Montreal: worlds within cities

Montreal_-_QC_-_SkylineCanada’s francophone province has much more to offer than we may first expect.  Quebec and its vibrant city Montreal are well known for their bilingual nature and the divide between Francophones and Anglophones.  We are all aware of the separatist question and the strong independence movement, which gained momentum in the 1960s.  Whilst this movement has settled down somewhat, it is true that the issue of independence is still widely discussed and often brought up in political debates and elections.  Quebeckers have very strong feelings on independence and identity, and there is no denying that they are proud of their province and distinctive cultural heritage.

However, as a linguist arriving in Montreal, I was surprised and excited to discover that the city is not solely dominated by French and English. There is a wide variety of linguistic groups which influence and enrich Montreal’s culinary, cultural and aesthetic scene, making it uniquely interesting.

There were two main waves of immigration to Montreal, between 1901 and 1931 and then during and after the Second World War (1945-1961).  Immigrants were attracted by the prospering economy and revised immigration policies offering up job opportunities mainly in the secondary sector (i.e. construction). Many settled down permanently and started families, creating multicultural communities in a previously almost exclusively bilingual city.

Walking around the familial and opulent neighbourhood of Outremont, I saw Orthodox Jews and their children, and could hear a mix of Yiddish and French being spoken.  A huge surge of Eastern-European Jews immigrated to Montreal at the beginning of the 20th Century, and in 1930 there were 60,000 Yiddish speakers in the city.  Indeed, Montreal holds the nickname of “La petite Jérusalem d’Amérique” (The Little Jerusalem of America), and there are  signs of their culture around the area.  For example, the arch of the B’nai Jacob synagogue still stands proud behind the Collège Français de Montréal, and it is possible to make out the inscriptions in Hebrew as well as the Star of David.  On the culinary scene, Montreal is famed for its exceptional bagels, a bread which has its roots in the Jewish community.

More towards the centre of the city, it is easy to spot the two arches marking out Chinatown.  The fast-paced and bustling rhythm here completely contrasts with the children of Outremont playing casually in the park.  As expected, Chinatown offers many authentic Chinese supermarkets and restaurants (I would recommend KanBai), offering a little slice of the Far East.

Montreal is not short of European influences either.  A trip to Little Italy will make your mouth water at the sight of the fresh food markets, bakeries, and butcher shops, not to mention the delicious trattoria’s and traditional family restaurants worthy of The Godfather.  The Portuguese neighbourhood is also worth a visit,  including the Parc du Portugal which pays homage to the Portuguese immigrants who settled in Montreal in the 1950s.  The fountain embellished with azulejos, and the music pavilion with the Barcelos Rooster (the national symbol of Portugal) are a nod to its culture.  The Quebec and Portuguese flags erected at the end of the small park offer a symbol of solidarity and mutual acceptance.  Just outside the park there are twelve public benches lining the Boulevard Saint Laurent, each containing a quote from famous Portuguese authors such as Dom Dinis, José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa as a celebration of their literature.

Thus it is very easy to walk around Montreal and think oneself to be in a European city. This is especially true in the Old Port as one is greeted with crowds of tourists, cobbled streets, small shops, street vendors and markets selling souvenirs The French accent is heard widely, and bakeries and bistros abound.

This said the English language retains a strong hold.  Near the city centre and West Montreal, students chatter away in English, most of them from (the predominantly Anglophone) McGill University.  This university brings American traditions such as the pretty campus, ‘Froshers week’ (Translation: Freshers week), and an international reputation.  English has long been prominent in Montreal, and especially during the 1960s, a British elite displayed both an opulence and imperial ‘hauteur’ consistent with its historical position as conqueror and coloniser.  Indeed, the Montreal flag is made up of the fleur de lys to symbolise the French settlers who were first to claim the island, but also the Lancastrian rose, the thistle and the Irish shamrock to represent those of English, Scottish and Irish descent.  In the Old Port Nelson’s statue stands tall, symbolising the conquering of the French (a controversial move in a Francophone city).

However, Quebeckers have stood firm in their response to English domination.  They placed the statue of Jean Vauquelin, a French marine officer who participated in the defence of Quebec City in the 18th Century, defiantly facing Colonel Nelson.  With regards to immigrants speaking another native language, Quebeckers were worried they would adopt English instead of French as their second language.  Laws were passed to preserve the French language and require children to go to a French school unless they have an English parent.

Certainly from a cultural point of view, there are many influences at work in Montreal.  While English may have dominated the city in the mid-1900s, today there remains a Francophone majority along with smaller ethnic groups which have shared many of their customs.  Culturally, these communities co-exist in harmony; they are not pushed to the outskirts of the city.  As I walk around, I note a hybrid of European and American influences, hear snippets of conversations in French, English, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Arabic and Yiddish.  Montreal unites a plethora of customs and communities and therein manages to create a multicultural city in the true sense of the word.

For more about Montreal, see my blog: