For three years, Marci Babineau’s backyard chickens made her the poster girl for the urban chicken movement in Montreal. Media outlets big and small covered the story all the way to Toronto. The day I spoke to Marci was the day after her chickens had moved to the Eastern Townships. She was missing them but as far as she was concerned they had earned their new country home. The chickens (they each had a name) had supplied Marci and her family with five eggs a day – a lot of work for five chickens.
Marci had grown up around chickens in Southern California and had raised them as an adult in various places in the United States, but never in the city. A food activist with a mission, a Westmount backyard seemed like as good a place to start as any. Marci had already planted her mini-food forest, a permaculture staple, in her yard, but what her garden needed to take it to the next level was a steady supply of compost. That is where the chickens came in. And it worked; Marci witnessed an “amazing change” over a period of three years. The poop and bedding “enhanced the garden two hundred percent,” she told me. And then of course there were the direct health benefits for her family. Relaxed, well-cared for chickens produce better quality eggs that are shown to be lower in cholesterol.
After the neighbours were consulted and the bylaws gone over, the playhouse under the balcony was renovated to accommodate the hens, along with nesting boxes, litter, and an enclosed run. “In Westmount it is really about what your neighbours can bear.” For the first couple of years they were mostly charmed. When Daisy decided to go on a walkabout one day she attracted the attention of the local constabulary. Marcia thought she was busted when she saw two Westmount security guards walking into her backyard with Daisy in tow. But instead they only showed concern. They wanted to make sure the chickens were safe. She gave them some eggs. Maybe that helped. Much to Marci’s surprise, the incident only served to heighten support for the chickens locally. By this time she was already inviting the Boy Scouts, Concordia students, and other interested groups to visit her backyard coop. And the chickens loved the attention.
In Montreal it is up to the boroughs to decide who can keep chickens, but only Rosemont has allowed them and then only in a tightly controlled situation such as an educational tool for children. Chickens lived in Montreal backyards until a bylaw banned them in 1966, a year before Expo 67. It is not difficult to guess what lay behind the City’s new restrictions. The world’s spotlight was to be on Montreal. Chickens running around back lanes was not commensurate with the image of a modern sophisticated world-class destination, the image the City desperately wanted to cultivate.
When rats discovered the chicken feed they began to regularly dine at Daisy’s coop. The next-door neighbours were not impressed and support for the chickens swiftly declined. The chickens became the “scapechickens” for other neighbourly tensions and Marci knew that it was time to find them a new home. Rats and squirrels present a major problem for urban agriculture. Marci readily admitted that there are real hurdles to having chickens in your backyard, space being another challenge, especially in the denser neighbourhoods like the Plateau. But the same kind of issues affect plants and animals wherever you raise them, nor are pests restricted to the city. The City of Vancouver allows chickens and provides instructions.
Promoting chickens in the city was only part of Marci’s mission. She also worked to heighten the presence of urban agriculture more generally through public workshops and the planting of edible foods in public spaces. She was a core member of Transition NDG, a group of like-minded people looking for community based solutions to the challenges of climate warming, peak oil, and economic instability both locally and worldwide. “For the most part the reception has been amazing,” she tells me. Inspired by Incredible Edibles, a movement that originated in England to plant vegetables and fruit and nut trees in public spaces, Marci convinced Westmount to install edible planters instead of the traditional flower boxes.
Marci moved to England at the end of the summer. Who is going to speak up for backyard chickens in Marci’s absence in this an election year? Urban agriculture has yet to become an issue in the current municipal campaign. Although both Projet Montréal and Vision Montréal have shown support for local urban agricultural initiatives (with Projet promising a centre for urban agriculture in Outremont), no one has taken a position on chickens or on urban agriculture more generally. Food insecurity, unhealthy eating, habitat loss due to urban sprawl, heat islands, and global warming are just some of the issues that urban agriculture tries to address. Montreal has more urban sprawl than any other city in Canada and it is only getting worse as people continue to flee to the suburbs. Yes, we need to think about ways to prevent corruption in the City’s administration, and expanding public transportation infrastructure is a no-brainer. But if we want to make our cities more inhabitable we need to think green and nothing encourages green like chicken poop. Think about it.
Kathryn Harvey is a Montreal historian, community activist, and proud owner of 20 hens and a rooster named Elvis. The complete Who’s Your Farmer series can be found here.