I know, I know. Here I go again, talking about the weather.
For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers (in case you haven’t figured this out yet), talking about the weather is a bit of a national obsession.
The western part of Canada is in the middle of a polar vortex. I got outside today to tramp through the deep snow that arrived overnight in Vancouver, but in this post, I’m going to talk about the next province over. That would be Alberta, where a lot of my family lives.
They’re cold, to put it mildly. My sister in Calgary was faced with a commute this morning in temperatures of –40° C.
In fact, it’s been too cold all week for the Penguin Walk at the Calgary Zoo. That’s right. The zoo’s king penguins, native to the sub-Antarctic, had a Snow Day. And Calgary today was colder than Antarctica.
I took these photos of the Calgary Zoo penguins almost a year ago, when I visited the zoo on a much balmier day than today.
Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.
— The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen
I can’t leave Montreal behind without writing a word about Leonard Cohen. Because, even though the man spent much of his life living elsewhere, Leonard Cohen is Montreal.
You can’t avoid him when you are there. Stand on any street corner in the city centre and his face stares down at you. When the news broke of Leonard Cohen’s death in November 2016, an impromptu memorial sprang up on the doorstep of his Montreal home. Vigils took place in the square just opposite. Like a pilgrim, I visited both.
I also read The Favourite Game, his first novel, to prepare for my visit to Montreal last spring. The members of my book club were not happy — none of them enjoyed the thinly disguised autobiography. I thought it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.
I’m still making it up to them.
This was a rough year, on so many levels. Almost everyone I know is counting the hours until 2019 is over. All are hopeful that 2020 will be better. I myself had a pretty good year, more or less. But I find it tough to feel joy and gratitude when everyone around me is hurting and weary and sick. Some people call that empathy.
I call it exhausting.
And that’s before we even bring up the news cycle.
In times like these, some of us turn to prayer, some of us turn to poetry, and some of us turn to music. Leonard Cohen — poet, novelist, songwriter, chanteur — gives us all three.
To close out 2019 as well as my series of posts on Montreal, I’m going to finish with these words:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
May we all see more of the light in 2020.
After I had explored Vieux-Montréal to my heart’s content, I decided to walk the length of the Lachine Canal. This was solely to satisfy my curiosity about a canal I had read about when I was doing a degree in Canadian history (a long time ago) and editing history textbooks (much more recently).
The Lachine Canal was built across the southwest part of the island of Montreal to allow ships to bypass the Lachine Rapids on the Saint Lawrence River. The name comes from the French for China (La Chine) and reflects the original goal of those early European explorers: to find a route across the continent and on to China.
Digging 14 kilometres of canal and building seven locks took four years. Most of the work, completed in 1825, was done by Irish immigrants. After the canal was widened and deepened in the 1840s, its entire length became the centre of Montreal’s industry, and the city became the centre of Canada’s manufacturing and trade. Montreal soon quadrupled in size and remained Canada’s largest city until the 1970s.
Eventually though, after the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 that could accommodate larger ships, the canal lost its significance. It was closed to shipping in 1970.
It reopened to pleasure boats in 2002 and a bike path lining the canal was also completed. The Lachine Canal was declared a National Historic Site in 1996.
The warehouses and factories that line the canal have been converted to residential lofts and condos.
I wanted to walk the Lachine Canal from one end to the other, but after taking the Metro to the end of the line, my starting point was somewhere around its mid-point. As I walked all the way back towards Vieux-Montréal, I realized a better option might have been to rent a bike in the Old Port area and cycle as far as possible before turning around.
Which means I already have my first activity planned for when I return to Montreal.
I may have mentioned before (just once or twice) that my favourite way to get to know a city is by walking it.
I may have also mentioned (just, erm, once or twice) that I’m a history geek. And so, getting to know Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) last May by walking it was a real treat for me. Like a moth to a flame, I set out on my first day for the oldest part of Montreal.
I should make it clear that when I say “oldest part,” I am referring to the part of Montreal first settled by Europeans. Long before the first Frenchman arrived on what we now call the island of Montreal, Indigenous peoples were living there. They called their settlement Hochelaga. That first Frenchman was Jacques Cartier, and he in turn named the mountain near Hochelaga Mount Royal, or, in sixteenth-century French, Mont Réal. That was in 1535.
The first French settlers, about 50 of them, arrived in 1642. They were led by Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, who are considered the co-founders of Montreal. Their interest was evangelical; they intended to convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity. However, the fur trade soon became the focus of the new colony. To protect the French interests, Louis XIV sent over 1200 French soldiers. The Filles du Roi (the King’s Daughters) followed, also sent out by Louis XIV, to provide wives for all those fur traders and soldiers. And with that, it could be said, the colony of New France was off to the races.
Colonies need governors, and the building in the above photo, Château Ramezay, was the home of one of the early governors of Montreal, a chap named Claude de Ramezay. Built in 1705, it is one of Montreal’s oldest buildings and is located on Place Jacques-Cartier, the centre of Vieux-Montréal. The house was sold by his descendants, and at one time served as the Canadian headquarters of the Continental Army (that would be the army of the American colonials who fought the British during the American Revolution). It is said that Benjamin Franklin was a one-time guest in this house in 1776 when he came looking for military help from New France in the way of soldiers.
Eventually, the château was turned into a museum, which it remains today. The restored gardens behind the château are particularly lovely.
This next house, Maison du Calvet, was built in the 1700s. It looks like it was lifted right out of Brittany. Most recently, it’s been a hotel, but at one time it was the home of Pierre du Calvet, a supporter of the American Revolution. He also met with Benjamin Franklin when he came to New France.
Across the street from Maison du Calvet is this church, Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Good Help Chapel). Founded in 1655 by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, it’s one of the oldest churches in Montreal. This building dates from 1771. The chapel became popular with the sailors who came through the port of Montreal.
Speaking of sailors, this next building is the Old Custom House, which served a significant function in the burgeoning Montreal trade. When the city was declared an official point of entry for Lower Canada in 1832, it needed some administrative buildings, and this one was completed in 1838. It has two facades; this side faces the St. Lawrence River. The building is now part of Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History.
What I like about this photo is how it shows several centuries of architectural style: directly behind the customs house are the spires of Notre-Dame Basilica (completed shortly before the customs house), behind it to the right is the Aldred Building, built in the Art Deco style and finished in 1931, and behind it to the left is the nondescript bank tower that went up in the 1960s.
Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market), below, was the public market of Montreal for more than 100 years after its completion in 1847. It also housed the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1849 and served as Montreal’s City Hall from 1852 to 1878. It is said to have been modelled after the Custom House in Dublin, which speaks to the long history of the Irish in Montreal. The building is now home to restaurants and shops, banquet rooms, and offices.
Here is Montreal’s current Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). It was built in the Second Empire style between 1872 and 1878. For those of us who are familiar with Quebec history, it was from this building’s balcony that Charles de Gaulle, president of France, gave his infamous speech in 1967. He proclaimed “vive le Québec libre,” which then became a rallying cry for the Quebec separatist movement of the late twentieth century.
Thankfully, the movement did not succeed and Quebec is still part of Canada. And we are the richer for it.
It had been a while since I had visited Montreal (over a quarter century, truth be told), and when you’re way out here on the western periphery of Canada, it can often feel (truth be told) as if the country stops at Toronto. My sincerest apologies to La Belle Province for my extended absence.
Having said that, I was so happy to have the chance last spring to renew my acquaintance with the second largest city in Canada. I learned a thing or two.
For one: I can’t wait to go back.
That’s in spite of the fact that my first impression of the city was this: There is an insane amount of road work going on over there. My taxi driver from the train station tried to warn me, but he used the word “construction.”
“Sure,” I nodded. “Lots of construction going on in Vancouver, too.”
But no. My taxi driver wasn’t talking about new condo developments. He meant road work. They say there are two seasons in Canada — winter and construction — and nowhere is that more true than in Montreal. Literally every street corner had a digger on it.
The other surprise for me about Montreal? That it isn’t bigger than it is. Somehow I was expecting it to be closer in size to Toronto than Vancouver, but that just isn’t so.
Here, have a look. This is the city’s skyline as seen from the top of Mont Royal.
Ever seen a Surf Scoter? In Vancouver, November is peak season to see these diving ducks. Large rafts of them hang out in English Bay where they feed on clams and mussels.
To see the ducks so close to the shore, however, is a bit unusual. I got lucky one afternoon about a week ago.
I was beyond thrilled to see my first ever Steller’s Jay a couple of weeks ago while on a long walk through Stanley Park.
About six of them darted back and forth from the trees to the seeds put out by a fellow birder and back to the trees again.
With migration season upon us, you never know who you might bump into while out for a walk in the woods.
After all my whinging about the rain, we’ve had some spectacular fall days these past couple of weeks.
And here’s a thing about Vancouver: when it stops raining, the entire city drops what they’re doing and goes for a walk.
Because, this time of year, we know it won’t last.
All right. It’s high time I post something to acknowledge the game often referred to as the “national pastime.”
And no, I’m not talking about Canadian federal elections — although, given our proclivity for minority governments (yesterday we elected our
third fourth in 15 years), you would not be wrong in thinking so.
I’m talking about baseball. And yes, I know it’s our neighbours to the south who consider it a national pastime much more so than we Canadians do, but we do have some fans in this country. Basically, all of Toronto during the Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. (I was one of them.)
Here in Vancouver, we don’t have a Major League Baseball team, but I know a few people who will be tuned in to the first game of the 2019 World Series, which got underway tonight.
Some of those people I’m related to, and they like to hang at the Nat every summer. I went along one night last August, just for something different to do (and to take a few photographs).
The full name of Vancouver’s ball park is Nat Bailey Stadium, named after the founder of White Spot (a popular Vancouver restaurant chain best known for their burgers). The home team is the Vancouver Canadians, the one Canadian team in the Northwest League of Minor League Baseball. They are also the Short Season A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays — and please don’t ask me what that means, as I have no idea. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)
It turns out that the Nat is a really fun place to hang out on a summer’s evening — with all the emphasis on fun. Several of each season’s home games are followed by a fireworks display and one is designated Dog Day of Summer — you get to take your four-legged best friend with you to the Nat. If you’re thirsty, there is craft beer; if you’re hungry, there are three-foot long hot dogs. And for entertainment (in addition to the game, of course), there are the Sushi Mascot races — Ms. BC Roll, Mr. Kappa Maki, and Chef Wasabi race around the diamond. A winner is always declared, but if your appetite is whetted, be assured you can also get sushi at the concession stands.
As it happens, the game I went to last August was a close one, finishing off with a walk-off single. But even if the Canadians hadn’t won, the night was winner.