About this Project

Distancing on the Lachine Canal is a visual essay about walking the Lachine Canal in Montreal during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing, photos, design and code by Matthew Hollett.

Instagram: matthewhollett

Thank you to CBC Radio for editing the poem audio (Tickling the Scar won the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize), to Robert Finley’s creative writing class for feedback on the essay, and to my neighbours for the rainbows.

You might also enjoy Between Seasons on the North Head Trail.

I acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts – this project received funding through the Digital Originals program.

on the Lachine Canal

Matthew Hollett


I can’t think of a better word to describe how winter ends – it dwindles in every sense, gradually winding down, diminishing in substance, wasting away. Snow recedes, and darkness shrinks back as the days grow longer.

Last spring, as winter waned away in Montreal, the world dwindled along with it. Flights and festivals were cancelled, stores and borders closed – you know this, of course, because we all went through it – and we were ordered to stay home. Covid-19 ransacked the planet, upending just about everything, and we all hunkered down, watching the graphs slowly go vertical.

To me, March 12 felt like the last semi-normal day. The day after that was the last time I took the metro for months. I remember people acting differently, standing apart even if there was a free seat beside someone. I remember trying to breathe through my nose even as I rushed up the escalator at Lionel-Groulx. On the street, people were carrying home armloads of toilet paper, and every snippet of conversation I overheard was about the virus. You couldn’t find hand sanitizer anywhere.

A hand-drawn rainbow in a window.

From there, my small world got smaller very quickly. I had only been in Montreal for six months, and knew just a handful of people. I live outside the city centre, in Ville-Émard, so without the metro most of the city suddenly felt far away. I work from home, so my day-to-day didn’t change much, but the universe seemed to shrivel to the size of my apartment.

As spring set in, the new rules became routine. Warmer weather coaxed me out of the house, and I began walking around my neighborhood. One day I walked along the Lachine Canal as far as Atwater Market. It had rained, and in the bright sun the empty bike path was striking and sad, its yellow line slipping in and out of melting snow. There were a few other people out strolling, but it was easy to keep a distance.

An old drawing of the Lachine Canal overlaid on a modern map of Montreal.

An old drawing of the Lachine Canal overlaid on a modern map of Montreal. I live at the e in Aqueduct.

Distancing. That word was suddenly everywhere, refashioned as a verb. The canal felt spacious, a safe place to escape. To breathe. Soon I was walking there nearly every day. It was where I went to distance, in every sense – to physically keep apart from others, to put some kilometres in my shoes, and to detach from the horror of what was happening. The pandemic felt viscerally close at hand and yet strangely abstract, as I didn’t know anyone directly affected. Walking the canal became a way of grappling with this abstraction, and with how quickly the world was changing.


10 days · March 22

This morning I hear one of my neighbours singing beautifully through the wall. Later, when I leave the house, piano music drifts faintly from a window down the street. I walk along the canal past the Charlevoix Bridge, past the Peel Basin and the Farine Five Roses sign, farther than I’ve ever ventured on foot. Before long I find myself looking up at the frozen Ferris wheel in the Old Port. There are a few people around, but the only crowds are the clusters of gulls squabbling over the last ice on the water.

On the walk home there’s a man sitting on the bank strumming a guitar, despite the chill. It reminds me that tonight there’s a city-wide singalong of So Long, Marianne from everyone’s balconies. The sun swerves low as I follow the canal home. Light seems to whistle through the empty market, sings out from railway tracks in Saint-Henri. Windows are full of hand-drawn rainbows calling out Ça va aller, Ça va bien aller, and the city feels resilient, almost buoyant. After dark, we sing together through our phones: I love to live with you.

People walking (while distanced) near the Peel Basin.

25 days · April 6

Even when the canal looks blue and bright, and even though sunlight feels cleansing, I can’t walk here without Dirty Old Town reeling through my brain. I amble along to imagined harmonica and banjo-plunk, The Pogues crooning about factory walls, gasworks and docks. I dreamed a dream by the old canal. A friend who used to live in Montreal writes to me about walking here in the eighties: “The Lachine Canal in those days was a cesspool.”

An old bicycle disintegrating in the canal.

History books take me further back, to the 1820s when the canal was a glimmer in the eye of industrialists wanting to bypass the Lachine Rapids. The ghost of Lac St-Pierre haunts old maps. Engineers sliced the lake lengthwise and stretched it to fit across the southern reaches of the island. They stitched it up with bridges, then later widened it and stitched it up again. Enticed by the hydraulic power generated by the locks, factories clustered around the canal’s edges. They soon needed more energy than the water could supply, and began burning coal. By the 1870s the canal’s inhabitants had nicknamed it the “Smoky Valley.”

When the canal finally closed to shipping in 1970, usurped by the railroad and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, it was like a wound reopening. I saw a train set the night on fire. The area around the canal declined into wasteland, losing nearly half its population from 1961 to 1991.

A vacant southwestern stretch of the canal.

Revitalized only recently as a national park, the Lachine Canal is still lined with scar tissue. Its massive bridges no longer raise or rotate to let ships pass. Some of the older ones have been retired in the middle of the waterway, permanently turned in their graves. Newer bridges don’t bother with acrobatics. The skyline along the canal is a hodgepodge of construction cranes and gleaming condos, brick-walled factories converted into offices, and dubiously repurposed grain silos.

This landscape holds upheaval and trauma in a way that resonates, especially during the turmoil of a global pandemic. It’s a place where the city’s nerve endings are nearest the surface, still a little raw. It aches not only from a couple hundred years of being torn asunder, but with the deeper traumas of ecological devastation and colonization.

Morning looking toward the Peel Basin.

I smelled the spring on the smoky wind. Today the canal is dressed in its finest. The waterline is tasselled with tawny gold reeds, and the old Dominion Textile brick chimney straightens its reflection like a tie. As the sun sinks behind the Canada Malting silos, I notice a photo shoot in progress across the water. A woman in a long blue dress poses in warm, waning light. Her photographer snaps a few photos, then leans toward her and holds out the screen so she can see a preview without standing too close. Distancing. Wary of the breath-trails of passing cyclists, I walk on the strip of grass beside the path, trying not to touch the iron railing in case it too might harbour the virus.


37 days · April 18

I walk along the canal. That’s how I always think of it: not on the canal or by the canal, but along the canal. It’s a channel, a pathway between places, and it has a way of ferrying you along with it. It’s designed to sluice ships and water all the way from the Old Port’s towering concrete silos to the waterfront at Lachine. It’s a corridor, not a place to linger. In the summer people laze on its banks, or fling fishing lines into the water, but the canal seems most welcoming to the runners and cyclists who keep it humming. They whirr and wheeze, whetting its edges, as much at home as the blackbirds and herons.

A pink lens flare over a bike path.

I often shoot with older 35mm lenses on my Fuji X-T20, and sometimes they flare pink.

The canal is a cross-section of the city. It begins in Montreal’s industrial heart, the Old Port, and slices the city into distinct areas as it moves southwest. Its recent transformation into a park has irrigated Griffintown, where office towers spread like alders. The canal surges south of downtown, condos mushrooming along its banks, past the hubbub of Atwater Market and onwards to Lake Saint-Louis. Along the way it separates neighborhood from neighborhood: Downtown from Point-Saint-Charles, Saint-Henri from Côte-Saint-Paul, Lachine from Lasalle. It’s both a conduit and a border. It connects and dissevers.

Likewise, I feel both disconnected and connected while walking here. The pandemic is impossible to escape. No matter how fast I walk, the world catches up through the window of glass in my pocket.

Along the canal, I watch people in Italy serenade empty streets from their balconies. I learn what a logarithmic graph is, and the difference between bacteria and viruses. I walk past a group of people who look around before hugging each other “because people have been getting tickets.” We’re all learning to keep two metres apart, to line up outside the supermarket, to stop touching our faces.

A large sign warning people to keep 2m apart.

Some of us are learning not to take public transportation or public washrooms for granted – a small dose of the daily reality of many people who are unable to access or feel safe in these spaces. The pandemic’s paradigm shift brings fresh attention to so many societal dysfunctions and injustices. Remote working, an accommodation many people with disabilities have requested for decades, is suddenly de rigueur.

As the world shrinks, our vocabulary expands. We’re learning about respirators, ventilators, PPE, contact tracing, community spread, flattening curves, cytokine storms. We’re struggling to find synonyms for unprecedented. We’re figuring out how to schedule Zoom meetings, make yeast from scratch, use sewing machines. We’re learning how to make masks, how to properly wear masks, how to wash masks. We’re learning how to smile with our eyes.

Disposable gloves used as balloons beside a sign reading Bonne Fête, Sylvain!

I noticed this sign in Ville-Émard while walking to the canal.

39 days · April 20

I always notice the tall concrete tower just past the Charlevoix Bridge – lacking windows, it looks so blandly cylindrical, like an oversized utility pole. I’ve only recently learned that it’s a remnant of the Stelco steel factory. Built during the early years of the Second World War, it was a “shot tower” used in the manufacture of ammunition. Molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top and rained down into a basin of water below. As the lead droplets fell, surface tension transformed them into perfect spheres.

The old Stelco shot tower near the Charlevoix Bridge.

The canal is littered with these kinds of surreal ruins. Near the blocked-up entrance of the Wellington Tunnel, I spot a bicycle beside the path that looks like it has been dipped in wet concrete. Walking closer, I see it’s completely covered in thousands of little mollusc shells. They’re zebra mussels, an invasive species that clogs waterways up and down the Saint Lawrence and Great Lakes. Freshly dredged from the canal, the bicycle looks infected, engulfed by an alien pathogen.

A dredged bicycle covered in zebra mussels.

Lead raining into tiny lethal particles, a bicycle asphyxiated by a river-virus. Grasping at metaphors feels so useless. Seventy-two deaths were reported in Quebec yesterday, and 117 the day before.


54 days · May 5

Walking around the Canada Malting silos to photograph the decaying brick walls, I end up chatting with someone flying a drone around the tower. She’s making a video of the sheds at the top – a few months ago an anonymous artist transformed them into bright pink and red cabins, complete with shutters, curtains, and flower boxes in the windows. She tells me the silos look best at sunrise, when the old terracotta tiles glow in the warm light. Built in 1905, the massive industrial complex has been crumbling away for years, and is now mostly known as a fortress of graffiti.

The woman’s drone buzzes down and settles in the grass, and she swaps out its battery pack for another flight. After I walk away I realize this was the first time in over a month that I’ve spoken to anyone new. A brief conversation across a large stretch of grass. This new world makes me feel like a drone sometimes, aloft and aloof, keeping a distance from everything.

A shed painted pink atop the Canada Malting Silos.

62 days · May 13

A long, pondering walk past the Saint Gabriel locks. The shabby property near the river is inhabited by recently retired calèche horses. There are a lot of trees by the river, and it sometimes seems as if a horse has wandered out of the forest. The stretch of the canal between here and the Peel Basin feels disconnected, like a bunch of excavated bones that haven’t been reassembled yet. The path cuts across two reclaimed basins, one now a parking lot and one a brambly park with raised walkways. Across the water there’s a pair of old silos which have been converted into climbing walls, their colourful grips adding a sprinkle of whimsy to the stern facades.

I spot an egret in the canal below, and watch it hunt for a while. It steps so intently and elegantly, staring into the water, never blinking. Suddenly it stabs downwards –

An egret with a fish in its beak. An egret plunging after a fish.

... and it’s only later, looking through my photos, that I notice the startled fish in its beak. Gulp! A heron has a devastating knack for decisive moments.

67 days · May 18

Walking southwest from Ville-Émard, the soundscape of the canal changes. Far from the chiming bell tower of Atwater Market, a grove of shady trees hushes the steady traffic bustle from St. Patrick Street. I can still hear the prickly whirr of bicycle wheels on pavement, but most of the people-noise has been replaced by blackbird chatter and wind-rustled leaves. There’s a steady fan-drone from the industrial complex just beyond the canal’s landscaped strip. Someone whizzes by on two wheels, whistling a tune. A distant truck farts. I sit on a park bench and watch ants marching and munching inaudibly.

Someone reading on a bench by the canal.

Here, it feels as if the canal has cut everything in half. Across the way, there’s a huge half-dome of gravel like a horse-chomped apple. A warehouse ends in a rusted metal frame, as if its bones are showing. There’s a storeyard of huge pipes, their mouths agape like hungry hatchlings. Trees are lopped to accommodate electrical wires. The canal’s edge is scattered with single gloves and sandals. There are mussel shells in the grass too, dropped there by birds. Sometimes an iridescent shell turns out to be a lost sunglass lens. Even the path itself is only half-present, with one side fenced off for construction. Red-winged blackbirds harangue and chase their smaller neighbours.

A red-winged blackbird on a Parks Canada sign.

I walk and write notes and when I get home I wrangle them into a poem.


Tickling the Scar

A reading of the poem. Audio edited by CBC Radio Montreal.

In spring the ice on the Lachine Canal melts

into algae blooms and great blue herons. Grackles

and red-winged blackbirds warble urgent duets

with distant ambulances. Thousands of Montrealers

are drowning in their beds. I walk the canal

because I’m grateful to breathe, even through a mask,

and because it feels spacious. Less petri dish. Along the path,

freshly-dredged jumbles of crossbars and wheels

are so consumed by zebra mussels that you can barely tell

they used to be bicycles. A survivor of the virus describes

feeling as though a bag of rice was being dropped on her chest

every time she took a breath. Seagulls drop bivalve shells

on the canal’s concrete walls, where they split open

into pairs of tiny desiccated lungs. Whenever I see a single one,

I imagine its partner coughed up on the opposite side of the water.

There are nursing homes where staff have deserted en masse.

A man takes a job at one because it’s the only way

to be with his father. He sobs when describing to a reporter

“the stench of urine, feces and disinfectant.” A rainbow

is painted over its front entrance. At CHSLD Herron,

a relief nurse finds ninety-year-olds so dehydrated

they’re unable to speak, “with urine bags full to bursting.”

They bring the army in, repurpose refrigerated trucks

as morgues. Songbirds build nests with discarded masks.

I think of walking the canal as tickling the scar.

Tracing a fault line between “before” and “normal.”

There was a lake here, before it was torn

into an industrial corridor. A long blue lung.

It’s slowly healing over. You can sit on the grass

and watch herons stitch it back together

while your phone shows you horror after horror.

They’re reopening the restaurants tomorrow.


75 days · May 26

The more I read about the canal, the more I understand it as a series of crossings and double-crossings. Originally it was a kind of water-bridge to bypass the rapids. It was crisscrossed with bridges, then later widened and outfitted with larger bridges that swung up or pivoted to let steamships pass. The crossing at Wellington is a good example of this layering. The original bridge was replaced by a tunnel, which has since been blocked up and replaced once again by a larger bridge. When I walk there today, an even newer half-finished overpass looms like a detached spine over the landscape.

In archival images the canal is a cluttered tunnel of masts and cranes, smokestacks, jumbled stones, railway tracks, lumberyards, labourers. A print from 1878 titled The Lachine Canal Laborers’ Strike depicts hundreds of protesting workers. “The history of the Lachine Canal is also the history of Canadian and Quebec labour relations,” according to Desloges and Gelly in The Lachine Canal: Riding the Waves of Industrial and Urban Development. From some of the first strikes in Canadian history to the experiences of Black railway porters in Little Burgundy, the canal has long been a site of struggle for social justice.

A pink lens flare over a heron in the Peel Basin.

Today the fight is often against gentrification, as noted by Desloges and Gelly:

“Newcomers value the site’s qualities, its picturesque nature, industrial architecture, lofts, and proximity to the city centre. While long-time residents acknowledge these qualities, they feel dispossessed by development that bypasses them and deprives them of the space they deem essential to their survival.”

That book is from 2002, and development has only accelerated since then. An audio tour recorded in 2013 instructs me to walk to the historic Magnan Restaurant and Tavern by the Charlevoix Bridge, but I find it obliterated by a construction site. The canal’s post-industrial resurrection shimmers with luxury condos and glass balconies. In the same way that a river forms a canyon, the canal has deepened the destiny of the city around it, reinforcing power structures of capital and wealth.

Beside the Wellington bridge, in Saint Patrick Square, the grass is paved with picnic blankets. Especially in these topsy-turvy pandemic days, people work at home and come to the canal to relax, a reversal of how things used to be. The mechanisms of industry have been transformed into a release valve, a place to blow off steam. I’m grateful for the fresh air, for the space to think. When this is all over, when we begin the great undwindling, how do we reinhabit and rehabilitate this creaky post-pandemic world?

Rusted mechanisms beneath the Charlevoix Bridge.

In the 1960s, when this was a canyon of factories, children living near the canal used to come running when they knew the swing bridge was about to rotate. The bridge operators would sometimes let them on for a “tour de pont,” as if the massive metal contraption was an amusement park ride. I think about those kids – who would be in their seventies now – whenever I walk under the bridge at Charlevoix, where you can still see the rusty wheels that helped it turn. The bridge doesn’t rotate anymore, but its inadvertent capacity for wonder has been taken up by the canal itself, which today is more carousel than industrial corridor. I feel a little “tour de pont” thrill every time I come here – the frisson of tracing and retracing the scar, looping up and down the canal’s lively ruins.


Readings and Links


The Lachine Canal is located in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, historically a gathering place for many First Nations and the unceded traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka. I’m not affiliated with Concordia, but their Territorial acknowledgement is a good place to read more.