The home of Holt Renfrew, Montréal is a city important to Selfridges Group. Author, LGTBQ activist, conservationist, and entrepreneur, Dax Dasilva is one of the city’s leading lights, and a voice for unity and positive change. In Ode to Montréal, Dax profiles some of his favourite Montréal neighbourhoods, and introduces us to a few of the many Montréalers that embody the city’s spirit of creativity, community, and resilience.
Montréal has a unique and palpable energy, you can feel it as soon as you arrive. It’s a place with a long activist history, and an unmatched appetite for pleasure. The best way to describe a city is through the people who call it home, and Dax Dasilva is one of Montréal’s most well-known residents. Entrepreneur, author and activist, Dax was born in Vancouver to refugee parents from Uganda. He originally studied computer science, art, and religion, and started his working life as a computer programmer. But from an early age, Dax was drawn to the city of Montréal. It was there, against a backdrop of creative opportunity and generative diversity, that he founded Lightspeed, a company that has grown to uplift small businesses for fifteen years, and that has remained committed to principles of diversity, healthy growth, and economic empowerment. As an LGTBQ activist, conservationist, and philanthropist, Dax has always highlighted the importance of shared understanding and unity, setting up his cultural non-profit organisation, Never Apart, to further his aims of creating positive change through art, culture, and meaningful conversation. Last year, Dax published his Age of Union, a passionate call for shared effort and positive leadership to reverse the toxic effects of an increasingly divided society, and meet the urgent demands of the global climate emergency. For Ode to Montreal, Dax picks out his favourite Montréal neighborhoods, and some of the people that embody the creativity, energy, and communal spirit that make the city so special.
Old Montréal: Azamit
To call Azamit striking would be an understatement. The former fashion editor, now creative director and storyteller, is the walking embodiment of Montréal chic. Usually seen flanked by her two Italian greyhounds, Tsuki and Puglia, Azamit has made her home in Old Montreal for the past 22 years. Old Montreal, or the Old Port as it is sometimes called, was first founded in 1642, though it was home to the St. Lawrence Iroquoians for thousands of years before colonialism. In fact, Canada owes its name to the Iroquoian word for settlement, Kanata. The first French colonisers brought their architecture with them, and Old Montreal’s narrow cobbled streets and meandering lanes have a distinctly European feel. The tourist centre of the city, Old Port hosts 6.5 million visitors every year who are drawn to the cosy cafes, the Parisian sensibility, and luxury shopping.
It’s not a place most Montréalers think of as residential, but Azamit says she likes it that way. In the summer she is surrounded by throngs of people from all over the world, strolling the streets in a chorus of different languages. And in the winter, the area is totally quiet, ‘You feel like you are living in the countryside, the streets are empty, the snow is fresh, there are no footprints anywhere — and I love that.’ A fashion editor for many years, Azamit is probably best known as the founder and creative director of SOUK, a yearly design marketplace that is going into its 17th edition, and stands as a celebration of creative output in all its variety. SOUK started on a whim, one of Azamit’s friends is a jewellery designer who was having difficulty launching gaining visibility for her brand, so Azamit decided to hold a sample sale to help her to raise funds and establish her practice properly. From those humble beginnings, SOUK has grown to be one of the most anticipated events in the city’s design calendar, a space of experimentation and exchange where new products are tested and new markets are found. Hundreds of independent creative brands have been launched at SOUK over the past 17 years, providing a platform for new creative businesses, which is what Azamit finds most satisfying, ‘They are all so passionate, so amazing, and I said to myself — you know what, this is what I want to do’. This year, in response to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, SOUK has undergone a total digital transformation and is going online in a month-long series of events and talks in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), and with an integrated online marketplace for emerging and established designers to exhibit and sell their work. Azamit also has plans to open the first SOUK design space in downtown Montréal, in the form of a shoppable apartment on the 20th floor of the iconic Place Ville-Marie building, designed by I.M. Pei. Everything you see, touch, or smell in the apartment will be created by local designers, and curated with all of the aesthetic rigour and energy people have come to expect from Azamit.
Plateau: Zoya de Frias
The mural-lined streets of the Plateau have been a destination for foodies in Montréal for decades, from famed Fairmont Bagels (the oldest bagel place in the city) to the infamous Schwartz’s smoked meat delicatessen — but Le Virunga is a new proposition entirely. Owned and operated by mother and daughter team Zoya de Frias Lakhany and Maria de Frias, Le Virunga’s mission is to share pan African culture in all its nuance and surprise. Originally from Congo, Zoya and Maria have an ambition to present African cuisine as multi-dimensional, and continuously evolving. For many of Le Virunga’s customers, this will be their first experience of African food, but equally, visitors from the African diaspora will find that familiar African staples are presented in surprising ways. Dishes like plantain fries with Montréal goat’s cheese and bacon (reminiscent of the Québécois staple, Poutine), or braised mutton with mukimo, organic beets and crushed parsley nuts, chased down by a dessert of plantain beignets, bring all of the flavour of sub-Saharan Africa to the table, but with an experimental approach in direct dialogue with Montréal food culture. And the response has certainly been encouraging, with starred reviews in magazines and newspapers in Montréal and all over the world, Le Virunga has quickly become a must-visit destination on the city’s food map.
For Zoya, Le Virunga is not just about the food — it’s about communicating a culture and building a community through the immediacy and pleasure of a good meal. The menu might be hyper modern, but Maria’s methods of sourcing ingredients harkens back to her younger years, when she would cook using what was available in the local markets, in whatever quantities she could get her hands on. Today, Zoya and Maria work with local Québécois farmers to source ingredients like goat and mutton, and where African vegetables aren’t available, they work with local growers to develop whole new crops — including African eggplant and okra. Beyond the practical benefits, these partnerships build relationships and ‘bring a story to the table’, while supporting local agriculture. Le Virunga’s work with Québécois growers is also changing the produce offer in the area, providing more diverse ingredients and speaking to the needs of a significant and growing community of Montréalers from the African diaspora.
Like many restaurants in the city and all over the world, the pandemic has been a challenging time for Zoya and Maria, and when it first hit they decided to shutter their doors, ‘to be honest, it was a scary time, none of our hearts were celebrating, and we didn’t feel like an essential service’ as Zoya recalls. Le Virunga’s customers came out in support, encouraging them to provide their favourite dishes as a takeaway service, which proved really popular, ‘people around us made us feel like we were essential. We felt like, if we cannot give you a hug, maybe we can make you feel good, to bring you some comfort or a smile in times like this’.
Mile Ex: Michael Venus
Just north of Mile End, and sandwiched between Little Italy and Park Extension, Mile Ex has become the place to be for creatives and cultural producers. For years the one kilometre zone to the north of the city was a no-man’s land filled with light industry and derelict garages, until Bernadette Houde — “Bernie Bankrupt” of electro band, Lesbians on Ecstasy — opened up her queer corner shop, Le Pick Up, and later the infamous nightspot Alexandraplatz. It was Bernadette who christened the area Mile Ex (a contraction of Mile End and Park Extension), and it soon became a hub for a growing community of architects, artists and musicians who were being priced out of some of Montreal’s more gentrified areas.
Today, the neighbourhood is teeming with restaurants, galleries and creative businesses of all kinds. Central among them is Never Apart, a non profit cultural centre dedicated to building unity, and driving positive change. through art and culture. Never Apart hosts seasonal exhibitions and film screenings, publishes a monthly magazine, and even has its own TV Show on Canada’s LGTBX TV Network, Out TV — all with programming driven by issues of social justice, environmental custodianship, and community-building. The gallery’s creative powerhouse and executive director, Michael Venus, describes Never Apart as ‘Andy Warhol’s factory with a dose of the X-Men superhero school, mixed with a Bauhaus mentality’. Michael embodies the creative drive that underpins the Mile Ex community. Born on a farm in the middle of Ontario, he moved to the border city with Detroit in 1991 and founded The House of Venus artist collective. The collective toured all over North America throughout the 90s, putting on performances, club nights, and film screenings, sometimes hosted by Michael’s drag alter ego, Miss Cotton. ‘It was an unstuffy way of expression. For me, nightclubs were my gallery’. Today, Michael channels some of his irrepressible energy into the gallery spaces of Never Apart, which include sun, moon, and earth rooms, a cinema where they host LGTBQ film seasons, galleries that host environmental, queer, feminist, indigenous and two-spirited artists, a backyard with a pool that has played host to mermaids and art installations, and the Colour by Icons room dedicated to recentering the stories of LGTBQ pioneers and trailblazers. Never Apart has collaborated with various grassroots activist groups and cultural producers, from Fierté (the Montreal LGTB pride festival), to the LGBTQ Afro Carribean festival ‘Massimadi’, to Lez Spread the Word, in order to broaden the reach of their mission to drive positive change, and foster shared understanding.
Westmount: Cary Tauben
The anglophone enclave of Westmount is a pretty residential area to the south of Mont Royal Park with wide streets and impressive Victorian buildings. It’s also home to the larger-than-life Cary Tauben. From a young age, Cary was interested in fashion, and how you could change the way you feel, and the way you relate to the world, simply by changing your look. Cary started a career in styling early, when he was only 21, assisting established stylists, learning about the industry, and working any job offered to him to experiment with his craft and refine his approach. This year, Cary was recognised as the Stylist of the Year by the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards, an honour that reflects his deep love for the industry.
When asked about what he thinks is next for fashion, Cary responded that with everything that has come to light during the pandemic, the summer marked by anti-Black violence and the Black Lives Matter protests, and the continuing climate emergency, people are buying through their values now more than ever, ‘people are going to be making purchases that have a message and a meaning, that are doing good for the environment and also for humankind’. And Cary’s work shows that sustainable fashion is every bit as fun and frivolous as fashion ought to be. He recently teamed up with iconic Canadian thrift store brand, Value Village, to create a catwalk show of thirty looks that was staged in Toronto, and then remixed for a Montreal presentation. The looks are free-spirited and riotously joyful — mixing high end finds with standard thrift store fare. In his remixing, Cary swapped clothes from male to female models, and suggests that gendered lines might give way to gender fluid fashion, with many brands already coming out with unisex or androgynous lines, ‘There should be no labels, and this is where fashion is going — if you want it, you should be able to own it, in all senses of the word.’
With Cary’s profile, he could work anywhere in the world, but he has a real passion for the Canadian fashion industry, not just for its energy, resilience, and specific creative character, but also because of the weather — ‘we get four different seasons here, that’s four different ways of dressing, four different ways of expressing ourselves, not everybody has that!’.
St Henri: Gaelle Cerf
A traditionally working class area, St Henri was once the site of the city’s tanneries and leather working industry, but has recently piqued the interest of the ‘creative class’ who are drawn to the canal culture and industrial architecture, and comparatively affordable property prices. When Gaelle Cerf first considered setting up a business in the neighborhood in 2010, most of her friends thought she was being reckless — the neighborhood had a reputation for being dangerous, and too out of the way to be viable. It seems though, that Gaelle likes a challenge. Selling food out of a truck was illegal when Gaelle (and co-owner Hillary McGown) first acquired their 1978 Chevy Grumman truck with the intention of opening a mobile taco restaurant. But Gaelle and Hillary had a vision, they could see that there was a food truck revival on the horizon, and in 2013 they successfully lobbied the municipal government to reverse the 66-year ban on curbside food vending. They could be seen in the parking lot celebrating the verdict with steaming banh mi tacos and cold coriander smoothies, served from the side hatch of the vintage lime-green truck.
Grumman ‘78, as it came to be known, soon developed a cult following, and inspired a resurgence of considered food served on-the-go across the city. When they weren’t at festivals or events, they needed a place to park, and the only place with industrial spaces big enough, and rents reasonable enough, was St Henri. Gaelle loved the neighborhood so much that they decided to open a bricks and mortar restaurant there too, and soon the place was flooded with locals, and visitors from all over the city. The laid back dining room and expansive terrace became the site of parties, weddings, and a stage for all sorts of events — including the infamous Grumman ‘78 Drag Brunch. By closing time, the volume in the dining room was always at maximum, and not because of the DJ, but rather the sound of people laughing, talking, and having a really good time.
During the pandemic, Gaelle became even more focused on the needs of the community, being well aware that a significant percentage of people in St Henri still live beneath the poverty line. She became more active in outreach initiatives and community fridges intended to address the growing problem of food poverty in the area. In the face of a second wave of pandemic restrictions, Gaelle and Hillary made the difficult decision to close Grumman ‘78 in Autumn 2020, but they have left a huge mark on the city’s food scene, inspired a whole new sector of the industry, and made a lot of people happy along the way. As Gaelle says, ‘We have been loving this for ten years, but this is an opportunity to reset, and rethink, think about what we want the next ten years to look like — you have to be able to see the greater picture’. For now, Gaelle is going to catch her breath and focus on her community, ‘With the Canadian winter upon us, and these very difficult economic times, I think it is fundamental that we stand together as a community and help our local food banks. As a restaurateur, I can’t stand the fact that people don’t have enough to eat when I know how to coordinate means of production that can produce good and healthy food for hundreds of people at a time — so I will be spending time working in this area.’
Thanks to Dax Dasilva, photographer Schaël Marcéus, and all of our creative contributors for speaking to us for Ode to Montreal, and for helping us to share stories from a city that we love. The new Holt Renfrew Ogilvy is now open, and you can find it in downtown Montréal.