Originally the home of Iroquois people, Montréal has a dynamic history as a small French colony, a fur-trading center and a base for industrialists who laid the foundation of Canada. Later eclipsed by Toronto, it has rebranded itself as a powerhouse of French-speaking business and culture.
Irish in Montréal
The Irish have been streaming into Montréal since the founding of New France, but they came in floods between 1815 and 1860, driven from Ireland by the Potato Famine. Catholic like the French settlers, the Irish easily assimilated into Québecois society. Names from this period still encountered today include ‘Aubrey’ or ‘Aubry,’ ‘O’Brinnan’ or ‘O’Brennan,’ and ‘Mainguy’ from ‘McGee.’ In Montréal, most of these immigrants settled in Griffintown, then an industrial hub near the Canal de Lachine. The first St Patrick’s Day parade in the city was held in 1824 and has run every year since; it’s now one of the city’s biggest events. For some terrific reads on the Irish community, check out The Shamrock and the Shield: An Oral History of the Irish in Montreal by Patricia Burns and The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, edited by Robert O’Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds.
The Quiet Revolution
In the 1960s, the so-called Quiet Revolution began to give French Québécois more sway in industry and politics, and ultimately established the primacy of the French language.
The ‘revolution’ itself refers to the sweeping economic and social changes initiated by nationalist Premier Jean Lesage and others that were intended to make Québécois more in control of their destiny. It was an effort to modernize, secularize and Frenchify Québec after years of conservatism under Premier Maurice Duplessis. But this tide of nationalism also had extreme elements.
The Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a radical nationalist group committed to overthrowing local power structures (as personified by the church and big business), was founded in 1963. Initially the FLQ attacked military targets and other symbols of federal power, but soon became involved in labor disputes. In the mid-1960s, the FLQ claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings, and in October 1970 it kidnapped Québec’s labor minister Pierre Laporte and a British trade official in an attempt to force the independence issue. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared a state of emergency and called in the army to protect government officials. The next day Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car. By December the crisis had passed, but the murder discredited the FLQ in the eyes of many supporters. In the years that followed, the FLQ effectively ceased to exist as a political movement.
While support for Québec independence still hovers around 30% to 45% in the polls, there’s little appetite for another referendum on separation from Canada. Rather, the current generation of voters seems to prefer a path of strong Québecois autonomy within the existing Canadian framework.
- A Short History of Quebec (1993, revised 2008) by John A Dickinson and Brian Young. Social and economic portrait of Québec from the pre-European period to modern constitutional struggles.
- City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s (1996) by William Weintraub. Engaging tales of Montréal’s twilight period as Sin City and an exploration of its historic districts.
- The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal (1997) by Dorothy Williams. A terrific and rare look at a little-known aspect of the city’s history and the black experience in New France.
- All Our Yesterdays: A Collection of 100 Stories of People, Landmarks and Events From Montreal’s Past (1988) by Edgar Andrew Collard. An insightful look at the city’s history, streets and squares, with wonderful illustrations.
- Canadiens Legends: Montreal’s Hockey Heroes (2004) by Mike Leonetti. Wonderful profiles of some of the key players that made this team an NHL legend and a mythological part of Montréal’s 20th-century cultural history.
- The Illustrated History of Canada (2002) edited by Craig Brown. Several historians contributed to this well-crafted work with fascinating prints, maps and sketches.
Suzanne Takes your Hand...
Leonard Cohen, one of the city’s most famous sons, grew up in the wealthy Anglo enclave of Westmount, but was drawn to the streets of downtown and the Old Port. His celebrated 1967 ballad ‘Suzanne’ was based on his experiences with Suzanne Verdal, then wife of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. Fans have tried to pinpoint the location of the meeting, and the most likely spot is an old waterfront building along Rue de la Commune in the Old Port. The lyrics refer to a lady within the harbor, thought to be the statue atop the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours at 400 Rue St-Paul Est.
The Early Settlement
The Island of Montréal was long inhabited by the St Lawrence Iroquois, one of the tribes that formed the Five Nations Confederacy of Iroquois. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier visited the Iroquois village of Hochelaga (Place of the Beaver Dam) on the slopes of Mont-Royal, but by the time Samuel de Champlain founded Québec City in 1608, the settlement had vanished. In 1642, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve founded the first permanent mission, despite fierce resistance by the Iroquois. Intended as a base for converting Aboriginal people to Christianity, this settlement quickly became a major hub of the fur trade. Québec City became the capital of the French colony Nouvelle-France (New France), while Montréal’s voyageurs (trappers) established a network of trading posts into the hinterland.
As part of the Seven Years’ War, Britain clashed with France over its colony in New France. The British victory on the Plains of Abraham outside Québec City heralded the Treaty of Paris (1763), which gave Britain control of New France; it also presaged the creation of Canada itself with Confederation in 1867.
The American army seized Montréal during the American Revolution (1775–83) and set up headquarters at Château Ramezay. But even the formidable negotiating skills of Benjamin Franklin failed to convince French Québécois to join their cause, and seven months later the revolutionaries decided they’d had enough and left empty-handed.
Industry & Immigration
In the early 19th century Montréal’s fortunes dimmed as the fur trade shifted north to Hudson Bay. However, a new class of international merchants and financiers soon emerged, founding the Bank of Montréal and investing in shipping as well as a new railway network. Tens of thousands of Irish immigrants came to work on the railways and in the factories, mills and breweries that sprang up along the Canal de Lachine. Canada’s industrial revolution was born, with the English clearly in control.
The Canadian Confederation of 1867 gave Québécois a degree of control over their social and economic affairs, and acknowledged French as an official language. French Canadians living in the rural areas flowed into the city to seek work and regained the majority. At this time, Montréal was Canada’s premier railway center, financial hub and manufacturing powerhouse. The Canadian Pacific Railway opened its head office there in the 1880s, and Canadian grain bound for Europe was shipped through the port.
In the latter half of the century, a wave of immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia gave Montréal a cosmopolitan flair that remains unique in the province. By 1914 the metropolitan population exceeded half a million residents, of whom more than 10% were neither British nor French.
War, Depression & Nationalism
The peace that existed between the French and English citizens ran aground after the outbreak of WWI. When Ottawa introduced the draft in 1917, French-Canadian nationalists condemned it as a plot to reduce the Francophone population. The conscription issue resurfaced in WWII, with 80% of Francophones rejecting the draft and nearly as many English-speaking Canadians voting for it.
During the Prohibition era Montréal found a new calling as ‘Sin City,’ as hordes of free-spending, pleasure-seeking Americans flooded over the border in search of booze, brothels and betting houses. But with the advent of the Great Depression, the economic inferiority of French Canadians became clearer than ever.
Québec’s nationalists turned inward, developing proposals to create cooperatives, nationalize the Anglophone electricity companies and promote French-Canadian goods. Led by the right-wing, ruralist, ultraconservative Maurice Duplessis, the new Union Nationale party took advantage of the nationalist awakening to win provincial power in the 1936 elections. The party’s influence would retard Québec’s industrial and social progress until Duplessis died in 1959.
By the early 1950s, the infrastructure of Montréal, by now with a million-plus inhabitants, badly needed an overhaul. Mayor Jean Drapeau drew up a grand blueprint that would radically alter the face of the city, including the metro, a skyscraper-filled downtown and an underground city. The harbor was extended for the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway.
Along the way Drapeau set about ridding Montréal of its ‘Sin City’ image by cleaning up the shadier districts. His most colorful nemesis was Lili St-Cyr, the Minnesota-born stripper whose affairs with high-ranking politicians, sports stars and thugs were as legendary in the postwar era as her bathtub performances.
The face of Montréal changed dramatically during the 1960s as a forest of skyscrapers shot up. Private developers replaced Victorian-era structures with landmark buildings such as Place Bonaventure, a modern hotel-shopping complex, and the Place des Arts performing arts center. The focus of the city shifted from Old Montréal to Ville-Marie, where commerce flourished.
In 1960, the nationalist Liberal Party won control of the Québec assembly and passed sweeping measures that would shake Canada to its very foundations. In the first stage of this so-called Quiet Revolution, the assembly vastly expanded Québec’s public sector and nationalized the provincial hydroelectric companies.
Francophones were able to work in French because more corporate managers supported French-language working conditions. For instance, the nationalization of power companies saw the language of construction blueprints change from English to French.
Still, progress wasn’t swift enough for radical nationalists, and by the mid-1960s they were claiming that Québec independence was the only way to ensure Francophone rights.
As the Francophones seized power, some of the old established Anglophone networks became spooked and resettled outside the province. By 1965, Montréal had lost its status as Canada’s economic capital to Toronto. But new expressways were laid out and the metro was finished in time for Expo '67 (the 1967 World’s Fair), a runaway success that attracted 50 million visitors. It was the defining moment of Montréal as a metropolis, and would lay the foundations for its successful bid to host the 1976 Olympics – an event that would land the city in serious debt.
Meanwhile, things continued heating up in the Quiet Revolution. To head off clashes with Québec’s increasingly separatist leaders, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau proposed two key measures in 1969: Canada was to be made fully bilingual to give Francophones equal access to national institutions; and the constitution was to be amended to guarantee Francophone rights. Ottawa then pumped cash into French-English projects, which nonetheless failed to convince Francophones that French would become the primary language of work in Québec.
In 1976, this lingering discontent spurred the election of René Lévesque and his Parti Québécois, committed to the goal of independence for the province. The following year the Québec assembly passed Bill 101, which not only made French the sole official language of Québec but also stipulated that all immigrants enroll their children in French-language schools. The trickle of Anglophone refugees from the province turned into a flood. Alliance Québec, an English rights group, estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 Anglos left Québec during this period.
The Not-Quiet Nation Of Québec
The Quiet Revolution heightened tensions not only in Québec but across Canada. After their re-election in 1980, federal Liberals, led by Pierre Trudeau, sold most Québécois on the idea of greater rights through constitutional change, helping to defeat a referendum on Québec sovereignty the same year by a comfortable margin. Québec premier Robert Bourassa then agreed to a constitution-led solution – but only if Québec was recognized as a ‘distinct society’ with special rights.
In 1987 the federal Conservative Party was in power and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney unveiled an accord that met most of Québec’s demands. To take effect, the Meech Lake Accord needed ratification by all 10 provinces and both houses of parliament by 1990. Dissenting premiers in three provinces eventually pledged their support, but incredibly the accord collapsed when a single member of Manitoba’s legislature refused to sign.
The failure of the Meech Lake Accord triggered a major political crisis in Québec. The separatists blamed English-speaking Canada for its demise, and Mulroney and Bourassa subsequently drafted the Charlottetown Accord, a new, expanded accord. But the separatists picked it apart, and in October 1992, the second version was trounced in Québec and five other provinces. The rejection sealed the fate of Mulroney, who stepped down as prime minister the following year, and of Bourassa, who left political life a broken man.
Referendum & Rebirth
In the early 1990s Montréal was wracked by political uncertainty and economic decline. No one disputed that the city was ailing as the symptoms were everywhere: corporate offices had closed and moved their headquarters to other parts of Canada, shuttered shops lined downtown streets, and derelict factories and refineries rusted on the perimeter. Relations between Anglophones and Francophones, meanwhile, plumbed new depths after Québec was denied a special status in Canada.
The victory of the separatist Parti Québécois in the 1994 provincial elections signaled the arrival of another crisis. Support for an independent Québec rekindled, and a referendum on sovereignty was called the following year. While it first appeared the referendum would fail by a significant margin, the outcome was a real cliff-hanger: Québécois decided by 52,000 votes – a razor-thin majority of less than 1% – to stay part of Canada. In Montréal, where the bulk of Québec’s Anglophones and immigrants live, more than two-thirds voted against sovereignty.
In the aftermath of the vote, the locomotives of the Quiet Revolution (economic inferiority and linguistic insecurity among Francophones) ran out of steam. Exhausted by decades of separatist wrangling, most Montréalers put aside their differences and went back to work.
Oddly enough, a natural disaster played a key role in bringing the communities together. In 1998 a freak ice storm – some blamed extra-moist El Niño winds, others cited global warming – snapped power masts like matchsticks across the province, leaving over three million people without power and key services in the middle of a Montréal winter. Some people endured weeks without electricity and heat, but regional and political differences were forgotten as money, clothing and offers of personal help poured into the stricken areas. Montréalers recount memories of those dark days with a touch of mutual respect.
As the political climate brightened, Montréal began to emerge from a fundamental reshaping of the local economy. The city experienced a burst of activity as sectors such as software, aerospace, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals replaced rust-belt industries like textiles and refining. Québec’s moderate wages became an asset to manufacturers seeking qualified, affordable labor, and foreign investment began to flow more freely. Tax dollars were used to recast Montréal as a new-media hub, encouraging dozens of multimedia firms to settle in the Old Port area.
As Montréal gears up for its 375th anniversary in 2017, the upshot is a city transformed and brimming with self-confidence. The Place des Arts area teems with new restaurants and entertainment venues; Old Montréal buzzes with designer hotels and trendy restaurants; and once-empty warehouses around town have been converted to lofts and offices.
Montréal’s renewed vigor has lured back some of the Anglophones who left in the 1980s and '90s, and language conflicts have slipped into the background. The impassioned separatists who came of age during the heady days of the Quiet Revolution are older now, and most young Montréalers are at least bilingual. In the 2014 Québec general election, the Parti Québécois earned its smallest share of the popular vote since its inaugural run in 1970. The PQ's defeat, brought about in part by candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau's strong endorsement of Québécois sovereignty, has led some to speculate that the demographic opportunity for separatism may have ended for good – a sentiment exacerbated by Péladeau's retirement from politics in 2016.
The federalist Québec Liberal Party has dominated provincial government for most of the past decade. In 2012, the party suffered its greatest challenge when students staged months of street protests against Premier Jean Charest’s plans to end a long freeze on tuition increases. The controversy resulted in hundreds of arrests, passage of a tough new law to curb the protests and a brief return to power in September 2012 for the Parti Québécois, which had promised to do away with Charest's proposed tuition hike. However, the Liberals regained supremacy in Québec's April 2014 elections under Philippe Couillard.