François Saillant, activist, community worker, politician, author (born 15 June 1951 in Quebec City, QC). Coordinator and spokesperson for the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (Popular Action Front for Urban Planning) from 1979 to 2016, he was also a candidate for Québec solidaire in three provincial elections. He is the author of three books on the right to housing.
Education and Early Career
Saillant earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and information from the Université Laval. He started his career in 1975 at Ciné-Vidéobec, a company that produced and broadcast activist videos. In March 1979, Saillant became the coordinator of a group of citizens who were concerned about the gentrification of their neighbourhood. The group had formed an organization at the end of 1978 following the Colloque populaire sur les Programmes d’amélioration de quartier, a conference on urban planning. The organization was renamed the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) in the summer of 1979, and its focus shifted in 1981 to defending social housing (see Housing Cooperatives). Over the years, FRAPRU became a provincial coalition of community organizations that advocated for the construction of social housing to address the problems associated with poverty and lack of affordable housing in all regions of Quebec. The coalition consisted of approximately 30 participating members — principally housing committees — and more than 100 associate members.
As spokesperson for FRAPRU, where he worked until his retirement, Saillant made numerous media and public appearances on the subject of housing, but also in relation to poverty, especially in the context of various social assistance reforms (see Social and Welfare Services).
In 1988, Saillant fought alongside tenants threatened with eviction in the Overdale district of downtown Montreal and was arrested twice. Most of the houses in the district were demolished, but the luxury condominium project planned for the site remained unbuilt and a parking lot was constructed instead. It was only almost 30 years later that a residential condominium project was constructed there.
In February 1992, FRAPRU set up a camp on the frozen Ottawa River, at the foot of the Parliament Buildings, to denounce federal funding cuts for social housing. Since that decision by the government of Brian Mulroney, construction of low-rent housing buildings in Canada ceased, which greatly limited the availability of social housing for low-income renters.
In November 1996, during in camera sessions at the Sommet sur l’économie et l’emploi organized by Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, Saillant stood shoulder to shoulder with representatives of the feminist movement on behalf of the Solidarité populaire Québec coalition to halt consensus on a zero deficit.
Saillant continued to be on the front lines of FRAPRU’s exploits: he increased his media appearances to secure funding for social housing (the Quebec government announced the AccèsLogis program in 1997, which has since allowed for the creation of housing cooperatives and non-profit housing organizations) and to speak out against the housing crisis in the decade following the year 2000 (during which there was a very low vacancy rate combined with a large increase in rental costs).
Saillant’s final years at FRAPRU were notable for several major initiatives. In 2008, the “Camp des 4 Sans” (Four “No’s” Camp — “no roof, no money, no rights and no voice”) was set up in Quebec City for three days during the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding. During 2011, two events were organized as part of Sur la route pour le logement social, in which several dozen tenants criss-crossed the province of Quebec in a caravan to talk about social housing. In 2012, FRAPRU created a travelling “people’s commission” on the right to housing. Men and women from various backgrounds were communities in Quebec’s 17 administrative regions, including the village of Kuujjuaq, in Nunavik, and the Anishinabe (Algonquin) community of Lac-Simon, in Abitibi, and produce a report, which was entitled Urgence en la demeure. Saillant commented on this initiative in the magazine Relations, in which he recalled the “scandalous conditions of overpopulation and dilapidated housing in Indigenous communities,” as well as the high cost, squalor and discrimination in housing that Quebec tenants faced.
Saillant travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, three times (in 1998, 2006 and 2016) on behalf of FRAPRU. Along with other organizations, FRAPRU presented the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights with a report card on the Quebec and Canadian governments’ fulfillment of their obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Activism and Philanthropy
Saillant’s involvement in activism began in high school when he was a member of the student association at Cardinal-Roy High School in Quebec City. His activism continued at the Cégep Limoilou, and later at the Université Laval, where Saillant participated in several strikes and student demonstrations. A member of the Parti Québécois from its inception in 1968 and later a militant Marxist-Leninist in the 1970s, Saillant was a volunteer journalist for the weekly newspaper produced by the group En Lutte! until its dissolution in 1982, and subsequently one of the leaders at Révoltes, a radical political journal. Saillant then abandoned partisan politics for many years.
In 1990, Saillant participated as an individual in the creation of the Regroupement de solidarité avec les Autochtones “in response to the July 11 attack by police on the Kanehsatake Mohawk community” (see Oka Crisis) and offered support to various Indigenous nations resisting energy projects on their territories, such as the Cree opposing the Great Whale project, the Innu opposing the SM3 dam, and the Anishinabe of Barriere Lake opposing a dam project. Saillant’s interest in Indigenous issues dates from the 1970s, and his commitment to Indigenous causes has continued throughout his life.
Always an ally of the feminist cause, Saillant started the D’abord solidaires movement in 2003 with about 15 other people, including Manon Massé, Alexa Conradi and Françoise David. In 2004, this organization gave rise to Option citoyenne, a feminist, antiglobalization and environmental movement. In 2006, Option citoyenne merged with the provincial Union des forces progressistes party to become a new left-wing party, Québec solidaire (QS). Saillant ran as a QS candidate in the Rosemont riding three times, in 2007, 2008 and 2012, garnering 9.37, 8.22 and 14.48 per cent of the vote, respectively. Saillant was a member of the QS’s coordination committee from 2006 to 2015 and since then has been a member of the party’s election committee.
Saillant is the author of three books. The first, which deals with the Régie du logement du Québec (Quebec Rental Board), paints a rather negative picture of the first 25 years of the government agency’s operation in its capacity as the arbiter of landlord-tenant disputes in the province. His second book is an autobiographical account of the highlights of his activist years. In his third book (published in October 2018), Saillant recounts a dozen episodes in the fight for affordable housing in Quebec between 1946 and 2017.
Awards and Honours
- Prix Droits et libertés, Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse du Québec (2002)
- Leadership award, Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (2016)
- Prix Régis-Laurin Hommage, Association des groupes de ressources techniques du Québec (with Phyllis Lambert) (2017)