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Nathan McDonnell

by Alex Tigchelaar


Nathan McDonnell is an Australian by birth and a publisher by profession. He also describes himself as “a dreamer and citizen revolutionary” who believes “in the power of community to build a democratic, just, and ecological society beyond hierarchy and capitalism.”
Nathan lives, works, and organizes in the Milton Parc neighbourhood. He is a volunteer community organizer with the Milton Parc Citizens’Committee (CCMP-MPCC), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018.

Yup, it’s a corny evocation, but walking through the Milton Parc neighbourhood with Nathan, the theme from the classic ‘70s Canadian television series The King of Kensington springs to mind: “when he walks down the street, he smiles at everyone.” Indeed, like the lead character Larry King, Nathan finds “his fortune in the people that surround him.” Nathan was kind enough to take the IUF around the Milton Parc neighbourhood for a tour, and provide some insight into the history of co-ops and community land trusts.

Institute for Urban Futures: What is the Milton Parc Community (CMP)?

NM: The CMP is the largest concentration of housing cooperatives in North America and the largest community housing project on a community land trust in North America. We are particularly involved in popular education and mobilization around the future of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, saving green spaces, indigenous solidarity, homelessness, community economic development, and building a neighbourhood citizens’ assembly to promote grassroots citizen power. In political-economic terms, the CMP is a post-capitalist project where five city blocks in downtown Montreal have been taken off the market—instead of land and housing being owned as private property (which has been abolished), it is collectively owned and democratically managed by the community. Although it is enormous, and houses 1500 people, it was founded on the principle that “small is beautiful.” It is decentralized into 22 co-ops and non-profit housing organizations where people are more easily able to participate and get to know their neighbours. All of the co-ops are 100% self-managed and volunteer run, with co-op members being required to volunteer 6 to 8 hours per month for the co-op. In addition to the co-ops, the non-profit housing, where members don’t have to participate, serves those who are most in need, such as the underprivileged, formerly homeless people, and refugees.

What is the history of the Milton Parc Community and the Milton Parc Citizens' Committee?

The story begins in Montreal in 1968, when word spread like wildfire of a developer’s plan to demolish six blocks of the working-class neighbourhood of Milton Parc. The developer, Concordia Estates Ltd., (unrelated to Concordia University) envisioned enormous high-rises with luxury apartments, hotels, offices, and commercial space. It was a declaration of war, and the local community responded in kind. This was when the CCMP-MPCC was founded. What followed was a David versus Goliath struggle that not only saved the Victorian and Edwardian heritage architecture from destruction, but more importantly, would defend the neighbourhood in perpetuity from gentrification through the creation of the Communauté Milton Parc. 

The full history is very exciting and includes everything from the developers’ background as former members of the Canadian Communist Party, direct action strategies of squatting apartments and occupying the developer’s office, and a tense trial wherein the defendants pleaded legally guilty but morally innocent, and were all quickly acquitted by a jury. Then after a lull due to demoralization, things picked up again when social worker and community organizer Lucia Kowaluk started organizing around traffic calming. She found out that Concordia wanted to sell, so she recruited the collaboration of philanthropist, heritage advocate, and radical architect Phyllis Lambert. After some tough negotiations with the federal housing agency CMHC to guarantee a low-interest loan to kick-start the community housing project, there was a whole period of renovations and organizing the cooperatives. This involved training ordinary working-class people on how to cooperatively self-manage their housing.

How did you become involved in the Milton-Parc Co-op?

I started working for the radical Montreal based publishing company, Black Rose Books, after meeting the co-founder Dimitri Roussopoulos at the Peoples' Social Forum in Ottawa in 2014. He also happened to also be a key political organizer in Milton Parc since the beginnings in 1968. When he explained the remarkable reality and history of the community housing project, a light flickered on in my mind. I had been a radical activist for a few years by that point, mainly in Australia, involved in climate justice activism, Indigenous and refugee solidarity, and various other anti-capitalist activism. However, for the first time, I discovered a kind of social activism that had a radical vision for a new society while still being grounded in a local community of ordinary people.

Can you tell us what a land trust is and how the average citizen might get involved in one?

Community land trusts (CLTs) protect land against market speculation, corporate control, and state mismanagement, and allows property to be democratically and collectively owned for the common good forever. They are essentially a legal tool to prevent speculation, to govern the land democratically by the community that uses it, and so ensure the destiny of the land is used for social or ecological vocations. This may sound technocratic, but for me, they are a very powerful strike at the heart of capitalism and its basic foundations of private ownership and speculation to maximize profit. They are especially used for community housing and organic agriculture, but they can also be used for the social and solidarity economy, ecological preservation, parks, community spaces, the arts, and heritage protection. They can be used for all sorts of things, but the point is that the ownership of the land is separated from the buildings, so that whatever happens to the buildings, the land is perpetually affordable, democratically governed, and socially managed.

In order to get involved in a community land trust, you can either move into one or you can try to start one. The latter involves acquiring the land, which in a capitalist system usually means buying it. This is becoming extremely difficult as urban land is becoming insanely expensive due to the epidemic of speculative real estate. However, you can make it happen by fundraising from the state or other community (or private) sources of financing for social housing or economic development (or even ecological goals) and by collaborating with the municipality to unlock city-owned land. At the core of it is the community-in-community land trust, and it is essential to mobilize people power and a political movement to build a community governance of the land.   

What are some of the challenges of being involved in a co-op/land trust?

I would identify two challenges, both of which are closely connected and are essentially a result of apathy and political disconnectedness. The first is the problem of participation. A community housing project, especially with housing cooperatives, is volunteer powered and requires active member participation, collaboration, and a general sense of solidarity and community spirit. If you lose this, it is a cooperative or community land trust only in legal structure but not in essence. The second is the problem of apathy, of residents becoming too comfortable in their low-rent housing, and thus becoming disconnected from the larger world out there which is boiling in suffering from neoliberal social engineering, gentrification, displacement, poverty, and social dislocation. We may pride ourselves on being a post-capitalist land and housing project, but that doesn't mean we are immune from a capitalist society which distorts peoples' values, creates individualism, social isolation, and passivity. The solution is twofold: building a sense of community grounded in values of social justice, solidarity, and transformation. The second is having a popular education program that raises the level of consciousness so people are informed of broader social issues, inspired about the possibilities for change.

What are some of your favourite things about living at the CMP?

Not having a landlord. Cheap rent (I pay $270 per month for a studio). Knowing your neighbours. Social activism in a local community. Living two blocks from my work. Walking down the street and meeting four different people I know. 

I was happy to see that Milton-Parc was generally enthusiastic about the presence of Open Door, a wet shelter recently relocated to the area. This is the antithesis of the usual attitude of neighbourhood groups that practice entitled NIMBYISM (Not in My Backyard-ism).

The arrival of the Open Door, especially the conditions of secrecy in which it arrived, due to being rejected from moving into other neighbourhoods, sparked some paranoia and concern. Due to our long history of leading initiatives for the homeless and fighting for social housing, several community leaders knew we had to clearly stand in solidarity with the homeless. This was also a question of Indigenous solidarity given the majority of homeless people in our neighbourhood are Indigenous. We drafted an open letter which was quickly signed by over 250 people, most of whom live or work in or around the neighbourhood. It was a wave of solidarity that was appropriate to our community.

Thank you for this illuminating and galvanizing interview Nathan. Let’s end with the question we ask everyone: what does your urban future include? 

My urban future is a society run by the power of community and not capitalist greed.
We don't talk about it a lot, yet the politics of land is at the centre of everything. The beginning of capitalism saw the enclosures where common land was, for the first time ever, fenced off for private ownership. The history of empires is essentially the history of enormous civilizations competing over control of resources, populations, and trade routes. Indeed, colonialism throughout the colonized world, including (especially) here on Turtle Island, was about the theft of land—this required deception, slavery, ecological destruction, and genocide. In addition to this, cities are historically both a place of cosmopolitanism and innovation in human freedom, culture, and collaboration, but they are also a particularly intense concentration of capitalist and imperial power. Gentrification, which is occurring all over the world since housing became a major financial investment since the 1980s, is just the latest manifestation of this.

My urban future is a liberated society where everyone contributes what they can, receives what they need, and lives to their full potential. Concretely speaking, all land, housing, economy, public services, and politics is democratically owned, decentralized, and managed by local communities for the social and ecological good.

The CCMP-MPCC is organizing an international conference on April 12-14 called From The Ground Up: The Community Control of Land, Housing, and the Economy. The conference is free, and entirely bilingual, with free meals and childcare. The MPCC is building up to this conference with several educational events about the cooperative economy, community land trusts, and the social and solidarity economy. 

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