Dans la rue – On the Street with the Housing Crisis

By Colin McGregor              

When François Saillant was a young boy, he lived in a slum apartment with his father, a janitor, in the working class Quebec City district of Saint-Sauveur. Decent housing was on his mind from a very early age.  

“We had rats” he recalls. “You couldn’t see them. But you could hear them. The neighbor downstairs saw them at the bottom of her curtains and screamed really loud.”

At first, his father’s salary was very low. But he participated in union activities, and thanks to union action his pay went up. The young Saillant developed a sense of social justice that led him to be the high-profile spokesperson for the social housing lobby, FRAPRU, for over 37 years, from 1979 to 2016. (FRAPRU = le Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain) And he was coordinator of the organization for most of that time.

He has written a history of FRAPRU, Dans la rue. With today’s housing crisis, the book is timely to say the least. Saillant retraces how we got to today’s situation by going over the history of affordable, decent housing since the 1940s.

FRAPRU was founded in June 1979, and it still exists. It counts 30 member groups as well as 110 to 120 associate member groups that allow it to have “its antennas out in all Québec’s regions,” explains Saillant.  

Francois Saillant Photo: C. McGregor

The book is packed with facts, numbers, names and places. It’s a real history book for real historians. Saillant says it helps that he has an excellent memory, and a big archive: “I save everything.” The book lists a litany of demonstrations, sit-ins, squats, political and media campaigns, and disappointments – as well as some victories.


In his youth, he studied journalism, but “I had no desire to work for the mass media,” which he distrusted. Working with friends, he created a group that made videos about housing in Québec City. When that was done, he found work with FRAPRU.

He never regretted his decision to turn his back on the mainstream media and work in the community sector. “I had a freedom of speech and of action I never would have found in big media. Moreover, the cause was very close to my heart.”

The fight for social housing was very different in the 60s and 70s:”It was a battle against mass demolitions,” he says. Where the Maison Radio-Canada sits today was, in the 1960s, a neighborhood called Le Faubourg à m’lasse, with over 800 residential units. The whole neighborhood was razed in 1963 to make way for the CBC building and parking spaces. In total, 5,000 residents were uprooted; 12 grocery stores, 13 restaurants and 20 factories were demolished.  

Between 1957 and 1974, Saillant tells us, 28,000 residential units were demolished. Downtown Montreal was built on the cinders of these affordable housing spaces.

The real battle for housing began in the South-West of Montreal (Little Burgundy, St. Henri) in the 1960s, led by citizen action committees. Afterward, in the 1970s, it was the turn of housing committees and tenants committees to take up the fight.  

Renovictions existed too, starting with some on the Plateau in the 1980s, but they’ve become a much bigger problem nowadays with the entry of big players onto the housing market. They own 10,000 or 20,000 units at a time, and they are often pension funds and other investment funds.    

In the Regions

This isn’t a problem limited to Montreal. There are 15 urban centres with over 10,000 inhabitants in Québec where the vacancy rate is less than 0.5%. They are: Gaspé, Rimouski, Rivière-du-Loup, Baie-Comeau, Roberval, Alma, Drummondville, Sorel-Tracy, Granby, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield,  Marieville, Sainte-Adèle, Saint-Sauveur, Sainte-Sophie, and the Magdalen Islands.

In Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay, the vacancy rate sits at 0.9%. In Quebec City it has dipped to 1.5%. In Montreal the rate sat at 2.3% in November of 2023. But in Quebec City and Montreal, there is a lot more high rent housing available than low rent. “There’s a homeless camp in Saint-Georges de Beauce,” he says, shaking his head.

Saillant was active in the Parti Québécois during the 1960s-70s, and he was a Marxist-Leninist in the 70s and 80s. At the time many members of FRAPRU came from action Catholique, a leftist religious movement. Saillant had the ability to work with a wide array of activists from different backgrounds. He is a rassembleur, a uniter by nature, and a very charming man. But don’t let the smile fool you. He has iron teeth.

He was dogged in his pursuit of causes, arrested several times – twice over the 1980s Overdale development, in downtown Montreal.  

At Overdale, at stake was the home of Patriotes leader Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine as well as other old houses, some in bad shape, in the western section of downtown at the foot of Mackay Street. Saillant fought alongside threatened tenants. The luxury condo project intended for the site never happened. Thirty years later, condos were finally built on the site.  

He wants our readership to understand that when politicians blame immigrants for the current housing shortage, they’re wrong. “Even in places where immigrants don’t settle, in the regions, there’s a problem.”

He blames Ottawa’s complete retreat from the public housing sector – a retreat first announced by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1993, and followed through with by Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin in 1994. “When you blame immigrants for the housing crisis,” he warns politicians, “go look in your own back yard. We could have built over 80,000 housing units with federal involvement since then. The Liberals denounced the Conservative retreat from public housing in 1993, then got elected, and put the cuts into practice.”


Nonetheless, Saillant is optimistic about the community sector’s ability to bring about positive change in society. For example, after the feds turned their backs on public housing, they turned their attention to the provincial government, and AccèsLogis, a Quebec government social housing agency, was created in 1997. “Since then they’ve built 43,000 social residential units – cooperative as well as non-profit. It hasn’t entirely compensated for the federal withdrawal. But if we hadn’t fought for it, those units would never have been created.”

Other small victories, like the Manoir Lafontaine struggle, where a renoviction in a building bordering Lafontaine Park was stopped, gives him hope. It took a long battle by community groups and the building’s 91 residents to make that happen. Saillant also points out that FRAPRU and other community groups forced the government to drop a provision of one law whereby a large portion of a welfare recipient’s cheque could be seized if they defaulted on their rent.   

With 8,000 community organizations identified in Québec in 2019, he writes in his book, “collective rights groups continue to take their place and play an indispensable role.”

At the end of Dans la rue, Saillant asks us: “Sure, FRAPRU bothers people in government offices, but where would the right to decent housing be if they hadn’t done what they did and if they weren’t still doing it?”

Dans la rue : Une histoire du FRAPRU et des luttes pour le logement au Québec.  Published by les Éditions Écosociété, 2024. 256 pages.

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