THE ENDURING CHARM OF MONTREAL
A mountain and a river still define the city
“On reaching the summit we had a view of the land for more than 30 leagues round about. Towards the north there is a range of mountains, running east and west, and another range to the south. Between these ranges lies the finest land; being arable, level and flat. And in the midst of this, one saw the river, extending beyond the spot where we had left our longboats. At that point there are the most impetuous rapids, which we were unable to pass.’’
—Jacques Cartier’s chronicle. Oct. 2, 1535.
The view from Mount Royal has changed dramatically since that crisp and sunny autumn day, 457 years ago. If Cartier were able again to scale the wooded hill he named in honor of the king of France, chances are he would be astonished at the transformation. But it is just as likely that he would still recognize the place, for all of the essential landmarks duly noted by the explorer’s anonymous chronicler remain now largely as they were then. The distant mountain chains are still visible from lookouts: the Laurentians march across the northern horizon, as do Vermont’s Green Mountains to the south. The forested mound that was once a volcano still dominates the island of Montreal, rising more than 760 feet from a point at almost the exact centre of the city. And each of the rolling hill’s two peaks still offers a stirring panorama of the St. Lawrence River, including the impetuous rapids at Lachine.
Montreal’s geography endures. Despite the radical change that time and human settlement have wrought, the river and the hill—grandiloquently known as The Mountain—define the place, as they have throughout its history. And, in North American terms, it is a long history. The island was already inhabited when Cartier stepped ashore to receive “as good a welcome as ever father gave to his son” from more than 1,000 dancing Iroquois, the residents of the triple-palisaded settlement of Hochelaga.
But Montreal is old even by the standards of relatively recent newcomers from Europe and beyond. It has been 350 years since Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve led a band of about
40 hardy colonists onto the island where, after frightening away evil spirits with a burst of gunfire, and celebrating a mass before a makeshift altar lit by fireflies imprisoned in a jar, they founded the outpost they chose to name, in honor of the Virgin Mary, Ville Marie.
Tiny Ville Marie ripened into teeming Montreal over the course of the intervening threeand-a-half centuries, a time span that saw the city play a leading role in the development of the North American continent and, much later, in the creation of the troubled country now called Canada. And for many people, there lies the special charm of Montreal. “It is a living, breathing museum,” says Patrick Kenniff, president of the public corporation that spent more than $40 million over the past summer on spirited festivities to commemorate the anniversary of de Maisonneuve’s arrival in 1642. “I can think of few other cities,” he continues, “capable of evoking on almost every street comer the same sense of our collective past.”
Montreal does resonate with historical associations, ranging from the daring exploits of the early explorers to the efforts, continuing still, of the nation builders. But the city is also a modem urban entity, heir to all the benefits and prey to all the problems of late 20th century society. “To really understand Montreal, you have to understand its contradictions,” says author and historian Paul-André Linteau, who has been studying, teaching and writing about the city of his birth for the past two decades.
Those contradictions abound. Montreal is one of
the few major centres on the -
continent, certainly in Canada, that possess something of an Old World flavor while, at the same time, remaining resolutely a part of the New World. It is both highly parochial—the cradle of Quebec nationalism— and vigorously cosmopolitan, home to an increasingly polyglot citizenry. Half of Quebec’s nearly seven million people live within easy striking distance of either the river or the mountain, yet almost all of them cling tena-
ciously to their own petites patries—the little neighborhood homelands that engender a village atmosphere within the boundaries of what is, by almost any measure, a great metropolis. In language, the place is aggressively French, but stubbornly English. It possesses, in Westmounters, families with the highest incomes in the country, as well as, just around the shoulder of Mount Royal in the Park Extension neighborhood, those with the lowest.
Montreal is an elusive creature, difficult to grasp. But for those who want to make the effort, there is perhaps no better place to begin
than at the beginning: with the river and Cartier’s “most impetuous rapids.”
The young men and women who now captain the jetboats have christened it the Brainwash. It is a solid wall of white water, constantly thrown up by a reef in the midst of the St. Lawrence, at the point where the broad river suddenly narrows. Rising out of the river, the permanent wave often reaches a height of 10 feet or more before it curls and crashes back down to disappear eventually into a gigantic black whirlpool, 15 feet across. The Brainwash is one of the largest in a train of a dozen similar monsters that surge and roll for a quarter of a mile down the rapids. In river parlance, the
waves “haystack,” as the St. Lawrence drops 45 feet in a 20-mile dash from Lachine to the old port of Montreal, at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.
For those willing to endure a thorough dousing, it is possible to ride the watery rollercoaster every year from the beginning of May until the middle of October. But people have been shooting the rapids for a long time, long before there was a Lachine, or even a Ville Marie. It was considered a rite of passage into manhood for local Algonquins. And Samuel de Champlain won the respect of his aboriginal hosts by performing the feat. By the late 19th century, the tradition was well-established, and a trip down the rapids in a twin-funnelled
paddle-wheel steamer was considered to be the highlight of an excursion to Montreal.
Lachine’s turbulent chute is much more than a simple tourist attraction. “There wouldn’t even be a Montreal if those rapids weren’t situated where they are,” said Jack Kowalski, an enterprising American who started the company that now operates the jetboats. The early inhabitants of Ville Marie discovered that soon enough, jettisoning their original religious zeal to become, like the Hochelagans before them, hard-eyed dealers in the furs that had to be shipped across the island, around the barrier of the rapids. The construction in the first half of the 19th century of the Lachine Canal, to circumvent the rapids, gave birth to Canada’s
first industrial valley—and first industrial slum—in the latter half of the same century. The need to move those products to the interior, in turn, spawned the railways, which not only belted Canada together but channelled untold riches into the hands of a privileged few citizens of Montreal.
They came to be called Square Milers, a geographical reflection of the fact that almost all of them lived in opulent splendor within a rough square mile on the southwestern slope of Mount Royal. They were Scottish for the most part, salted with a scattering of English, Irish, Americans and Jews—and even a few FrenchCanadians. They made their money by exploiting Montreal’s strategic location as a transportation nexus, situated at the head of deepwater navigation where the railways converged. Canny investments helped them corner the export-import trade for most of British North America. And, by the turn of the 20th century, the 2,500 individuals living within the square mile controlled a staggering twothirds of Canada’s wealth.
The Square Milers have long since disappeared, and much the same fate has, more recently, overtaken most of the square mile itself. “It was ravaged,” complains Montreal architect Julia Gersovitz, “done in by its loca-
tion.” The gleaming glassand-steel towers of modem Montreal’s business district now crowd the space where the Square Milers’ townhouses and stately mansions once sprawled amid acres of lawn, garden and orchard. A few of the old houses remain, now sandwiched between soaring skyscrapers or tucked away in the leafy comers of the campus of McGill University. They offer a glimpse into the past of an area that square mile resident Stephen Leacock once called “Plutoria under the elms.”
One of the best preserved mansions is the home of George Stephen, a Scottish immigrant and onetime draper’s assistant who became a principal builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway and president of the Bank of Montreal. In 1880, Stephen spent $600,000, a king’s ransom at the time, to build the mansion on Drummond Street, now home of the exclusive Mount Stephen Club. He imported battalions of workers from Europe to finish the interior. Each of the 25 rooms in the house has a fireplace, some carved from Italian onyx. The main staircase is fashioned out of Cuban mahogany, with 17th century stained glass windows imported from Austria. All of the doors are four inches thick, with knobs and hinges
plated in 22-carat gold. Stephen lived in the mansion, along with his wife, daughter, mother and father, for less than eight years before retiring to England. “It was a different era,” says Gersovitz. “Difficult to imagine now.”
But Walter Pshyk can vividly recall another era in Montreal’s railroading heyday, though he views it from the opposite end of the social spectrum. For 48 years, the beefy, cigarsmoking Montreal native, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, worked at Canadian Pacific’s Angus Shops in the city’s east end. Now 66, Pshyk left school at 16 to sign on as an apprentice machinist with CP, when the Angus yards ate up 200 acres of land beyond Mount Royal’s eastern flank and employed a workforce of more than 12,000. It was, at that time, the largest private employer in the city and a major industrial powerhouse for the entire country.
For more than three-quarters of a century, the shops manufactured and repaired countless thousands of freight cars, passenger coaches and locomotives, both steam and diesel. Angus provided Montreal with muscle and sinew, helping to turn the city into the engine that drove Canada’s economy before and immedi-
ately following the Second World War. And Pshyk was part of it. “I loved it,” he recalls. “The work was hard and the place was dirty and noisy, but it was exciting. It was a sad day when I finally had to retire.”
For Pshyk, it was sadder still when, only 13 months after he stepped down two years ago as foreman of the locomotive shop, Angus itself was shut down. “We had no choice,” says former Angus manager André Langlois, himself a 30-year veteran of the Montreal yard’s workforce, as his footsteps echo in the deserted locomotive bam. He casts a forlorn eye over the structure’s vast interior, a quarter-mile long and 75 feet high, before he adds:
“The company just doesn’t need this place anymore. We can handle all the work now at our two main shops out west, where 75 per cent of our business is located.” He pauses, shrugs. “I guess it’s just another sign of the times.”
It is, indeed. When Angus shut down permanently in January, it was the latest in a distressingly long string of industrial concerns to cease operations in the city’s once thriving east end. The Vickers shipyards, once a big employer, shut down on New Year’s Eve, 1989. And four of the six oil refineries that dot the eastern tip of Montreal island currently sit idle.
These closures, along with many others, have wrought havoc within the area's predominantly francophone workforce. The anglophones, who never accounted for much more than 30 per cent of total employment in the east end, have already left in search of greener pastures.
But the French-speakers, many of whom are unilingual, have nowhere else to go.
It is a development with unsettling implications. The fading Anglo population in many of Montreal’s declining working-class districts is in the process of being replaced by a swelling wave of newcomers. And these new arrivals are not only jostling for jobs and space with the existing francophones but they have also become the unwitting, sometimes reluctant, pawns in the ongoing struggle to shape the city's future. As always in Montreal, the war is about language. The battlefield itself, however, is novel.
The Ecole St. Pascal-Baylon is a Frenchlanguage primary school in the Côte-desNeiges district of Montreal. The school sits on the comer of Rue Plamondon and Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, beneath Mount Royal’s northwestern hump, squeezed between the
upper-class anglophone bastion of Westmount and the equally chic francophone enclave of Outremont on the other side of the mountain. There are 640 students attending classes at the school. And only one per cent of them lists either French or English as their mother tongue. “We have more than 40 nationalities here,” claims principal Yvon Blais, with more than a hint of pride in his voice. “They come from all over the place: South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia. It’s a real United Nations.” St. Pascal-Baylon is one of Montreal’s most
ethnically diverse schools, serving an area of the city that in recent years has quietly supplanted St. Lawrence Boulevard—the celebrated Main—as a place where newcomers first find a home. Like the Main of yesteryear, Côte-des-Neiges is home to an entire new generation of immigrants, a place where a casual visitor can overhear, within the space of a few blocks, street conversations in machinegun Spanish, lilting Caribbean Creole, guttural Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Vietnamese, Khmer, Laotian, Korean and dozens of other languages equally exotic to a Canadian ear. Victoria Avenue, a main thoroughfare, is lined with Jewish gift shops, Moslem butchers, Fili-
pino groceries, Vietnamese restaurants and Moroccan tearooms. The bakery in the shopping centre on Van Home Avenue may be one of the few places in the world where it is possible to glimpse a chador-clad Iranian woman engaged in good-natured bargaining with a Jewish salesgirl over the price of bagels.
Despite all of the political and economic problems that have recently descended on Montreal, the city continues to be a magnet for immigrants. Over 46,000 arrived last year alone, helping to balance a demographic trend
that would have otherwise seen the island’s population drop. And it is the immigrants, known as allophones, who will likely decide the outcome of the current struggle between French and English in the metropolis where one of every two Quebecers live, by sheer force of their numbers.
Those changes signal that Montreal’s history is not over—that the living museum will continue to evolve at the foot of the rapids, beside the great river, beneath the looming hill that Cartier scaled close to half a millenium ago. In the sweep of the ages, the current political struggles are distractions from the power of the place. Too much history has been accumulated in the intervening centuries for it to fade quickly from memory. That, in the final analysis, is Montreal’s strength—and a legacy that will endure.
BARRY CAME in Montreal