Register Sunday | May 26 | 2024
Little Fires Everywhere Montreal’s Great Fire of 1852 forced the city to reckon with its fire prevention practices. Will the Old Port fire do the same?   James Duncan, Burning of Hayes House, Dalhousie Square, Montreal, 1852. Courtesy of McCord Stewart Museum

Little Fires Everywhere

After a fire ravages a home, it seems it's always tenants who are left to pick through the ashes and shoulder the responsibility.

Pizza boxes in the oven, empty and grease-laden. It seemed like a good idea at the time: stash them there until garbage day so they wouldn’t smell up the small kitchen. Until, of course, I went to turn the oven on two days later and they went up in flames. As smoke billowed out of the stove elements, my roommates and I stood there, willing ourselves to act but terrified of opening the oven. We didn’t have a fire extinguisher; we didn’t have a fire blanket. I stared into the flames, just visible through the oven door, my mind fixated on the one, inescapable fact that cut to my core: we did not have tenant insurance. Should smoke damage the appliances, we were on the hook for them. If this place burned down, my finances and I would go down with it. I was entirely unprepared.

When I did finally open the oven, I fed the fire exactly what it wanted: more oxygen. Even with our back door open, the sound of the pouring rain was muted by the whoosh of the flames as they soared higher, nearly licking the ceiling. We sprang into action, smothering the flames with terry-cloth towels and blankets until only embers remained. Having gotten off scot-free, minus some blistering on my fingers and a single blackened chair, the ordeal became a funny anecdote of early-twenties idiocy, an inside joke and a lesson learned. But as the weeks wore on and images of smoking microwaves continued to haunt my dreams, the creep of “what if” started ringing louder — what if we hadn’t been able to contain the fire? Our close call awakened me to the destructive power of human error in a city wedged between cost-cutting landlords and insufficiently-enforced fire safety regulations. And I’m far from the only one who’s been touched by fire, or the threat of it.

Fire has a neutrality ascribed to it; if you aren’t careful, it could happen to you. In Montreal, data collected by the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal (SIM), the city’s fire department, lists kitchen appliances and smoking paraphernalia (lighters, ashtrays, cigarette butts) as being responsible for just under 30 percent of all building fires each in 2022, making them the two most common causes. Human negligence or distraction is linked to 85 percent of fires in Montreal, according to Kim Nantais, a media relations officer for the city. A dropped cigarette, a blocked lint filter, a pizza box forgotten in the oven; fires are seen as freak events that strike randomly, allowing them to evade politicization. But fate and luck aren’t the only factors at play here, and analyses of how far the damage goes, how long the fire rages and who’s on the hook for the consequences raise larger questions about responsibility and culpability.

In 2022, there were 1,303 building fires that required intervention in Montreal — a number that has remained mostly steady for the past decade, ranging from lows of 1,100 to highs of just over 1,300. According to internal SIM documents, between 2017 and 2019 Montreal had consistently higher fire incidences per capita than Toronto and Calgary, and higher than Toronto in 2020, hovering at around sixty-five interventions per thousand residents pre-pandemic. Montreal is celebrated for its historic architecture; the gorgeous, old-fashioned façades like the Plateau’s brightly coloured townhouses serve as pretty fodder for photo-ops. But with this characteristic charm comes hazards: much of the city’s development in neighbourhoods such as Westmount, the Mile End and the Plateau occurred between 1800 and 1930, leaving many unrenovated dwellings vulnerable to fire damage, since they were constructed with more combustible materials before municipal and federal fire codes were in place. Residential home construction with timber planks, a particularly fire-prone material, was especially common in Montreal until the mid-twentieth century.

This past March, a historic greystone building in Montreal’s Old Port at the corner of Place d’Youville and Rue du Fort burned down, killing seven people who were trapped inside. On August 28, the SPVM, Montreal’s police force, said they found evidence of an accelerant on the site and would be investigating the fire as arson. But that’s not the whole story: most of the building’s fifteen units were rented out as Airbnbs that were never registered with the province, making them illegal. According to former tenants, at least one unit had no windows and only one exit, in defiance of regulations. One victim called 911 from inside their windowless apartment as the building burned, unable to escape. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the city, as residents and the media decried Airbnb’s barely-regulated foray into Montreal’s rental market. A question lingered in the ashes: how a heritage building with so many tenants could be such a fire trap.

After the fire, reporting from the CBC and Ricochet revealed that the building’s owner and the host of its illegal Airbnbs, Emile-Haim Benamor, was informed of several safety code violations by city inspectors since he took over in 2009; including a faulty fire alarm system, missing smoke detectors and insufficient emergency exits. Despite the issues remaining through follow-up visits, Benamor was fined just once, in 2013: a total of $650. Inspectors reissued warnings about persistent violations but no further action was taken. In the wake of the fire, the city installed fire alarms and mandated him to post security guards at two of his other buildings, and the province opened a public inquiry into the fire itself. Randy Sears, who lost his thirty-five-year-old son, Nathan, in the fire, is levying a $22 million class-action suit against Benamor, an Airbnb operator within the building and four companies affiliated with Airbnb.

The fallout led to Airbnb promising to crack down on illegal listings in Quebec by pulling those without the license numbers that prove their provincial registration. But the loopholes were left wide open: unauthorized listings with fake or invalid registration numbers still show up on the platform months afterward. Both the Quebec government and Airbnb are offloading responsibility onto the other: Airbnb calls for the government to provide them with a dataset of all registered properties, while Quebec claims that Airbnb already has the tools to verify the authenticity of all listings. Meanwhile, Airbnb’s proliferation continues; according to reporting by Ricochet, multiple “ghost hotel” schemes run rampant in the city, where owners and Airbnb operators team up to evict tenants, sign leases over to the new Airbnb operators, and then renovate and jack up property valuations by as much as four times the previous rent. Benamor participated in this scheme and is still thought to own at least twenty-two buildings across the city.

The popularization of this short-term model is concerning from a safety perspective: there is little incentive to check for or report safety hazards since visitors aren’t staying for long. People staying for a weekend are probably less likely to pay attention to fire code violations, particularly if they’re just visiting the city, making it easier for landlords to skirt their obligations, like smoke alarms, fire exits and yearly equipment inspections. Their neglect can sit under the radar for years, unless a fire brings it into focus.

The slow erosion of municipal oversight is making it easier for landlords to flout their safety responsibilities in the long-term market as well. This past June, the SIM got rid of its division tasked with verifying smoke detectors and placed a moratorium on some aspects of building inspections, such as the use of legal proceedings against landlords. In an email, the city declined to provide the reasons why, though they vaguely claimed they’re developing new approaches for the SIM in these areas.

In Canada, a patchwork of national, provincial and municipal codes make up fire safety regulations. The National Building Code of Canada provides a blueprint for construction regulations, but its rules have no legal standing until they’re implemented by a jurisdiction. In Quebec, residential buildings fall under the purview of the Building Act, which encompasses a Construction Code and a Safety Code, both of which were adapted from the national code. Quebec residential buildings under three storeys, however, are not subject to the Construction Code, leaving municipalities to decide which parts of the code, if any, to adopt. The town of Sainte-Marie has no municipal bylaws governing the construction of residential buildings under this size; when severe flooding hit in 2019, many homes were ruined because the town’s construction bylaws did not contain guidelines to protect against severe weather events.

Montreal’s nineteen boroughs all adopted a set of construction bylaws in 2011 that govern everything from window sizes to acceptable materials for making walls fire-resistant, but amendments can differ between boroughs. In 2012, Montreal’s city council adopted the “By-law concerning fire safety” for all its boroughs in line with the 2010 update to the National Fire Code, mandating yearly reviews of emergency evacuation plans and acceptable occupant load numbers for commercial buildings. However, there is nothing to suggest that Montreal has amended the bylaw since the Code’s last update, in 2020.

Rules on paper only do so much, especially when faced with the Wild West of landlord negligence and cost-cutting. To really hold any power, the rules must be enforced in a meaningful, time-sensitive way — which was particularly lacking when we consider how Benamor skirted fire code regulations with ease. According to Mayor Valérie Plante, inspections occur if a tenant makes a complaint, if a permit is issued for any change to a building or as a preventative measure. And yet, prevention checks are left to each borough to perform on their own, leaving gaps in what gets noticed; according to housing rights group Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain, there are “no systematic inspections of the entire rental housing stock in Montreal.” This situation is made worse by a SIM that’s cutting its inspections.

If the SIM finds any fire safety infractions in a building, they can levy fines against the landlord to encourage them to comply. These fines, between $250 and $650 for individual landlords’ first offences, are paltry, especially in comparison to the costs related to implementing some fire safety measures. If inspectors find that dwelling conditions pose an immediate risk to the health and safety of occupants, they can issue an evacuation notice, or even begin the necessary work of updating the building so that it’s in compliance and then just charge the building owner later.

Whether in short-term Airbnbs or the long-term rental market, when housing is seen as an investment rather than a human right, it encourages landlords to do whatever it takes to cut down on costs and maximize their profits. And when a city’s feeble prevention and enforcement strategies can’t keep these landlords in check, the responsibility falls onto the tenant. In an increasingly precarious housing market where renters are forced to settle for less while paying more, creating conflict with the person or corporation that owns your home is often risky: it’s difficult to demand that your landlord adheres to fire safety codes, even when stipulated in your lease and mandated by law. Speaking up is often not worth the risk—if you even know about your rights in the first place.

The sometimes-lethal results of landlord and municipal negligence aren’t the only life-shattering consequences of a fire. For tenants, a fire brings with it two disasters: the blaze itself, and the financial fallout that can occur afterwards. Losing your home in a competitive rental market can be ruinous on its own. And, if the tenant is found to be at fault for the fire, the landlord’s insurer can go after them for the damages to the property.  “We have seen a number of tenants losing sleep because they are faced with enormous bills for damage that they are held responsible for — with no allegation that the damage was intentional,” explains Margaret van Nooten, a social rights worker at Project Genesis, an advocacy and organizing non-profit in Montreal.

Technically, landlords are the ones responsible for insuring the building, while tenants are only responsible for getting tenant insurance to protect their personal belongings. Tenant insurance can also prevent renters from having to pay out of their own pocket in situations where they’re pursued by the landlord’s insurer; but its costs might make some shy away from it, especially in a market where the average rent is on the rise. An average tenant insurance plan in Quebec costs just under $30 a month and protects you if you damage the property by mistake, and also covers the cost of personal belongings lost to fire or theft.

“The greatest barrier to access to renters’ insurance is the expense,” says van Nooten. “Most of the people we work with have such low incomes that it does not seem realistic or reasonable to expect them to carry renters’ insurance. Juggling rent, electricity and phone bills is already too much for many people.” A shoddy credit history or a criminal record can inflate rates or prevent coverage altogether; premiums can also rise with the age of your dwelling, its proximity to a flood zone or its distance from a fire station. Not to mention higher insurance rates in “high-crime” neighbourhoods, which tend to be lower-income, compounding the problem.

Being found liable for damages can bring extraordinary costs. In 2016, the Régie du Logement, Quebec’s rental board, ordered a tenant to pay over $32,000 in damages to his unit for an accidental fire caused by a mattress placed too close to a heater. Since this kind of arbitration typically involves an individual going up against an insurance company with a legal team, taking legal action to dispute or appeal the decision could suck up even more time and money than the damages themselves. “When a landlord or the landlord’s insurance company pursues a tenant for compensation there is no “dodging,’” says George Nehme, an insurance broker at Herskovits Kallos & Associés Ltée in the Town of Mount Royal. The insurer can pursue you without end, with comparatively near-endless resources at their disposal.

There’s another, more pernicious way that fire skews the imbalanced relationship between tenants and landlords. Guillame Daoust, who uses a pseudonym for fear of reprisal, is an organizer at SLAM, the Syndicat de locataires autonomes de Montréal (Montreal Autonomous Tenants’ Union): a union that helps tenants organize their buildings. He says that he has seen cases in which landlords refuse to address direct fire hazards, ostensibly as a way to get tenants to leave their homes. One tenant he worked with had his fire escape blocked while the landlord started on intrusive repairs within their unit. “It was very clear to everyone involved, that … the goal was to cause enough of a nuisance and also infringe enough on this [person’s] security so that he would eventually up and move apartments,” Daoust tells me.

When there are fire safety violations in your home, engaging in a complex bureaucratic process and waiting for a ruling can lead to months spent living in an unsafe environment that could spark at any time. Some tenants don’t know that they’re able to file a complaint in the first place. Simply leaving your home may seem like a better, or the only, option. And no matter what, opening a file with the rental board puts tenants in a precarious position: landlords could refuse to write a reference for them if they end up leaving and looking for a new place, potentially hindering their future housing security even if they win.

Organizations such as Project Genesis and SLAM educate tenants on their rights and liabilities; they have also rallied against the rapid inflation of Montreal rents. However, community action specifically focused on ensuring in-unit fire safety is rare — more general issues like protecting vulnerable people from losing housing, placing unhoused people in affordable housing and fighting illegal rent hikes and renovictions are too urgent. Community groups are too overloaded to rally around fire safety, while the city drags its feet on addressing the problem — even after a tragedy like the Old Port fire, Montreal residents haven’t heard of any concrete plan to improve building inspections or reform the fire department’s operations. Abandoned by the institutions meant to protect us, fire responsibility falls instead on tenants already overwhelmed by the erosion of housing security.

On the Friday of Labour Day weekend, 1972, three men decided to teach a bouncer a lesson. Angry that they weren’t allowed into the Wagon Wheel, a country bar on Montreal’s Union Street, the men set fire to the staircase that served as the main entrance. Within minutes, Wagon Wheel and the downstairs Blue Bird Café were engulfed in flames. One of the fire exits had been blocked by the owner; there weren’t enough places for people to escape from. The fire took the lives of thirty-seven and injured over fifty others. In the aftermath, the families of the victims sued the fire department and the building owners for $9 million. The defence coalition, led by then-mayor Jean Drapeau, paid out a paltry sum of $1,000 to $3,000 per victim as a settlement. Despite the injustice of the payout, the incident led to changes in Montreal’s building codes for improved emergency exits, to ensure that such a tragedy would never happen again. That fire is a haunting parallel to the Old Port fire: a neglectful landlord, a city incapable of enforcement and lethal consequences. In spite of the updated building codes, we’re still seeing the same scenario play out fifty years later.

Quebec’s Fire Prevention Week, held during the second week of October this year, boasts the theme “Fire prevention is your responsibility!” The government site shocks us with statistics of fire incidences, damages and fatalities, then tells us how we can avoid adding to them. The choice of theme feels especially rich in light of the Old Port disaster. Fires will happen—we are forgetful, we are distracted, we do stupid, reckless things. But it’s dangerous to suggest that fire safety is only our responsibility: municipalities and landlords have roles to play in ensuring buildings are up to code. There is only so much a fire blanket can do if you find yourself in a windowless apartment.

As smoke thickens overhead and forest fires make climate refugees out of us, fires inside the home are the least concern of many. They’re an afterthought until they become an immediate, inescapable reality: a disaster with the potential to wipe out all the little fires burning in your life, and to expose the unequal structures undergirding the housing crisis. Fire Prevention Week’s message of personal responsibility is laughable within a landscape where landlords easily shirk the fire code, the city shrugs at enforcing it and tenants are afraid to speak up in a housing market marred by rising costs and increasing desperation. Even if every tenant acted perfectly, followed every prevention tip, stubbed out their cigarettes, regularly drilled an evacuation plan and didn’t forget about pizza boxes in the oven, that still wouldn’t protect them from an electrical failure or an unusable fire exit.

Close calls change your life in subtle ways. There’s a singe mark shaped like a planet on our apartment’s kitchen floor, now hidden underneath a carpet. No amount of sandpapering could get it off. We haven’t ordered pizza since. Our group chat was renamed, glibly, “survivors of the May 2nd fire.” Though our landlord has yet to step foot in our unit, a fire blanket sits atop the fridge, waiting to be unfurled. I remember staring into the flames, transfixed. I remember how loud the whoosh sounded, how the blaze shocked me with its might. And I remember thinking: this is the same fire everyone sees. The patrons at Blue Bird, unable to find an emergency exit; the travellers staying in the Old Port building who never made it home. Although we have been confronted with its danger over and over again, we are still learning to protect each other from fire. If systemic oversight continues to fail tenants, we will keep getting burned. ⁂

Madison McLauchlan is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tribune, a student newspaper at McGill University, where she studied biology. Based in Montreal, she writes for magazines, websites and elevator screens.