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Riding the buses » Canada, Cultural travel, Great cities, Trip » Montreal is a great destination even for us Anglos

Montreal is a great destination even for us Anglos

I know many English-speaking Canadians who live within reasonable driving distance of one of North America’s greatest cities and who rarely if ever visit. I’m speaking of Montreal, Canada’s second largest city. And those I know who are reticent to travel there can generally be described as world travellers. It’s that old French-English tension that still lingers and it has left the impression that Montreal is not welcoming.

Montreal History Museum

The French-English language tension

Montreal, which lies on the Saint Lawrence River about half way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, was first a French missionary colony and then a base for fur trading and exploration. It was ruled as a French colony until Great Britain took it over in 1760 at the end of the Seven Year War. Here’s how the Montreal History Museum describes the battle: 

“The British army, 17,000 strong, has encircled the city, defended by 2,000 French soldiers. To avoid a siege, Montreal capitulates. Canada is ceded to Great Britain.”

Immigrants from the British Isles, many of whom were from the merchant class, settled in the city and by 1831 the majority of the population in Montreal was of British origin.

From 1850 onward, Montreal became a major industrial centre. Francophones living in rural parts of the province were attracted by the opportunities the city offered and so those whose first language and culture was French were once again in the majority by 1865. But it was the English-speaking merchants who controlled the economy and who imposed their will on the French-speaking majority. So lots of people were unhappy.  

Fast-forward. It’s now 1977 when the Government of Quebec enacts the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101), which paves the way for the use of French in the province’s government, businesses, workplaces and education system. The result? Many English-speaking Quebecers were leaving and francophones were wishing them “Good riddance” as they made their way down highway 416 towards Toronto.

When STOP becomes 101.

“Vandalized stop sign [the letters S, T and P of the word STOP” have been darkened to form “101”]. This type of vandalism was carried out on stop signs after the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) was adopted August 26, 1977. The City of Montreal went on to replace all worn or vandalized ARRÊT-STOP stop signs with ones in French only.” (Image and text, Montreal History Museum exhibition)

Montreal is historically a welcoming city

Montreal, like New York City, has long been considered one of the most welcoming cities in the world. Waves of immigrants found a home there and in fact still do: Chinese after building the railway to Canada’s west, Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe, Irish and Italians escaping poverty in their homelands, Haitians after a devastating earthquake and so on. Montreal’s population today reflects that.

“The Irish make a mark on Montreal. Arriving with the waves of immigration that reach the city in the 1800s, they represent about 25 percent of the population by 1850. Primarily Catholic, they occupy a unique position: they share a religion with the French Canadians, but a language with the English Canadians, who were mostly Protestant, The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, established in 1824, becomes a major event in the city.” (Montreal History Museum)

And while Quebec favours francophone immigrants, many immigrants speak English in addition to their mother tongue. So today, 59% of the city’s population speaks both French and English and 40% are trilingual, making Montreal the most trilingual city in Canada.

“Montreal is home to one of Canada’s two largest Arab communities. It comprises more than 200,000 people hailing from various countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt. Significant immigration begins in the 1960’s and increases in the 1980s and 1990s. More than 90% can speak French.” (Montreal History Museum)

The French-English language tension continues, at least among the chattering classes. Just a month ago, when the Hockey Canada announcer at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics pronounced the names of three players with an English rather than French accent, it was strongly denounced, the Premier of Quebec calling it “deplorable” even though two of the players (Derek Roy, Rene Bourque) live outside Quebec and pronounce their own names with an English accent. A month earlier there were headlines when Quebec lawmakers passed a motion calling on Montreal storeowners to greet their customers with “bonjour” instead of the traditional “bonjour-hi” (ie., French only, not bilingual).

Here’s what I say: Just go to Montreal and don’t worry about it.

So you’ve decided to visit Montreal

The best way to enter Montreal is by train and it’s very handy because the Central Train Station is right downtown (895 de La Gauchetière Street West). You can stay underground if that’s your thing because there are 32 km of connecting passageways through what they call a sprawling underground shopping mall.

I prefer to see the sky and so get around by foot or use a very efficient subway (métro) system. The subway (stm.info) offers one or three-day passes for unlimited access to its network. You can also buy one that combines public transportation with museum passes for thee consecutive days (and I have done that). There are four subway lines: Green, Orange, Yellow and Blue. Do yourself a favour and print the subway map before you leave home (the website in offered in English as well as French). There are also hop-on hop-off bus tours and half-day bike tours.

Where to start

Traditional Montreal

Downtown Montreal is sandwiched between Old Montreal/Old Port and McGill University/Mont Royal Park. Saint Catherine Street runs west-to-east for 15 km and where you find the major department stores, shops and restaurants. The green subway line goes parallel to it and has eight stations.

Mount Royal Park, 200 hectares that overlooks the downtown, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was behind New York’s Central Park so another link between the two cities. It can be quite a hike up (just saying). This ‘mountain’ served as the physical divide between English-speaking Westmount and French-speaking Outremont neighbourhoods.

Cultural Montreal

To better understand the city’s history, stop in at the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke Street West), one of the most important historical museums in Canada. It has a good exhibit on Montreal’s life past and present. Also check out its temporary exhibits, such as the one that was on display when I was there, Montreal through the eyes of Vittorio – the Italian-born poster artist who captured almost a half century of life in the city through his art.

Montreal’s Ganster Age, Scandal Exhibition, Montreal History Museum

Montreal’s History Museum, a former fire station at 335 place d’Youville, also has an excellent display on the city’s history and temporary thematic exhibits. I had a good laugh at the one making fun of the city’s scandalous past, “Montreal’s Gangster Age”, comparing it to ‘Toronto the Good’. 

Beaver Hall Group at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

I always look to see what’s on at the Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke Street West), probably the most visited museum in Canada. Two years ago I saw the temporary exhibit on the Beaver Hall Group and was absolutely bowled over by their work and way of being. It can be compared to the Toronto’s Group of Seven but to me it’s quite different particularly because of the male-female parity.

Last year I saw “Chagall: Colour and Music”, the biggest Canadian exhibit ever devoted to the work of Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985). It covered all periods of his career – his years in Russia, his Parisian period, his exile in New York, his time in Mexico, and his life in the South of France. Such a cosmopolitan man for such a cosmopolitan city!

If you keep walking east from the McCord Museum you will come upon a district called Quartier des spectacles, billed as Montreal’s entertainment district and perhaps most famous for its annual festivals, including the International Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs comedy fest. Over 80 cultural venues can be found within this one square kilometer area bounded by Saint-Hubert, City Councillors and Sherbrooke streets, and René Lévesque Blvd and served by three subway stations. This area was once the Red Light district during a naughtier time when cabarets lined its streets and organized crime, prostitution, and illegal gambling flourished.

Within the Quartier des spectacles is the Place des Arts, the major performing arts centre and home to Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Opera Montreal, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. This month I’m going to the Contemporary Art Museum (aka MAC, 185 Saint Catherine West) to see the exhibition on songwriter Leonard Cohen called “A Crack in Everything”, so-named after his 1992 song: There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.

There really is no beginning or end to Montreal’s culture. For instance, my son-in-law’s book club did a literary crawl last summer through the working class Jewish neighbourhoods found in Mordecai Richler’s novels.

Old Montreal/Old Port

View of the city from the Old Port

You’ll want to walk along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, stopping in at Notre-Dame Basilica, perhaps some galleries and boutiques, maybe having a  rest on a bench in one of its courtyards (old.montreal.qc.ca). There is a 1.5-hour walking tour that you can join.

For those who were old enough to attend the 1967 World Exhibition, if you look out in the harbour you’ll see Habitat 67, that unforgettable housing complex designed by 23-year-old architect Moshe Safdie and built on reclaimed land. It’s still there.

The food

Food is said to be Montreal’s passion and the city supposedly has the largest number of restaurants per resident than any other North American city. Consider watching one of Anthony Bourdain’s television shows for inspiration (some are on Netflix). He’s one of the most influential chefs in the world and seems to love eating in Montreal and in fact has done three different shows on it: No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown.

Some of Bourdain’s favourite places? Montreal, like New York, is one of the top bagel spots in the world and three famous places to indulge are St. Viateur, Fairmount Bagel and Beauty’s Luncheonette. Everyone, it seems, has to go to Schwartz’s Deli for smoked meat at least once. And of course there’s poutine (French fries with cheese curds and gravy) and Bourdain has that at La Banquise. He also visits his chefs pals at Joe Beef, Au Pied de Cochon and Le Club Chasse, Le Club Chasse et Pêche, and Brasserie T.

If you prefer to wander around until you find a place that calls to you, consider roaming down Crescent Street (between Sherbrooke Street and René Lévesque Boulevard) or through one of the neighbourhoods.

The neighbourhoods

There are several well known neighbourhoods to explore so try to spend time in at least one each time you visit.

Montreal’s Marche Jean-Talon in Little Italy

I’m a market person so made a point of visiting Marche Jean-Talon in Little Italy on my last weekend stay (7070 Henri-Julien Street; marchespublics-mtl.com). Many Italians emigrated here at the end of the 19th century and today Italian is one of the city’s largest cultural groups. This market has been around since 1933 and it has all the usual fruit, vegetable and flower stalls as well as spices, oils, cheeses, meats, and pastries. A fine place to have lunch too.

“Fleeing poverty in their homeland, Italians come to Montreal in search of opportunity. In 1911, they number 7,013. Most are labourers or farmers, and the construction skills they bring will leave a mark on countless buildings, bridges and roads.” (Montreal History Museum)

The main artery for China Town is De la Gauchetière Street and that’s where you find many Asian restaurants and shops. 

“The Chinese who reach Montreal in 1886 are survivors of the construction of Canada’s transcontinental railway. They come in search of a better life, but anti-Chinese sentiment limits their options. The only open niche: doing the laundry of Montrealers. In 1911, the city has 1,335 Chinese residents. They operate 790 hand laundries.” (Montreal History Museum)

The Latin Quarter was given its name by Université de Montréal students. The Beaudry subway station in the Gay Village has a flag bearing the colours of the gay community. Both neighbourhoods are known for their lively nightlife.

There’s much more to see, of course. I have made a couple of trips to the Botanical Garden and the Insectarium has the largest museum of insects in North America. The ecosystems at the Biodome don’t thrill me but probably do others.

So you don’t speak French? Don’t sweat it. Montreal has long been home to many. You’re sure to fit right in.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses™ 2018

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