The apartment Jean-Roch Boivin spent the last 30 years of his life in is an empty shell. The walls have been stripped to their original brick. There is no floor, only beams dividing the space from the unit below. His beloved window overlooking Montreal’s storied Square Saint-Louis is bare.
Boivin died Feb. 19 at the age of 79. He suffered a heart attack just weeks after moving out. He’d finally settled with the building’s new owner, following an anguished fight to stay.
Friends and family believe the stress caused by the move and the pressure tactics exercised by his new landlord contributed to his death.
“It was very hard for him,” said Wasim Osman, sitting on a small couch in his studio apartment tucked against the wall he shared with Boivin. “To remember that he has all these memories, carrying them with him to a new place, having to start a new life.”
Those memories included watching the comings and goings of legendary playwright Michel Tremblay, who for years lived across the park, listening to a bohemian couple play tango music down below, going to the little farmer’s market — taking in the neighbourhood’s history and humanity.
Osman is the last holdout at 255 Square Saint-Louis Street. A racket of drilling and banging from construction crews on the floors below echoes throughout an interview Tuesday afternoon. A contractor had attempted to prevent a CBC crew from conducting the interview inside after consulting with his boss.
Osman and Boivin, a former literary critic for Le Devoir newspaper, became friends as the worst of the pandemic forced isolation into every home.
Osman, a 34-year-old former Syrian refugee (and now Canadian citizen), moved into the building shortly after arriving in Canada in 2016, then into the top-floor unit next to Boivin’s in 2018. For the first year or so, Osman and Boivin exchanged bonjours as they passed each other in the hallway, but nothing more.
An unlikely friendship
One day during the pandemic, Osman heard intense coughing next door and checked on his neighbour. The two grew close after that. They watched movies on Monday nights — classics by Elia Kazan and Sydney Pollack that Boivin wanted to show Osman.
Osman would bring Boivin stuffed vine leaves his sister made. Boivin taught Osman about Quebec history and Montreal’s changing mores of the 1960s, when he first moved to the city as a young gay man from the small town of Dolbeau on the north shore of Lac-Saint-Jean, about three and a half hours north of Quebec City.
“He was kind and gentle. He understood why I didn’t learn French yet,” said Osman, who fled to Canada after being injured in the Syrian civil war.
“I was so happy to hear from him, of his life, how the standards and the values changed in the ’60s.”
Boivin, in turn, had wanted to learn about Osman’s world. One of the last two books he was reading was an 1,800-page tome on the history of Syria. (The other was Londres, the recently unearthed manuscript of French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline).
Osman and another neighbour, Greg Couture, who joined the fight against the new landlord, are named in a short obituary for Boivin published in Le Devoir this week. It said he’d died “after being the victim of a most ferocious renoviction.”
Anne Dandurand, an author also named in the obit, says the two new friends helped ease the burden from the renoviction on her old friend.
“It’s the silver lining of this whole thing, the solidarity that came out of it,” Dandurand said over the phone.
Holes drilled into the ceiling
The tenants’ troubles started soon after a company represented by a man named Tristan Desautels purchased the four-storey building on July 6.
The next day, according to a Radio-Canada investigation published in September, Desautels began trying to convince them to leave, offering only one month’s rent as compensation, roughly $600. In a phone conversation Osman recorded, Desautels tells him the building is dangerous and that he could call firefighters to forcefully evict them at any time.
When contacted by Radio-Canada, both the city of Montreal and the building’s previous owner said the building was in livable condition and that no evacuation was necessary.
“Legally speaking, it’s harassment from the landlord toward the tenant,” said Daniel Crespo Villareal, the lawyer who has helped Osman file a complaint for harassment and negligence against Modela, the company Desautels works for.
Things escalated on Aug. 8, when Osman heard a man on the roof above his head drilling holes into his ceiling. He climbed up onto the roof and captured the man dressed in construction boots and cargo shorts on video, but Radio-Canada was unable to identify him. Water poured onto his floor and bed when it rained the next morning.
Desautels didn’t send anyone to fix the holes until Radio-Canada visited the apartment three weeks later. He hung up when a CBC reporter called him Tuesday.
Osman says he’s refused to leave his apartment in Boivin’s honour. A film of dust that’s made its way from the heavy construction through cracks in the walls covers nearly every surface, even in the closet. A bunch of clothes and belongings are stored in a suitcase under his bed to protect them. Osman is still weighing his options now that his friend is gone.
Living there has been frightening, he said. He worries about the structure holding up his apartment now that so much of the building — built around 1885 — has been torn apart. The cold seeps in so easily.
“It’s uncomfortable, I can’t rest,” he said.
Surviving the housing crisis
In a rapidly changing city, the homes of Square Saint-Louis are frozen in time. Most of the Painted Ladies-style buildings lining the park have preserved their original Victorian and Edwardian features — colourful gables, short and ornate wooden doors, painted tiles, parapets and turrets.
For decades, the area was a popular place for artists and poets, who either wrote in the square or lived around it. A bust of Quebec poet Émile Nelligan stands in its southwest corner. Rents were low and owners kept their properties forever.
But several for-sale signs with million-dollar price tags line the street these days.
The square is a popular hangout spot for people without homes, thanks to its central location in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough and spacious setting with large centuries-old trees that provide a canopy of shade in the summer.
One man walking by 255 looked up at the building’s boarded windows and said, “Ça a changé pas mal, le carré Saint-Louis” (“The square sure has changed”).
Rising prices for homes and rent and a vacancy rate in free fall have led to the spread of gentrification in Montreal.
Alain Deschamps, an organizer a the Comité logement du Plateau Mont-Royal, a local housing committee, says his group has been flooded by requests for help and can’t handle all of them.
“This year in particular is definitely the worst year in living memory,” Deschamps said.
“There’s a lot more pressure for landlords to try to get people out, to find new tenants who pay more rent. And we see more evictions, more repossessions, more rent increases … vermin, lack of repairs. It’s just nonstop right now.”
Dandurand says the managers of the new building Boivin moved into in early February, on the other hand, were kind. After he struggled for months to find somewhere to live, they offered him a renovated studio with a balcony for just under his $850/month budget.
Dandurand and and Boivin became friends 41 years ago when he liked one of the books she wrote so much he decided to interview her. They spoke on the phone for about an hour every day until he died.
“I wasn’t bored one nano-second with him and I hope he felt the same about me,” she said. “It was a strange relationship, but it was very, very, very solid and we were very close.”
Boivin was brilliant and fiery, she said. He loved life and “was always ready to face its challenges.”
In his youth, he was a victim of homophobic attacks and police raids in the city’s gay bars. “All his life, he had to fight for himself,” Dandurand said.
An avid reader, Boivin told Dandurand that the Céline book had given him oxygen at the hospital after his heart attack. His second home was the big library down the street, but his little 10-square-metre apartment without internet was like a warm and protective shell.
“Even if it was tiny, it’s where he was happy,” she said.