American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
April-June 2017

Montreal’s Distinctive Cultural Diversity

Victor Armony, Université du Québec à Montréal

Montreal skyline

Montreal skyline

By any standard, large Canadian cities are very ethnically diverse. If the preferred indicator for diversity is the percentage of foreign-born population, though, Montreal will not make the very top of the list. Toronto, Vancouver, and even much smaller Calgary have proportionally more immigrants than the Francophone-majority metropolis. However, like the city itself, Montreal’s diversity is extremely distinct, a truly cultural universe of its own.

It all starts with the great linguistic divide: it is here—and only here—that the heritages of Canada’s two colonial peoples still meet, blend, or collide in everyday affairs. Of course, the era of Anglo dominance is far in the past, and the French-speaking majority comfortably and self-assuredly drives Quebec’s public life. But the presence and influence of both groups permeate many social interactions and institutional processes. Certain widespread habits point to a de facto bilingualism, even if the idea of acknowledging an equivalent status to English and French is anathema in Quebecois politics: most Montreal downtown store employees will welcome customers with a very natural-sounding “Bonjour! Hi!” greeting (uttered almost as a single word). That is the mark of how the cultural mix operates within the urban center: based on personal choice, expediency, and a more relaxed view of norms (because a strict understanding of current language regulations would not allow it, given that French must by law always clearly predominate in commercial activities).

A much stronger indication of the way in which “Francos” and “Anglos” have coexisted in Montreal is the geography each population tends to call home. A rule of thumb is that the further you go east, the more French-speaking the neighborhoods become; you take the opposite direction and you will observe the English language gaining in strength and becoming, at the tip of the island, almost the only spoken language. Such separation was never perfectly delineated, and recent trends in migration, gentrification, and residential development, as well as the profound changes within the Anglophone population itself (whose youth generally speak French and show little interest in historical grudges), have created a more linguistically intertwined city. The general east-west axis still stands to some extent, though, and the border—now mostly symbolic but very real in the past—is the Saint Laurent Boulevard, “The Main” as it used to be called by locals.

Ethnic Diversity

It is along and around that informal boundary in the middle of the city that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe first settled at the end of the 19th century and during the first decades of the 20th century. In a way, they became a “third solitude” in an already divided city. After all, language was not the only (for some not even the main) difference that set the two “founding” peoples apart: the French were massively and stalwartly Catholic, while the English were largely Protestant. Jewish shops along and around the Saint Laurent Boulevard (including the still famous Schwartz’s deli and the Fairmount bagel bakery) defined a somewhat “neutral”, mediating urban zone where the two main cultural groups met—though, of course, not always harmoniously. Other European communities came to settle in that area as well: Italians, Greek, and Portuguese, contributing to a phenomenon common to port cities during the great Atlantic migration. From New York to Buenos Aires, immigrants converged in a dense urban center, imprinting their cultural and institutional mark in the core neighborhoods. By following social and geographic mobility patterns that generated intercultural contact and established a multi-layered city life, they opened the path to new immigrant groups that moved into those same spaces and sometimes replaced the original population.

A rule of thumb is that the further you go east, the more French-speaking the neighborhoods become; you take the opposite direction and you will observe the English language gain­ing in strength and becoming, at the tip of the island, almost the only spoken language.

Other long-settled groups, such as Chinese and Black communities, still maintain a presence near Montreal’s downtown. Migration trends in the past three decades have upheld and even strengthened that type of dynamic: newcomers tend to live in central neighborhoods (though now further from the city’s core) in generally mixed settings, with comparatively little inter-community tension. Indeed, minority residential segregation is much lower here than in most U.S. and European cities. Maybe Montreal’s dual character—neither French nor English clearly dominate in all social spheres, a fact that requires social actors to negotiate with, adapt to, and accommodate the “other” on a regular basis. Its internal frontier, where communities made frequent contact, has helped normalize pluralism and diversity.

The province of Quebec holds extensive powers regarding the selection of immigrants (particularly those admitted as independent workers, the major immigrant category). Because of the language imperative, one of the most important factors in that process is the candidates’ previous knowledge of French. This has meant that, for the past two decades, individuals from the former French colonies of Northern Africa constitute the main group of recent immigrants putting roots in Montreal. Overall in Canada, the top country sources of immigration are the Philippines, India, China, Iran, and Pakistan, while in Quebec the top sources are Algeria, Morocco, France, China, and Colombia. Meanwhile, the largest minorities in English Canada are South Asian and Chinese, whereas in Quebec the largest are Arab and Latin American. The most spoken non-official languages in English Canada are Cantonese, Punjabi, and Mandarin, while in Quebec the most spoken non-official languages are Arabic and Spanish.

On the basis of current immigration trends, putting aside political and institutional differences between Quebec and the rest of the country, the French-majority metropolis’s rapidly transforming social fabric sets it apart from other Canadian cities. In brief, Montreal’s diversity is unique in North America, surely because of its French heritage and Quebec’s history within (and, in a way, against) the Canadian nation, but also due to how old and new communities interact and shape the city—physically and socially. Some describe such particular model of coexistence as proper “interculturalism,” different from the Canadian-style celebratory multiculturalism, the U.S.-style approach to racial relations, and France’s (supposedly) color-blind assimilationism. Let me point out that Quebec’s intercultural model is far from being completely effective. Recent immigrants and some minorities find it increasingly difficult to enter the labour market, and intolerance is arguably on the rise in some sectors of Quebec society. But, given the current realities in the world, Montreal may still be seen—and lived—as a fascinating, and rather successful, intercultural experiment.