For a coherent and collective action

Taking strategic action

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.

Understand the issues and clarify your goals
  • Do you want to prevent demolition of a historic building or the cutting of old trees?
  • Do you want to protect a site from a development that would remove its distinct qualities?
  • Do you want authorities to intervene to stop a heritage building or site from deteriorating?
  • Do you want to play a role in helping rehabilitate a heritage building or site?

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.

Assessing a project – Five principles of excellence in urban development

In assessing whether a project represents a real contribution to the heritage in the city, Heritage Montreal relies on five principles.

  1. Relevance and validity of the project: Response to collective needs: carrying capacity of the site from a symbolic, heritage, physical, social and functional perspective.
  2. Respect for heritage and urban context: Five types of heritage: built, urban landscape, archeological, historical and natural; character and scale; compatibility of uses; contribution to “walkability” and urbanity.
  3. Exemplary nature and credibility of the consultation and project development processes: Relations with residents and other stakeholders; preliminary studies; independence and effectiveness of consultations.
  4. Innovative aspects in concept and its implementation: An innovative or creative solution to urban or heritage issues, potential to constitute an inspiring model for other sites;
  5. Sustainable contribution to local/metropolitan heritage both now and in the future: Anticipated impact of the project 25 years after completion and thereafter; contribution to heritage and quality of life in the city for future generations.
Understand the mechanisms, the rules of the game and deadlines
  • Where, when and how can you communicate your concerns?
  • What are the regulations that protect your urban environment?
  • Who is in charge of enforcing those regulations?

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.

Get organized
  • What skills and expertise are available to you?
  • Who are your potential allies?
  • What resources can you rely on (time, money, places to meet, secretarial work, etc.)?
  • What is the best way to put all this together to get the most impact?

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.

Communicate your ideas effectively
  • To whom should you communicate your concerns and requests?
  • When should you do so, to get the best results?
  • How can you avoid being marginalized or ridiculed in public?
  • How can you keep your partners well informed?
  • How should you deal with the media?

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.

Make sure to follow up
  • How can you sustain pressure or energy?
  • Should you be satisfied with the official answers?
  • What can you do to ensure that decision-makers follow through on their commitments?

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.

Additional resources

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.