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.
At the start of my Canada 150 series, way back when, I said that a cross-Canada train trip should be on the Travel Bucket List of every Canadian. I myself haven’t quite completed that, but I came pretty close when I took the train from Vancouver to Quebec City.
It took me four days to cross five provinces. I was a student, so I had more time than money and back in those days taking the train was cheaper than flying. But still, it was the cheap seats for me, which meant I did not have a sleeping berth at night. When I finally disembarked, the conductor joked that I was starting to look like part of the furniture.
But travelling slowly across three-quarters of the country was so worth it. It gives you a sense of the scale of our country, and an appreciation for the regional differences.
Another way to appreciate regional differences is to spend a good chunk of time in other parts of the country. I travelled to Quebec City that summer to study French. The French didn’t much stick, but my perception of Quebec was changed forever.
It was the 1980s, the height of the Quebec sovereignty movement and the middle of a decade of constitutional conferences and accords that were the aftermath of the federal government repatriating Canada’s Constitution without Quebec. Yes, that’s a mouthful and I won’t get into explaining it here because if you’re old enough, you lived through it, and if you’re too young to remember, there are books you can read. But I mention it to explain the context for my summer.
My goal that summer, besides learning French, was to get to know the province of Quebec, so to speak. As a history major, I knew all about Canada’s two solitudes, but history doesn’t really, truly come alive until you walk its streets. And here’s what I learned: the difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada isn’t just its language, but also its culture and its history.
Language is obvious, of course. But it’s because of that language difference that Quebec has its own music scene, its own TV and film stars, and its own literature. I read a lot, but I can’t remember the last time I picked up a novel by a Québécois author. I think we English-speaking Canadians could do a lot better in appreciating and acknowledging Quebec culture.
And then there’s the history. What I most remember about that summer is realizing exactly what je me souviens means to Quebeckers. Its literal translation is “I remember” and it is the province’s motto. It’s said to refer to how Quebeckers will always remember their culture, their traditions, and their history. But when I saw one of those sound and light shows for tourists of a model-sized re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the penny dropped for me. Je me souviens means “I remember 1759.”
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham took place on September 13, 1759. The British soldiers, led by General James Wolfe, climbed up the cliffs from the Saint Lawrence River to the Plains of Abraham at Quebec City, taking the French troops, led by the Marquis de Montcalm, completely by surprise. It was all over within an hour. The French loss marked the turning point of the Seven Years’ War. France gave up control of its colony in New France, but was allowed to keep two small islands off the coast of Newfoundland (Saint Pierre and Miquelon) and its holdings in the West Indies (the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique).
Keep in mind that New France at that time consisted of present-day Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and what is now the American Mid-West from the Great Lakes south to Louisiana. It was a far larger land mass than Britain’s Thirteen Colonies. Some historians like to draw a straight line between France losing New France and the American Revolution a few years later.
I’m getting lost in the history here, I know. But the point I want to make is this: if Montcalm had not lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, if France had not ceded its holdings in New France to the British, if the American Revolution had not been fought, if the Loyalists had not moved north into Canada, there is a pretty good chance that Canada would be a French-speaking nation. So when someone in Quebec says “je me souviens,” they are remembering all that.
I put all these thoughts into a short essay I read aloud to my French class on our last day of classes that summer. We met on the Plains of Abraham, of all places, for a class picnic and after I finished reading my essay, my teacher said to me, “Tu pense comme une Québécoise.”
You think like a Quebecker.
I don’t know about that, but I do know that my summer in Quebec City gave me a better understanding of how Quebeckers see their place in Canada.
I don’t have a photo of the Plains of Abraham, but here’s one of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, a small church in the Lower Town of Quebec City. It is less than two kilometres from the Plains of Abraham and was almost completely destroyed by the British bombardment that preceded the battle in 1759.
I wasn’t going to include Montreal in my Canada 150 series. Truth is, I haven’t spent a lot of time there and I don’t know the city well at all. But as I was thinking about my infrequent visits, it suddenly dawned on me. The last time I was in Montreal was on a May long weekend, and the city was deep into its 350th birthday celebrations. And this year, on May 17, Montreal celebrated its 375th birthday.
Gulp. It’s been 25 years since I’ve visited the home of my first love. (That would be the Montreal Canadiens.)
This photo is of the Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market). Opened in 1847, it was the main public market of Montreal for more than a century. Today it houses restaurants and shops and a reception hall.