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A Place-Based Learning Community: The Forum des Centre des Amis de la montagne du mont Royal

by Rolando Labraña, Isabel Orellana, and Marie-Eve Marleau

On Mount Royal, known to Montrealers as “the Mountain” but actually a hill in the heart of the city of Montreal, a unique learning-community experiment has been taking place for about the past 25 years. It began at the Centre des Amis de la montagne [centre of the friends of the mountain] forum, which meets regularly on Mount Royal. This forum is basically a place where Montrealers can talk and share their views about the issues that affect the mountain. The forum meets on the first Wednesday of every month at the historic Smith House, located in Mount Royal park, thus satisfying the shared desire of various citizens to become involved in a meeting space specially dedicated to discussing their common concerns about this special place that is Mount Royal. The history of this forum is one of a process of consolidating the deep sense of attachment that all of its members feel toward this place.

Mount Royal can be seen as the backdrop for the city of Montreal,1 and one of the two most symbolic places in the city. It was at the top of Mount Royal, in 1643, that Paul Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal, erected a tremendous cross whose descendant still dominates the city to this day. The other great symbolic site in the city is the St. Lawrence River, on whose shores Montreal was founded and where the commercial port developed that has characterized the life of this city since its inception.

Mount Royal lies at the heart of Montreal’s geography, history, and personality.2 The mountain represents a vast green space right in the centre of the city, a natural set of lungs nestled around its heart. The beauty of its natural setting has inspired public and private institutions, as well as wealthy Anglophone and Francophone families, to erect buildings all around the mountain that have made it a treasure trove of heritage properties.3

Mount Royal is of capital importance to the city, because it offers a combination of natural, historic, landscape, architectural, and archaeological heritage features whose density and diversity give it major stature. Mount Royal is also a complex geographic place that includes five different boroughs of the city, a vast number of institutions, and various public and private properties in whose management several different municipal departments are involved.4

The Centre des Amis de la montagne operates on Mount Royal. The centre received its current name in 2006 with the merger of the Centre de la montagne [the mountain centre] and the Amis de la montagne [friends of the mountain], two organizations dedicated to protecting this symbolic site. The Centre de la montagne was founded in 1981 by a group of biology students from the Université de Montréal, as a vehicle for providing nature-interpretation activities on the mountain. The Centre subsequently made environmental education a part of its mission as well, to help protect and preserve the mountain and enhance this heritage site.

The Amis de la montagne was formed five years later, in 1986, as a lobbying group composed of various organizations—such as Héritage Montréal, Sauvons Montréal, and the Centre de la Montagne—andvarious citizens involved in efforts to prevent construction and development projects from going ahead on Mount Royal. (The mountain is a coveted target for promoters of the most varied projects imaginable.) Today, the Centre des Amis de la montagne is a not-for-profit organization that carries on and strengthens the mission of its two founding organizations: to protect and enhance the mountain by encouraging the community to become involved in citizen actions and by providing education about the environment.

Some 15 years ago, the Centre des Amis de la montagne established a roundtable composed of various people and organizations who simply were interested in Mount Royal or worked in various institutions and public services related to it. Over time, this roundtable has become the Forum du Centre des Amis de la montagne, a central element in the work of the Centre des Amis. This forum is designed for citizens and provincial and municipal officials, and its purpose is to alert the public and decision-makers to the need to protect the mountain’s unique environment.

The Forum du Centre des Amis de la montagne has become a structure for sharing information about and discussing, examining, and debating current events, problems, and issues affecting Mount Royal. The forum’s meetings are run by a moderator who is also responsible for organizing these sessions and for arranging for the presentation of the topics and the guest specialists and other resource persons, as required.

Thus, over the years, the forum has developed a genuine place-based learning community practice. The forum is a structure where a learning process develops that is based on a dynamic of exchange, pooling, co-operation, sharing, complementarity, and building knowledge using everyone’s thoughts, information, and analyses.5 It is a body of knowledge focused on a place, Mount Royal, at the point where its natural and cultural dimensions converge. These dimensions are perceived and understood not only from a cognitive perspective—developing knowledge and understanding of the situations that arise at this place—but also from an affective and symbolic perspective, based on a sense of belonging to this place and an aesthetic and historic appreciation of it. The members of this learning-community practice have developed a unique body of expertise regarding the various issues that affect Mount Royal. The forum’s members have also developed a strong sense of identity that makes them feel that their own fate is closely bound up with that of the mountain. It is this place that has inspired andmotivated the establishment of this structure and this dynamic.

The Forum du Centre des Amis de la montagne employs a variety of strategies in its operations. One of these is a consultative committee composed of experts from various institutions. These experts include representatives of organizations such as Héritage Montréal and the Écomusée de l’Au-Delà, governors and professors from the Université de Montréal, retired City of Montreal employees, and members of the Centre des Amis de la montagne. This consultation committee advises the Centre des Amis de la montagne on various issues concerning the protection of the mountain. This committee also helps to stimulate the discussions through which the Centre des Amis defines the positions that it will take on various matters related to the mountain, and more specifically to its protection, in public debates and consultations. This committee also provides input for the discussionswithin the Forum du Centre des Amis de la montagne and enhances the knowledge-building process that takes place within this learning community.

In practice, this process consists of the forum’s members’ teaching one another about such fields as the environment, environmental education, ecology, forestry, landscape architecture, botany, heritage, and urban development. Another important kind of learning that takes place at the forum is that its members acquire applied skills, such as in preparing position papers and presenting them at public consultation meetings.

The dynamic that has developed within the forum is characterized by collaboration, mutual support, respect, and co-operation from a critical, interdisciplinary perspective. This dynamic helps to build a collective body of knowledge and to strengthen awareness and knowledge of the issues affecting the mountain.

The sense of belonging is also strengthened through the process of penetration and appropriation of the specific reality of this place. The convergence of knowledge from various disciplines with citizens’ own experiences enriches the pool of unique expertise about the realities of Mount Royal. This sense of belonging also becomes a lever for change and for identifying solutions to the various problems that threaten the balance of this place. An enlightened, comprehensive, clearer understanding is thus developed regarding the socio-ecological realities of the mountain.6 The Forum du Centre des Amis de la montagne is also a practice that helps to develop important, meaningful ties between the members of the consultation committee and the citizens who participate in this forum.

The Forum du Centre des Amis de la montagne is a learning community focused on protecting Mount Royal. At the same time, this forum is an environmental-education practice that enriches the people who belong to it. This forum also helps to ensure that these members participate actively in, commit themselves to, and take collective responsibility for the protection of Mount Royal. This learning-community practice creates conditions that are especially conducive to rediscovering this unique place that is Mount Royal, to rethinking the relationships of people and society with regard to this place, and to rebuilding the fundamental connection between nature and the setting in which people live their lives, thus strengthening Montrealers’ sense of belonging to and identification with their mountain, Mount Royal.7

Isabel Orellana is a professor in the Department of Education and Pedagogy and a research associate with the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education at the Université du Québec à Montréal and with the DIALOG network for research on aboriginal issues. She is also a member of the Quebec Coalition on the Social and Environmental Impacts of Transnationals in Latin America. She specializes in environmental education, processes for social construction of knowledge related to socio-ecological equity, social resistance movements, and community ecodevelopment.

Rolando Labrañaholds a Master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Moncton. He is a research assistant on the team headed by Professor Isabel Orellana, a research associate with the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education at the Université du Québec à Montréal. His studies have dealt with community management of water.

Marie-Eve Marleau is a Master’s of Education student at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a research assistant on the team headed by Professor Isabel Orellana, a research associate with the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education at this same institution. Her studies deal with the processes of environmental awareness and environmental action.

Benoît, J-Y., Berryman, T., Gagnon, N., Groulx, J., Marin, F. and Zinger, N. (2001). Le mont Royal revisité : Le chemin Olmsted. Centre de la montagne, inc. Centre d’éducation à l’environnement au mont Royal. 

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Richard, E. (2003). « L’éducation à l’environnement au parc du Mont-Royal : où l’histoire offre un regard différent sur l’environnement. » Revue Regards – Recherches – Réflexions 4: 283-288

Guilbault, S. (2003). « Une décision historique pour Montréal et sa montagne : Un nouveau statut de protection pour le mont Royal ». Bulletin d’information du Centre de la montagne et des Amis de la montagne : Sur la montagne. No. 22, Summer/Fall 2003. 

Orellana, I. (2002). La communauté d’apprentissage en éducation relative à l’environnement : signification, dynamique, enjeux. Unpublished Doctor of Education thesis, Université du Québec à Montréal.

Sauvé and Orellana, (2001). A Formacão continuada de profesores en educação ambiental : a proposta de EDAMAZ. In Do Santos, José Eduardo and Michèle Sato. A Contribução da Educação Ambiental à Esperança de Pandora. São Carlos: RiMa, pp. 273-287.

Orellana. I. (2005). « L’émergence de la communauté d’apprentissage ou l’acte de recréer des relations dialogiques et dialectiques de transformation du rapport au milieu de vie » in Sauvé, L. Orellana, I. Van Steenberghe, E. (Eds.) (2005). Éducation et environnement : Un croisement de savoirs (p. 67-84). Cahiers scientifiques de l’ACFAS, 104. ISBN : 2-89245-129.