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Working to save an urban forest gave me back my confidence

This First Person article is the experience of Brigitte Watson, a resident of Pointe-Claire in Montreal’s West Island. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I stood on the street corner — my first Saturday protest at the Fairview forest — filled with dread.

Would I be able to handle the two hours on my own? I didn’t like being away from home where I knew it was safe; I’d been through too many panic attacks in public spaces over the last 10 years.

But when Cadillac-Fairview announced in October 2020 its plans to transform Fairview Shopping Centre and the surrounding area into a downtown for Montreal’s West Island — something in me said, “No more.”

I had to act. Sixteen hectares of pristine forest owned by the developer was at risk.

This protest banner in support of Fairview Forest hangs in the urban forest. (Submitted by Brigitte Watson)

I moved to Pointe-Claire in 2000 to raise my children. While a city gal at my core, the trees, fields and beauty won my heart. Over the course of 22 years, I saw dramatic changes transform the city landscape. A tsunami of development — mainly pricey high-rise condos and McMansions — stripped the city of its charm and abundant greenery.

There is very little natural green space left on the island of Montreal, especially where I live in Pointe-Claire. The loss of biodiversity from deforestation (yes, even in cities) is catastrophic for the environment.

If I didn’t take a stand to protect wildlife, flora and remaining habitat in my own city, who would? Turns out, I was not alone. Other residents had already formed a group called Save Fairview Forest, and I joined them.

But I had a major hurdle to face after I decided to help save the forest: My anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that made it hard for me to go outside. I’d lost the ability to handle uncertainty and the unknown, so I preferred the predictability of life in my house and around my yard.

If I had my partner with me when I went out, it was more manageable. But weekly protests weren’t her thing.

I always wanted to get involved in environmental causes, but I was afraid of making any kind of commitment. I didn’t feel strong enough. I had a lot of shame and hid from the world. How could I expect to be taken seriously if I couldn’t even leave the house alone? That was my worst fear.

So I did what I could from my home to help the environment. I replaced my oil furnace with electric and converted my yard into a little urban farm.I practise zero waste and plastic-free living. I didn’t own a car for a number of years and I use my bicycle as my main mode of transportation for most of the year.

But the forest beckoned; it was time to take a risk.

Watson has been part of weekly protests urging residents to demand Fairview Forest’s protection. (Submitted by Brigitte Watson)

At my first meeting with the group — held virtually because of the pandemic — I volunteered to help organize weekly protests at the forest. I wasn’t sure how I would get out there, but I was determined.

My family, friends and health-care professionals rallied around me. Together, we worked out a plan. They agreed to be available for phone calls if I felt panicky and gave me reassurances that I could do it. My partner drove me to the forest and hung around until others showed up. I also made sure I had what I needed with me at the protests to feel grounded and safe: enough water or snacks, even my favourite book.

My need to help save the forest overtook my fears about panic attacks and making a fool out of myself. I had to do this.

There have been 78 weekly protests since that first Saturday, and I’m still going. Shaking my tambourine and waving my sign at these protests have shown me that I’m stronger than I think.

Today, when I walk along the trails of the forest, I see the beech, the hemlock, the giant white oak, the foxes’ mounds and their tracks. I hear the call of the red-shouldered hawk. And I am humbled. They teach me a different way to experience time and space, about patience and perseverance.

Through my activism to save Fairview Forest, I’ve learned a lot more about biodiversity, the vital roles a forest plays in our lives, city planning, environmental laws, development practices and politics. I attended workshops and even ran as a candidate for city councillor in the municipal elections as a way to bring attention to the issue of balancing environmental protection and development.

Each time I took on a new challenge, I created a plan to support my mental health. I am stronger and more alive than I have been in years. It turns out that challenging a huge corporation to preserve a forest is way less scary than overcoming my anxiety and PTSD.

Today, I am not the same person who got off her couch a year-and-a-half ago to save a forest. I grew into someone who’s undaunted by obstacles and excited by new adventures. As the fight to save the forest continues — I’m only just getting started.

CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for First Person essays. Please email povquebec@cbc.ca for details.

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