Allison Hanes: St. Patrick's weekend celebrants seeing red over bridge closure

Plans to close the beleaguered Île-aux-Tourtes Bridge will put a big damper on festivities both on and off the island of Montreal.

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No weekend is a good weekend for a total shutdown of the decrepit Île-aux-Tourtes Bridge, but organizers of St. Patrick’s Day festivities in communities west of Montreal were stunned by the last-minute announcement that the aging span will be blocked from Friday night to Monday morning.

Not only will it put a damper on participants and spectators getting to the parade in Hudson on Saturday, said Jay de la Durantaye, president of the Soulanges Irish Society, which organizes that event, the blockage will also impede the sizable off-island Irish and anglophone communities from going downtown for the Montreal parade on Sunday — unless they want to endure a monster traffic jam. The two events are intended to coincide so that musicians, dignitaries and celebrants can enjoy both.

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“That’s created some commotion,” de la Durantaye said. “That’s obviously going to create some logistic changes, and maybe even cancellations, for attending the Hudson parade and the Montreal parade.”

St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in Montreal, where up to 200,000 people are expected to throng de Maisonneuve Blvd. on Sunday. Mayor Valérie Plante noted earlier this week that it’s an occasion when “all Montrealers are Irish.”

Mayor Valérie Plante greets Chloe Miller, this year's St. Patrick's Parade queen, during a gathering at city hall on Monday, March 11, 2024 to announce the festivities surrounding the parade.
Mayor Valérie Plante greets Chloe Miller, this year’s St. Patrick’s parade queen, during a gathering at city hall on Monday, March 11, 2024 to announce the festivities surrounding the parade. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

But the celebration of Celtic culture and heritage is a huge deal in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region. Hudson, population just over 5,000, swells to many times its size for the annual revelry. According to de la Durantaye, the Sûreté du Québec estimated there were 25,000 people lining the town’s Main Rd. last year.

Thanks to the Quebec transport ministry, that may not be the case this year.

“They forgot completely about St. Patrick’s weekend,” he said. “I just think, at the end of the day, I’m hoping, it was an oversight.”

Debbie Newtown, owner of Hudson Traders, already has her shop on the village’s main drag decked out with shamrocks and inflatable leprechauns.

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She said she was “shocked” to learn the bridge would be shut all weekend, one of the five busiest for her old-fashioned general store, which sells coffee, bubble tea, candy and gifts.

“I can guarantee as a Quebecer that this would never, ever happen on St. Jean Baptiste weekend. Ever,” she said. “Maybe (those making the decision) aren’t participants or celebrants of St. Patrick’s Day, which is fine, but they do know there’s a massive amount of people who do. And you don’t have to be an anglophone to appreciate St. Patrick’s Day and all the fun that comes with it.”

After voicing “disappointment” on social media, Newtown urged the public to contact local Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Marilyne Picard’s office to express their dismay. Picard is supposed to march in the parade.

Andrew Dumas, who owns Casse Croute Chez Sauvé next door, said businesses were preparing to welcome a “massive” influx of visitors, some of whom may now stay home. Many merchants are seeing red over the short notice.

“A lot of people have invested a lot of money in this parade, from filling our fridges so that we can sell food, to people with banners and flags that they want to give out,” Dumas said. “The bars are stocked extra for the parties. People have booked bands. There’s so much investment… Then out of the blue, we found out (Monday).”

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The state of the deteriorating Île-aux-Tourtes Bridge is a source of constant frustration for residents who live off the western tip of Montreal Island. It’s bad enough the link has been reduced from six lanes to three for the foreseeable future, resulting in daily traffic hell, but the transport department has repeatedly had to close the shaky old structure for emergency repairs while crews race to construct a new link alongside.

Adding insult to injury, the shutdown over St. Patrick’s weekend was planned in advance, parade organizers were told, and can’t be readily postponed.

Unintentional though it may be, the timing is feeding into the sense of disgruntlement as language tensions rise under the government of Premier François Legault.

“Even as an oversight, the English are overlooked and how else are we overlooked?” Dumas said. “It’s not just a parade, it’s everything. I don’t get it.”

The Irish community has deep roots in Quebec. As far back as the 1600s, Irish people served in the French military before settling permanently in New France, according to Concordia University historians. About 60 per cent of the one million immigrants who arrived through Quebec City and Montreal in the 19th century were Irish. After the “Summer of Sorrows” when thousands of newcomers died in 1847, French-speaking Quebecers adopted Irish orphans, allowing them to keep their surnames.

In spite of the inconvenience of the bridge, de la Durantaye said Saturday’s welcoming and inclusive festivities in Hudson will “roll on with even more determination and drive.”

“The parade must go on. And you know what? To be honest with you, it’s kind of symbolic of our little parade. We call ourselves the ‘little locomotive that could.’ It’s a quaint family parade that has always had that historical family value to it,” he said. “I’m absolutely thrilled to see the amount of support we’re getting from everybody. So from that angle: awesome. It’s just unfortunate that we have to deal with this.”

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