Toumany Dantiogo is experiencing his first winter in Montreal, but he’s not afraid. The 23-year-old Malian asylum-seeker is jumping in with both feet, shovel in hand, and he’s ready to help.
On a recent Thursday morning, Dantiogo sat in a room with four other volunteers at Carrefour jeunesse-emploi Côte-des-Neiges, at a training session for the borough’s new snow brigade. The project aims to clear walkways and steps for the elderly and those with reduced mobility.
“It’s not such hard work,” Dantiogo said. “I’ve shovelled sand. I think (shovelling) sand is harder than snow.”
It’s part of a new city-wide campaign in which Montreal is giving each borough $10,000 to organize similar initiatives. Boroughs including Plateau-Mont-Royal, Ville-Marie, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and St-Leonard already have programs in place, while others are soon to follow.
Dantiogo has been in Montreal since May. He works three 12-hour days a week at a printing plant, and is happy to put the rest of his time to good use.
“When you’re young, you have energy,” he said, “so you have to be active in helping older people. We don’t decide to get old. They need us; if we don’t help them, who will?”
He is one of 14 volunteers who signed up for the program (not all could be present at that day’s training session). They are outfitted with toques, gloves, shovels and a blue “Brigade neige” vest and sent out after snowfalls to dig out people who have signed up for the service via their CLSC or community centre.
Carrefour jeunesse-emploi Côte-des-Neiges helps youths 16-35 find work, and offers related services for anyone who comes to them for help.
“We don’t refuse people who are not admissible to our programs,” said moderator Alice Lesaffre. “We remain available and want to invest ourselves in the community.”
That’s good news for Bayo Oshoteku, 45, who also volunteered. Originally from Nigeria, he has been in Montreal just three months following a stint in New York, and is currently seeking employment. When he heard about the snow brigade, he said yes immediately.
“Volunteering is always something I like to do,” he said. “When I heard about the concept of assisting the elderly, I thought, ‘I’m very much interested.’”
He, too, has never shovelled snow, but figures it can’t be that hard.
“I’ve done a lot of general labour work so I think I have the experience, and I’m fit for it. This kind of activity equips you for Canadian weather. It allows your body to get better in tune with it.”
Volunteers will be awarded a monthly honorarium, and receive a letter of recommendation when the program ends in April.
“It’s a great initiative,” said Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce mayor Sue Montgomery, who sat in on the training session and addressed volunteers. “As you can see, many of the people doing this are new arrivals to Canada. They need experience, and it gets them out and into the community.
“It’s also to help people out during the winter. It’s a long season. They can feel trapped in their homes. This way they can get out and have freedom. And they also get to have contact with these nice young guys that are going to shovel their walks.”
Plateau-Mont-Royal was the first borough to launch such a program, under former mayor Luc Ferrandez back in 2013.
“People are very happy with it,” Ferrandez’s successor, Luc Rabouin, said of the service. “It’s road-tested.”
The financial boost from the city will allow them to expand, he explained. The Plateau snow brigade currently digs out about 60 households per year.
“This gives us the possibility to offer it to more people,” he said.
The borough works with Spectre de rue, a social-reintegration service for marginalized youth.
“It helps them re-acquire good habits, it’s very valourizing,” Rabouin said. “They feel useful to society.”
Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve works with two social-integration centres for youth aged 16 to 30 with similarly positive results.
“It’s really appreciated by the community, be it the beneficiaries who experience not only improved security and mobility, but it also breaks their isolation,” mayor Pierre Lessard-Blais said of the program, now in its second year.
“The young people have a human interaction with their beneficiary. For these employees, who are trying to find work, it provides a physical activity and positive reinforcement within the community. And financially, it gives them a little bonus that doesn’t affect their welfare cheque.
“It’s really a win-win.”