A coffee with… François Saillant | A lesson in commitment

There are some who complain a little, sometimes, on social networks. It’s their way of advancing a cause while displaying their values. François Saillant comes from another school. He is a true activist, in the noblest sense of the word.

Former spokesperson for the Popular Action Front for Urban Redevelopment (FRAPRU), he devoted his life to housing. He helped people in trouble on the street. He tracked down politicians to denounce their setbacks and snatch half-victories from them. And he sacrificed his comfort, and sometimes even his safety, to draw attention to the plight of those less fortunate.

His new essay, In the streetexplores the history of FRAPRU and its struggles.

He was arrested three times. In the 1970s, before the anti-scab law, he manned the picket line against scabs. And in 1988, during a wild eviction on Overdale Avenue, he stood before the wrecking balls. “I admit that that time, I was scared,” he says.

The man speaks in a calm voice. He is modest and respectful, bordering on shyness, but his convictions nonetheless remain unshakeable. For him, housing is a right, and not a tool for speculation. And poverty remains an aberration in a rich society like ours.


François Saillant

We end up desensitizing ourselves to injustice. FRAPRU has always fought against this apathy. And to attract attention, Mr. Saillant did not lack audacity or imagination. He gives the example of the 1992 federal budget at the end of February. With his accomplices, he set up a camp on the ice of the Ottawa River. “We stayed more than two days, there were around 20 of us sleeping there at night. The journalists came. Thanks to our generator, we watched the budget reading on TV. And it was even worse than expected…”

The Mulroney government had just withdrawn from funding social housing. The federal government never came back.

This is probably our biggest defeat. Without this decision, there would be approximately 80,000 more housing units in Quebec alone.

François Saillant

François Saillant speaks of a desperate and hopeless struggle. At the time, a right wind was blowing across the continent. After this federal abandonment, FRAPRU convinced the PQ government to create a Quebec program. Jacques Parizeau announces the construction of 1,500 housing units. “But we realized that it was not recurring! » Another bittersweet victory. In 1997, FRAPRU convinced Quebec to launch projects for five years. “It wasn’t enough, but in a context of zero deficit, it was at least that much gained. »

However, we know what happens next. The envelopes have not kept up with the increase in construction costs, so the housing promised on paper is not all built. In 2018, the backlog amounted to 16,000 homes. “The figure decreased to 7,000,” he recalls.

And with the crisis worsening, there is no reason to claim victory.

Reading François Saillant’s essay, we see that, despite certain lulls, the crisis has never stopped for the poorest.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Quebec modernized. Neighborhoods are scarred by highways or outright demolished in the name of progress, which comes with a generous amount of parking. One example among many: Chinatown, now reduced to a few street corners.


François Saillant

It was at this time that tenant defense groups like FRAPRU appeared.

In 1976, the vacancy rate was 0.7% in Montreal. An “extreme” crisis, remembers Mr. Saillant. This creates pressure on rents. From 1981 to 1986, their average price jumped 43%.

The promoters have something other than the fate of the poor in mind. They build condos and neighborhoods gentrify. A decade later, in 1996, more than one tenant in five spent half of their income on housing. Homelessness causes concern. FRAPRU and other groups denounce this “national disaster”.

From 1996 to 2001, housing prices slowed, with a cumulative increase of only 5.1%. Under these conditions, the private sector does not compensate for the fall in social housing and the shortage ends up resuming. In 2001, the vacancy rate fell to 0.6% in Montreal and Gatineau, and to 0.8% in Quebec.

The recovery that follows will mainly benefit the wealthiest. A decade later, 10 times more condos will be built than apartments. Rental projects will eventually outpace those of co-ownerships, from 2015. But not enough to compensate for the historical imbalance.

Result: at the end of January, CMHC confirmed that Montreal has just suffered its largest rent increase in 30 years.

François Saillant could proclaim “I told you so”. But he takes no pleasure in having been right. “It was all so predictable,” he laments.

What does he propose?

“First, relaunch the construction of social housing, with the participation of Quebec, but also of Ottawa. We would need 50,000 over five years,” he replies.

In parallel with this increase in non-profit offerings, he wishes to regulate the private sector.


François Saillant and Paul Journet

We should create a rent register – technology makes this easier than ever – and control the rise in prices.

François Saillant

In theory, the Administrative Housing Tribunal (TAL) caps the permitted increases. But his opinions are simple recommendations. The proof: the significant increase in rents made available by the departure of a tenant.

According to the owners, this is required to maintain their building. This is undoubtedly true for small owner-occupiers. “But we see that speculators are using this pretext to carry out renovictions,” he recalls. According to him, this method should be prohibited for subdividing housing or changing its use, for example to convert a seniors’ residence into apartments.

This list is obviously not exhaustive – among other things, he wants to see more crackdown on short-term Airbnb-style accommodation.

The activist does not talk about other causes of the crisis, such as regulatory obstacles and other financial disincentives which delay construction, or the recent increase in temporary immigration which increases demand. But he might counter that these ideas have no shortage of political advocates.

For a long time, he felt like a political orphan. In 2006, he co-founded Québec solidaire. He was a candidate three times and he still campaigns for this party.

Today, he consoles himself by noting that the crisis has become a major political issue. “That’s because it affects everyone. Or at least, almost everyone knows someone who is affected. Not only is housing scarce, but it is more expensive. These two shocks hit us at the same time. »

Questionnaire without filter

Coffee and me : I usually only drink one coffee a day, having lunch and reading the newspapers on my tablet.

My latest landmark book : Qimmik, by Michel Jean, and Kanatuut, by Natasha Kanapé Fontaine.

A book everyone should read : The madman, by Sorj Chalandon. In fact, all of Chalandon.

A person who inspires me : Abbot stone. Not for religion, but because he knew how to transform his anger into action.

A historic event that I would have liked to attend : The Paris Commune… obviously without the brutal repression that put an end to it.

Advice for a young activist: Try to be happy, even if situations are sometimes difficult.

Who is François Saillant?

Coordinator and spokesperson for the Popular Action Front in Urban Redevelopment (FRAPRU) from 1979 to 2016.

Founding member of Québec solidaire and candidate (2007, 2008 and 2012).

Facilitator of the Native Solidarity Group.

Author of the books The Velvet Radical (2012), Fight for a roof (2018), Brief history of the political left in Quebec (2020) and In the street (2024).

reference: www.lapresse.ca

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