Welcome to the garbage hole. The sulphuric, rotten-egg stench coming off the heaps of brown sludge at Montreal’s Francon snow depot is putrid even on a cold, grey March day. Here, in this former quarry, the melt of early spring has revealed crumpled laundry deter- gent bottles, the petrified carcass of a badminton birdie, used tampon applicators and other shards of hardened, forgotten plastic. It’s the stuff you think is destined for landfill or recycling when you toss it, but instead it ends up on the street, then in the path of a snow plow and then on a dump truck, then at the snow dump. The trash mingles with mountains of snow stained by a cocktail of pollutants, releasing a nauseating assault on the senses.
This is the final resting place for snow removal in Montreal. This city spends more than any other in the world on picking up snow and putting down salt on its 10,000 kilometres of roads: in 2019–2020, its snow removal budget hit $166.4 million.
I meet with city spokesperson Philippe Sabourin at the gate of Francon in mid-March 2020. Most of the season’s snow has already fallen in Montreal, and it’s still early enough in the COVID-19 pandemic that in-person meetings are permissible. Still, we get into our own vehicles and head into the pit, descending on muddy gravel roads. Suddenly, the hilly landscape parts and the floor of the human-made canyon sprawls out in front of us. Its vastness surprises me.
The Francon depot receives about 40 per cent of the city’s snow — or, about five million cubic metres, equivalent to 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The rest of the snow is split between 11 other depots and 15 sewer dumps, where snow is dumped into massive tunnels and sent to a water treatment facility. It is hard to imagine, and to describe, the size of the Francon snow pile. I look up to the top edge. I feel like a tiny ant in a barrel.
During a winter storm, this otherwise desolate parcel of industrial Montreal sparks with frenetic action. Working off each borough's orders, the snow contractors typically start with sidewalks and busy thoroughfares, then move to smaller, residential streets as the hours stretch on. As many as 300 dump trucks an hour line up at the gate all day and night to unload their heaps of snow, so they can go back out to collect more. The more they collect, the more money they make.
The cameras mounted at the gate are a newer feature, meant to deter cheating: they take pictures of each load to ensure trucks enter only when their containers are full. The trucks also exchange wireless electronic signals with the gatehouse to keep track of which streets each load comes from, to ensure they’re only working their own turf. Then, the trucks reverse into unloading docks at street level at the top of the quarry, lift their containers, and there’s a sudden whoosh! as an avalanche of dirty, frozen slush cascades into the hole.
By the end of an average winter, 300,000 of these trips will have happened, and a perfect, disgusting, smelly 60-plus-metre pyramid has formed under each unloading dock. These slush stalagmites sometimes never fully melt, even during Montreal’s hot, swampy summers.
It snows a lot in Montreal. Each year, the city gets an average of 209 centimetres of snow. Sometimes it’s less, but often it’s more — such as in the winter of 2007-2008, when 371 centimetres fell. (That was just 12 centimetres shy of breaking the all-time snowfall record set in 1971.) It felt like it never stopped snowing that winter, a little more than a decade ago. I lived on the second floor of a St-Antoine Street triplex then, at the top of a flight of steep, narrow stairs. I took a tumble on those stairs more than once, the snow and my parka padding my descent.
One particular storm stands out vividly. It’s nighttime, and I’m standing on the sidewalk in a knee-deep drift, exasperated and exhausted from shovelling wet, heavy snow off the steps. I pause to take in the magnitude of the blizzard. The massive flakes swarm around the streetlights like moths do in the summertime. The nighttime silence is interrupted only by the scrapes of shovels against concrete, the plaintive squeals of cars spinning their tires, the huffs and puffs of my comrade shovellers. I think: living in Montreal is not for those with a weakness of body or spirit. I turn to face the stairs. They are once again covered in a thick covering of snow. I pick my shovel back up and my chest heaves with a heavy sigh. There is just no place left to throw the snow. I fling it into the street.
A week or so later, it was as if the storm had never happened. Sidewalks and streets had been cleared of the evidence.
For someone who has grown up in Montreal, snow — and its removal — are facts of life. That doesn’t stop people from complaining about it, though. It’s never cleared fast enough or well enough. But Jean-François Parenteau, mayor of Verdun and a Montreal city councillor who oversees snow removal for the city, says many Montrealers don’t appreciate the scope of the endeavour. Plowing snow from streets and sidewalks is a 1,000-per- son and 1,000-truck project; removing it takes another 3,000 people and 2,200 trucks. “People don’t understand, and it’s okay — it’s human nature. It snows, we want to go out, but it isn’t [immediately plowed]. But on average, two or three days after a storm, there’s no snow, or a week after a big storm,” says Parenteau. “We’re pretty spoiled. We have a good service.”
It took me moving to Ottawa to appreciate that. In that city, sidewalks sometimes aren’t plowed for days after a storm. Snowbanks, rarely removed in residential areas, challenge pedestrians to a slippery game of leapfrog. Snow melts into puddles, then freezes, then turns to slush, then hardens into ice again. An ill-timed sprinkling of freezing rain often transforms these ruts and piles into crunchy, jagged formations. This is the true reality of many wintry cities. Things aren’t perfect in Montreal, but they’re certainly better.
So, where did the city’s impossibly high standards come from, and why is Montreal so dedicated to defeating winter? Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, Montrealers would pitch in to manually shovel thoroughfares. Archival photographs show men armed with pickaxes and shovels, chiselling away at the ice and snow after a big storm. But as motor vehicles became more prominent in the city, demand grew for faster snow removal solutions.
It was a Montreal-area milk deliverer, Arthur Sicard, who invented the first snow blower. Tired of scaling snowbanks to deliver milk, he created a machine with an auger-like apparatus and fan attached to the front of a truck that could mechanically cut up the piles and blow them into loading trucks. The former town of Outremont, in Montreal’s north end, was his first customer in 1927. When Sicard died in 1946, “he was hailed as a genius who changed the city’s relationship with winter,” writes David Berry in The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Montreal’s Rue Sicard, two streets over from the factory where he built his snow blower, was named in his honour.” Workers dumped the snow they collected from streets directly into the St. Lawrence River until the 1980s, after environmentalists succeeded in convincing the powers that be to protect the waterway from pollution.
Over time, private construction and landscaping companies acquired the machines — as well as the contracts — to do some of the city’s snow-clearing work. Today, half of Montreal’s snow operations are done by private groups. Each contract’s value ranges from a few thousand dollars to a few million dollars, depending on how extensive the assignment is. I would be remiss not to mention that for some — politicians, private firms, the Mafia and biker gangs — the loose knit of Montreal’s contract tendering system has historically exposed a lot of lucrative loopholes. In late 2011, journalist Selena Ross wrote an investigative feature called “Getting plowed” for Maisonneuve magazine that revealed that bid-rigging, violence, coercion and bribery all featured heavily in Quebec’s snowplow contracting sector. One source told the magazine, “Snow removal is one of the biggest rackets there is.”
The story’s assertions were later confirmed by a four-year-long provincial inquiry into corruption in the construction industry, as well as in the city’s own investigation. In 2015, The Globe and Mail recapped a report from Montreal’s now-former inspector gen- eral that concluded “private companies manipulate the city’s snow-removal tendering system to corner markets and drive up profits.”
As late as mid-2019, the union representing blue-collar workers called on the city to bring all of its snow removal operations in-house to avoid collusion. That hasn’t yet happened — hence those cameras at the Francon depot where so much of the snow ends up. Parenteau says surveillance is just one tine of a multi-pronged approach to collusion. There’s also a blacklist, and there are some new rules to prevent cheating. He says that just last year a company that had held a contract since 1968 was black- listed for trying to send empty and half-full trucks to a depot.
Despite this perpetual problem, Montreal is still a global gold standard in snow removal. In non-COVID times, the city receives municipal pilgrims from around the world who come to learn how to efficiently coordinate such a massive endeavour. Still, climate change is making snow removal even harder, says Parenteau. An increasing number of freeze-thaw cycles throughout the winter, plus the occasional sprinkling of freezing rain, routinely turns sidewalks and roads into skating rinks. (The city buys more than 200,000 tonnes of salt a year.) These factors are a major contributor to the potholes that plague the city’s pock-marked roads to almost comical effect.
“Two winters ago, there were 11 days that had a 20-degree temperature fluctuation. We were at around plus 7 C or plus 8 C, and then we went down to –25 C at night, and it rained during the day. For sure there’s going to be ice the next day,” says Parenteau. “It’s very difficult.”
In Montreal, snow is everybody’s problem. Private-sector snow removal companies struggle with the ice, too. Jessica Milligan, vice-president of Strathmore Landscape, which serves only commercial customers (as opposed to doing contract work for the city), recalls the January 1998 ice storm that rocked southern Quebec and Ontario. More than 100 millimetres of freezing rain fell over five days. The ice coated everything, with trees and hydroelectric towers collapsing under its heft. My Montreal neighbourhood lost power for three days; others were without it for weeks.
I remember the day after the storm passed. The sky was deceptively blue. Armed with metal shovels, my family laboured for hours to break our driveway free of its icy encasement.
This fight is unwinnable. If there’s one thing Montreal can always count on, it’s snow and ice in the winter. That means the city has to fight smarter. Milligan suggests her company’s policy of plowing down to bare pavement can help. Less ice buildup means ice-crushing machines aren’t as necessary, meaning less long-term damage to roads, meaning less water infiltration, meaning fewer potholes and bus-swallowing sinkholes.
For its part, the city is investing in computer-based solutions to make snow operations technologically smarter. Parenteau says it uses GPS to track municipal trucks and will soon require private contractors to do the same. Through a pilot project, it is using sensors to ensure boroughs are properly clearing roads and intersec- tions. And a suite of apps — SIT-Neige, Planif-Neige, INFO-Neige MTL, Info- Remorquage — tracks the status of plowing, loading, transporting and car-towing operations. The first two apps are for city use only, while the latter two are citizen-facing apps that let drivers know when a) to move their cars for the plow and b) where their cars get towed if they fail to move their cars in time.
Gregory Cerallo is a co-founder of Montreal-based tech company Sidekick Interactive, which built the INFO-Neige MTL app in 2014 as part of a hackathon contest. Since then, the app has been downloaded about 300,000 times. The app is merely a user interface on top of Montreal’s open data that tracks the progress of snow removal. All it does is warn you to move your car, to avoid getting towed ahead of a snow-clearing operation. “The idea is that you down- load the app, and maybe you use it once in the winter to say I’m parked here, and then you don’t even need to open it again,” says Cerallo. Users don’t even have to sign up for an account.
Given how extensive Montreal’s snow operations are, it may be surprising to know the city typically has fewer than a dozen snowstorms a year for which it needs to remove snow. Last winter, there were only seven days out of the whole season that saw more than 10 centimetres fall within a 24-hour span. “You would think that it’s a lot more than that just based on the amount of snow that there is, and it feels like the city’s always snowed in,” says Cerallo. “For us to have [so] many people interested in the app for something that happens eight times a year is pretty special.”
As much as it snows on the island of Montreal, the city’s total extended metropolitan area includes its suburban north and south shores. These places have their own local snowplowing operations, though there is a great deal of contractor crossover, with off-the-island firms getting gigs in Montreal proper.
Just a couple of hours after visiting the Francon depot, I find myself in nearby Laval at Sig-Nature, a private landscaping and snow removal com pany. The longest wall of the room is covered in brightly coloured note cards with a dizzying array of names of people and places. This is where the company spends more than a month planning its routes for the coming winter. The planning, more often than not, is hotly contested. Owner Jean-Luc Sigouin explains that once the company tentatively matches workers to routes, it lets the plow operators into the room to chime in. People want routes closer to their homes, shorter routes, easier routes. They move the spectrum of cards around in a seemingly endless search for perfection. “Even with a laptop,” he says, “we’d never have this perspective.”
He started the snowplowing arm of his company in 1997. Today, Sig-Nature has 200 machines clearing 6,000 residential driveways, 1,500 commercial parking areas, a number of streets in Laval and streets in one Montreal borough. Another 150 staff do manual shovelling. Still, Sigouin is worried about an impending labour shortage. Snowplow operators are paid between $20 and $50 an hour depending on experience and skill. His shovellers can earn up to $30 an hour; but, he says, “In 10 years there will be no labour.” Montreal’s ambitious and seemingly never-ending list of construction proj- ects — two new mega hospitals, the Champlain Bridge, the Turcot Interchange — absorb so many workers that it leaves companies such as his running short of staff. “I thought after the bridge we’d get a break. Then they announced the REM [commuter train],” says Sigouin. Out of necessity, his company created proprietary software that tracks routes in real time and gives highly detailed instructions to drivers, down to the direction a machine needs to take on a given stretch of pavement.
The amount of money, resources and people Montreal plows into snow removal would make a more modest city shrink with embarrassment. To its citizens, however, it is never enough. City councillor Parenteau jokes that no politician would survive a snow removal budget reduction. Most Montrealers probably couldn’t say where the snow goes, and probably don’t really care either. They just want it gone. As we can see at Francon, though, it’s never really gone. It’s always just sitting there, both in the dead of winter and in the height of summer, in some perpetual dance of decomposition and rebuilding.