Community voices
Jason Hughes : The Community Organiser

Raised in Ville Saint-Laurent, Jason Hughes moved to NDG in the late 1980s to work at the NDG Food Depot. He later became the NDG Community Council’s community organiser for Benny Farm, working directly with the CCNDG’s Housing Committee. Hughes was a spokesman for the community-based response to the CMHC’s proposed plan to demolish Benny Farm and sell most of the land to developers. He worked actively on proposals to preserve low-cost housing at Benny Farm during the redevelopment and has remained involved with affordable housing initiatives in NDG. Hughes is currently the director of Project Tango, a non-profit organization offering adapted and affordable housing for people living with physical disabilities at Benny Farm.

Helen Bolton Guy : The Veteran

Helen Bolton Guy comes from a military family and chose a career in the Canadian Armed Forces. It was her military service that made her family eligible for an apartment at Benny Farm in 1965. With a soldierly sense of order, the tenants coordinated themselves by building and Bolton Guy was her building “Captain,” organising sports and social events and looking out for her neighbours. By 1972, Bolton Guy was head of the Benny Farm Tenants’ Association, advocating for tenants’ rights with The Farm’s landlord, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). She was a leading voice for veterans and Benny Farm tenants rights during the redevelopment and continues to be an organiser and advocate at Benny Farm and in the community.

Sam Boskey : The City Councilor

Born into a family of union organisers and social justice advocates, Sam Boskey was an early activist and community organiser who went on to become a founding member of the progressive municipal party, the MCM (Montreal Citizens’ Movement). He was elected city councilor for the Décarie district from 1982 to 1998, first under the banner of the MCM and later as an independent. During his years in office and after, affordable housing and tenants’ rights were among his top priorities. Boskey’s involvement with Benny Farm began when he joined the NDG Community Council’s Housing Committee and continued throughout the years of its redevelopment.

Luba Serge : The Housing Activist

With a background in urban planning and experience with some of Montreal’s major social housing campaigns, including Milton-Parc, Serge came to the Benny Farm redevelopment as a consultant for the NDG Community Council’s Housing Committee in 1998. Along with other key community activists and organizations, she helped to create the Fonds Foncier Benny Farm in order to present a development plan for affordable homeownership and social housing to Canada Lands, which had taken over the property from the CMHC. Serge went on to write her PhD dissertation on Benny Farm and its redevelopment, and continues to be involved with issues of social housing, homelessness and social exclusion. She is currently a commissioner at the Office de consultation publique de Montréal and teaches at John Abbott College.

The beginning: 1833-1947

In 1838, he purchased a parcel of land that stretched from the St-Jacques escarpment to Cote-Saint-Luc Road. The Bennys built a manor house near Upper Lachine Road, while the farmhouse was near Cavendish boulevard.

1833 - Farmland

British immigrant Walter Benny began his career in Montreal as a Master-Baker and soon became involved in milling, banking, hardware and other concerns. As member of the city’s wealthy merchant-class, he owned many properties, including a building on St-Joseph Street in Old Montreal that still bears his name.

1944 - Federal Land

Intending to build a veterans’ hospital, the MPNH (Minister of Pensions and National Health) buys the remaining undeveloped farmland from the Benny family.

Responding to growing anger over a housing crisis for returning veterans, the government opts to build housing instead.

1946 ~ 1947 - Who will build housing for veterans?

Federal Government asks private enterprise to get involved in solving veterans’ housing crisis and sells the land to Housing Enterprises of Canada Limited, a consortium of insurance companies. HECL builds a series of veterans' housing complexes across Canada and among those, Benny Farm stands out as a model for post-war housing.

" Garden City... buildings that would encourage community."

Designed by architect Harold James Doran, Benny Farm is laid out in the Garden City style, which features low scale buildings surrounded by large tracts of common green space. Modernist and functional, Benny Farm's six-plexes are in contrast to the housing stock in the surrounding neighbourhood.

1947 - The New Landlord: Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation

In 1946, Benny Farm is purchased by the newly created Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Veterans’ families are awarded apartments based on a military service points system. The first families move in 1947.

The Veterans' Community 1947-1990

1947-1990 A Veterans’ Community

For over 40 years, Benny Farm is home to a tight-knit community of families, who share similar backgrounds and life experience. There were at one time over 1500 kids at Benny Farm, participating in the Farm’s sports teams, dance recitals, and community events. All of this was captured in "The Benny Farmer," the Farms's very own newspaper.

" Il y avait une cohésion extraordinaire par ce que c’était surtout des vétérans, des gens intelligents. Ils avaient un esprit de solidarité social. 99% des gens étaient des vétérans. "
-Jean-Paul Lanoie, Benny Farm resident, Benny Farm Memory Clinic interview, April 3, 2005

" Nothing happened on Benny Farm without someone seeing it, our children had constant watch dogs. "
-Iris Merle Church, Benny Farm resident, Benny Farm Memory Clinic interview, April 4, 2005

" Lots of Kids! "

" Back in the day, there were a lot of mothers at home, there were a lot of kids. Things were split up by blocks, there were committees for sports and activities in each. "
-Helen Bolton Guy, Head of Benny Farm Tenants’ Association, Benny Farm Memory Clinic interview, April 4, 2005

" It was a kind of community within a community "

The struggle to redevelop 1991 - 2006

1991 - A Proposal That Changes Everything

Facing an aging population of veterans living in aging buildings, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Benny Farm’s federal landlord, proposes to move veterans’ families to new, accessible buildings that would be financed by sale of most of Benny Farm's land to developers.

" Who was the Community Council speaking for? "

" Canada Mortgage decided it was too much property for us. "

" It all followed from an ideological need they had to sell public land "

"There was a desire that the community have its say. "

The Benny Farm Tenants’ Association and the NDG Community Council’s Housing Committee react strongly to the CMHC’s proposal.

“ Some of my tenants have lived here since 1945. They would like to stay here and have their windows and electricity replaced and their front doors made more secure ”
-Helen Bolton Guy, The Gazette, October 24, 1991

1992 -The CMHC’s Master Plan And Community Responses

The CMHC presents its Master Plan which proposes to demolish all 64 buildings on the site, to build four 6 storey buildings for the veterans on 1/3 of the site, and sell the rest to developers, with a suggestion of building high-rise market-value condominiums. The plan is criticized by the Benny Farm Tenants’ Association, the newly formed Neighbors of Benny Farm, the NDG Community Council and some local politicians.

" There was a proposal that no one was very happy with..."

"The government didn’t want to spend a penny. "

" Demolition in this case would be wasteful and environmentally destructive. These buildings should continue to serve the purpose of social housing. "
-Lucia Kowaluk, Coordinator of the NDG Community Council The Gazette, April 16, 1992

" We are very afraid that the master plan will change the low-density residential fabric of the neighborhood.”
-Jean Martin, president of Neighbors of Benny Farm, The Gazette, June 18, 1992

" Many tenants desperately need better access to their apartments [...] We are getting a little tired of younger, fitter people telling us what is good for us "
-Rosemary Bradley, Benny Farm tenant, The Gazette, August 27, 1992

Working with the CCNDG's Housing Committee, architects Daniel Pearl and Mark Paddubiuk (L’OEUF) propose an anti-demolition Master Plan, where the original buildings are renovated using green technology and new affordable and subsidized housing buildings are added to the site.

" Two young architects interested in housing rehabilitation and conservation. "

The NDG Community Council Housing Committee proposes making Benny Farm a Land Trust.

" What is a land trust? "

Tensions rise between neighbours at the Farm as a group of veterans in favour of the CMHC project, The Benny Farm Veterans and Associates, speaks out at community meetings.

" It was like World War 20!"

" Some people felt like he had been brought in to make a ruckus."

1996 - Phase 1: Wrecking Ball and Construction Crane

After many consultations, revisions and the demolition of some of the 64 original buildings on the site, construction begins on two new, accessible buildings for the veterans.

" We knew that we were going to have some problems... "

" When you see your houses go, what are you going to do? "

1998 - Tug of War

The CMHC informs the City that it cannot build Phase 2 of the new Veterans’ housing without the revenue from the sale of the remaining 2⁄3 of the land to developers. Veterans in favour of plan call for the city to accept the sale. Opposition councilors denounce it.

Montreal’s Urban Planning Committee approves the CMHC’s request to demolish all the Benny Farm buildings and sell the land to developers.

Architects, politicians, housing activists and neighbours protest the loss of viable public housing and the prospect of high density condominium buildings.

" What is Canada Lands? "

" There was the whole political issue of who was going to decide what happens in NDG. "

1999 - Canada Lands Takes Over

The Canada Lands Company, a Federal Crown Corporation that specializes in redeveloping federal properties, takes over ownership of Benny Farm from the CMHC. It begins construction on two new buildings for the veterans still awaiting housing.

Canada Lands undertakes discussions with local organizations grouped together under the banner of the Benny Farm Community Round Table to discuss possible community projects for the site. The Community Round Table includes representatives from L’OEUF, the Benny Farm veterans, the NDG CLSC, the NDG YMCA, neighbors, community groups and future residents.

" Maybe we felt like we were going to be pushed around "

The NDG Community Council reaches an agreement with Canada Lands to do a feasibility study on renovation costs and land use for the remaining 2⁄3 of the Benny Farm land.

2000 - A Community Round Table

Benny Farm Community Round Table submits its report to Canada Lands, including a proposal for the government to sell the remaining Benny Farm land for $1 to a property development corporation set up by the community.

" There was an opening on the part of Canada Lands. "

" It was clear they were not on the same page. "

" This is land that is currently in the public domain, and we are asking for it to stay in the public domain. "
-Lucia Kowalik, The Gazette, June 8, 2000

" It was a non-profit, community-based developer’s proposal"

" Money was made available to us to develop our proposal. "

" It was kind of like an agreement to eventually sell to us."

2000 - A Community Development Corporation

Responding to positive signals from Canada Lands and a substantial grant to finance its planning, the Benny Farm Community Round Table is dissolved and the Fond Foncier Communautaire Benny Farm (FFCBF) is founded as a Community Development Corporation.

2001 - The Fonds Foncier Benny Farm makes a plan

Canada Lands signs a six month protocol agreement with Fond Foncier Communautaire Benny Farm to allow them to draw up a proposal for a residential and social redevelopment based on community and land trust models for low-cost housing, with a view to purchasing the land. The NDG CLSC leaves the Fonds Foncier to negotiate on its own for land on Cavendish and Monkland.

" We were not getting any closer to controlling the property. "

September 2001 - The Plan and the Reaction

FFCBF presents its plan to the borough politicians and the public at a rocus Conseil de quartier meeting. The plan includes designs for restored buildings and grounds, new buildings for community organizations, engagement from future tenants and potential buyers, as well as a promise of multi-million dollar funding. After a contentious four hour meeting, two of the three city councillors on the Conseil vote against the FFCBF's proposal to change the zoning to accommodate their plan.

" People began to take the Fonds Foncier seriously, and opposition started to form against it "

" The social housing project turned out not to be social housing, it’s affordable housing. You have government money to help you pay less. So Mickey Applebaum and I ditched that. It makes no sense to use the most valuable piece of real estate in Quebec for affordable housing. "
-Jeremy Searle, City Councilor, The Montreal Mirror, October, 2001

" I’ve never seen a meeting run the way he ran that meeting. "

" Canada Lands just had nothing to say to us... "

October 2001 - Canada Lands Makes Plans

Canada Lands does not renew its protocol with the Fonds Foncier, opting to develop a plan themselves instead of going forward with FFCBF’s proposal.

" Ultimately, they just stopped answering the phone... "

2001 - Litigation

The Fonds Foncier Benny Farm seeks a court injunction to prevent Canada Lands from selling any part of the Benny Farm property.

" We were afraid they would try to sell it right away. "

2002 - The Benny Farm Task Force and A Demonstration

the Fonds foncier Benny Farm and NDG Community Council join forces with other housing organizations to form the Friends of Benny Farm. They organise a demonstration on the grounds of Benny Farm, along with community members, local politicians and high profile housing activists, to demand that Canada Lands keep low-cost housing in their plan.

" Most of us really didn’t want to take part."

Canada Lands calls for a participatory design process. It creates the Benny Farm Task Force, a group of 10 selected individuals from different community groups and organizations, who represent different points of view in the community.

" We had a lot of myths to contend with, and a little of the “not in my backyard” syndrome. Canada Lands hired a firm to look into how there might be a way to reconcile some of the conflicting views as to what should happen on this site. So the Task Force was put together to try to come to an agreement... ”
-Gail Tedstone, Member, Benny Farm Task Force, from a film by Gisele el Gandour Achkar and RM Faizur Rahman, 2008

2002 - The Architectural Competition

Canada Lands asks four architectural firms to draw up plans for Benny Farm, taking into account recommendations from the Benny Farm Task Force. After presentations from the four firms, the public is invited to vote on their favorite plan. Canada Lands selects the project submitted by architects Saia Barbarese Topouzanov, and landscape architect Claude Cormier. This project will go on to win the Governor General’s Award for Architecture.

2003 - A New Plan

The new redevelopment plan is presented to the Benny Farm Task Force, Benny Farm residents and NDG borough council. 3⁄4 of site is reserved for low and middle-income groups, with 500 to 550 residential units, 2⁄3 of which are rental, 1/3 dedicated to home ownership. The other 1⁄4 of the site is now reserved for two government buildings: a new building for the NDG CLSC and a cultural centre.

" Aspects of the Fonds Foncier plans were incorporated. "

" The kind of choices that motivated us were not those that were put forward in this plan. "

" It was very emotionally draining, it was a fight. There is no other way of describing it. It was a fight. "
-Miriam Green, Member, Benny Farm Task Force, from Tilting at Windmills, a film by Patrick Otim and Predrag Zivkovic, Video Advocacy Institute, 2008

2004 - Sustainable Public Housing

Founded by NDG housing activists, Les Habitations Communautaires NDG offers a plan for affordable home ownership and competes with private developers to successfully bid on some of the 13 of the original buildings that are to be renovated. The rest are sold to 3 non-profit housing groups: Co-op Zone of Opportunity (Z.O.O), Project Chance II and Co-op Benny Farm. An initiative paid for in part by the City of Montreal’s “Opération Solidarité 5000 logements.”

"We proposed affordable homeownership."

Architects Daniel Pearl and Mark Poddubiuk (L’OEUF) are hired to manage the renovation of the original buildings and to design Benny Farm’s Green Energy Plan for these buildings, including geothermal heating, passive solar water heating and grey water reuse.

"Canada Lands incorporated some aspects of the Land Trust proposal"

"You guys do what you want."

2006 - Construction and Innovation

Construction and renovation continues as the various parts of the new Benny Farm come together: veterans’ housing, subsidized and low-cost housing and condos. L’Oeuf, the architectural firm that had imagined a Green and sustainable plan for Benny Farm in 1992, wins the North American and Global HOLCIM Foundation for Sustainable Construction awards in 2005 and 2006. The project as a whole wins the 2006 Urban Leadership Award, City Renewal category, from the Canadian Urban Institute.

Conclusion: “How do you feel about Benny Farm now?”

" I learned a lot. I mean I learned that things don’t happen from one day to the next. It’s a long fight, you have to have a lot of patience, you have to deal with a lot ofpeople, and you have to have the community behind you. "
-Miriam Green, Member, Benny Farm Task Force, Tilting at Windmills, a film by Patrick Otim and Predrag Zivkovic, Video Advocacy Institute, 2008

" I think it’s a wonderful mix of people. The challenge is of course getting all these people to have a sense of community and a sense of belonging. Not only to Benny Farm, but to the whole community."
-Gail Tedstone, Member, Benny Farm Task Force, from a film by Gisele el Gandour Achkar and RM Faizur Rahman, Video Advocacy Institute, 2008

" If people share a certain vision, and they form a group and they are willing to work together through certain difficulties and challenges, things will happen, not exactly as we would have like them to, but it’s a lot better than what was foreseen. "
-Claudette Demers-Godley, former City Councilor and activist, from a film by Anne Kanyi and Abena Kuriu, Video Advocacy Institute, 2008

"It was a victory of sorts, and a lot of people have affordable housing now."

"I go back and forth."

"It’s a great place to live, a great place to bring up your kids and great place to die."

"It’s a mixed legacy, but it’s always important that people go to bat for certain social issues"