Saint Michael



David Whitley witnesses an incredible circus-led project to turn the worst place in Montreal into somewhere people want to move to.




Saint Michel wouldn’t have been an area you’d go near. It was multi-cultural, yes, but not in the lots of yummy food from around the world kind of way. It’s where new immigrants would arrive and stay because the housing was cheap. Once they had enough money, they’d move out as soon as possible. Nobody wanted to live amongst the crime and street gangs. 


The pollution wouldn’t have helped. Every now and then rocks from explosions in the limestone quarry would go through a roof. There’d be dust as a side-effect. And the smell... Oh the smell. Saint Michel, up until 2000, was ‘blessed’ with the second largest landfill site in North America. Once all the lovely limestone had been dug out of parts of the quarry, the hole would be filled with crap. And not just Montreal’s crap; the awkward waste that no-one wanted would be brought across the border from the US. In New York State, it’d cost $100 to dispose of a tonne of waste. It cost just $12 to drive it to Canada and unload it in Saint Michel. A no-brainer.


But things are changing in Saint Michel. It’s still an area where most people speak neither French nor English as their first language, but the gangs have largely gone, and the area is becoming seen as a place that people want to live in. Astonishingly, the developers have their beady eye on sites near the former landfill site. And all this is because the circus came to town. Or, rather, circuses.


The world’s most famous circus company is based here. Cirque du Soleil has grown so large that not all its Montreal employees can fit into the headquarters and a second building has been commandeered. All of Cirque du Soleil’s shows are planned out here – including the Vegas spectaculars that are never even shown in Montreal. But the National Circus School is also based here. And En Piste – a national circus arts network – has chipped in too. Together, these clowns, acrobats and showmen have clubbed together to create La Tohu – a specialised 360 degree performance space purely for circus arts. It also has room for an art gallery on-site.


In terms of bringing the people of Montreal to Saint Michel, La Tohu has worked wonders. Shows are going on pretty much all the time, and special events are frequent. There are also tours of the complex available, and this is where it gets really interesting.


It becomes immediately clear that La Tohu is about far more than just offering a place to watch circus acts. As the guide goes though a snazzy touch screen presentation, he tells of the triple focus: circus, earth and humans. For the latter, the emphasis is on being a community hub and actively seeking out people from Saint Michel to work there.


For the earth, we go back to the former quarry and landfill. In 2000, it stopped being used as a dump, and an extraordinarily ambitious plan was launched to turn it into a park within 20 years. The clean-up operation is enormous. Years and years of accumulated bin juice has turned into an acidic soup that endangers the water supply and surrounding soil. It is being pumped out, treated, then released safely back into the sewage system. The built-up methane gas is being put through a small power station, with the resulting waste heat used to warm up La Tohu on cold days and the electricity being fed back into the city’s grid.


And the park itself? At the moment, there are a couple of viewing platforms that you can look out onto it from. Some parts are greening over quite beautifully, with trees making headway. Others are pretty grim still and need more time. But by 2020, it’s hoped that this former hellpit will have fully transformed into a beautiful public space, about the same size as Central Park in New York. Inside it will be walking trails, Cirque du Soleil outdoor performances theatres and climbing walls. It’s impossible to be anything but impressed with the vision and dedication required to transform an underprivileged area that could have been left to rot. The clowns of Saint Michel have earned the right to be taken seriously.




Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourisme Montreal ( and stayed at the fun, friendly and stylish Petit Hotel ( in Old Montreal.