Community: Selected Montréal Experiences

Submitted by madelinebarber on February 6, 2013 - 1:55pm
Searching for community in a new city


This past summer, two friends and I struck out in a U Haul from small-town Ontario to create a "new" life in Montreal, a place known to us for its cultural vibrance and youthful culture. The 3 of us had almost no experience with the place, but what we did know had thrilled us enough that we thought it was worth exploring for a year (or more, if things worked out).

Since arriving, I have been actively seeking community in Montreal. What I have discovered in the last six months has been incredible. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Montreal stands alone in Canada in its open willingness to synthesize overlapping communities into a culture all its own. Here are five very different ways that I've felt, interacted with or even helped create community since arriving... happy reading: 

First Impressions

The neighbourhood we first moved into was the Plateau- Montreal's poster place for diversity and culture. Our apartment was a cheap sublet on the second floor of a triplex, complete with balconies. We were seconds away from landmark shops and parks. We noticed gleefully how few franchised restaurants there were. Summer was the perfect time to move in. Everything was abuzz with life and light, it seemed.

A mere few days after moving in, we had met both our upstairs and downstairs neighbours.The upstairs people were graduate students from Bangladesh and California who offered us fresh bagels on their sunny balcony, and invited us to a party a few nights later. The downstairs neighbour was a transient web designer, hitchhiker and a masters student in Buddhism (though not Buddhist himself). He immediately gave us his Wifi password, so we had free internet for our two months in the sublet. His cat would frequent our kitchen, once she found out we kept treats for her. We would share tea and food with him, and have long talks into the night. We were blown away by the immediate openness of the city. It led to the feeling that anything was possible.

Santropol Roulant

On one of my first walks around the neighbourhood, an interesting building caught my eye. It was colourful and welcoming, with plants and bikes everywhere and wheelchair access. The sign in the window, Bénévoles Demandé (volunteers wanted), intrigued me even further. After some pondering, I wandered in and asked (relatively clumsily) what was going on there. I was immediately welcomed in, and after hearing about what Santropol Roulant does- they run a highly innovative meals-on-wheels program, urban farms, and are becoming an important example of a community food hub- I was hooked. I signed up for a volunteer training session.

Six months later, I'm proud to say that I have been volunteering regularly for Santropol Roulant in several capacities. I have done shifts in the gardens, the kitchen and delivery routes. I have had the pleasure of participating in workshops on cheesemaking and canning. I am now helping them with a project involving the analysis of their space. SR is a fascinating and ever-evolving place with a unique take on community- I encourage you to read more on their website, Needless to say, this is a landmark place for me in my quest for Montreal community.

CED Concordia

Though I primarily thought of moving to Montreal as an epic adventure, I had enrolled in a postgrad program at Concordia before arriving. I thought of it as kind of an excuse to move more than anything else. Little did I realize that a post-grad diploma in Community Economic Development would be so profoundly resonant with my interests!

This weird and wonderful program is run out of Concordia U's School of Community and Public Affairs. It's one year long, but classes are only held 3 days per month. That's right- since it's geared toward people already in the field of community work, we get together just one weekend per month to share and learn together. The class itself becomes a community, where people of diverse interests forge connections and learn from one another as well as the professors.

What really differentiates the "vibe" of this program from others I've heard of is its comfort with activism and the politics of change in developing communities. It seems to me that Quebecois(e)'s history of advocating for themselves shows up every day here in different ways. People in my class are really forward-thinking. They are not afraid of angering one group or another while discussing the overlap of politics and economics, or really blatantly wrestling with practical ideological questions. Better yet, the application of their findings is not meant to be academic. Learnings are meant to be carried into the world, where we can challenge the status quo and (ideally) find work in fields we are passionate about. I find every class and project to be inspiring. 

"The Internationals"

About five days after we landed, I had already found a waitressing job at a funny little place which served breakfast to the attached hotel/ hostel. Every morning at about 6am, I would bike through the Plateau to work, where I would bring people eggs on the sunny patio. At night, the place became a pub, serving drinks to the wayfaring clientele. 

The strangest thing occurred over the few months that I worked at this restaurant. I began meeting people my age who were also just landing in Montreal. On that patio, I gave advice on where to find apartments, where to go out, which sights to bother seeing... though brand-new myself, this was a valuable way to get to know the landscape for newcomers. Some were just passing through, but a few stayed for many months. We ended up forming a makeshift community and network of people from all over: the UK, Australia, Calgary, New Orleans, Germany, Seattle, France, Korea, and Mexico, to name a few. For a few months, we would get together regularly to have drinks or play sports in the park. I formed some fast friendships and learned so much!

But a defining feature of this particular community was its impermanence. It was understood that things would not be like that for long. I'm sure many of those reading this have experienced this kind of thing... at summer camp, at university, while travelling or otherwise. It's bitter-sweet, when you enjoy a group of people so much, to know that the transience of life is going to tear you apart after a not-so-very-long time. I think that this is an important feature of my demographic/ generation's experience of community, and it can be extremely valuable. I will probably discuss this further in later blogs.

Anyways, now that most of these friends are gone, the value of more permanent friend connections has become more apparent. I am fortunate to have two room mates whose values strongly align with my own; we form a very strong tripod. That said, I still seek a grander network.

Epic Meal Community

The presence of potlucks and shared meals, and the crazy magic that seems to happen when people share food together, is a feature of many blogs on this site. Unsurprisingly in a city known for its food culture, the latest in my experiences in Montreal involves a potluck club... humbly known as Epic Meals.

I was introduced to this society of meal preparation by someone I worked with at the restaurant. Every Sunday evening, a themed meal is prepared in a different person's home. The group has no official membership clauses,  but it definitely has "a way of sucking you in", as one member put it. Themes I have attended have included Jamaican, Lucky Foods, Health Health Freak, etc. 

This social group really is the type of thing I've been looking for. One person even commented at the last meal that "this is our church"- I found this to be significant because of the historical symbolism of a church as a central meeting place for a community. Though my demographic has moved away from religious underpinnings, it is nice to have an intentional community where people with similar values can share food and friendship.

Overall, this city has opened a world of new possibilities for me. I am looking forward to seeing what else it has to offer in the coming months!




Thanks for writing about Montreal. Your post reminds me so much of my experience spending a summer in the city in 1989. I loved every minute of every moment of that summer. Thank you for helping me relive the city's vibrancy though your post. I hope you will share with us your next adventure.



John Thornburn



What a rich beginning!

Hi Madeline,

Thanks so much for sharing all of your insights and experiences! It sounds your new city not only embraced you- you embraced it: your new comunity and all the potential it held. This is fabulous!

Of the five areas of community you describe, does one stand out more than the others when pondering which made you feel the greatest sense of belonging and connection? Or, did they all provide this, but just in their different ways?

Which to choose?

Hi Rachel,

I think that belonging and connection are what naturally occurs when people come together to accomplish common goals. Each of these communities did provide this for me in different ways. But in my experience, which community I most strongly identify with is more of a temporal thing than a decision based on emotion- whichever group of people I am spending most of my energy on/ with at a given time becomes my "base" community, and this changes over time as interests, locations, and commitments evolve.

I am coming to Montreal

Maddie, this is an awesome blog.  I am excited to come to Montreal to visit you for a bit in the months ahead.  I would love to get a chance to connect with all these different communities and have great conversations about how people are experiencing community in Quebec.  It makes me want to move to the city.  Ottawa is calling my name too...

How would you compare this community with Coburg and Stouffville?  What are the similarities, what are the differences.  

How about camp, you grew up with a tight experience of community at camp, how does this compare?

welcome any time!

Thanks Derek! You should come out this way more often! We could definitely work something out if you want to host a conversation with one of these groups. I know Epic Meals would definitely love to take part in a project like yours and would have some insights to share... it's part of the every day discourse in their kind of intentional community.

I think in the future I will write a bit more about past experiences I've enjoyed and specific details of current ones. I'm lucky enough to have a tapestry of community backgrounds. This one is more of an overview to say what I'm currently up to.