Montréal has had a reputation as a “fun city” at least since the 1920s, when the U.S. prohibition pushed people who wanted more liberal liquor policies to have a dip north of the border—where jazz, among other things, was already a musical trend spreading throughout North America. This exchange was only the tip of the alliance iceberg between the U.S. and England that, starting with the Treaty of Ghent (1814), opened the door to a fuller North American economic, political, and cultural integration. The alliance and exchange has only increased through industrialization, “reciprocity” and free trade acts that eventually developed Montréal’s continental context, with the emblematic Saint Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and the city port of Montréal, one of the most active on the East coast.
Montrealers, Quebekers, and Canadians are (or became) a lot like other North Americans. After all, we are (at least for the moment) still each other’s largest trading partners, and most global audiences often see us as the same people. Yet, we feel we are also a little different. Whatever happens next we will still make music, produce, and act in films, TV, and theatre together. Like the United States, we help cultivate extraordinary artists who perform on the world stage. The late Leonard Cohen, The Cirque de Soleil, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (the newly appointed musical director of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC), Céline Dion, Arcade Fire, all come from Montréal, and like so many others such as Robert Lepage and Corneau, add to the cultural reputation of Québec as a place where joie de vivre rhymes with tolerance.
Like most other Western cities, Montréal also struggles with high levels of inequality, chronic homelessness, racism, and other forms of social exclusion and violence—the latter being expressed through less extreme forms. For example, with a historical low of 23 homicides in 2016, Montréal has a crime rate much lower than any other U.S. city of a similar size. Life in the city is full of contrasts, especially in the summer, when the streets resonate with exuberant parties like the Sunday “tam-tams” jams in Parc Jeanne-Mance, at the foot of Mont-Royal, or more quiet venues like Parc Lafontaine or higher up Parc du Mont-Royal—a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a few decades after he designed New York’s Central Park.
A Social Economy
Montréal is the second largest university city on the continent. There are 11 college- and university-level institutions and four world-class schools: Université de Montréal, McGill University, Université du Québec à Montréal, and Concordia University. Amazingly, Montréal has the second least expensive tuition in Canada after the province of Newfoundland. In part, this is thanks to a student strike in the spring of 2012 that gathered 200,000 people protesting in the streets at the peak of the movement. If you were to stay a while longer, you would no doubt stumble onto some part of one of the most dynamic cooperative movements or “social economies” to emerge since pre-WWII Europe. Every year the social economy produces $2 billion worth of revenue and 60,000 jobs in a movement toward transforming work into local and equitable use values. Trade occurs across a growing variety of sectors: urban agriculture, local cinemas, popular restaurants, collective kitchens, artist workshops, street papers, to name a few. Speaking of restaurants, Montréal has the second highest number of restaurants per capita (after New York City) in North America.
Montréal is also home to one of the world’s largest aerospace industries, the premier special cinema effects studios—a hub for both video game industries and pharmaceutical industries, all of which are newcomers that developed over the last three or four decades. The economy, which suffered heavily from deindustrialization from the late 1960s on, has not entirely recovered and is still struggling with the turnover to post-industrial opportunities that other cities face. Social policies continue to define a safety net for the population. While we are puzzled by the politics that plague the U.S. health care system, we too are facing struggles regarding access. It is well known we have had universal health care here for almost 50 years, and less known that this has been gradually and partially privatized making access at times overly limited. While our Scandinavian-style maternity and paternity leaves remain in place for the moment, our famous long-standing $7 a day universal daycare coverage in Quebec has been revised to fix charges to income levels, according to the neo-liberal agenda that has slammed our more collectivist inspired economic model over the past decade.
Connecting the French and English History
Montréal is often at the epicenter of Canadian culture and politics as witnessed through its divisive debates on independence and reasonable accommodation of minority groups, and at the same time Montréal is widely regarded as different from the rest of Canada. This is not so unusual. It is here that French, English, Scottish, and Irish (who were still raging at each other in Europe) established the “Concordia salus” motto in 1833, when the first mayor of Montréal, Jacques Viger, was elected—the emblems can still be seen in the coat of arms of the city (a Fleur de lys, the Red Rose of Lancaster, a trefoil of shamrock, and a thistle).
Montréal, formerly Ville-Marie, is an island city officially founded in 1642 by de Maisonneuve, a French officer. The area has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years, by Iroquois first nations groups. European contact came in 1535 in Hochelaga (the French translation of the Iroquois word osekare, meaning “beaver path”). After the Conquest by Britain over New France and First Nations allies in 1760, Montréal became more of an English city. The British regime ceased control of the economy and military while leaving the church free to organize language, education, health and religion, creating a national minority of ‘Canadiens’ (pronounced Canayens, a mixture of long-time French and Indigenous inhabitants). The Canadiens, would eventually return the status of Montréal to a French-speaking City at the time of unifying Lower (English-speaking Protestant Ontario) and Upper (French-speaking Catholic Québec) Canada in our 1867 Confederation. Connecting directly with the port (now a federal park), stretches Saint-Laurent street (formerly the Main) towards the North, symbolically dividing the city between its Western/anglo part and its Eastern/franco districts, and along which all the immigrant communities found their way into the city (with legacies from the Chinese, Jewish, Polish, Portuguese, Italians, and the many other communities that came to Montréal in the 19th and 20th centuries).
A hundred years later, a new generation transitioned Québec through a “Quiet Revolution” and into a modern secular society, creating a welfare state and education system along with a new sociological identity: le Québécois demos. Both the 1980 and the very narrow loss of the 1995 referendums on sovereignty, or independence from Canada or independence with economic association, are rooted in this conflictual social history. Following the referendums, the city’s population dropped significantly. In 2006 though, the metropole completed an amalgamation process that includes surrounding cities like Laval, creating a population boom for the Metropolitan area of more than four million (1,700,000 on the island). While Montréal is the fourth largest French-speaking city in the world, it is also the most trilingual (French-English and other languages) city on the continent. Fifty-six percent of Montrealers have French as their first language. English. Italian, Spanish, and Arabic are the next most common first languages. Nevertheless, most places you may visit downtown will be able to help you out in English. Of course, trying a little bit of dictionary French is always appreciated.
We are also a city that loves to celebrate. For better or for worse we are a city of festivals: Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Just For Laughs Festival, the International Fireworks Festival, Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, the Montreal Beer Festival, the Montreal Reggae Festival, the International Film Festival on Art, International Festival of Circus Arts, Osheaga, Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, the Montreal Grand Prix, Festival de théâtre des Amériques, or Divers/Cité Gay and Lesbian Pride, to name a few.
It so happens the ASA Annual Meeting coincides with the city’s 375th and Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations. While gay pride is celebrated in every city this year, all Canadian Gay Pride celebrations will congregate in Montreal during your visit in August. Many more details on these and many other events will be included in our next article.