Walk in the Water / Marcher sur les Eaux

August 2017: The fast moving St. Lawrence River at the eastern edge of Pointe-St-Charles.

Walk in the Water: The St. Lawrence River at Pointe-St-Charles is a research and creation project that explores the histories and meanings of the river’s shoreline at the de-industrialized Montreal neighbourhood of Pointe-St-Charles, from environmental and social perspectives. It builds on Kathleen Vaughan’s ongoing work based in “the Point” and her interest in and collaborations about water and its meaning (for instance, via the Waters Lost, Waters Found Working Group at Concordia University) and encompasses related water-y projects such as Gardens of Water (2017).

Once, this low-lying, boggy land was part of a seasonal First Nations’ hunting ground. When settlers arrived, an actual Point reached into the river, creating a sheltered cove for safe harbour of the ships that in the 1640s brought the young French women known as the ‘Filles du Roi’ [King’s Daughters] to the Maison St. Gabriel, now a historical museum. Over the last 200 years, the shoreline itself has been dramatically changed as a result of dumping (the area once served as the city garbage dump) and infilling (with ground excavated to create the Lachine Canal (1820s and 1840s) and the Montreal subway system (1960-70s)). Now, much of the Point’s terrain by the river is described as being contaminated soil, not fit for human habitation. Instead, it is home to Industrial building of railway lines, Highway 10 and the Technoparc, which means that the river is hard to access from the residences of the Point. It takes a determined human visitor to get to this part of the island – and yet non-human life continues.

Shoreline as per 1840s James Duncan engraving of Montreal from the Indian encampment. Archives of Canada.

Montrealers have strong feelings about our River, as shown in November 2015, when many responded with anger and dismay at the City’s proposal to dump raw sewage directly into the River (at the eastern edge of – or just downriver from – Pointe-St-Charles) in order to perform essential maintenance of holding tanks. Scrutiny by federal and provincial government environmental watchdogs delayed but did not stop that dump, which some locals recall with shame. Many Pointe-St-Charles residents dream of a day when their shoreline is once more accessible, and given the same loving treatment and public investment as Verdun to the west, with its boardwalks and beaches, and the parks and greenspaces of Cité du Havre and Île-Ste-Hélène to the east.

What is the Pointe-St-Charles riverscape now? What do we think of when we imagine this little-known shoreline? What would it mean to walk in the water?

Using oral history and visual art, Walk in the Water / Marcher sur les Eaux will create a polyphonic exploration of the neglected Pointe-St-Charles shoreline and our relationship with the St. Lawrence River, using current and previous writings and interviews with local residents as well as with experts from the disciplines of urban planning, history, political ecology, botany, literature, sanitary engineering, environmental studies, water ecologies, and more.

Looking across to the Pointe-St-Charles shoreline and the downtown skyline beyond, across the fast-moving, cold spring water of the St. Lawrence as seen from Île des Soeurs. April 25, 2017. Photo: Kathleen Vaughan

Walk in the Water will take multiple forms, including

  •  a wall-sized textile map of the shoreline’s changes, which will feature touch-activated audio excerpts from interviews and recorded historical publications and
  • an audio walk that juxtaposes features of the original (as mapped in 1805) and the current shoreline. Additional public art projects (e.g. a visual installation that traces the original shoreline) may also be created, integrating data collected from multiple sources. Walk in the Water will be disseminated via exhibitions, public events (e.g. organized group walks), and academic and general interest writing, with audio walks available via digital download from this website.

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