Montreal’s Old and New Worlds
Montreal is often regarded as one of the best cities in the world, for many reasons. But to me, a native Montrealer, I love my city for its dual personality: a bit of Europe in North America, a cityscape both modern and ancient, the gastronomical juxtaposition of poutine and foie gras. Despite an agitated history and the seemingly never-ending war of words between French and English, Montreal today is a bilingual city that embraces its unique heritage shaped by two distinct cultures.
A brief lesson in history
Montreal was officially founded by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve in 1642, in an attempt to Christianize the indigenous people that lived on the island, and to expand the fur trade under orders of the Kingdom of France. The province of Quebec remained a prosperous Royal French Province until it was dramatically lost to the English during the Seven Years War—and the 1763 Treaty of Paris sealed the province’s fate by officially handing it over to the English. However, as the vast majority of the population was francophone, the transition hasn’t gone without a hitch—there were several uprisings during the last two hundred years, and while the city has grown into acceptance and even pride, the subject of French versus English is still a hot topic in Montreal politics.
How does this work, geographically?
While the street names vary greatly throughout the entire city, there is an unofficial French and English border in the city: St-Laurent Boulevard. Often called “the Main,” it splits the entire island of Montreal in two halves, serving as the city’s physical middle—East and West street numbers begin at Saint-Laurent Boulevard.
But the boulevard’s significance is more than just a question of numbers—for several years it served as the symbolic dividing line of the city. The French-speaking working-class traditionally lived on the Eastern side of the city, opposite the English-speaking bourgeois elite on the Western side and with thousands of Chinese, Jewish and Italian immigrants settling along the Boulevard itself, perhaps serving as a buffer between the two communities.
And while this division isn’t as definite as it once was, the reputation, and traditions, still remains.
Different ways to see it for yourself
One of the easiest—and cheapest—ways to fully immerse yourself in the Montreal language contrast is to simply wander around different neighborhoods, and take in the different street names. Sherbrooke. Saint-Denis. René-Lévesque. Bishop. McGill. Laurier. Most of them were named after men who influenced the city or country in their own way, but the sheer variety of names is a palpable sign of just how diverse Montreal’s heritage is.
Perhaps the cheekiest contrast of all lives in the Gay District, near Ste-Catherine Street East. Rue Wolfe and rue Montcalm, the streets that honor British General James Wolfe and commander of the French-Canadian forces, Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, face each other, still taunting one another some 250 years after the two men fought for the province on the Battle of the Abraham Plains (and even though Wolfe won).
If you’re both a history and architecture geek, Montreal will not disappoint. Take in the neo-French houses of Old-Montreal, which are relatively low in height and adorned with the typical dormer windows on the roof—these are the oldest houses in the city, and were built during the French regime. Further away on Plateau Mont-Royal and other neighborhoods you can see how the buildings vaguely resemble the traditional English houses, with large windows and red brick.
Another way to immerse yourself in Montreal’s unique French-English traditions is food. It’s a well-known fact that Montreal is home to thousands of great restaurants. You might assume that any given one would choose a side and focus on either French or English cuisine, but if you pick a traditional Quebec eatery, you’ll see French favorites served right alongside traditional English dishes. There’s pâté chinois (shepherd’s pie), boeuf bourguignon, fish & chips, mac & cheese—a true mix of flavors! Poutine is entirely our own, though.
There are several museums entirely dedicated to Montreal’s history, and its unique mix of flavors. The two major ones are McCord Museum, and the Pointe-à-Callière Museum.
The McCord Museum
In 1878, David Ross McCord went through his family’s collection of objects, and also across the country, in search of the finest historical items relating to the Canadian and Montreal history. The result is a carefully appointed selection (more than 15,000) of authentic documents, textiles, objects and photographs recounting the local history, including what is thought to be North America’s oldest patchwork quilt, dating back from 1726.
This is Montreal’s official archeology and history museum, and not just because of its unique collection—the building is actually set right atop Montreal’s birthplace. The museum focuses on the coexistence of the different communities that came to Montreal, especially on the French and English regimes both influenced the city.
Very few places can boast having such a rich, varied heritage like Montreal’s. It may have been a winding, agitated road but the result is an exceptional blend of the French and English cultures—and many others for that matter. Montreal is a cosmopolitan city with the manners of the English, the chic taste of the French, the old-world charm of Europe and the energy of North America—so many cultures and individuals have helped shape Montreal into what it is today, that everybody instantly feels welcome. And so will you!