Montreal is the largest city in Quebec, the second-largest city in Canada and arguably the most cosmopolitan city in North America. The cooperative movement in Quebec dates back to the late 19th century, with the founding of North America's oldest and most established credit union, the Caisse Desjardins. Since then, co-ops and social economy projects have entered every sphere of economic and cultural life in the city and the province. The rise of social networks and crowdfunding has vastly expanded the possibilities. A number of sharing economy projects have emerged as a conscious thumbs-down to consumer capitalism, while others are just simple neighborhood-based solutions to service gaps. The list below barely scratches the surface of the sharing economy in Montreal, so watch this space and keep exploring.
If you ask a Montrealer if they're connected with the sharing economy — économie du partage or économie sociale in French — they may not know exactly what you mean. But ask them if they've used a Bixi, and they certainly will. Bixi bicycle parking zones are as omnipresent a feature of Montreal’s urban landscape as potholes and metro entrances. The bike-sharing program, established in 2009 and modelled on the successful Vélib scheme in Paris, is the oldest municipal bike-sharing scheme in North America. In 2014, the service was taken over by a city-backed nonprofit. The name, a combination of "bicycle" and "taxi," was chosen in a public contest, and the winner received a Bixi pass for life. Long-term users receive a key when they subscribe to the service, while tourists and other short-term users can buy 24-hour or 72-hour passes with a credit card at any Bixi zone. Over 230,000 people used the service in 2016, for a total of 4 million trips. Not ready to join quite yet? Keep your eyes open for free Bixi Sundays and take a test drive.
Are you looking for a sewing machine? How about a toaster? Are you trying to get rid of your kids' old toys or of that clunky shelving unit in your bedroom? Look no further than the Facebook group As-tu ça toi? ("Do you have that?"). Montrealer Marie-Neige Châtelain launched the group in 2011, and it now has over 46,000 members. It operates like any online classifieds group, except, as the organizers point out, "Any ads that mention $$$$ will be deleted without prior notice!" Everything is free, members organize pickups between themselves, and as long as it doesn’t involve live animals, illegal products or medical supplies, no request is too strange. The group has spawned "daughter groups" in nearly every region of Quebec. "These communities are based on the love of giving, be it donations of material goods or simple exchanges of services," Châtelain writes. "Give without expecting anything in return, and you'll get everything."
As-tu ça toi? is a vast online free-stuff box where people give, request and receive everything from houseplants, baby supplies, and DVDs to life advice. Screenshot by Ruby Pratka
Established in 2002 in Quebec City, the Accorderie network is used for free service exchanges. Are you looking for someone to tutor you in a second language or repair your computer? Can you spare an hour to teach a skill or help someone do home repairs? Give one hour of your time and add an hour to your own "time bank" to use for something completely different. The network has three branches in Montreal, as well as outposts in Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Shawinigan, and several rural North Coast communities.
"We want to fight poverty and exclusion, create links between neighbors and recreate a sense of community that has been kind of lost over the years," says Les Accorderies' director Huguette Lépine. Find out more with these videos.
Accorderie volunteers Hang (left) and Pierre-Luc explain the Accorderie system to a group of new users. Except for one paid coordinator position in each city, the network is entirely volunteer-run. Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
This co-op-run performance space is possibly Montreal's most innovative night spot. It was launched in 2016 by a social enterprise specializing in urban design, La Pépinière&Co, in an abandoned corner of the vast concrete Olympic Stadium complex. Abandoned for more than 30 years, the space is now open from May to mid-late October, hosting a beer garden, food stalls, a community garden with a chicken coop, and an outdoor game room (think croquet and mini golf) as well as a succession of thematic concerts, circus shows, and DJ nights. One recent Friday night was devoted to the joys of tacos, paletas (Mexican fruit popsicles), and multilingual hip-hop.
A vacant lot in the shadow of Montreal's Olympic Stadium has been transformed into a popular and innovative night spot. From Wednesday to Sunday during the warmer months, Montrealers of all ages, languages and backgrounds pack the beer garden and outdoor game room. Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
This community food fridge, inspired by similar communal fridges in Germany, was established in 2015 by a small group of Montrealers frustrated with rising levels of food waste. Any food can be dropped off at Le Fridge de la Petite-Patrie, as long as it is unopened and labelled with an expiration date and the names of any potential allergens. The fridge is stocked by local shopkeepers, gardeners, and community members passing on food that would otherwise go to waste. Unlike many food banks, the fridge is open to anyone, regardless of place of residence or documentation.
Daniel, one of the core group of volunteers who keep the fridge stocked, checks out some fresh kale provided by a vegetable stall keeper at nearby Jean-Talon Market. The poster over Daniel's shoulder reads "Relieve Hunger: Feed Hope." Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
If you choose to use your own bike (rather than taking the Bixi route) and it catches a wheel in one of the city's infamous potholes — or you just want to learn how to better maintain your two-wheeler — BQAM is the place to go. Located on the science campus of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), this bike-repair co-op is open to anyone, student or not, who pays a $20 membership fee. Participants can buy used parts, attend bike repair training sessions, participate in planning and governance, and use the on-site bike repair workshop to fix up their own bikes. "I sometimes do half of a repair job and let the person do the rest," says student volunteer Pierre-Philippe. "We're very much into self-directed learning."
"Sometimes, with some of the problems we get, a bike shop will say repairs are not economical and tell you to buy a new bike," says René, another volunteer. "We'll work with you to see if we can fix the bike you have." BQAM is not the only collaborative bike workshop in the city — another cyclists' co-op, Right to Move, has mapped all of the shared workshops around town.
BQAM volunteers Pierre-Philippe (center) and René (right) help a client fix his bike after a recent dooring incident. Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
7. La Ruche
La Ruche — "The Hive" — is a Quebec-only crowdfunding platform run by a nonprofit. All projects are reviewed by a selection committee and only allowed to solicit funds if they will have a "positive social, economic, or cultural" impact on their community. At regional meetings, known as "cellules," participants get a chance to pitch their project to public figures who are well-known and well-connected in the fields of social justice, business, and the performing arts. Workshops, part of the La Ruche Académie program, help promoters refine their pitches. La Ruche stands out for its nonprofit structure, one-on-one assistance for participants, and regional outlook. Some current projects that are being funded by La Ruche Montréal include the production of choral music in Braille, subsidized self-defense courses for children, and an independent, zero-waste organic grocery startup.
"What is La Ruche" asks this promotional poster. A nonprofit crowdfunding platform for locally based community projects, that's what. Photo by Christelle Coulombe for La Ruche via Facebook.
When you least expect it, you'll walk past a tiny, colorful cabinet with a glass door, or a newspaper vending machine. Inside will be books. You never know what books — that's part of the fun. Leave a book, take a book, bring it back — or not. Twelve "Livre-Service" boxes (a play on livre, book, and libre-service, self-service) are scattered throughout the Côte des Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce area. There's no need to be affiliated with the official "Livre-Service" program to set up a little free library — many boxes have been set up across the city by community centers, neighborhood groups, or city residents.
The City of Montreal community garden program has existed since 1975, and there are now 97 community gardens sprouting on city-owned land across the island. For $10 a year, plus a small payment ($5-$25) to the neighborhood organization in charge of maintenance, users receive a small plot of land to garden. People who are on social assistance pay no fee. Get out in the sun, meet new people and bring some fresh, healthy vegetables to your table.
Jardin Communautaire Rivard is one of nearly 100 community gardens across Montreal. Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
10. La Remise
"Why buy when you can share?" That's the motto of Montreal’s cooperative-run tool library, where anyone can borrow cooking, gardening, carpentry, and mechanical equipment. Members can take the equipment home or use it in the onsite workspace. Members pay $60 a year for borrowing privileges and $5 per session for workshop use, and specialized volunteers have occasional "office hours" where users can learn to get the most out of their tools. "I love the whole sharing concept, and you meet some amazing people," says Jonathan, a volunteer on duty on Saturday morning. "Of course, you could go to Ikea and get furniture, but it’s more fun to make it yourself."
"It's not efficient to have a bunch of tools laying around your house without being used," adds his colleague Alan, a recent arrival from Brazil who joined the tool workshop to improve his carpentry and his French. "Why not share them?"
On a recent Saturday morning, volunteers Alan (left) and Jonathan (right) were running the shop while woodworking specialist volunteer Antoine (center) checked out some new tools in the adjacent wood shop. Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
This bilingual program at Montreal's Concordia University organizes free, public educational seminars in cafés and community spaces across the city, hosted by volunteer moderators who are often professors, graduate students, and recent Concordia alumni. Although panelists who are specialists in the relevant fields bring their expertise, anyone can contribute to the discussion. The topics cover a wide range — this year's talks will explore drug policy, art accessibility and poverty alleviation, among other themes. Expand your mind for free.
12. Touski S'Repare
This Facebook-based project is a giant bulletin board where people working on repair projects can crowdsource useful information. "Touski S'Repare" is a creative phonetic spelling of the French words for "all that can be fixed (tout ce qui se repare)." The growing library of tips and videos is intended to minimize the impact of planned obsolescence. "Repair to make it last and to take a stand against overconsumption" is the group's mission statement. The group was founded by two employees of Équiterre, a fair-trade promotion organization, and now has nearly 2,300 members.
13. Ecto Co-op
Freelancing can be a lonely journey, but one Montreal co-op wants to change that. Ecto is a cooperative-run communal workspace in the heart of Montreal’s bustling Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood. Weekly salad builds and a cozy, beanbag-equipped "collaboration space" make it almost like having colleagues — except your office neighbors come from different walks of life, and the networking possibilities are endless. The usage-based fees (from $25 for one day to $350 for a lifetime membership) are all reinvested into the running of the workspace.
Ecto Co-op provides a shared gathering space for self-employed people working in a wide range of fields. Photo by Ruby Pratka/Shareable
Montreal winters may be long and cold, but it's always a balmy 30+ degrees Celsius inside the greenhouse on the top floor of the Henry F. Hall Building at Concordia University. This former lab is now a greenhouse run by a student co-op, growing tropical fruits, medicinal plants, nutritious sprouts, microgreens and a panoply of other plants in an organic environment. The greenhouse is also a popular place for students to curl up with a textbook and a cup of tea from the pay-what-you-can garden-grown tea bar. There are also regular workshops on how to grow and care for your own plants and prepare plant products, and periodic plant sales — volunteers recommend arriving at opening time, otherwise the plants may be snapped up. The greenhouse and all of its activities are open to the public, although volunteers do get first priority when the time comes to harvest the tropical fruit trees, which include figs, bananas, and grapefruits.
The Roundhouse Café, also known as the Café de la Maison Ronde, is Montreal’s only restaurant serving First Nations cuisine. The minuscule café began operations three years ago in a former public bathhouse near Atwater Metro and relaunched earlier this year, providing jobs for First Nations Montrealers who had been homeless and/or long-term unemployed, while introducing the city at large to the joys of fry bread and bannock tacos. The Inuit and First Nations staff are always eager to discuss indigenous cooking, culture, or language.
The Roundhouse Café is the only café in Montreal serving Indigenous-inspired dishes. Stop by, support your neighbors, and learn more about the culture and cuisine of Canada's First Nations. Oh, and try the bannock tacos (above) or bannock madeleines in maple syrup — they're delicious. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Café via Facebook
There's also a "suspended coffee" system, which allows customers to buy two of something and leave the second one for a person unable to pay. The café's profits are reinvested in L’Itinéraire, a nonprofit which provides services to homeless and precariously housed people and also produces a popular magazine which approaches city news from the perspective of people who are homeless or in poverty. Watch the video below to learn more:
Header image of Remise volunteers by Ruby Pratka/Shareable