Reading, visiting or going to lectures is a great way to appreciate the heritage that is all around us. But enjoying our heritage is not enough: we must be able to act when it is threatened by destruction or disfigurement. Such actions are an impoverishment of our common heritage, which must be denounced and thwarted. This requires individuals, whether they are members of Heritage Montreal or not, to act appropriately, with some degree of strategy and organization. Must often, that means embracing one’s role as a citizen and calling on public authorities do their jobs properly.
Here are some of the key steps in such an approach.
In seeking to understand the various issues and aspects of a case, it is important to set clear objectives. This is even more important when many people, who may have very different ways of working and backgrounds, rally together around a common cause.
In assessing whether a project represents a real contribution to the heritage in the city, Heritage Montreal relies on five principles.
Question periods at city council meetings or at borough council meetings are opportunities to voice opinions or questions to elected officials.
Also, some laws and bylaws in individual municipalities or boroughs—for example those dealing with heritage designation, demolition requests or cutting of trees—include provisions and timeframes for notifying the public and receiving comments from citizens as part of the decision-making process. Your municipal planning or permits departments or the city clerk can provide information on the procedures and deadlines to ensure that you react in a timely manner and that your comments are officially recorded.
Different types of public consultation and how they work
Major decisions are submitted to public consultation. The process for decisions governed by the Act Respecting Land-Use Planning and Development is fairly light, consisting of a special session in which the mayor or a representative explains the project and hears reactions from citizens. This barely leaves room for citizens to study the project and prepare a response. Some municipalities have developed informal alternative processes that resemble consultation. For projects in Old Montreal and on Mount Royal, for example, the City of Montreal has even created permanent tables de concertation (issue tables). For certain zoning changes, the Act allows for residents in adjacent zones to contest the changes via referendum. The procedure, however, is quite cumbersome and complex.
Montreal has a specialized advisory organization called the Office de consultation publique de Montréal, in French (OCPM). OCPM consultations are a two-phase process, comprising an information period and the filing of briefs. All documentation is made public and posted on the OCPM website. Commissioners produce a consultation report summarizing the opinions heard, followed by their own analysis and recommendations.
To achieve something and make the most effective use of volunteers’ time and resources, and to keep the momentum up in battles, some basic organization is necessary. Getting organized can be as simple as meeting with neighbours to compare viewpoints or to launch a petition. Your overall strategy should include defining and/or assigning tasks, and appointing a spokesperson. Hold regular meetings to share information and maintain focus as a case or project evolves; this is crucial to avoid being marginalized or ridiculed in public. Organizing also helps you gain and maintain credibility: authorities and developers tend to look for a sole spokesperson or to exploit internal divisions amongst opponents. Sometimes, a citizens’ committee meeting on a regular basis will suffice. Other cases will lead to the forming of “rainbow” coalitions of local citizens and larger, existing groups or celebrities, as in the case of the Hôtel-Dieu, Précieux Sang / Villa-Maria and Jean-Talon Station battles.
Communication is much more than media relations. It’s really a matter of clarifying one’s message and finding the best means to convey it to the public, decision-makers or your allies. In general, you’ll have one or many different messages to communicate to a wide range of people at the local, provincial or federal level. Communication is also a way to involve stakeholders—Members of the National Assembly, for example—who may otherwise remain silent on issues of local concern. A news conference may be useful to communicate information and issues to the media. Sometimes, a campaign of letters to the editor may prove more beneficial. Public meetings can do both: helping communicate information to the public and creating an event for the media to cover. Finally, remember that you cannot fight your battle solely through the media, and that they will always make editorial decisions when covering urban-planning and heritage stories.
Continuity of action is an essential part of an effective strategy. Just as maintenance helps keep your property in good shape, it’s important to maintain contacts with and keep up pressure on the decision-makers. Such follow-up action can be as simple as checking by phone whether a letter to a minister or mayor has reached them properly, or that commitments made by elected officials are in fact being honoured. Following up is also a way to remind decision-makers that somebody is still interested in seeing them do their jobs properly when it comes to heritage. Finally, it also ensures that you keep on top of things, adapting your strategies with flexibility and imagination as circumstances evolve.
If need be, you can check the following resources and tools that will guide you effectively in creating a citizen mobilization movement to protect our local and metropolitan heritage.