Montréal (Canada): The Prefontaine & Overdale Squats – An analysis

(From the latest issue of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed at:

The Préfontaine and Overdale Squats
An Analysis of Building Occupations in Montreal

by Michael William

I have mixed feelings about the Overdale and Préfontaine squats, which is no doubt the case with many people who squatted or who supported the squats. There were delightful moments and some real triumphs. But there were also many problems and disappointments.

As with other North American cities, in Montreal squatting is illegal. It does take place but is clandestine. In the 80s several anarchists occupied a vacant school and attempted to do a political squat. They were quickly evacuated by the police. Since those involved had other lodgings, the project remained mainly symbolic in any case.

A couple of years ago, the idea of doing a political squat was revived by the Comité des sans emploi (Unemployed Peoples Committee). Members of the committee come from a number of political outlooks (anarchist, Marxist, leftist). The group has organized demos and actions such as an invasion of the buffet at a chic restaurant during which people walked off with platefuls of food. The Committee’s actions typically cross over the line into illegality but not far enough to land charges resulting in heavy time.

In the Summer of 2001, anti-gentrification posters produced by the Committee began to appear on Montreal walls. “Come and support the opening of a squat” they invited, giving a date and an assembly point.

On a pleasant late July evening, people began to gather in a small square. It quickly became apparent that the demo would be a big one by Montreal standards. After a couple of speeches the crowd of about 500 moved into the street, turned on Sherbrooke, a main artery, and headed toward downtown.

A sound truck pumped out a good selection of different types of political music. I danced along close to the truck, invigorated by the high energy of the crowd and the knowledge that we were about to do an illegal action.

The procession moved into the downtown core, going past chic watering holes. At an intersection people crossed the street and began to run across a parking lot on the other side. A this point I realized that our goal was the lone building remaining on a block of Overdale street. The rest had been razed following a fierce housing struggle during the late 80s. A developer’s condo project ultimately fell through and a parking lot was constructed instead. The building left standing, the former residence of a 19th century politician, was preserved for heritage reasons.

In recent years the Montreal vacancy rate has plummeted and is presently at under one percent. A full-blown housing crisis was the backdrop for the squatting action.

I walked across the parking lot and joined the people milling around the building. A man began to remove a board in order to break in. Standing on the front lawn, two cops who had accompanied the demo on bicycles looked on glumly.

People were now on the second floor and were knocking out the planks used to board up the building.

Montreal Food not Bombs set out some victuals. Later, a corn roast took place. Alcohol appeared and people began to party.

The cops, meanwhile, were attempting to contact the owner of the building. “If he says they can stay they can stay,” Police Commander Paul Chablot was quoted as saying. “But if he signs an eviction notice, we’ll have to clear the building.”

As I biked through downtown toward the squat the next day, I wondered if the police had intervened. This was not the case and the site was bustling with activity. Tables, sofas and mattresses had appeared on the second floor. A black flag flew from the roof and numerous graffiti had been sprayed. At one point a cop who often handles radical actions drove up to the side of the building. What people were doing was illegal, he told us. Since no police intervention took place, this turned out to be pure intimidation.

On the second floor, a general assembly meeting discussed problems which had occurred. Complaints were voiced about music played late at night and about drunk people attempting to get onto the roof (which could only be reached by a ladder). A debate took place about whether rules should be established. The issue was not resolved.

“We intend to keep the place as long as possible,” a spokesperson for the squatters, Marie-Claude Goulet, said in an interview in a local daily. In another interview she described the project: “We don’t want to beg for social housing or anything else from the government because we know it won’t come. We don’t want to ask for charity either. We want to take our lives into our own hands. We decided to house ourselves by opening a squat because no one else will do it in our place.”

During the next two days repairs and renovations continued. A gig took place at the squat with music by Fred Alpi from France and Jeunesse Apatride (Stateless Youth), a band affiliated with RASH (Red and Anarchist Skinheads).

The building was inspected by fire department personnel. “There is no immediate danger,” an inspector stated, although several aspects were not in accord with building code norms. On the fourth day it was learned that the owner had finally been contacted and had asked that the squatters be evicted. That evening Marie-Claude Goulet received a call from Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque. The City administration was apparently willing to house the squatters in a city-owned building.

A decision was made by the squatters to send a delegation to meet the mayor. Several of the representatives were squatters and the others were among the original organizers of the action. Bourque was accompanied by high-level cops, people from the fire department, city councillors and municipal government bureaucrats.

A fire department representative declared the building unsafe. The upshot, the City informed the squatters, was that they could be relocated but could not remain where they were. The squatter representatives said they didn’t want to move but would relay an account of the meeting to the squatters.

At an assembly the City’s offer was debated and rejected. To gain time to better secure the building, it was decided that a new meeting with the City would be proposed to request details about the building being offered. Squatters brought stolen police barriers into the building to help keep the cops out. That evening about 120 people gathered on the premises and the adjoining parking lot. The atmosphere was tense in anticipation of a potential confrontation with the police. Ultimately people were informed that there would be no police intervention that night because a new meeting with the City had been set up.

At the meeting, the municipal government representatives proposed that the squatters’ delegation visit a four-story city-owned building. They accepted and were driven to the building. A deadline of 3 p.m. was set by the City for the squatters to come to a decision.

At the squat a heated debate took place about the City’s offer. The people who had seen the building touted its possibilities. Some of the seventy people present denounced accepting the offer as reformist or as a sellout to Bourque. But the mood had changed compared to the previous meeting. By over 80% a decision was taken to accept the City’s offer if certain conditions were met. As the conditions were being discussed I decided to leave. I was surprised by the rapid turnabout and disagreed with the direction the project had taken.

Quickly an agreement was worked out with the City about the conditions. They stipulated that no expenses would be paid at the new location (rent, electricity or heating). The squatters would self-manage the building. No arrests would take place of squatters who voluntarily left the Overdale building. For their part the squatters agreed not to alter the new building without the City’s consent.

In an interview Marie-Claude Goulet hailed the agreement as a “big victory” while Bourque termed it a “positive outcome.” “From the beginning we hoped for a peaceful solution,” a police spokesperson chimed in.

On the evening of the move on August 1, I visited the Préfontaine building, the squatters’ new digs. The 19th century four-story structure boasted a huge front lawn and beautiful old trees. It was surrounded on two sides by a community garden divided into small individual plots. Across the street was a mega-supermarket housed in a renovated building that was formerly part of an industrial complex where railroad engines were fabricated.

I checked out the building and joined people who had gathered in the back yard. The mood was relaxed and festive. One of the organizers of the Overdale occupation asked me what I thought of the situation. I said I thought it was a victory … for Mayor Bourque, who I felt had deftly defused a volatile situation. This evaluation would turn out to be unnuanced; the squatters would cause Bourque further headaches yet. But my impression on the first day at Préfontaine was that the project had lost its radical edge. I decided to take a wait-and-see approach. Though I disagreed with concessions that had been made, perhaps something good would come from the new project.

“Frightening Neighbours”
“Frightening Neighbours” screeched the title on the front page of the Journal de Montréal, a tabloid which claims a readership of two million. The title referred to an encounter at the community garden between Mayor Bourque and local residents on the day after the move to Préfontaine. One person present complained that the police had been called because of noise from the squat. A woman feared property values would plummet because of the squatters. Another person worried about potential shoplifting. Another showed Bourque her electricity bill and wanted him to pay for it as with the squatters. A woman worried that her tomatoes in the community garden would be ripped off.

Marie-Claude Goulet intervened during the encounter and assured residents that the squatters intended to respect them and the neighbourhood. She asked them to talk to the squatters first if problems occurred instead of calling the police.

Mayor Bourque said that the Préfontaine project was temporary. The squat was “not a precedent and there would be no more squats in Montreal,” he said.

The move to Préfontaine would be accompanied by a change in media coverage of the project. During Overdale the media had been indulgent: the action was treated as a colourful interlude in a slow summer newswise. Coverage of Préfontaine, in contrast, would be filled with distortion and disinformation, especially from the tabloid press and its television equivalent.

On the day following the community garden encounter, the squatters invited the neighbours to a corn roast. A sound system was set up on the front lawn and visitors were given a tour of the building. Not all were mollified. “Where are the parents of these young people?” one visitor wanted to know. “It smells terrible in there. There are animals. It’s disgusting.”

A stove and fridge had now been installed at the squat. People proceeded to fix the place up. At a general assembly that I missed, a number of committees were set up such as food and security committees.

Many of the Préfontaine squatters had been at Overdale. Others arrived only at the beginning of the Préfontaine project. The squatters were a disparate group. There was a punk contingent and a man in his forties with three kids. There was a group of Latinos and a man whose parents were from Bangladesh. Some of the older squatters had had drug or alcohol abuse problems. Several people had apartments elsewhere and thus had something to fall back on. Coming and going were travellers who had heard about the squat — Brits, Canadians, Americans and Australians.

There was also a sizable group of support people who participated in meetings or assisted in different ways. Although probably a majority of those involved in the project were anarchists, a few people wore Québécois nationalist patches and t-shirts or Che Guevara paraphernalia.

Free meals were served at the squat on a daily basis. If meat was served there would also be a vegetarian dish. Money for food came from people’s pockets and from the sale of bottles. Bread was donated to the squat and compost made there was exchanged for food. At the outset people signed up to cook on a schedule sheet but later things were more ad hoc.

Twenty-four-hour-a-day security was set up but this lasted only a few days. Subsequently, security was more haphazard. Often when I arrived at the gate no one was there. I did shifts to help out.

Several local radical groups held some of their internal meetings at the squat. Cinema nights took place on squatting and the Spanish Civil War. A talk was given by representatives of a local anti-police-brutality group.

At the first general assembly I attended, the issue of whether to have rules was re-debated. One person argued that there should be no rules and that people should simply respect one another. Her viewpoint was very minoritarian and a series of guidelines was adopted. Moderate alcohol consumption was allowed as was pot use. Hard drugs and the sale of drugs of any sort were banned. Squatters were expected to participate in one of the committees which had been set up or to otherwise lend practical assistance. People were to stay off the roof and out of the community garden next door. The rules were posted on the front gate. The sign disappeared after a week and was not replaced.

The ban on drugs other than pot would be widely ignored. Coke, heroin and PCP were consumed and a couple of people sold PCP. Alcohol would get some residents and visitors into pretty ugly states as well.

On August 6 the first meeting took place between representatives of the squatters and the City. Armand Fichaud, the city bureaucrat handling the Préfontaine file, said that the project would have to structure itself as a legal entity — either as a non-profit organization (known in French by the acronym OSBL) or as a coop. How people could get their welfare cheques transferred was discussed, and Fichaud said that the Nabisco Company had offered jobs at a plant outside Montreal. The tone of the meeting was positive; Fichaud did not appear to be threatening the squatters with immediate eviction. The encounter with Fichaud was recounted at a general assembly later that day.

Weird Shit
I biked or walked to the squat every couple of days or so. Typically, several clusters of people were working or relaxing on the grounds. Other residents and visitors would be in the building, often in the kitchen or the common room on the third floor. I gradually got to know many of the squatters, most of whom I liked. Several I did not trust politically or otherwise.

Usually the atmosphere was convivial. But Préfontaine was a place where you never knew what would happen next. For example, once as I was approaching the building a chair came soaring off a second story balcony and crashed to the ground in front of me. The object wasn’t aimed at me — it was a question of a domestic spat. But with so many different types of people at the squat lifestyle conflicts were almost inevitable. In one instance self-styled “chaos punks” carried out a graffiti campaign against “hippies”. There were also tensions between supporters and people who were actually living at the squat.

There were more sinister aspects in evidence as well, such as sabotage, provocations and police infiltration. Several days after the opening of Préfontaine an attempt to torch it took place at 6:30 a.m. Someone tampered with the electrical control panel, turned off the fire alarms, turned on the gas and lit a fire. People rapidly extinguished it.

Rampant theft was a problem from the outset. An incomplete list of things stolen included a half dozen bikes, CDs, the common room’s sound system, a knife, a cell phone, someone’s pot, etc. Anarchist journals I donated and put on a rack in the common room disappeared in a couple of days.

A visitor dressed as a punk at one point started to sieg heil and to sing songs by Screwdriver, a neo-nazi band. He was thrown out. A visitor who had been drinking suddenly started to complain that the white race was disappearing. He then proceeded to physically attack a black man, at which point he was ejected. A well-known neo-nazi drove up to the front gate on a motorcycle and made threats. He later showed up again and repeated the routine.

A youth received a proposition from the police that charges from a coke bust would be dropped in exchange for an agreement on his part to infiltrate the squat for several days and inform the cops about who was present and what the structure was. He ultimately decided to stay on at the squat and support the project — though he didn’t inform the squatters at the time that he had been involved with the police.

The squat was also infiltrated by a young Journal de Montréal reporter posing as a sympathiser from out of town. He stayed for two nights and wrote an exposé two tabloid pages long.

During a public event at the squat, Béranger Lessard, who in the past had run unsuccessfully for office for Mayor Bourque’s party, offered to give the squatters a thousand dollars apiece to abandon the project. Later he encountered two of the squatters at a bar and came up with another offer: he would renovate a kitchen at the squat no strings attached. He later appeared a third time with more offers — if the squatters would take down banners sporting slogans that upset him.

The General Assemblies
At both Overdale and Préfontaine, the general assembly was the primary decision-making body. At Préfontaine there were also residents’ meetings at which internal squat matters were discussed. I didn’t attend any residents’ meetings but was present at most of the Préfontaine general assemblies.

Compared to most contemporary social structures, the general assembly is egalitarian and participatory. There were numerous problems at the Préfontaine general assemblies, however. Some squatters rarely attended or only for brief periods, putting into question the legitimacy of decisions taken. Decisions were often not carried out in any case. Attendance dropped from fifty at the beginning to ten or fifteen later on, in part because fewer support people were present.

Dealing With the City
In accepting the deal offered at Overdale, the project had evolved from an illegal to a legal one. Relations with the City, however, remained far from clear. The squatters had been accorded “self-management”. At the same time the building remained city-owned; the City had to answer for it in a legal sense as well as for the decision to move people to Préfontaine, a decision portrayed by critics and the media as giving a freebie to people who didn’t deserve it. At general assemblies the squatters debated how to handle the City. The squat had undergone a steady stream of inspectors and city bureaucrats. Suspicions that undercover cops were sprinkled in were confirmed when a fire inspector was recognized as a cop who had previously arrested people. The squatters felt that everything that needed inspecting had been inspected: Could the City just butt out? Propositions to restrict access to squat were debated but the question was never really resolved. These debates had little effect on City personnel who continued to do what they wanted in any case.

In an interview published on August 22, Armand Fichaud called the Préfontaine project temporary but said that no evacuation date had been set. Three-quarters of the people at the squat shouldn’t be there, he announced. These people “should leave and go back to where they came from.”

At a meeting with the squatters the next day, Fichaud was heavy and in a bad mood, according to a person who was present. He complained that he had been treated in an unfriendly manner when he visited the squat. He also objected to banners that were up. Syringes blocking the toilet had been found by blue collar workers, he said. Because the project had only problems, he was having trouble selling it to the city executive, he said.

That the project should take on a legal form as an OSBL, another of Fichaud’s reiterated concerns, became the subject of two special general assemblies. Some argued passionately against becoming an OSBL; the issue became a line many were unwilling to cross. Others said that being an OSBL might be a concession but a worthwhile one if it meant the project would be ongoing. In both votes a majority was in favour of becoming an OSBL but neither vote achieved the percentage necessary for a clear victory according to the criteria used at the squat. Following the vote some people who had voted against becoming an OSBL left the project. Anti-OSBL graffiti appeared on the walls.

On August 30 the third meeting between the City and the squatters’ representatives took place. Fichaud said that the Préfontaine project had come to an end and people would have to leave. He mentioned a couple of places he could relocate the squatters to. Both were off the island of Montréal.

An assembly that was immediately called rejected the City’s offer. Relations with the City were effectively severed. For his part, Fichaud now referred to the squatters as “intruders”. Bourque said that the squatters had altered the building and had prevented city workers from accessing it.

The project had now regained an openly conflictual relationship with the City. For me personally, this made supporting it easier.

The squatters called a press conference the next day and said they didn’t intend to leave.

The City announced that it was setting a deadline of 9 o’clock a.m. on September 4 for the squatters to vacate. In response a “Festival of Resistance” was organized. During the afternoon of the event, food was served and clowns were on hand for the kids. Later, acoustic music was performed and then bands played.

At a general assembly it was decided that resistance to the eviction would be organized by affinity group. There was a reluctance to discuss this further, in part because of fears of infiltrators or bugs.

At 9:00 a.m. on D-Day the cops failed to materialize. Instead, a press conference took place at the squat by groups supporting the project.

Claiming he was against “any form of violence,” the mayor said he was not going to use the police to evict the squatters — at least for now. A city employee, however, contradicted this. He said the City had asked the cops to intervene but that they were unwilling to because the squatters had been invited into the Préfontaine building by the mayor.

The mayor said the City intended to “use all legal means” to remove the undesirables. In practice this translated into further inspections in an attempt to find a technical reason that could be evoked to shut down the project. Fire inspectors visited the building, finding minor infractions but nothing warranting the evacuation of the building.

A crack in a wall, the City hoped, might be a reason that could be used to oust the squatters. An engineer visited the building and recommended that a section be sealed off. As a large contingent of cops hovered outside the gate, City workers accompanied by eight cops barricaded six rooms, adding to space problems at the squat.

By October 1 some squatters felt that the City’s campaign of administrative harassment had failed and that people would be able to stay, at least through the winter. A representative of a local union attended a squatters meeting and said that union personnel would be willing to fix the heating. She said that some people in the union were leery about the squat because of media reports that the squatters had wrecked the building.

On October 3 further inspections of the building took place. According to a squatter who accompanied the inspectors, some of the screws on the six sealed-off rooms had been removed and replaced with other screws or nails. Several people I talked to, however, insisted that these rooms remained uninhabited.

The City finally had its excuse. The squatters would be evacuated … for their own safety.

At 9 a.m. the next day, the police entered the grounds through the community garden and stormed into the building. A number of squatters were roughed up and a man was shot twice with a tazer when he tried to return to his room to retrieve a satchel he needed for school. Seven arrests occurred.

That afternoon a squatters’ assembly took place at a nearby school. A demo was called to protest the eviction.

Shouting slogans denouncing the cops and the media, several hundred demonstrators marched toward City Hall the following day. Speeches were made by squatters on the steps of City Hall and graffiti appeared on the building. After the speeches the demo started up again. One group urged people to follow them to immediately open another squat. The crowd did not follow and the demo wound up back at the starting point. After people had milled around for a while and many had left, a group decided to continue along Sainte-Catherine Street. After a few blocks the riot squad intervened and 31 arrests took place. A woman was hit in the chest with a billy club.

That evening ten of the squatters ended up in the basement of a Catholic church. A priest welcomed them, opining during his speech that violent protest was unwise. The atmosphere seemed stifling and depressing. The few squatters who took advantage of the offer of a place to stay would be put out after a week.

A meeting attended by twenty squatters or supporters was held but no concrete decisions were made. An event looking back on the squats subsequently took place at a community centre. Videos of the squat were shown and talks were made by housing rights activists and some of the squatters.

With so many different kinds people involved in the squats, there are a variety of evaluations of the project. Some found that hard drug use was a major problem, while others felt that the squats were too open or that there were too many people at Préfontaine. At a meeting held in early 2002 to analyse the squats, it was evident that wounds were still fresh. A shouting match took place over some of the controversial events.

Some squatters have said that the experience was a radicalising one and one they would not forget. At times the squatters were able to win the day, putting the authorities on the defensive. Friendships were forged and networking took place between people who met through the project.

At Préfontaine, though, things quickly got bogged down in the day-to-day running of the squat. Although the idea that another squat should be started was brought up at meetings, Préfontaine would not be the springboard for further projects during its two months’ existence.

Heavy media coverage of the squat has meant that anyone in contact with any kind of Montreal media has now heard of squatting and has some kind of image of Overdale and Préfontaine. What kind of conception is a different matter, given the media bias against the squatters.

There is talk of a new squat but energies appear at a low ebb. The recently elected mayor, Gérald Tremblay, has criticized former Mayor Bourque for caving in to “civil disobedience,” so it is highly unlikely the new administration will cough up a building for a bunch of marginals and radicals.

For people like myself who disagreed with concessions such as becoming an OSBL, the challenge is to find ways to pull off squat projects that will not be immediately shut down by the police.

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