Glimpses of Park Ex

Olivier Choinière
For the past 20 years, Olivier Choinière has been working as a theatrical author, director, and translator. He is also the general and artistic director of creative company L’Activité.

North of the CN tracks, between L’Acadie Boulevard and Highway 40, Park Extension is swarming with sari-clad women, laughing children and kind neighbours. The neighbourhood plays host to migrants from all over the world and to a playwright who, for the first time, feels at home in Montréal.

Photos: Caroline Hayeur

Blair Market, Jarry Street West


Audis, BMWs, and saris in Park Ex.
The joys of living surrounded
by Greeks and Pakistanis. Vegetable
gardens, gutted garbage cans,
and everyday racism. Innumerable
siblings. Downward social mobility.


A friend once admitted that he could never live in an area where his neighbours didn’t speak French. Park Extension boasts about a hundred different origins. Forty-odd languages can be heard on its streets. Immigrants represent nearly 60 per cent of the neighbourhood’s population by official numbers, but this percentage seems a little low to me. As a francophone, I’m a clear minority—in my part of the street, there are two of us. People that arrived with the first waves of European immigration are widely represented, especially Italians and Greeks. Their children visit them on Sundays, significantly increasing the number of Audis, Benzes, and BMWs parked along the sidewalk. This second generation (about my age) lives in the suburbs or more affluent neighbourhoods. I am therefore not only a linguistic but also a generational minority, my neighbours being on average about 83 years old. I’ve often heard that “Park Ex” is the gateway to Québec immigration. The expression should be taken literally, since it sometimes really seems like certain immigrants have just entered through it. When I’m driving and I see an African or Pakistani on a street corner, I motion for them to cross, but they don’t. They stay there, hesitant, scanning the horizon for a clue, a point of reference, a direction.


Park Extension owes its name to a real estate company that bought up land from farmers who’d settled in Saint-Laurent Parish at the beginning of the 19th century. At the time, these lots, located at the northern end of Park Avenue, were called Park Avenue Extension. The Jean-Talon railway station was built in the early 1930s. The arrival of trams and then trains attracted all kinds of small industries. Canadian Pacific labourers moved to the area around the station, which gradually transformed Park Extension into a residential district. The train, closely tied to Canada’s geographical development, had a strong hand in drawing Montréal’s map. The railroad is an essential part of the Park Extension experience; when, on foot or bike, I cross under the overpass at the western edge of Jarry Park, I am physically aware of entering or leaving the neighbourhood. Bounded to the east and south by train tracks, to the west by L’Acadie Boulevard, and to the north by Highway 40, this neighbourhood almost seems like a small isolated country. There are few places in Montréal with such pronounced borders.


I grew up in Sainte-Foy, a suburb of Québec City not too far from Laval University. In the 1980s it welcomed a good number of professors from abroad, which explains why my childhood friends were Swiss-German, French, Polish, and Haitian. My friend Marcus was frequently bullied in the schoolyard, and by his side I had to bear the insults about his skin colour, which “stained the snow.” Very early on I was exposed to everyday racism within a homogen-eous white society. I’ve been living in Montréal since 1993. Native Montrealers have always loved reminding me that I wasn’t born here, a kind of socially acceptable exclusion that can target anyone who comes from the country or from any other city in the province (though it’s a well-known fact that Montréal as a city is far more open to the outside world than anywhere else in Québec). I’ve lived in the eastern, western, and northern parts of the Plateau; I’ve lived in Rosemont, Mile End, and Little Italy, and unless they were friends or acquaintances, talking to your neighbours was a rare occurence. I remember a woman (a francophone) who seemed terrified by the idea of saying hello to me. Since our two entrance doors practically faced each other, a chance encounter in the narrow indoor staircase was always rather awkward. I moved to Park Ex in 2013. It was the first time in my life as a Montrealer that a neighbour not only came over to introduce themselves, but also to introduce me to the other neighbours. And it has to be said that the first person to ever go out of their way to welcome me in Montréal was an immigrant.


An aerial view of Montréal shows the glaring discrepancy between Park Extension and the Town of Mount Royal next door. To the west of L’Acadie Boulevard: greenery, trees, and backyard pools. To the east: a lot of concrete, few green spaces, and not a single backyard pool. Park Extension is a “developing” neighbourhood; in other words, it’s a poor neighbourhood—the poorest in Montréal. The city invested in many infrastructure projects, such as the Saint-Roch Pool, among the most modern I’ve ever had the chance to swim in. There are many schools, all offering francization classes. I spoke with a few teachers from Barthélémy-Vimont or Camille-Laurin, and they were all full of praise for their students: helicopter parenting is not an issue and children have a thirst for knowledge that you won’t find anywhere else in Montréal. The library and cultural centre are vibrant, active places. And nearly every park is equipped with water play areas, which is far from the case in the rest of the city. Despite these investments, the lack of trees and streetlights imparts a sinister quality to certain roads. It looks like the urban planners gave up on them. A few scrawny stumps were planted following the reconstruction of Jarry Street, but the widened intersection sidewalks remain an ode to concrete, and never mind the new street lighting that spreads its white “eco-energetic” glow over everything. The giant flowerpots at the corner of Querbes and Jarry only serve to emphasize how laughably inadequate these “embellishments” are. Every route into the neighbourhood remains mildly depressing. The social housing that lines L’Acadie Boulevard is a sorry sight for all who drive by. (As a child, my girlfriend, who grew up in Laval, would try and imagine the everyday lives of the poor people who lived there; she now lives just a few blocks away.) Poverty in Park Extension is made manifest by certain signs, including the presence of garbage in parks, on sidewalks, in alleys, every single day of the week. Municipal composting simply doesn’t exist, which is rather surprising considering how fond of gardening the neighbourhood’s inhabitants are. We need to address this local culture of poverty or targeted negligence from the city, which would rather build new multi-million-dollar baseball fields in Jarry Park next door than revitalize a neighbourhood whose residents will never be the first to complain.

Olivier Choinière in front of his yard


I’m about the only one on my block with more grass than vegetables in my yard. My neighbours take advantage of their land as much as possible. Every spring, each one of them gets busy in their vegetable patch, sowing seeds, planting, doling out advice, catching up, so the alley feels like a great big community garden. In my opinion, the neighbours are the area’s greatest asset. The backyards are most often separated from each other by a simple chain-link fence, which means I can see inside the yards of most of my immediate neighbours. Isolating myself from them with a cedar hedge would amount to nonsense. And besides, my yard would lose a few hours of sunlight. T., my neighbour to the left, is from Greece. K., my neighbour to the right, comes from Guyana. They both arrived in Québec about 30 years ago. T. and his wife A. are like an extra set of grandparents to my daughter. They blow her kisses in the morning and give her ice cream cones in the afternoon, and that’s when they’re not giving her birthday or Christmas presents. K. is just as generous, and when his American cousins pay him a visit, he invites me over for a beer and chicken legs. My neighbour across the street, who sometimes wears a black ball cap with the word “Guard” on it, is permanently glued to his window. He rings my doorbell when my car is parked on the wrong side of the street. It’s his chance to tell me about his childhood in incomprehensible English. The Italian woman that lives three houses down from me calls my girlfriend the “beautiful lady” and slips a five-dollar bill in my daughter’s hands from time to time. This is what I call being well looked after.

“Very young children are social binders. They invite themselves into other people’s business as naturally as can be.”


— A woman stole some of your beans last week.
— Yeah, I noticed.
— She filled her pockets with them. I told her: “Hey! Lady! Those beans aren’t free!” You know what she said?
— No.
— “I’m from Afghanistan!” As if that gave her every right


I’ve never felt as much at home in Montréal as I have in Park Extension. Is it simply because I live in my own house? I don’t think so. I chose this place because it allowed me to become a homeowner, but to tell you the truth, my reasons weren’t strictly economic. I’d had enough of this franco-phone self-segregation, this form of social endogamy that makes us choose (or envy) neighbourhoods with people like us, people with whom we share codes, cultural heritage, and a taste for barn wood kitchen cabinets and incandescent light bulbs that hang from the ceiling. That said, I no doubt contribute to the neighbourhood’s gentrification. When I go for a jog in the park and ensconce my daughter in her Chariot (the Hummer of strollers) or head toward Jarry Stadium with my Head tennis bag, I’m displaying sure signs of urban gentrification, a phenomenon characterized by an influx of more affluent residents appropriating a space initially occupied by less fortunate inhabit-ants. Negative reactions to gentrification like we’ve seen in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve or Saint-Henri would be hard to import here, I think. Probably because the majority of the population are immigrants. By definition, they aspire to greater wealth. They don’t harbour negative feelings toward the luxury displayed by others. But also because real estate developers didn’t completely overhaul the neighbourhood’s image to attract the well-heeled like they did in “HoMa.” The purchase and renovation of buildings in Park Ex is most often carried out by individuals. Transformation takes place rather slowly, in increments, and has not (yet) led to an outrageous increase in rental rates or housing costs. The small designer object stores, gluten-free bakeries, and other trendy cafés just can’t seem to make headway here. Two years ago, a crêpe bar serving lattes and offering wifi opened on Anvers Street. My girlfriend, who prayed every night for the city to install Bixi stations on Jarry Street, wept for joy. Six months later, the joint became an Italian snack bar, and six months after that, an Indian fast-food counter. On the other hand, there’s La Place Commune that opened on Querbes; this café runs on a community and cooperative model, and as such likely has a better chance of survival, if only because the patronage of its members keeps it busy.


What has Québec society done over the last 40 years to integrate immigrants? Courses in francization and workplace integration are without a doubt an important first step, but it’s obviously not enough. Most foreign diplomas aren’t recognized here. Even immigrants landing as skilled workers need to resume their studies if they hope to work in their field, which they can’t help but see as a betrayal. Those who arrive with a family can rarely afford to go back to school. They find a job to put food on the table and do everything they can to make sure their children have access to higher education. It will be these children, hopefully, who will enjoy the better life their parents dreamed about. They are the ones who will end up integrating, even if they’ll be reminded of their origin, and thus their difference, their entire lives, as we’ve seen in the work of Elkahna Talbi, Talia Hallmona, Mireille Tawfik, or Mani Soleymanlou. For any immigrant, the francophones of Québec remain a closed group. Learning the language is not enough to integrate into a culture: even for the French, it’s very difficult to make Québécois friends. (I can already anticipate the reactions to this statement. A thousand examples are going to try and prove me wrong.) Following a screening of Nous autres, les autres, a documentary film by Jean-Claude Coulbois that examines how playwrights approach the immigration issue, a few people in the room took the floor, including Ukrainian-born actor Sasha Samar. I’m quoting him here from memory: “In Québec, immigrants are invited to the party, sure, but they are never the ones being celebrated.” All immigrants, of course, have the experience of immigration in common, but every immigrant is not “the immigrants.” Reality is far more complex. And the reality of those who made the incredible decision to start their lives over in another country is all the more so. As long as we perceive them as a homogeneous (and closed) group, we will remain pawns of the perceptions that politicians (on both the left and right) entertain about them, for no other reason than because it is a lot more practical—and politically profitable—to think about them that way. So what have I done over the past few years to welcome immigrants into my life? I wrote and staged a play with nine of them called Polyglotte, undoubtedly the most demanding and difficult project of my entire career. And I moved to Park Extension. But clearly, it’s not enough.


A cab picks me up on L’Épée Avenue. I chat with the (Portuguese) driver about this and that, about the Canadiens’ failure to make the playoffs and our colourful mayor, -Denis Coderre. A car ahead can’t seem to pick a lane, which infuriates him: “I bet you there’s a n***** driving!” Despite my protests, the driver accelerates and passes the other car. He points to the man behind the wheel. “See, what did I tell you?” What struck me the most when I moved to Montréal was the extent to which immigrants were unkind toward one another. Probably because I still thought of them as a homogeneous group, belonging to the same foreign homeland. After all, a racist from the Azores has nothing to do with a Haitian, and it’s not because he emigrated to Canada that he’s suddenly going to become open and tolerant. In Montréal, as in many North American cities, each ethnic group has a tendency to congregate in the same neighbourhood. I was under the impression that this dynamic didn’t apply to Park Extension, given that the neighbourhood hosted myriad different cultures. There are in fact two categories: those who’ve been here for a long time, and the others. During a party with the neighbours, one of them started ranting to me: “I moved here with my wife 30 years ago. I had to go back to school to find work, so I did. When I got my diploma, we decided to stay in Montréal. I never managed to learn French, but I always insisted that my sons be perfectly bilingual. Today, the immigrants that come to Canada don’t want to integrate. They milk the system as much as possible and then move elsewhere. Let’s not kid ourselves. There are good and bad immigrants.” To be sure, this neighbour believes he’s part of the first category.

Staircase, back of an apartment building.


In Villeray, in the children’s playground in the eastern part of Jarry Park, families provide a somewhat alienating sight: each (only) child is accompanied by a parent overly involved in his progeny’s entertainment, by the same token preventing them from socializing. In Saint-Roch Park, kids are usually left to their own devices. Very young children are social binders. They invite themselves into other people’s business as naturally as can be. With only the one child myself, I take advantage of the poor and large families in Park Extension. We’ve barely arrived at Saint-Roch when my daughter sits with a (veiled) woman and her son who are making sand castles. The woman kindly offers her a plastic shovel. When I get close enough to make conversation, the mother asks me, “Are we allowed to play with your daughter?” as if I intended to steer her away from this dangerous duo. I said, “Of course!” and was left feeling like it wasn’t exactly the right thing to say. The so-called debate over the Charter of Values brought a lot of mud to the surface that we’re still bogged down in, and which in some way reduces us to silence.


The airplanes that regularly rip through the Park Extension skyline act as a sort of metaphor. We would probably be curious to visit the countries where the neighbourhood’s 100 ethnicities come from. But here they are, stripped of their land and landscapes, and we don’t know how to approach them, I guess because we don’t know which country we’re inviting them into, nor what this place is that we’re talking to them about. There they are, standing on the street corners, and we motion for them to cross, but they don’t. Like us, they’re scanning the horizon for a clue, a point of reference, a direction.