All the Marrow
It’s Saturday night in late August, typically Montréal’s last month of t-shirt weather. I’m sitting at a picnic bench with group of young Montréalers eating Haitian food off paper plates. My portion is the envy of the table because I got a large bone in it, full of marrow, which my dinner companions are teaching me how to extract. This is my first time having goat. I probe the hollow end timidly with my plastic fork. Finally I’m told have to suck out the marrow—and don’t be shy about making noises.
Tonight is Haiti Night at the Village au Pied-du-Currant, a public space on the banks of the St. Laurence River that has been transformed over the past four summers into an ongoing multicultural festival.
Built on the gritty sand of an urban beach, the Village is a cluster of land/sea containers converted into galleries, kitchens and bars, purpose built sheds and cabanas, a scaffolding rooftop bar with a view down the river, and open spaces for eating, dancing and playing.
So far this summer the Village has hosted food festivals showcasing West African, East Asian, Mexican, and Brazilian cuisine, South American folklore for kids, movie nights, a night market, community yoga—in collaboration with Lululemon, and a “1990s Brooklyn” themed night that one local described as “the best thing I did all summer.” They finished off the season with a “punky reggae party.”
The Village is built–and rebuilt every summer–on a previously vacant and overgrown lot, separated from the banks of the river by railroad tracks that serve the port and carry functioning land/sea containers to and from cargo ships.
This is “the river” from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
The bridge, slightly upstream is named for Jacques Cartier, the founder of Montréal, and is lit up every night this summer in celebration the 375th anniversary of his accomplishment.
Across the water, at La Ronde, an amusement hosts a summer-long international fireworks competition. The Village started as a place to catch the show for free.
The Potluck Startup
The Village and its festivals are the brainchild of La Pépinière, the nursery, a startup that works to connect communities with the city around them in under-utilized public spaces. Their approach is to provide the space and the logistics and empower the community to do the rest. Co-Founder Maxim Bragoli explains, “Most government and civic event planning starts with the funds and the logistics, put something together and hope the people respond. We start with the people.”
When I spoke with Maxim and Raphaëlle Bilodeau, Pépinière’s executive director, they both objected to the word “event.” To them, an event is a spectacle or a commercial enterprise, something that’s sold to the public from outside for a profit. Raphaëlle describes what they do as “place making.”
One place they made was a public woodworking shop at the Village. Some people used it to make toboggans. Yves Plante, a professional sailor, used the space to teach the art of boat making. He soon launched his own non-profit, Juenes Marins Urbains (young urban sailors.) Their motto: “Changing the world, one boat at a time.”
Pépenière has projects in 8 of Montréal’s 19 boroughs and they are constantly branching out. Their goal is to design a template for action that could work anywhere.
In keeping with their startup ethos, they make improvements to the village, based on feedback, with each seasonal rebuild. The brightly painted land/sea containers double as storage for the Village’s many parts in the winter.
When sourcing food, Pépinière looks for authenticity. They use their community connections to find the best food according to the community it comes from, not just what’s trendy. You know, that one Korean restaurant where they speak Hangul and serve homemade kimchi, not the other one with “dumplings” on the menu and a scorpion bowl happy-hour Thursday nights.
According to Raphaëlle, “our metric for authenticity is inclusion. It’s a public space, so we should see the public there. All types and ages. Our great fear is that this will just be a hipster thing or just attract whoever.”
Haiti night is a success, if the dance floor is anything to go by. You see a mix of people who clearly knew the songs and the moves, some who wore Haitian flag bandanas, and people of Montréal’s many other backgrounds and colors all having a blast. At midnight, a drum line leads a thousand or so party-goers through the village.
I asked my dinner friends about this. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the vibe was different from something you’d see south of the border, even in a place like Brooklyn or L.A.
“Diversity just isn’t cliquey here,” says Andolina, my new Chinese-Dominican-Quebecoise friend. Her friend Adam, a native Montréaler can’t find the word in English, but settles on “joyous togetherness” to describe the city’s prevailing attitude.
Maxim calls Montréal “a patch work of inclusion.” He points to the four flowers on the city’s flag for the four nations that founded the city: the fleur de lis for the French, a shamrock for the Irish, the English rose, and Scottish thistle. This year, the city added a white pine at the center of the flag for the first peoples of Montreal, a symbol chosen by that group.
Before there was a restaurant scene or young startups bringing food to the community, Montréalers shared their family recipes and the cuisine of their home countries. Pépinière joins the food-trucks and pop-up restaurants in brining this “pot luck culture” into the 21st century.
The culture of inclusion is inseparable from the city’s business ethos. Montréal sees itself as a brand. Their main industry is the city itself and the myriad sights and tastes it offers visitors. This isn’t sanctimony or an effort to stick it to their less tolerant southern neighbors. It’s business. Pépinière joins a tradition of cultural entrepreneurship. Montréal manufactures experiences and connections. Maxim calls it a “city of festivals.” Montréal’s best known export is Cirque du Soleil, the circus reimagined, which spawned a lighting and stagecraft industry that also works with Celine Dion–or simply Celine as she’s known up here–and Quebec’s film industry.
Haiti’s Brain-Drain, Montréal’s Gain
Everyone I spoke with at the Village seemed to have some knowledge of Haitian food, this makes sense given the Haitian community’s prominence and long history in Montréal. Haitians fleeing poverty and political turmoil have come to Quebec since the 1960s. The province is popular for its linguistic and cultural commonalities that make assimilation easier. In Canada, immigrants from the poorest country in the western hemisphere found not only a better life but a place in the middle class. As one frequently quoted statistic has it, there have been more Haitian doctors in Canada than in Haiti since the 1970s. According to historian and Haitian-American Maxo Marc, Montréal and Quebec are Haitian cities in the same way Chicago and Boston are Irish. (He points out that Chicago, by the way, was founded by a Haitian, Jean-Baptist-Point Du Sable.)
Unfortunately, new arrivals haven’t been so lucky. The latest wave of Haitian immigrants are coming not from Haiti, but from the United States. Fearing the new administrations immigration policies, and chasing rumors of an open-door policy, thousands are heading north, often crossing illegally. Once in Canada, they face an asylum seeking process that sees about half of applicants deported back to Haiti. They await their fate in “Welcome Centers” (read: shelters.) In Montréal, the Olympic Stadium is a temporary home for hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers.
Pépinière found themselves in a unique position to help the Stadium’s residents. Their space in the public garden is right next to the stadium. They organized a day of activities, food and music in collaboration with Maison d’Haiti. This wasn’t a political act, it was a matter of brining fun and recreation to people who haven’t had much of either in a while. There are plenty of NGOs and government bureaus interested in giving these people handouts and necessities, but Pépinière addresses their need to relax and get their minds off their tenuous situation, if only for a day.
The field day at the stadium was a welcome to Montréal, of sorts. The day included Haitian food, but also showcased the city’s global cuisine.
We’re not in Canada
We wait in line for goat for about an hour. There’s an even longer line for griot. People hold their places in the queue while friends go to bring back fresco—shaved ice—and ti’ punch—a rum cocktail. We talk about food as we wait to eat. Catherine, a child psychologist who works with refugees and immigrants, tells me she waited two hours for jerk chicken on Caribbean night and they ran out by the time it was her turn. We’re told they’re prepared for the demand tonight and there’ll still be plenty when we make it to the grill.
I meet Cordia, Andolina, and Adam in line. Three friends who go on “food crawls” every weekend. They make fast friends with Catherine, debating where the best gnocchi is to be found. They recommend places I must try while I’m here, from a Hungarian butcher, to a new Palestinian spot. “We try not to go to the same place twice,” Cordia tells me, “and we’re not even close to trying every place.” And they probably never will, considering Montréal has the most restaurants per capita of any Canadian city, and is second only to New York in North America. When I ask them to pick a favorite, they can’t.
Catherine teases that my favorites so far have been poutine–Quebec’s answer to chilli cheese fries–and Tim Horton’s coffee. They crack up.
Adam is representing his borough with a t-shirt featuring the neighborhood’s name and the image of a typical Montréal street of balconied triplex apartments. He says he’s from his borough first, then he’s a Montréaler, then Québécois, and finally Canadian.
In the summer he commutes to work by kayak and I tell him that’s pretty Canadian if you ask me. As a local, he tells me it’s easy to forget all that’s available right in his backyard. He credits his friends from elsewhere with giving him a new take on his hometown. “I discovered Montréal through friends who moved here.”
Cordia moved here from Hong Kong eight years ago. When it came to learning French she says she started with the food words, and that was enough to make friends.