Montreal’s horse-drawn carriage industry rides off into history, but not quietly

MONTREAL — It’s the end of the line for King and Maximus, Marilyn and Maya, and the rest of the gentle draft horses that live in an aging stable in Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood.

On Dec. 31, they will wheel their carriages out for the last time past the construction sites and new condo towers that have popped up like mushrooms, making their way to the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal. Their hoofbeats hearken back to a bygone era, but soon they will be heard no more.

As of Jan. 1, the city has banned horse-drawn guided carriage tours, citing heightened concern over animal welfare and a series of high-profile incidents involving the horses that spawned a wave of outrage and concern from citizens.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s a victory for the rights of the long-suffering horses or a tragic loss of a piece of the city’s heritage.

For Nathalie Matte, who has worked as a driver for 11 years, it’s the latter.

The horses “are what makes Old Montreal magic; it’s not the lights,” the 52-year-old said during a recent open house at the stables in Griffintown, as she finished the final harness adjustments on K.O., a chestnut gelding.

“It will be the first time you won’t have the sound of horses there.”

Matte, who became captivated by the horses while working another job in Old Montreal, vehemently denies the animals in the industry are mistreated.

“He weighs 2,000 pounds; I weigh 90,” the 52-year-old said as she patted K.O., who wore a dapper top hat perched atop his bridle. ”If he didn’t want to go out, I couldn’t make him.”

But for opponents of the industry, including the current municipal administration, the horse-drawn carriages, known as caleches, belong in the city’s past.

“With heat waves in summer, climate change, extreme cold in the winter, construction and the number of vehicles on the road, we have a serious question on the animals’ safety,” Coun. Sterling Downey told reporters recently at City Hall.

He pointed to a number of incidents involving the horses in the last few years, including one video of a collision between a horse and a car, and another that showed a horse down on the ground after slipping on a metal grate. In 2018, a horse fell and died in the middle of a guided tour.

Downey insisted the administration has done everything it can to ease the transition, including giving a full year’s notice. They have worked with the provincial labour department to help caleche drivers find other work and have offered to pay the owners $1,000 per horse to retire the animals.

As of mid-December, only one owner had taken advantage of the buyback — a sign, Downey said, that the horses are still being used in other jurisdictions that may suit them better.

“We’re confident in the position we’ve taken and the actions we’ve taken,” Downey told reporters. ”We’ve been more than respectful. We’ve tried to do everything, taking into consideration this has an impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.”

But many of the caleche drivers and owners, some of whom have invested tens of thousands of dollars in their businesses, say they risk losing everything and don’t know how to move on from an industry where many have worked for decades.

Luc Desparois, who runs the city’s largest caleche operation and who works out of the Griffintown stable, said he’s not done fighting.

On Dec. 16, he and a group of owners filed a court injunction in a last-ditch attempt to overturn the ban, arguing the drivers have the right to make a living. In court filings, they argued the drivers would suffer serious financial harm due to loss of income and would have to go into debt to support themselves and their animals.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Michel A. Pinsonnault refused the request, ruling that drivers didn’t demonstrate that an emergency injunction is needed, and the request was brought far too late in the game.

Pinsonnault did note that the case brought by the group deserved to be heard on its merits.

In an interview at the stable prior to the injunction request, Desparois described the ban as “political,” motivated by a small group of activists and city politicians eager to free up the valuable stable land for development.

He said his horses are well-treated and he has the veterinary records to prove it. His stable, a converted sawmill without a paddock or box stalls, may not be fancy — but it is safe, he insists.

At the Griffintown open house, children played in the yard and adults sipped coffee as the horses stood tied in the aisle, accepting carrots and pats from the crowd.

“They say the horses are being hurt doing this. They say the horses aren’t happy doing this?” Desparois said, gesturing at the scene. ”Prove it, and I’ll stop tomorrow.”

He said that for years, the city refused simple requests to make things better, including installing poles to tie the horses on the street in Old Montreal for the safety of animals and pedestrians. He also blames the city for the incident of the horse slipping on the metal grate, saying drivers aren’t informed of roadwork. Caleche drivers try to cover the plates with rubber mats, he says, but they’re removed.

For now, Desparois doesn’t want to speculate about what he’ll do after the ban, refusing to accept the end of the industry.

“I don’t want to let this go, because it’s a bunch of lies,” he said.

Cynthia Grahame, a Montrealer who has followed the story, said she has mixed feelings about the end of the industry.

She agrees that downtown Montreal, with the heat, traffic and construction, is “not a safe or appropriate place for the animals.” At the same time, it’s hard to see them go.

“It’s sad to see all the life go from the city,” she said in an interview.

Now Grahame worries about the uncertain future of the animals, some of which she says have been seen for sale on classified sites such as Kijiji.

She wonders whether it might not have been better to explore an alternative solution, such as moving the caleches to a safer area such as Mount Royal.

“Is this the best the city and the SPCA can do?” she asked.

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