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Friday May 21, 2010

Quebec ecologist took a Zen approach to environmental battles

He saved Montreal Botanical Garden from decline, forests from clear-cutting, and mapped Gros Morne

Special to the Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- André Bouchard saved many things.

The ecologist, who died on March 4 in Montreal, saved the Montreal Botanical Garden (MBG) in the mid-70s from more than a decade of decline, bringing back serious scientific research to one of the largest botanical gardens in the world.

He saved several Quebec forests from being clear-cut after the 2004 provincial forestry commission, on which he sat, put forth recommendations on integrating biodiversity, several of which industry has adopted.

He saved the Saraguay woods on the island of Montreal in the late 70s, helping to spawn what today is a network of urban woodlands, as well as successfully leading a 20-year fight, to preserve the Small and Large Teafields, an ecologically sensitive bog near the Quebec-New York border.

In the other sense of the word, he also saved collections of rare plants in Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador, and mapped their locations for those putting down nature corridors.

His ability to save even extended to a 2,500-strong postcard collection from the last 50 years and, like a good scientist, he classified them in small photo albums and on an Excel sheet.

Bouchard served as the botanical garden's curator from 1975 to 1996, giving scientific heft to the big plans of then-director Pierre Bourque, who during his leadership brought in a Japanese garden and pavilion, a Chinese and rose garden, and an extensive and popular insectarium.

He served briefly as director when Bourque left in 1994 to run for and eventually become Montreal's mayor.

From 1975, Bouchard also worked as a professor at the University of Montreal and, from 2002 to 2006, was director of the university's Plant Biology Research Institute, bringing together the oil-and-water entities of city services and university plant sciences. He made sure his researchers not only published in academic journals but that they wrote lay articles in the botanical garden's magazine and took initiative on municipal issues, from urging citizens to pull out ragweed to showing them how to identify poison ivy.

Before taking on the curator's job, he spent three summers mapping the vegetation at Newfoundland's Gros Morne, as part of his doctoral thesis and a requirement for its transition to a Canadian national park.

He fell in love with the area and, while he travelled extensively around the world, if anyone asked for his advice on where they should vacation, Gros Morne would be at the top of his list.

He wrote three books, one of which was on his idol, Brother Marie-Victorin (born Conrad Kirouac), who founded the MBG in 1931 and remains a Quebec icon.

It was not a biography but rather a tracing of a little-known trip the ecologist took to Cuba.

Bouchard was also a well-loved teacher, having taught all three levels of university students and, during his career, stewarded more than 45 graduate students as their thesis director.

He was firm, got students to think beyond their own disciplines and organized political debates in the classroom.

Many of his former students hold important positions in the province's forestry and plant-sciences sector.

One of them, Gilles Vincent, now the director of the Montreal Botanical Garden, was hired by Bouchard as a botanist with the proviso that he finish up his doctoral thesis in six months, something he ended up doing in two.

His commitment to nature went beyond trees, plants and living creatures. He believed that knowing your surroundings helped you to better know yourself.

André Bouchard was born in Montreal on Jan. 26, 1946, to Louis G. Bouchard and Lyette Masson. His father was a successful leather goods supplier in Old Montreal and his upbringing in the city's Côte des Neiges district was comfortable.

At a young age he was given a microscope, which he took to with fervour, preparing slides of all sorts of things, including the legs of flies.

He spent a lot of time in the family cottage in St.-Anicet, where he learned his first ecology lessons, and took classical studies at Montreal's College Brébeuf, where, despite his gang of friends' penchant for practical jokes, he excelled as a student.

He attended the University of Montreal, as well as McGill and Cornell, eventually acquiring numerous specialties: the ecology of vegetation communities, landscape ecology, ecological land management, integrated methods of vegetation control and the evolution of agro-forested and periurban ecosystems.

Stuart Hay, now the keeper of the herbarium at the MBG, worked alongside Bouchard at Gros Morne.

He remembers that mapping the 1,800-sq.-km park, involved them walking endlessly during the day and pressing plants at night - but they both loved the experience.

Bouchard insisted on living away from the federal park office, since there had been some messy expropriations and he did not want to be associated with those who had been less than diplomatic with the inhabitants of the local hamlets.

Years later he would enjoy telling stories of the local fishermen, one of which involved a boat that was due to arrive to deliver beer only to sink just offshore, with the locals more upset over the lost cargo than the ruined vessel.

Gros Morne eventually earned the status of United Nations World Heritage Site and Bouchard, for his work on the national park, was recognized in 1990 with Quebec's Michel-Jurdant Prize for environmental science. Some called him the Marie-Victorin of Newfoundland.

One of his former students, Jacques Brisson, now a respected ecologist and professor at the University of Montreal, says Bouchard was able to accept that environmental fights could not be won overnight and took a very Zen approach to his activism.

Brisson thinks that some of his abilities to change peoples' minds may have been the result of the man's physical presence and charm. "With his white beard, his eyes that would look right through you, his radio host's voice, his sense of calm and his way with words, André gave off a sense of authority and had incredible charisma."

The morning Bouchard died, he was writing an article for the MBG's magazine, Quatre Temps. He stopped working and went to Montreal's Central Station before he was to meet his wife at the museum. With no history of heart disease, he suffered a massive fatal heart attack while purchasing a train ticket. He had been planning on retiring this fall.

He leaves his wife Cécile Fugulin, his three children, Célinie, Antoine and François Fugulin-Bouchard, as well his brother Pierre and sister Francine Bouchard.

The urban woods that he saved more than 30 years ago have recently been awarded some funds for improvements. There is a recommendation being floated that they be renamed in his honour.

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