Snejanka Popova, 2012
A new tree has started to grow. From the rough, sharp gravel at its roots, its leaves sprout to the sound of students chatting between classes, a drunk man shouting at a woman beside him, cars honking, and metro doors swooshing open as people rush by the Atwater station on the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Atwater Avenue. With the statue of John Cabot towering above this freshly planted sapling, pointing out to the horizon and watching over Ville-Marie, for 10 years Cabot Square has stood as a beacon of hope in the city I love so dearly.
Cutting through the center of the park on my way to school, my feet pick up their pace as I near the station entrance, rocks stabbing my heels in my pink Hello Kitty Crocs. The women from the nearby Native Women’s Shelter greet me with their usual smiles as I rush through, barely avoiding a tree: “Love the blue, baby!” one shouts, coffee in hand, referring to my bright blue hair, hers jet black in contrast. “Have a good day!” I greet back as always, my mouth still bitter from my morning coffee.
Cabot Square isn’t a particularly remarkable park. With a small outdoor café, a few trees here and there surrounded by numerous benches, portable toilets, and a fairly small skating rink in winter, it barely counts as an actual park. A striking blend of marijuana, cigarette smoke, gasoline and urine, a scent that doesn’t get any less potent the longer you stay, infuses the crisp morning air. Unmistakablely, the imposing centerpiece depicting the Italian-born explorer John Cabot, resident of the square since 1931 as per the Art Public Montréal website, does little to brighten up the atmosphere.
For many, however, Cabot Square is much more than a dull urban green space.
According to the Montreal Gazette, the Cabot Square Project has aimed to make this park a safe space for First Nations and Inuit people in the Ville-Marie area since 2014. As part of the project, designated officers can often be found in the park, checking up on its residents. “You guys get through the storm okay last night?” one asks two older men sitting by the station. Last year, a small orange ribbon was pinned on every tree as a symbolic gesture for the “Every Child Matters” movement in Canada, acknowledging the worth of every life affected by the Indian residential school system. Today, however, since the largest tree that once stood at the core of the square was torn down, not a tree in sight holds the ribbon it once did. Perhaps this too contributes to Cabot Square’s reputation: a ground for desperation and misery instead of hope and unity.
Nevertheless, I’d like to think the planting of a new sapling in that vacant space, with its shy, budding green leaves and frail branches, contrasting so heavily with the rugged gravel and the harsh smoke-filled air it breathes, could stand as an omen of what’s to come. Through hardships and suffering, surrounded by a city often too busy to care, the life in Cabot Square never ceased to flourish. Morning after morning, city gardeners come to water the tenacious, though mostly puny and shriveled plants, while workers from the Native Women’s shelter plow on, giving their all to provide better environments for women our country has failed to protect. Maybe it isn’t especially attractive or entertaining, but as Cabot Square’s spark refuses to wither, I’ll cherish every morning smile I can get from its occupants and stay confident that the Square will blossom again.