Montreal Waterways

Montreal Waterways is an Ethnographic research and creation group based out of the Ethnography Lab at Milieux's Speculative Life Research Cluster.

In Montreal, water is often thought of as abundant and even free. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, residents often pay little attention to it. The Montreal Waterways project aims to reconnect Montreal with its water. To us, water is a fascinating topic which connects the past with the future, the environment with infrastructure, and which flows through our everyday lives.

In an attempt to bring ethnography closer to home, Montreal Waterways conducts ethnographic research into various “water objects” that make up the city’s past, present and future. Although we hope to touch on a variety of topics as the project progresses, we currently are focused on two such objects: The Big Flush (a political event surrounding the dumping of raw sewage into the St-Lawrence river in 2015) and the history of the St-Pierre River, which was buried and turned into sewage and drainage infrastructure over the past 150 years.


Stories of a river and  the story of a collector and the river it swallowed

This research project is engaged in questioning how discourses and practices of modernity and development have led to the physical transformations of the Saint-Pierre River, and how these relate to the different material practices, representations and the symbolic nature of the river.

Using historical-geographical materialism methodologies, an ethnographic inquiry into human, non-human and infrastructure actors, and counter mapping we seek to develop a recursive (re)shaping of the water infrastructure that has absorbed and exhausted the Saint-Pierre River. Such methodologies will allow us to identify how infrastructure was used to colonize and lay claim to the area, as well as illustrate alternatives to “the incremental destruction of sustaining habitats” (Aberley, 1993:4). Through the creation of a counter map and ethnography of the river and water infrastructure, we will contest the homogenization of the space as it represented in zoning regulations, land-use maps and property regimes and offer new means of expressing hydro-social relationships in place.

In considering the material concerns that have come to bear on the construction of infrastructure in Montréal’s southwest area (i.e. the Lachine Canal, the railroads and yards, the Turcot Interchange, etc.), as well as public health and water quality issues we will work to “daylight” the historical policies, decisions and motivations that have resulted in the burying of the river. The flows of fresh water, sewage and storm water in urban spaces represent complex arrangements between human and non-human dimensions that challenge us to think about the ways in which policies and everyday practices intersect with the materiality of the world. As an actor within bio-cultural worlds, water infrastructure is in a dynamic interaction with the environment (Lea, 2017) while materializing ideologies and discourses of development, progress and modernity.

A moment of infrastructural visibility and eventfulness

This research group takes a deep look at the event of The Big Flush, when in November, 2015 the Montreal Municipal government dumped 8 billion litres of raw sewage into the Saint Lawrence River in order to accomodate for the renovations of sewage lines. The dump was supposed to be a rather mundane event as sewage dumps like this one are common infrastructural practice. However, as news of the dump circulated and it became a matter of intense public contention, it turned into an event interesting for its infrastructural and environmental consequences, its display of “infrastructural visibility” and also as a moment of political theatre which pitted then mayor Denis Coderre against various political actors.

When it turned into such a highly contested event, The Big Flush made visible different and unequal relationships to water and sewage infrastructure in Montreal. In order to untangle the intricacies of the event, this group asks two main questions. First, how did The Big Flush become a matter of political concern? To answer this question we are exploring the media coverage of the event, both the way in which the story circulated and how the coverage made visible the functioning of the infrastructure.

To answer this question we will be conducting interviews with various (overlapping) groups including activists, bureaucrats/ civil servants, indigenous communities, politicians, and engineers/ experts. We hope to uncover what it was about this moment specifically that created such heated public debate. We will also explore any action (or nonaction) that has taken place in terms of sewage infrastructure in Montreal since the event, specifically what particular activists, politicians, etc. have pursued.

We explore various opposing narratives that surrounded the event, such as its position as either an infrastructural failure vs success and the conflicting claims made by experts and politicians in terms of the environmental impact the sewage would have on the river and surrounding ecosystem. Second, we ask what The Big Flush tells us about the potentials of infrastructural politics.

There’s always the other side

Ethnographic film, 2018, by Treva Michelle Legassie.

Written in collaboration with Alejandra Melian-Morse, Alix Johnson, Marie-Eve Drouin-Gagné & Élie Jalbert

There’s always the other side is a three minute short film documenting traces from a research trip with the Waterways research group to the Jean R. Marcotte water treatment plant in Montreal. The film is an assemblage of the audio, video, and written documentation captured by Legassie, and others, during the research trip.

There’s always the other side takes sensing and an immersive intuitive approach to researching and capturing a site. Overlaying inputs from multiple channels of documentation (audio recording, cell phone photography, a DSLR camera and go pro; all shot in tandem by Legassie on site) the video work offers a multichannel audio-visual capture of the site. The voices present field note recordings from members of he Waterways research group documenting the individual experiences of Alix, Marie-Eve and Élie during the research trip.

In an attempt to rethink methodological approaches to anthropology, and specifically ethnography, by making work with visual and auditory ‘field notes’, There’s always the other side becomes a collage of research-turned-creation.