, the learning and connections we made still resonate. In the wake of COVID-19, we hear politicians talk about shutting down and re-opening the economy. It is clear to us that they have a very narrow, traditional, view of what an economy is and can be. The way we see the economy, it’s not limited to transactions at stores and investments on Wall St. It’s investing in each other financially, with emotional support, and helpful advice. It’s building and making things with collective ownership. It’s being an active member of your community and making sure the marginalized have wealth-building opportunities.