LUCIA KOWALUK, who will be named to the Order of Canada, might be unknown to many Montrealers, but her legacy is all around

“All I’ve ever done is see something that enrages me because it’s not just,
and then do something about it.”
LUCIA KOWALUK has dedicated her life to making Montreal a better place to live. A force behind heritage groups, initiatives to help the homeless and the fight to save the Milton-Parc neighbourhood during the 1960s, Kowaluk will be named to the Order of Canada on Monday. Behind her is the soon-to-be-vacated Hôtel Dieu hospital, which she wants to see used for community housing. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
JOHN MAHONEY/ THE GAZETTE— Jane Addams, pioneer U.S. social worker, 1860-1935
Lucia Kowaluk has spent a lifetime helping, building, comforting and cajoling others to do the same.
So when the governor general of Canada’s office phoned i n December and Kowaluk discovered what her friends had done for her, she responded in classic modesty with a question: Why me?
Kowaluk is one of the Canadians who will be named to the Order of Canada on Monday.
It’s overdue recognition for a person whose name might be unfamiliar to many Montrealers, but whose legacy is all around, her friends say.
“I was, first of all, stunned when I got the call from Ottawa,” said Kowaluk, who will turn 80 in July. “My friends spent a year-and-half on this application, and I didn’t know anything about it. I mean, it’s overwhelming when you think about it.”
A social worker by training, Kowaluk has been a founder and force behind such groups and initiatives as the Milton-Parc community of housing co-operatives, Heritage Montreal, a dropin centre for the homeless in St-James United Church, the Chambreclerc non-profit housing corporation for the homeless and the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre, on top of being a sparkplug who has organized numerous demonstrations — and has gotten arrested in the process — to save green space and heritage and promote trafficcalming measures.
“She knows what needs to be done and how to organize people, but she also has the human touch,” said Joshua Wolfe, an urban planner who met Kowaluk 30 years ago when he was an undergrad. She was a guest speaker at his environmental issues class giving a talk on behalf of Save Montreal, a heritage group she helped found in 1973 after the demolition of the Van Horne Mansion.
Wolfe, who was at the time interested in science, technology and the environment, says he promptly joined Save Montreal and refocused on urban conservation.
“She empathizes,” Wolfe said. “She’s able to speak to all kinds of people. She’s able to reach out and use the vocabulary of the people she’s with and understand their concerns and deal with them, whether it’s an intellectual, a politician or other person.
“I think it’s innate in her, but it’s also her training as a social worker.”
The letter to the advisory council for the Order of Canada nominating Kowaluk was signed by architect Phyllis Lambert, founding director emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. They met in the 1970s as founding board members of Save Montreal, and later worked together to found Heritage Montreal and again to turn Milton-Parc into the largest zero-equity, non-profit housing project in North America.
“With gentle, firm persuasion, she encourages people from all walks of life to get involved in causes that help themselves and others,” Lambert’s four-page letter says of Kowaluk.
“She has benefitted the lives of so many Montrealers in need, whether by improving their housing situation, creating a dignified, welcoming refuge for them or actively promoting ecological behaviour. At the same time, by her example, she inspires future generations of social workers, community activists and ordinary citizens.”
Kowaluk was in fact involved as of the late 1960s in Milton-Parc, a neighbourhood near McGill University that was filled with 19th-century greystones and small apartment buildings that a developer planned to raze for multiple phases of highrise apartments and shops. The residents and a changing real estate market stopped the project after one phase.
Claire Helman’s 1987 book the Milton-Park Affair — on the battle that wound up saving 95 per cent of the buildings in the six square blocks and the community’s subsequent success to get Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to buy the neighbourhood and turn it into co-operative housing — offers a glimpse of Kowaluk’s ability to fire up sometimes demoralized residents, whom she had organized into individual street committees by the 1970s.
Kowaluk’s modesty, Wolfe reckons, leads her to evaluate her contribution as equal to that of everyone else.
“She sees herself — unconsciously, I think — not as a leader but someone who accompanies other people,” he said.
“She’s a leader, but she’s a leader by being part of the group and bringing people along with her.”
In typical fashion, he said, Kowaluk’s reaction when she learned she was to be named a member of the Order of Canada was, “Why me? There are so many other people.”
And then she began to list names of people, Wolfe added.
Testimony to her power of persuasion is the 1985 opening of the homeless dropin centre inside St-James United Church on Ste-Catherine St. W.
“People just wanted a place to come to sit, to chat, to eat something, just to get off the street,” Kowaluk said. A number of them suffered mentalhealth problems. Kowaluk arranged for an area of the church to be transformed into the drop-in centre, which she ran for its first five years.
She then set up Chambreclerc, offering small living quarters and shared kitchens for the homeless.
Her housing work carried on as she helped out in the 1990s on the Benny Farm project to create social housing in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and with involvement in the N.D.G. community council and Passages, a housing project for young prostitutes, while her environmental work is showcased by her cofounding in 1996 of the Urban Ecology Centre. She was the centre’s first co-ordinator for a decade, during which time it created the first “green roofs” in Montreal. She was also a founding member of a group that established the Strathearn Intercultural Centre in the late ’80s to offer artistic programs in a surplus public school that she had fought to convert into community space.
Kowaluk, the eldest of three daughters, was born Lucia Tweedie and raised in Albany, N.Y., by a schoolteacher mother and a father who worked for the telephone company.
As a child, she once organized her neighbours to fill in the potholes on their country road, Kowaluk recounted, laughing. At her 70th birthday party, one of her sisters humorously described Kowaluk’s various childhood attempts at community activism.
Kowaluk moved to Montreal in her 20s to study for her master’s degree in social work at McGill.
In 1961, she was a founding editor of the journal Our Generation Against Nuclear War, where she met her future husband, Dimitri Roussopoulos, a writer, activist and founder of Black Rose Books.
She married Roussopoulos in 1970 after a first marriage to Alex Kowaluk.
She and Roussopoulos, who still live in Milton-Parc, have one son, who lives in British Columbia.
Kowaluk proudly boasts that her 14-year-old granddaughter is a member of Greenpeace.
“She and her father went to a demonstration in Victoria against the number of oil tankers using the harbour,” she said. “That’s my granddaughter.”
Kowaluk claims she has slowed down since a kidney infection in 2010 left her weakened.
Even so, she’s organizing a coalition to fight for the soonto-be vacated Hôtel-Dieu hospital to be reused for community housing and social uses.
Again, Kowaluk says she doesn’t see her contribution as exceptional.
“All I’ve ever done,” she said, “is see something that enrages me because it’s not just, and then do something about it.”