He rallied a neighbourhood to open its own grocery store

CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province’s Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the Black Changemakers.

When Dimitri Espérance moved to Montreal’s Saint-Henri district while pursuing graduate studies, he knew he had found his new home.

“I loved the neighborhood at first sight,” he said of the fast-changing district in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough.

But he was shocked to find out how few places there were to buy healthy groceries.

The western half of Saint-Henri has long been without a grocery store. While the past decade has seen a boom in high-priced, trendy restaurants in the area, there is still no place to shop for food.

Dimitri Espérance saw a neighborhood in need of a grocery store and decided to step in. (Submitted by Dimitri Espérance)

“The frustration of not having a grocery store near your home is a frustration that I felt every week, pretty much since I lived in the neighbourhood,” said Espérance.

For five years, that frustration simmered away. When the pandemic hit and his business consulting contracts dried up, Espérance found himself with the time to try to help solve that problem.

So he launched a petition in the spring of 2020 to see if his neighbors were also interested in getting better access to food.

“It was like a Hail Mary [pass],” he said. “Let’s try it. Let’s see what it can do.”

J’ai la dalle,’ or ‘I am really hungry’

Within weeks, there were hundreds of names on his online petition. And he soon heard from Maryse Gagné, now the president and co-founder of La DAL Collective, who was critical in helping make the dream a reality.

The name is an acronym for local food releaseor local food initiative, and also a pun on J’ai la dallea French expression that means you’re really hungry.

They worked together with friends, family and neighbors to come up with a plan.

They didn’t want the barrier of a membership fee required by law to start a co-op. So to reduce costs, they decided to form a collective where the vast majority of work is done on a volunteer basis.

Espérance started volunteering at Épicerie Le Détour in nearby Pointe-Saint-Charles, which was already working with a similar model, to learn what it takes to run a grocery store. He also got involved with The Depot in NDG, which offers emergency food baskets as part of its many local food services.

After months of negotiations, the collective now has a five-year lease on a shop on Notre-Dame Street West. The store will open its doors on Feb. 23.

At first, La DAL will sell simple staples and some fresh produce, with a plan to expand their offering to include bulk items, an online delivery service and, eventually, a kitchen to transform food that would otherwise go to waste.

By spring, they plan on working with other local organizations to make deals with small agricultural producers.

Espérance is quick to point out that all this wouldn’t be happening without the support of the neighbourhood. And after decades without easy access to healthy ingredients, he’s proud to see residents coming together to find a solution.

“It was a really good idea, but there are a lot of good ideas that don’t see the light of day,” he said.

The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Meet all the changemakers here.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canadaa CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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