“The fence is a short story,” Nick Semeniuk told me. We were in his house on the edge of Parc-Extension and across the street from the ‘famous’ l’Acadie fence. Nick lived in Parc X most of his life and remembers the day in 1970 when a battalion of Université de Montréal students tore down the fence. “They came and bashed the whole thing and stood on it.” Nick laughed at the memory. “The whole thing went down.”
As I mentioned in a previous post, I travelled to Montreal to write about a fence the Town of Mount Royal erected in 1960 along the TMR’s border with l’Acadie Boulevard. According to the Town Council, the fence was built to protect children from busy l’Acadie. However, since the fence stands between the wealthy community of TMR and the low-income and predominantly immigrant neighborhood of Parc-Extension, many see the fence as a class barrier. Perhaps it is impossible not to. Certainly the students in 1970 felt this way. “They called it class separation,” Nick told me. He agreed. “They wanted to keep out the riff-raff.”
When I first arrived in Montreal and started my research I worried that the fence was, indeed, ‘a short story.’ The residents of Parc X told me that they didn’t care about the fence. It had stood there for fifty years and they stopped paying any attention to it. There is no reason for anyone to go into TMR anyway, they told me, so what difference does a fence make? I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything to write about.
The more I learned, though, the more interesting the fence became. I met a woman who grew up on the Parc X side of l’Acadie who said that while her family was not poor, she always felt she was from the ‘wrong side’ of the fence. I found a letter from the City of Montreal expressing outrage at the fence when it first went up, and read minutes from TMR council meetings where citizens gathered to alternately praise and decry the fence. I learned that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, TMR locked the gates on Halloween night to keep Parc Ex kids out. (The controversy made it all the way to Parliament in 2001 when a Bloc MP raised the issue of the locked gates during Question Period). I heard the fence referred to as ‘apartheid fencing’ or Montreal’s ‘Fence of Shame’, and met a Montreal visual artist who included photographs of the fence in an installation alongside images of barbed wire and the Berlin Wall.
In its fifty-year history, the l’Acadie fence has become more potent as a symbol than as physical barrier. But if a fence does not stop anyone from doing anything, does it matter? I am having trouble determining what precisely is the narrative here – I’ve never written a biography of a fence – but I am confident that the fence is not, as Nick insists, a short story at all.