A Place to Belong Podcast Episode 5: Project Neighbourhood

Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada.

In this episode, we asked: What does the multiculturalism policy look like in practice? To find out the answer, Jim Torczyner, a professor of social work at McGill University, walks us through Montreal’s most diverse neighbourhood, Côte-des-Neiges, and we explore what works — and what needs work. 

Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada. In this episode, we asked: What does the multiculturalism policy look like in practice? To find out the answer, Jim Torczyner, a professor of social work at McGill University, walks us through Montreal’s most diverse neighbourhood, Côte-des-Neiges, and we explore what works — and what needs work. 

Jim Torczyner: How do you get to understand people and where they’re coming from? You go to them. Don't wait in your offices for them to come to you, knock on their door. Show enough respect and care that you show up at somebody’s door without any authority, without anything to give away, without selling brushes, Bibles or vacation getaways or anything like that. You're going as an authentic human being because you care.

Narrator: That’s James Torczyner, he goes by Jim.

JT: I am a full professor at the McGill University School of Social Work, where I also founded the International Community Action Network, the McGill programme in the Middle East. And I'm now its academic director.

N: Jim loves to tell a good story. The one he’s about to tell you is about how he started Project Genesis — a community organization based in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. Among other things, it helps residents find social services and teaches them about their rights — particularly as tenants. It’s one heck of a story.

You’re listening to A Place to Belong: a history of multiculturalism in Canada.

JT: The story that led to the creation of Project Genesis, is also the story that rocked my soul and changed my life.

N: Jim is a true believer of a boots on the ground approach to social work. When he was hired by McGill in 1973, he knew he wouldn’t be able to teach social work without having his students help people living in underserved communities access their rights.

He started knocking on doors with his students, and they eventually made their way to Montreal’s Cote-des-Neiges neighbourhood: the city’s most diverse, and one of its most neglected.

JT: So there was a particular apartment, a basement apartment on Victoria Avenue, a bit north of Cote Saint Catherine Road.

I'd knocked on that door a few times and I got no answer, so I figured I'd try again. And this time I did get an answer. And this man opened his door. He had this sullen look that never left my father's right eye. I knew he was a Holocaust survivor. And then right away, I glanced at his arm and, sure there was the tattoo.

And then I looked at his apartment. Everything was painted black: the walls, the ceiling, the floors, the windows had black curtains on them. And he spoke no English. And he spoke no Hebrew. He spoke Polish and he spoke Yiddish. I speak Hebrew, not Yiddish. And I had no idea what his story was. But I knew there was a story that had to be heard.

So I looked at him — and we didn't have an office, so on a piece of paper I wrote my name, my phone number. Put it in his hand. And I looked at him in the eye and I said…

N: Here, Jim pointed to the man, and then to himself, to let him know he could reach Jim at that number.

JT: And he shook his head. And I left.

A few weeks later, the police called me. Do I know this man? And I said, here's the extent of my knowledge. Why are you calling me? Well, we don't know what to do. What do you mean? Well, about once a month we find this man in the middle of the night out on the street, howling, screaming, stark naked at times. And what do you do? We pick him up. We either take him to the station or the hospital. And what do they do? They eventually send him home again. And then we pick him up again a month later.

So I came back with David Rome.

N: Rome was the National Archivist at the Canadian Jewish Congress at the time.

Jim thought he could help translate.

JT: So we went over. And this man told us his story. And I'd heard a lot of stories, I grew up on those stories. But this was something else.

He was in the Treblinka concentration camp. And there, people were told — I don't know if this was routine — but he was told the day on the calendar that he was going to be executed. His turn to be murdered. And there's no escape. But his bunkmates showed such incredible courage and solidarity. They somehow chiseled, carved a place between – there weren’t really walls, it was all wood, but in the barracks, where they could squeeze him in and hide him all day. And there he stood all day. He couldn't talk. He couldn’t eat. He couldn't go to the bathroom. At night, they let him out. And somehow this man ended up on Victoria Avenue.

This man was not crazy. This man was out in the streets in the middle of the night screaming to the stars, hoping something, somebody, would hear his pain. That's what it was about. And somebody did.

JT: Now there's a knock at the door. A woman, Black woman…

N: Her name was Jasmine.

JT: …early 50s, looks at him, smiles at him, gives him some torn clothes and gives him a dollar. And he takes it. And you could almost see the beginning of a smile.

She left.

So I went upstairs, you know, saw where she lived, knocked on her door. And I said, “You mind if I ask you a few things?” She said, “Sure.” “Do you speak Polish?” She says “No, not a word.” She said, “I don't have to speak Polish, I can look into his eyes and speak his language. Let me tell you something. Those clothes aren't ripped, I rip them. And then I give them to him. And then I give him a dollar so he can fix them. Why? Everyone has the right to feel that they belong somewhere.”

N: As it turns out, the man in the basement apartment on Victoria Avenue was named Chaim — which in Hebrew means “life.”

When it comes to Canadian neighbourhoods, few are as diverse as Côte-des-Neiges. Out of a population of just over 99,000 people, over half are immigrants. They hail from numerous countries, including the Philippines, China, France, Morocco, and Romania. Take a walk in the neighbourhood and…

JT: You'll see the vibrancy of the streets and the stores and the smells and the multiplicity of restaurants, food stores, all reflecting people's heritage. It's almost as if you're being absorbed into another place and one is next to the other and they get along.

N: On the surface, Cote-des-Neiges is the perfect model of multiculturalism. But take a closer look, and you’ll find a more complex story about the links between immigration and poverty, and the power of communities coming together. Which is in part what brought Jim, a Jewish New Yorker who studied in California, to Cote-des-Neiges.

JT: I arrived in August of 1973 for one year. I thought.

N: Jim began teaching at McGill University and started going door-to-door with students.

JT: My values and my approach always has been to try and find common cause amongst a multicultural diversity. I believe in that. I think I inherited that from the civil rights movement — and I also inherited it from my mother, who said: Never again, not to anybody.

N: Never again. At its heart the phrase is a call to action from Jewish and other communities who have survived genocide. It says that no one should endure the trauma they faced.

Both of Jim’s parents were Holocaust Survivors. He grew up in a multicultural New York neighbourhood similar to Cote-des-Neiges. His mother, Martha, used to explain this principle:

JT: We're all part of this community and an injustice to any one of them? You see it? You do something. It's a message that comes from an experience that people live. You don't learn that in books. And she gave me that.

N: Decades later, Jim still has a home in Montreal.

So how did Cote-des-Neiges become the most diverse neighbourhood in the city? The answer after the break.


N: A Place to Belong is part of a larger education campaign created by Historica Canada. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. Along with the podcast series, Historica Canada also offers a video series and an education guide about the history of multiculturalism in Canada. Visit historicacanada.ca for more.


N: Like all Canadian neighbourhoods, the history of Cote-des-Neiges and Montreal begins with the Indigenous peoples who lived there for thousands of years before colonization. But the Côte-des-Neiges of Jim’s story was born in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

JT:...When developers built a lot of housing, relatively modest in price. So it became an attractive place for new immigrants.

N: Montreal is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Canada. In the 20th century, they mostly came from Eastern Europe. As was tradition, the Jewish community developed its own social safety net. But Montreal wasn’t always a safe haven.

If you’ve been following this series, you’ll know that Canada has a checkered history when it comes to immigration. For a long time, laws excluded people based on race, nationality, occupation, and class from entering Canada or participating fully in Canadian society. They prioritized white people from the U.K., America, and other British colonies at the top of the list of preferred immigrants, and placed Asian, Roma, Black and Jewish people — among others — at the bottom.

JT: Irving Abella wrote a book, "None are Too Many." Very famous quote, very important book. And he documents in that book that Canada had opportunities to rescue Jews during the war and didn't. They closed their doors.

N: The quote Jim is referring to is from a senior Canadian official. When asked how many Jews would be admitted to Canada at the end of the Second World War, he said “None is too many.”

Canada is often cited as having admitted the lowest number of Jewish refugees among Western nations. But by the 1960s, the country had begun to open its doors to many of the same people it actively kept out — including Jewish people. Jewish people were able to attend universities where they had historically been refused admission.

JT: So the community began to change.

N: This meant that Montreal’s early Jewish community, one where everyone knew everyone, was starting to fragment.

JT: So the Jewish poor, those that first came to Côte-des-Neiges, became doubly invisible. They were invisible to the Jewish community because they were poor, and they were invisible to their neighbours because they were Jews.

N: But the new wave of Jewish immigrants after the War also began to revitalize Jewish life in the city.

JT: Because they came with their accents. They came with their traditions. They came with their foods. They came with their cultural stories. To them, having a Jewish symbol in your house was not… don't worry about if the neighbours see it. So, of course, that's who we are. They are much closer to their roots. And that was a tremendous boost to Jewish life.

N: And it wasn’t only European Jewish communities that found refuge in Canada, and more specifically, in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges.

JT: They were followed by a North African, mainly Moroccan Jewish community. When Israel was declared as a state in 1948, many, many Jews from the Arab world either were forced to leave or realized it was time to move.

N: As Jim mentioned earlier, Côte-des-Neiges was an attractive place for ALL immigrants — mainly because housing was affordable, and it was home to several social institutions. But it was also a relatively new urbanized neighbourhood.

JT: Could Côte-des-Neiges have developed in another part of the city? Yeah, but not likely in a community that had been around for a long time.

N: Côte-des-Neiges was one of the last areas in Montreal to urbanize, so the communities there didn’t face the same pressures of living on prime downtown real estate like Toronto’s Chinatown or Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, for example.

Communities of all backgrounds were also able to set up shop: Irish immigrants, Black immigrants from the Caribbean, Eastern Europeans, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and other immigrants also began to settle in the neighbourhood.

JT: Côte-des-Neiges was unique at the time because it was one of the very few communities in the city that seemed somehow a bubble.

N: By the time a young Jim Torczyner arrived in Montreal in 1973, the bustling multicultural neighbourhood was amplified by a slate of progressive multiculturalism policies and laws. These include Canada’s adoption of multiculturalism as an official government policy in 1971 and later the Immigration Act of 1976. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act would be enshrined in 1988.

In 1974 and 1977, the Quebec government passed Bills 22 and 101 respectively. The first made French the official language of Quebec, meaning new immigrants had to send their kids to school in French. Bill 101 made French the official language of the courts and government. Now, large businesses had to operate in French.

This sent many anglophones in Montreal packing for cities like Toronto. Business and employment opportunities went with them.

JT: Montreal, certainly at that time, was a divided city. And it reminded me less of New York but much more of Jerusalem, where people, Jews and Arabs, go to different schools, go to different places for services. I looked at Montreal politically and institutionally divided by language and religion, which gets replicated among community groups.

N: Côte-des-Neiges was home to a variety of languages, ethnicities, and religions, but it wasn’t exempt from the divisions that Jim observed in the city at large.

It’s literally a segregated neighbourhood. The southern part, “upper Côte-des-Neiges,” is home to universities and several hospitals. Its residents are considered highly educated and many live alone. But the northern section, or “lower Côte-des-Neiges” has twice as many families with children, and a higher concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. Due to circumstance, many are low-income residents.

Because of this, Jim says, the area has faced a lot of stigma.

JT: The stereotypes we have about others and the judgements we make about other people without ever having been in their shoes — we judge people by our own standards, by our own experience.

N: What’s more, many of these immigrants crave the familiarity of their communities.

Magda Popeanu: It’s absolutely human and normal to look for a safe environment where, first and foremost, you understand the language, the customs, and the cultural code.

N: That’s Magda Popeanu, a Romanian immigrant who moved to the area in 1992. She’s served as the Montreal city councillor for Côte-des-Neiges since 2013.

MP: Immigrating is a personal and heartbreaking choice...It’s years and years of daily struggle because, to start with, you need to be able to provide shelter and food. In the basic sense, it’s about your well-being and support within the host society.

N: Since the 1960s, Côte-des-Neiges has had the worst housing conditions in Montreal — conditions so bad that tenants call it the “capital of misery”. Hundreds of tenants live with rats, bedbug and cockroach infestations, mold, lack of hot water, or in housing that requires major repair. Many residents spend more than half of their pay cheques on rent.

Often, immigrants are afraid to complain for fear of losing their rights, and their landlords never have a shortage of tenants to rent to. This means that housing deteriorates in the neighbourhood, and concerns go unaddressed -- a stark contrast to more affluent neighbouring areas.

JT: That's where it's coming from: people are underrepresented, underserved, because they don't have influence.

N: Which brings us back to the origins of Project Genesis.

To recap: Jim witnessed Jasmine, a Black woman in her 50s, lending support to her neighbour, Chaim, a Jewish man who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. They didn’t have the same ethnic or cultural background. They weren’t of the same generation. They didn’t even speak the same language. And Jim thought...

JT: If there’s someone like her in this building, there has got to be more people like her throughout this community. And if this woman — not Jewish, not a common language — would act in this way, it is because all people are united by a common set of values. And if we can cut away, pardon me, the “crap” — if we can cut away the things that divide us and if we can reach to those core common things that make us human, we can change the world. And that's what this woman inspired.

N: Along with a group of forty volunteer advocates, Jim decided to create a space to bring the community together, where people could learn about their rights — but perhaps more importantly, they could learn that they aren’t alone.

JT: We want to normalize the idea that everybody has rights. You go into one store to get your hair done. You go to another store to get your fish. You go into this store, you get your rights. And we set up the Storefront at Project Genesis to do that, where we recruited volunteers from the community, provided them training and professional backup. And these folks then, in the heydays when I was involved, were assisting 30,000 people a year in 80 different languages.

N: Nearly half a century after its creation, Project Genesis is still serving the Cote-des-Neiges community, especially in regard to the neighbourhood’s housing crisis.

JT: For an organization like Project Genesis to thrive, it needs to be the mirror of the community. People have to be able to look at it and see themselves.

N: Jim was deeply involved with the organization for 20 years. And then…

JT: It was time.

N: He left Project Genesis in the 1990s.

JT: It's not me. It's not about me. It's about the capacity of people when brought together to be their best selves, given the opportunity. People often end up blaming themselves for the conditions they face and treat themselves badly. But when people understand a vision that they have rights and that they can move from being supplicants to being advocates. And from blaming themselves to asserting themselves, that's the road to coexistence.

N: Jim went to the Middle East, where he helped develop eleven new organizations modelled after Project Genesis.

JT: Multiculturalism is an aspirational goal. Multiculturalism gets expressed in reality by how people act at the grassroots. You can have the best policy on paper. But it's really going to depend on how accessible it is and how it's implemented.

N: The Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 marked the very first time that a country passed a national multiculturalism law. It seeks to protect the cultural heritage of ALL Canadians.

But as we’ve seen over the course of this series, this has not always been the case in Canada, where laws were too often used against many communities.

JT: Canada is a good country, but every country has its history. And it improves by acknowledging it and moving forward. It doesn't improve by denying it, and it doesn't improve by walking around the rest of your life feeling guilty about it. Stuff happens. What do we do? How can we make it better?

N: What Côte-des-Neiges teaches us about multiculturalism in Canada is that it can’t be legislated into existence. It has to be fought for.

JT: Personally, I'm a Jew. I am proud of my identity, conscious of what I think it ought to represent, and bound to my mom's idea. And even my grandmother's idea — I used to visit her. She'd sit on her porch, she was eighty-seven years old, and she'd be smiling. I’d say, “Why are you smiling?” She said, “My neighbours aren't fighting [laughs]. If they're happy, life is good. I'm happy.”

The caring has to come from all of us, because our own future depends on it. It's not we're being nice, charitable, patronizing people. We're doing it because it's in our interest. And there's no reason why your neighbour being happy should make you unhappy — unless she stole your boyfriend or something [laughs].



N: This episode of A Place to Belong was co-written by Melissa Fundira and Historica Canada. It was produced by Historica Canada. Production support from Michael Fiore and Edit Audio. Post-production by Edit Audio. 

Thanks to Jim Torczyner, who was also a consultant on this episode. Clips of Magda Popeanu generously provided by the Toronto Ward Museum’s Block by Block Program. Fact-checking by Nicole Schmidt. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. Thanks for listening.