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The Movement to Legalize Skateboarding Is Gaining Speed on the Crusty Streets of Montreal

While it still occupies a confusing place of semi-legality in much of the city, the legalization of skateboarding in Peace Park is a huge win.

by Jake Russell
Jun 23 2015, 5:15pm

Stills via DAILY VICE.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In most cities, the act of skateboarding in public spaces exists in a suspended limbo of legality, a wishy-washy purgatory where the same action can have any number of consequences, from fines to high-fives.

Hitting a street spot like a stairset or ledge is a roll of the dice every time—you could garner a gaggle of onlookers getting hyped on your trick, or you could summon a rent-a-cop on a power trip trying to snatch your board out of your hands, or even fuck you up in mid-air.

Skateboarding itself isn't a crime anywhere as far as I know (as these mid-2000s stickers suggest), but cops can trump up charges of destruction of public property, trespassing, excessive noise, or public nuisance for skating in the wrong place. But some days you can get your trick and post to Insta and grab some pizza with your homies without a care. It's a Pandora's Box of skateboarding tolerance out there.

In Montreal, the tide appears to be turning in skateboarding's favor. The movement to legalize skateboarding has literally taken to the streets, and skaters are winning pivotal municipal battles block by block. One of the greatest victories has been the full legalization of skateboarding in Peace Park on St. Laurent Boulevard, a historically seedy strip that separates east and west districts of the city. Once a grimy haven for homeless people, crack sales, and murder (which never stopped skaters from hitting its utopian granite ledges), the park is now a positive, thriving environment on the Main.

Skateboarder and filmmaker David "Boots" Bouthillier shot a documentary on Peace Park in the mid 2000s and put together the plan to legalize skating there, as well as organized this year's first-ever legal Go Skateboarding Day. I sat down with Boots to discuss the state of skateboarding legalization in Montreal in 2015 and the transformation he's seen Peace Park undergo.

Sterling Downey, skateboarder/city councillor.

"In 2001 when all the Hells Angels were arrested and thrown in jail... the park turned into a war zone and everyone was fighting for control of the crack sales in the park," Boots said. "Automatic weapons just brrrrr, just mowing them down... People getting killed, stabbed. It was pretty hectic for a minute there."

But with the influx of skateboarders in the park, the city shutting down the sex clubs in the area, and the neighboring Société des Arts Technologiques (SAT) breathing life into the park with summer music and film events, it seems Peace has turned a new leaf.

"There's no more crack, there's no more sex workers, there's barely anyone drinking in the park," Boots said. "Skating really helped bring back a positive vibe."

After the successful premiere of his skate/social commentary documentary Peace Park in August 2013, Boots approached the SAT to try to get skateboarding legalized in the park again, after a previous failed attempt in 2004.

"The movie created a lot of awareness about some of the problems in the park and put skateboarding forward as a solution to some of those problems," Boots said.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre personally backed the idea and the pilot project was launched in summer 2014 with skateboarding fully legal during daylight hours. Skating in Peace that summer had a euphoric glow about it, with the knowledge that it was un-bustable and skaters were actually welcome there—like what I imagine sipping the first beer was like after a long, lonely prohibition. An official city sign emblazoned with a skateboard inside a green circle stood tall over Peace Park, something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime.

But skaters weren't reckless with their newfound privilege, and their tender love and care of the beloved skate spot shone through. With the park in visibly better shape by the end of the pilot project, it was no surprise when skateboarding at Peace became officially legal this spring.

"Skateboarding was legalized in Peace Park on April 14 at 8:44 PM, I made a post at that moment," Boots laughed while pulling up his Instagram post from the city council meeting.

Outside of Peace Park, however, skateboarding still exists in the no man's land of quasi-legality. Prior to Peace's legalization, Boots had received over $7,000 in tickets for excessive noise and "misuse of urban furniture," which rose to $600 a ticket in the late 2000s.

"You're allowed to skateboard on the sidewalk but most people don't know that, not even the police officers. I've been given tickets for skateboarding when I was on the sidewalk, but I looked up the laws and I went to court and I fought and beat the ticket," Boots said. "There's also a rule for reckless skateboarding, for skateboarding 'in a fashion that is disruptive to the circulation of pedestrians.' So you can still get a ticket for being on the sidewalk, but it's allowed—it's kind of like a reckless driving ticket."

Bike paths in the city are also a crucial battleground for skateboarding—rent-a-bikes, souped-up mobility scooters, and more are allowed free rein on the paths, while skateboards are still currently banned. But veteran skateboarder, city councillor, and all-around radical human being Sterling Downey is determined to change that; he tabled a motion to City Council last month to grant skaters freedom in the bicycle paths. It passed unanimously.

"Cyclists are allowed on the road, the sidewalk, and bike paths, why aren't skateboarders?" Downey asked during a recent interview at Peace Park. He explained that he sold the council with the idea that skateboarding was a mode of "active transportation," not just a recreational activity.

City councillor and mother to a young skateboarder Justine McIntyre also put forward a motion to allow skateboarding in Montreal's streets which received city council's approval in October 2014, although the proposal would require changes in the Highway Safety Code, which is provincial law.

"The mayor has agreed that skateboarding should be legalized in the bike paths but it hasn't gone through yet... There's a process to it. So the city says, 'OK, yes, we can legalize skateboarding,' now they have to change all the laws and make it all happen," Boots said. "Since the city is supporting skateboarding in the bike paths, the word out is that the police won't give you a ticket, but then again they still could."

Along with Peace Park, another inspiring story from the legalization push in Montreal is that of the Big O fullpipe at Olympic Stadium, the scrapped concrete tunnel left over from the 1976 Olympic Games that doubles as a full pipe for skaters. In 2011, after decades of use as a skate spot, the Olympic Stadium planned renovations that called for the demolition of the pipe. Professional skateboarders Barry Walsh and Marc Tison, who had written a book together on the Big O in 2006, along with the skate community fought to preserve the pipe, and Joey Saputo of the Stade Saputo made it happen. The 175-ton improvised skate structure was physically uprooted and moved to a new location in 2013, becoming a legally sanctioned skate spot and a designated landmark for skateboarders. It's even featured on the Olympic Stadium's tourism website.

"The stars really started to align when Saputo saved the Big O. It was a big step forward for skateboarding," Boots said. "That's when things started to change in the city, the first sign of a new era for Montreal and skateboarding. When we were trying to legalize skateboarding, we were like, 'Well, even Saputo recognizes the importance of skateboarding and preserving historical skateboard spots.' So, big ups to Saputo and Mark and Barry. Yeah, that's when the tide started to change for skateboarding in the city."

So in 2015, it's never been a better time to be a skateboarder in Montreal. I joined the epic skate soiree in the streets on Sunday, June 21 for Go Skateboarding Day, fully legal for the first time in the city. With support from the SAT, Boots had wrangled permits to reserve seven downtown blocks for a "rollout" of over 100 Montreal skaters. He cut the ribbon to the riotous applause of boards smacking the pavement, and then we were off to the races, an armada of rowdy, rolling thunder.

Similar rollouts have taken place in Montreal under the name "Wild in the Streets," which happened illegally for five years before getting shut down in 2011. But this year, police cruisers cleared the way for us and blocked all traffic for safe skater passage—a seriously surreal and exhilarating sight.

The rollout's final destination was, naturally, Peace Park, and skaters barely slowed down to start hitting the granite ledges and manny pad. The rain held off all day, and a packed skate jam, live music, and best trick contest played out the rest of the GSD festivities, with harsh slams and good vibes for all.

"I think skateboarding is finally shedding the stigmas surrounding it. It's becoming more accepted by the general public and people are realizing that it's something positive and it can be a creative solution to solving some of the city's urban problems," Boots said.

Boots had some real-talk advice for skaters trying to legalize skating in their own communities, adding with a laugh that just legalizing skateboarding in the one-square-block park took him ten years.

"The best thing to do is go to your City Council meetings. A lot of people go to City Council meetings to complain, but they don't propose anything, they don't present a plan to actually make it happen," he said. "Clearly, skateboarders need to take charge and they need to get organized. You have to want it and go after it, and try not to piss anyone off or step on anyone's toes in the process."

Thanks to efforts from skateboarders like Boots, Montreal is now a trailblazer for skaters' rights, an insane and revolutionary development for the East Coast city. While there's still much work to be done, skateboarding's prospects have never looked more inviting than in the city of potholes and poutine.

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