The Angell Woods Story
- The 250-acre West Island treasure that we know of as Angell Woods has been many things to many people, throughout the years.
- It was of course part of pre-contact Mohawk territory, like the rest of the Island of Montreal. The woods later formed part of the farmland “concessions” granted to settlers by their European regimes in the late 1600’s and 1700’s. They were ultimately acquired by the Valois (1820) and Angell (1840) families. You can still see the remnants of the families' rock walls in the woods, which would have served either as repositories of stones pulled out of croplands, as livestock fences or as simple boundary markers. The homesteads for the Valois and Angell farms were down by the shore of Lake St. Louis; what is now Angell Woods was the northernmost extremity of their farmlands. Once the railway came along in 1853 and severed their farmlands into two pieces, the lands north of the tracks became even more isolated.
- Starting in the 1950’s, pieces of the old farms began to be sold off to various “Building Companies”, for residential construction. Beaconsfield as we know it began to take shape, starting first in the south and working gradually northwards. In the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, City Halls across the country wanted old farmlands turned into carefully planned streets and suburban neighbourhoods. It didn’t take long before the population of Beaconsfield grew from roughly 1200 in 1945, all based along the Lakeshore, to the current population of approximately 20,000, which was reached back in 1971.
- Somehow, however, in this march to suburbanize the former farmlands, one 250 acre area was not developed: it was a little out of the way, the soil was too moist, the access was too restricted. And then there was a shift…
- Starting in 1977, this area was christened “the north-west sector”. It became a town-planning puzzle, with successive referendums and citizen debates failing to find a way to “unlock its value”. In the 1980’s and 90’s, some local residents began to consider whether the north-west sector’s highest and best use was as a community forest, rather than as a fresh set of streets and sewers. Maybe, at this point, developing the last 250 acres might not lower the taxes of the current residents. Maybe there were some critters and rare plants that needed the habitat to survive on the Island of Montreal. Maybe there was a benefit to human well-being to be living near a truly wild area, which was not a manicured park illuminated with street lights. It sounds unsurprising now, but 30 years ago, this was “crazy talk”. Or worse, it was short-sighted, unsophisticated NIMBYism.
- APAW’s main contribution to the debate, from its beginnings in 1999, was to stop calling it “the north-west sector”. It took 20 years, but now the Angell Woods label has finally stuck. Along the way, APAW gained momentum via its 1000+ members, a strong volunteer board, and its Guardian Angells. The Guardian Angells are a group of highly-respected business and community leaders, co-chaired by Brian McManus and the late John Ciaccia, who generously lent their names and credibility to the cause.
- These last years have been a remarkable journey. As much as Angell Woods is about a place, it is also about a community and an evolution in consciousness. That community, via APAW, has managed to convince City Hall of the importance of Angell Woods. We also began to realize that City Hall is us; it is the community. Once City Hall took up the Angell Woods cause, it was game over. The same municipal mechanisms that were so useful for facilitating development in the 60’s and 70’s were turned on their head. Through a straight-forward application of municipal planning rules and a few nifty transactions, Angell Woods has gone from 0% protected in 1999, to 90% protected in 2019.