Real Estate Development Gone Wild

Invasion Construction
Montreal documentary filmmaker Martin Frigon recently released a film called La Grande Invasion (The Great Invasion, produced by Productions Multi-Monde) on a subject which is very close to my heart: the impact of out-of-control real estate development on local communities.My father who was an artist and art school director in Sweden spent a good part of his life fighting for the respect of the character of the landscape and local communities where he lived on the Atlantic coast north of Gothenburg. But I don’t think in his wildest nightmares he could have imagined the kind of development which is now transforming the Laurentians, a beautiful area north of Montreal where I have some land and spend a lot of my time paddling and hiking.

I saw the film at the Parc Cinema, which allowed time for a substantial panel discussion after the screening. As Martin’s film shows, the development of mega-shopping-centres (‘Power Centres’) and giant housing developments is literally ruining local communities,even forcing many local residents to become refugees. I asked Martin a few questions.

I think if I had made this film I would have paid a lot of attention to the aesthetics, contrasting archives from what used to be beautiful Laurentian villages with the horrors of this kind of development. But your focus is really on economics, culture and community life. Why is the tax issue so important?

The idea of contrasting the beauty of the old villages and the unbridled development we are seeing was the basis for my first script. At that time, my main character was Louis Pelletier, a carpenter known in the local media as the king of heritage buildings in the Laurentians. From the beginning, the documentary was about the destruction of built heritage under pressure from American urbanism. The idea of contrasting old and new was natural, with this man whose hands worked the wood and built the inside of these buildings. His reflections were very interesting and revolved around the fact that craftspeople were driven out of the construction industry in the early 1970’s and most of the villages which have become monuments of ugliness used to be architectural jewels. The craftspeople were driven out by building codes which got increasingly rigid (along with lots of other things) and the know-how they took with them has been lost in the depths of time along with the beauty of our towns and villages.

Quebec villages have been covered over by tons of vinyl and cheap clapboard; the dressing that used to be on the buildings, the ornamental architecture has been wiped out. With Louis, we intended to use archival photos to reconstitute some of the buildings, which had been abandoned out of ignorance or lack of funds, and give back their character to the villages and towns. He proposed to show us the extraordinary heritage that was buried and only needed surfacing.

But it didn’t take long after we were on the ground, to realize that the idea of renovations would be insignificant in the tidal wave of large surface stores and accompanying real estate development that was washing over the area.From the ground, the urgency of looking at the impact of overdevelopment on local populations was obvious. This development is exacerbated in the Laurentians by flourishing recreational tourist development that is almost a caricature. The Disney dream seems to be the blueprint for American-style urban development, producing a high-end tourist industry, which not only develops on the margins of the world, but attacks local populations who cannot survive the hyper inflated property values.

Property taxes in some areas are a pure reflection of speculation. It’s because a small portion of property sales in a given area can be used to set the tax rate for all residents. Our property taxes are totally regressive and out-dated and they transfer money from the poor to the rich, the exact opposite of income taxes.In this regard, these taxes are a magnificent expression of neo-liberalism, where “you take money from the poor – they don’t have much, but there are a lot of them.

At the heart of the film, there is a story of a stubborn grocery store owner and a well-known artist in Val David, fighting to maintain the local community. Can you tell me their story? Do they represent the desperate last gasp of a vanishing way of life, or is there really some hope for the future? 

René Derouin, an internationally known artist who trained with the Mexican muralists in the 1950’s, comes out of his workshop to place art into the centre of his community. There is a grocery store in the central square of the village (a small Metro store) owned by Jacques Dufresne, the grandson of the original grocer family whose ancestors founded Val-David. When René Derouin learns that the owners of Metro headquarters in Montreal were pressuring Jacques Dufresne to move his business out of town to the side of the highway to compete with the large box stores, he thought of resisting the move through art.Both men knew that if the grocery store moved, life would be drained from the town.

Derouin made Jacques Dufresne a proposal to create a mural that would circle the food store like a belt (450 feet in length), a piece of art that would integrate nature and the community. The artist would be bringing art out of the museum. So he creates a work inspired by northern fauna and the Laurentian flora of Marie-Victorin (the father of Quebec botany). The very centre of Val-David will be marked by a work that symbolizes connection with the land, a sort of DNA of the Quebec nation and lasting symbol for its future. I would say it is not so much an attempt to preserve a bygone way of life as to find a modern way (Derouin is definitely a modern artist) of responding to the tidal wave of box stores and shopping centres. I know that René Derouin was seeking a way to prevent Quebec being turned into merely folklore in future, something of the past and apart from the real world. He dreamed that the mural project on the Metro store would become a trigger for development by local merchants and have a domino effect that would bring the village into the future. The project would be a way of putting art at the centre of development, the opposite of the dominant economic model that builds around Power Centres and anonymous housing projects whose aesthetics are based on uprooting and separation. Beyond art in a strict sense, René Derouin dreams of brining back the public square. Let’s not forget that the spread of Power Centres is also a privatisation of public space, it’s reducing humans to their function as consumers and the world as a place strictly for trade.

In conclusion, I would say that the two parts of the film represent two paths of resistance to overdevelopment: the path of art, and the path of mobilizing the people, two paths that depend on each other because they carry the same idea- the future of culture and community – the question of life in society.