Montréal’s split personality is nowhere more obvious than in its architecture, a beguiling mix of European traditionalism and North American modernism. Lovingly preserved Victorian mansions and stately beaux-arts monuments rub shoulders with the sleek lines of modern skyscrapers, lending Montréal’s urban landscape a creative, eclectic sophistication all of its own.
In the 1880s, Montréal’s winters were all the rage. Why? Enterprising locals took advantage of the frigid temperatures and built a series of castles made of ice. The Winter Carnival of 1883 saw the construction of an Ice Palace designed by AC Hutchinson, who also worked on Canada’s Parliament buildings. It had walls fashioned of 500-pound ice blocks cut from the St Lawrence River and a roof of evergreen boughs, which were sprayed with water to form icicles. Built in Dorchester Square, the castles became more and more impressive every year. By 1889 they were more than 10 stories tall made of thousands of ice blocks, as many extant art prints held by the Musée McCord attest.
Canada’s Star Architect, Moshe Safdie
Born in Haifa, Israel in 1938, Moshe Safdie graduated from McGill University’s architecture program in 1961 and became almost an instant star. He was only 23 when asked to design Habitat 67, which was actually based on his university thesis. Now based in Boston, Safdie has crafted a stellar career gravitating toward high-profile projects where he can unleash innovative buildings with just the right dash of controversy to get people talking about them.
Most notably, Safdie designed the $56 million, 4000-sq-meter Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, which opened in 2005. He also designed Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, which opened in 1988 with its trademark soaring glass front, and the Vancouver Library Square, which evokes the Roman Colosseum.
More recently, Safdie’s design for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, which opened in 2011, features dramatic swooping curves and resembles a giant paper lantern or beehive.
Safdie was made a companion of the Order of Canada in 2005, Canada’s highest civilian honor.
Architectural Montréal is perhaps most easily understood by its neighborhoods and its icons. In Old Montréal, a plethora of 19th-century and some 18th-century buildings crowd in cobblestone streets, where horse-drawn carriages impart a flavor of Europe some 100 years ago; no wonder it’s the setting for so many films. The representative structure here is the stunning Basilique Notre-Dame from the mid-19th century. Indeed, for most of its modern history, the city’s architecture has been characterized by churches, reflecting the Catholic and Protestant churches’ influence on its development. Their innumerable metallic roofs earned Montréal its nickname – La Ville aux Cent Clochers (City of 100 Steeples). When Mark Twain visited in 1881, he famously remarked, ‘This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.’
Today, however, Old Montréal is also home to modern eyesores that clash with the heritage structures: the 500 Place d’Armes building and the Palais de Justice building, relics of the 1960s and 1970s, make no attempt to fit in. Still, Old Montréal is one of the most homogenous neighborhoods of the city. Today’s strict building codes require extensive vetting before new construction can begin.
For many visitors, the weathered greystones, such as the old stone buildings along Rue St-Paul, offer the strongest images of Old Montréal. The style emerged under the French regime in Québec (1608–1763), based on Norman and Breton houses with wide, shallow fronts, stuccoed stone and a steep roof punctuated by dormer windows. But the locals soon adapted the blueprint to Montréal’s harsh winters, making the roof less steep, adding basements and extending the eaves over the walls for extra snow protection.
From the 19th century, architects tapped any number of retro styles: classical (Bank of Montréal), Gothic (Basilique Notre-Dame) and Italian renaissance (Royal Bank), to name a few. As Montréal boomed in the 1920s, a handful of famous architects such as Edward Maxwell, George Ross and Robert MacDonald left their mark on handsome towers in Old Montréal and Downtown. French Second Empire style continued to be favored for comfortable francophone homes and some public buildings, such as the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall).
Downtown is a multifaceted jumble of buildings where run-down 20th-century brick buildings abut shiny new multipurpose complexes. Sometimes one building straddles the historical divide: the Centre Canadien d’Architecture integrates a graceful historical greystone right into its contemporary façade. Other important buildings were meant to break with the past. Place Ville-Marie, a multitowered complex built in the late 1950s, revolutionized urban architecture in Montréal and was the starting point for the underground city.
Since the 1960s, the government has spent billions developing tourist attractions and infrastructure in Montréal, and the resultant architectural boom has greatly transformed the city. Expo '67 spurred the construction of experimental edifices such as Habitat 67, a controversial apartment building designed by Montréal architect Moshe Safdie when he was only 23; located on a promontory off the Old Port, it resembles a child’s scattered building blocks. Other structures with 1960s roots include Buckminster Fuller's Biosphère, which once wore a skin made of spherical mesh, and the Casino de Montréal, which cleverly merges two of the most far-out pavilions of Expo ‘67. The 1976 Olympics saw an explosion of large-scale projects, the most notorious of which, the Stade Olympique, serves as a reminder of the pitfalls of constructing costly white elephants. Despite its reputation, many admire the stadium’s dramatic tower, which leans at 45 degrees and is home to an observation deck.
One of the largest redevelopment projects in Canada was Montréal’s $200 million Palais des Congrès convention center, inaugurated in 1983 and expanded between 1999 and 2002. The Palais and its adjacent squares form a mini-district known as the Quartier International that unites Downtown and Old Montréal by concealing an ugly sunken expressway. Nearby, in the Quartier Latin, the 33,000-sq-meter Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec opened to huge success in 2005, with crowds of Montrealers visiting the building each day.
The government has also invested millions of dollars in Montréal's public thoroughfares. The Main (Blvd St-Laurent) has been spruced up with the widening of sidewalks, the planting of trees and the addition of street lights in certain stretches. A similar facelift for Rue Ste-Catherine, completed in 2012, involved the installation of new sidewalks and paving stones. Rue Notre-Dame, long a two-laned nightmare pocked with potholes (but nonetheless an important artery into Old Montréal), is also slated for a major overhaul that will convert it into a landscaped boulevard with four lanes in each direction, flanked by multi-purpose recreation paths.
Must-Sees in Montréal
Montréal boasts the largest collection of Victorian row houses in all of North America. Numerous examples can be viewed in the Plateau, along Rue St-Denis north of Rue Cherrier or Ave Laval north of Carré St-Louis. Visitors are inevitably charmed by their brightly painted wrought-iron staircases, which wind up the outside of duplexes and triplexes. They evolved for three important reasons: taxes (a staircase outside allowed each floor to count as a separate dwelling, so the city could hike property taxes), fuel costs (an internal staircase wastes heat as warm air rises through the stairwell) and space (the first and second floors were roomier without an internal staircase).
Into the Future
Never a city to rest on its laurels, Montréal continues to jazz up its urban landscape with new architectural ventures.
Montréal’s most ambitious urban renewal project in recent years has been the Quartier des Spectacles, on the edge of the Quartier Latin and Downtown. Since 2007, the $150 million project has completely revitalized a 1-sq-km area bordered roughly by Rue Berri, Rue Sherbrooke, Blvd René-Lévesque and Rue City Councillors. The result is a culturally rich district that currently houses 80 arts venues, including 30 concert halls and numerous galleries and exhibition spaces. The Quartier is now home to 12,000 residents and hosts several big-ticket festivals, including the Montréal Jazz Festival. Its success has inspired arts and urban planning professionals from around the world, who have come from as far away as New Zealand to study it as a model for integrating the arts with urban living and work spaces.
Major milestones in the Quartier des Spectacles' development include the 2009 opening of the Place des Festivals, a vast open-air entertainment venue with a colorfully lit 235-jet fountain, and the 2011 inauguration of the Maison Symphonique de Montréal – the new home of Montréal's symphony orchestra. In 2017 the National Film Board of Canada is scheduled to open its own newly constructed headquarters here.
Montréal is transforming itself yet again with the construction of several new public spaces for its 375th anniversary celebration in 2017. In addition to recreation and entertainment venues, plans call for construction of a new square near the heart of the city at Champ-de-Mars, which will improve pedestrian access between Vieux-Montréal and Downtown while simultaneously offering the aesthetic benefit of covering over part of the Ville-Marie Expressway. Nearby Place Jacques Cartier in Vieux-Montréal will also get a major facelift.
Meanwhile, the city is pushing ahead with the multi-billion-dollar construction of two super-hospitals. The McGill University Health Center (MUHC), billed as North America's most advanced medical research center, opened its sparkling new 500-room Glen facility in Westmount in April 2015. Downtown, the Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM) is incorporating two vestiges of 19th-century Montréal into its own ultra-modern hospital: the Maison Garth, an 1871 home demolished to make room for the hospital, will have its façade reconstructed stone by stone, while the Église de St-Sauveur, a church dating to 1865, will be crowned with a reproduction of its original 200-foot steeple. Both are to be fully integrated into the new hospital facility when it opens in spring 2016.
Looking further ahead, the federal government has announced that it will replace the aging Champlain Bridge with a modern new span across the St Lawrence River, scheduled for completion in 2018.
Music & the Arts
Montréal is both the undisputed center of the French-language entertainment universe in North America and the cultural mecca of Québec. It is ground zero for everything from Québec’s sizable film and music industries to visual and dramatic arts and publishing.
From Leonard Cohen to Arcade Fire and the Jazz Fest, sometimes it seems Montréal is all about the music. A friend to experimentation of all genres and styles, the city is home to more than 250 active bands, embracing anything and everything from electropop, hip-hop and glam rock to Celtic folk, indie punk and yéyé (exuberant 1960s-style French rock) – not to mention roots, ambient, grunge and rockabilly.
Rock & Pop
On the rock scene, Arcade Fire remains one of Montréal’s top indie rock bands. Their eclectic folk/rock/indie sound and manic ensemble of instruments have made them critics’ darlings since their first CD Funeral hit the US and UK top 10 lists in 2004. Their 2010 album The Suburbs topped charts in several countries and won Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammy Awards, and their 2014 release Reflektor was nominated as Best Alternative Music Album at the 2015 Grammies.
In the francophone music industry, the market is crowded with talented artists. Eternal favorites include alternative rocker Louis-Jean Cormier, who won both a Juno and a Félix award for his 2013 release Le Treizième Étage; keyboardist Pierre Lapointe; rocker Jean Leloup; and singer-songwriter Ariane Moffatt.
More recent arrivals include singer-songwriter Alex Nevsky, who made a clean sweep of the Félix awards in 2014, taking honors for Best Male Vocalist, Best Pop Album (Himalaya Mon Amour) and Best Song ('On Leur A Fait Croire'); indie pop artist Coeur de Pirate, whose first two albums were nominated for Junos; crooner Patrick Watson, known for singing in English and French, as well as playing unusual instruments, such as a bicycle on his song ‘Beijing’; and singer-songwriter Marie-Pierre Arthur, whose awards include best new singer-songwriter of 2012 and best album for her 2013 release Aux Alentours.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Montréal was one of North America's most important venues for jazz music. It produced a number of major jazz musicians, such as pianist Oscar Peterson and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. The scene went into decline in the late 1950s but revived after the premiere of the jazz festival in 1979.
The city’s other celebrated jazz pianist, Oliver Jones, was already in his fifties when he was discovered by the music world. Since the 1980s he has established himself as a major mainstream player with impressive technique and a hard-swinging style.
Singer and pianist Diana Krall has enjoyed mass appeal without sacrificing her bop and swing roots. In 1993 she launched her career on Montréal’s Justin Time record label, and she remains a perennial local favorite during regular appearances at Montréal's jazz festival.
Originally from New York City, singer Ranee Lee is known for her virtuosity that spans silky ballads, swing standards and raw blues tunes. She has performed with many jazz notables and is a respected teacher on the McGill University music faculty.
Sounds of Montréal The World-Renowned Jazz Festival
In a city that loves festivals, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is the mother of them all – erupting in late June each year and turning the city into a enormous stage for 10 days. No longer just about jazz, this is one of the world’s biggies, with hundreds of top-name performers bringing reggae, rock, blues, world music, Latin, reggae, Cajun, Dixieland and even pop to audiophiles from across the globe.
It started as the pipe dream of a young local music producer, Alain Simard, who tried to sell his idea to the government and corporate sponsors, with little success. Now it’s the single biggest tourist event in Québec, attracting nearly two million visitors to 400 concerts – many say it’s the best jazz festival on the planet. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Al Dimeola, James Cotton, Booker T Jones, Taj Mahal, John Scofield and Jack DeJohnette are but a few of the giants who have graced the podiums over the years.
The festival website provides all the details; free festival programs are at kiosks around the Place des Arts. Some concerts are held indoors, others on outdoor stages; several downtown blocks are closed to traffic. The music starts around noon and lasts until late evening when the clubs take over.
The backbone of Montréal’s classical music scene is the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. The OSM has won a host of awards including two Grammys and 12 Junos, and it was the first Canadian orchestra to achieve platinum (500,000 records sold), on its 1984 recording of Ravel’s Bolero.
The smaller Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal is a showcase of young Québec talent and as such is staffed by graduates from the province’s conservatories. The director is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a Montrealer who became one of Canada's youngest major orchestra directors when he took the baton at age 25 in 2000.
Over the past 25 years, the Opéra de Montréal has become a giant on the North American landscape. It has staged dozens of operas and hundreds of performances, and collaborated with numerous international companies. Many great names have graced its stages including Québec’s own Leila Chalfoun, Lyne Fortin, Suzie LeBlanc and André Turp, alongside a considerable array of Canadian and international talent. The company stages several new operas every season, including classics like Madame Butterfly and The Magic Flute.
Locally, new operas are not created, but in 1989 the Opéra de Montréal won a Félix (Québec music award) for the most popular production of the season for Nelligan, an opera created in Québec about the life of poet Émile Nelligan by André Gagnon; Michel Tremblay wrote the libretto.
Best known as an icon of the 1960s, Montréal's native son Leonard Cohen remains one of the world’s most eclectic folk artists. Beloved worldwide for his song 'Suzanne,' Cohen experienced a second burst of major creativity in the 1980s and early 1990s that suddenly made him hip again to younger audiences. Now an octogenarian, Cohen has re-emerged with another cycle of albums and embarked on a series of wildly successful world tours to rapturous audiences. He was chosen as Artist of the Year at the 2013 Juno awards, and his most recent release, Popular Problems, took Album of the Year at the 2015 Junos.
Other English-language folk singers are few and far between, but it's well worth hearing Montréal-based folk quartet the Barr Brothers if you get a chance.
It’s hard to understand music in Québec without understanding what they call chanson. While France has a long tradition of this type of French folk music, where a focus on lyric and poetry takes precedence over the music itself, in Québec the chanson has historically been tied in with politics and identity in a profound way. With the Duplessis-era Québec stifling any real creative production, Quebecers were tuned into only what was coming out of France, like Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour.
The social upheaval of the Quiet Revolution changed all that, when a generation of musicians took up their guitars, started to sing in Québécois and penned deeply personal lyrics about life in Québec and, often, independence.
Longtime favorite Gilles Vigneault is synonymous with the chanson Gens du pays (People of the Country), often played on nationalist occasions. Other iconic chansonniers include Félix Leclerc, Claude Léveillé, Richard Desjardins and Jean-Pierre Ferland.
These days, younger performers such as Coeur de Pirate or the Soeurs Boulay who embrace the style are usually referred to as auteurs-compositeurs-interprêtes (singer-songwriters) rather than chansonniers, and their repertoire may include pop and rock as well as chanson. To experience this Québecois tradition for yourself, visit a boîte á chanson (club where this type of music is played).
Film & Television
The foundations of Québec cinema were laid in the 1930s when Maurice Proulx, a pioneer documentary filmmaker, charted the colonization of northwestern Québec's gold-rich Abitibi region. In the 1960s, directors were inspired to experiment by the likes of Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard, but rural life remained the subject of most Québecois films. The 1970s were another watershed moment when erotically charged movies like Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine and Gilles Carle's La Vraie Nature de Bernadette sent the province a-twitter.
Montréal finally burst onto the international scene in the 1980s with a new generation of directors such as Denys Arcand, Louis Archambault, Michel Brault and Charles Binamé. That trend has continued into the 21st century with the emergence of acclaimed directors such as Denis Villeneuve, Philippe Falardeau and Kim Nguyen. Films are produced in French but dubbing and subtitling have made them accessible to a wider audience.
Animation, 3-D and multimedia technologies have also been a Montréal specialty. Companies such as Softimage and Discreet Logic – now both folded into the much bigger, but still Montréal-based, Autodesk Media and Entertainment – have masterminded the special effects used in countless Hollywood blockbusters, including Jurassic Park, The Mask, Godzilla,Titanic, Avatar, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the Life of Pi.
In late August or early September, the Festival du Film de Montréal (www.ffm-montreal.org), one of Canada's largest and most prestigious cinema festivals, brings in filmmakers from all over Québec and around the world.
Québec’s Master Filmmaker
No director portrays modern Québec with a sharper eye than Montréal’s own Denys Arcand. His themes are universal enough to strike a chord with international audiences: modern sex in The Decline of the American Empire (1986), religion in Jésus of Montréal (1989) and death in the brilliant tragicomedy The Barbarian Invasions, which won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (the first, and so far the only, Canadian film to ever win an Oscar in that category).
Born in 1941 near Québec City, Arcand studied history in Montréal and landed a job at the National Film Board making movies for Expo ‘67. The young director was a keen supporter of francophone rights and the Quiet Revolution, but became deeply disillusioned with Québec politics in the 1970s. His most recent works include L'Âge des Ténèbres, which was the closing film of the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and Le Règne de la Beauté (2014).
Founded in 1968, the Centaur Theatre is Québec’s premier English-language stage for drama. Initially it featured contemporary-international playwrights such as Miller, Brecht and Pinter, but the addition of a second stage for experimental theater in the 1970s helped fuel the rise of English-speaking playwrights such as David Fennario, whose award-winning Balconville, first performed in 1979, remains a classic. The theatre stages its 10-day Wildside Theatre Festival every January.
Québec’s fabulously successful Cirque du Soleil set new artistic boundaries by combining dance, theater and circus in a single power-packed show. Now an international phenomenon with $1 billion-plus in annual revenues, the company produces touring shows in places as far flung as Colombia, Australia, and multiple hotels on the Las Vegas Strip; performances in Québec are not as common as they once were, but if you're lucky, you may still catch a first look at one of their new shows in Montréal's Old Port or elsewhere around the province.
One of Québec's most famous playwrights is Michel Tremblay, whose plays about people speaking in their own dialects changed the way Quebecers felt about their language.
Montréal’s dance scene crackles with innovation. Virtually every year a new miniseries, dance festival or performing arts troupe emerges to wow audiences in wild and unpredictable ways. Hundreds of performers and dozens of companies are based in the city and there’s an excellent choice of venues for interpreters to strut their stuff; l'Agora de la Danse and Circuit-Est Centre Chorégraphique are two of the best.
Several major companies have established the city’s reputation as an international dance mecca. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens attracts the biggest audiences, while Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, La La La Human Steps, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Cas Public, O Vertigo, Daniel Léveillé Danse and Par B.L.eux are troupes of international standing.
Montréal proudly calls itself the world’s second cradle of French-language writers – after Paris, of course. But the city also boasts intimate links to many English-language writers of repute.
Caustic, quick-witted and prolific, Mordecai Richler was the ‘grumpy old man’ of Montréal literature in the latter part of the 20th century. Richler grew up in a working-class Jewish district in Mile End and, for better or worse, remained the most distinctive voice in anglophone Montréal until his passing in 2001. Most of his novels focus on Montréal and its wild and wonderful characters. For another engaging English-language perspective on the province, check out the award-winning mystery novels of Louise Penny, whose protagonist Chief Inspector Armand Gamache unravels murders set in both small-town and urban Québec.
On the French side, Québec writers who are widely read in English include Anne Hébert, Marie-Claire Blais, Hubert Aquin, Christian Mistral and Dany Laferrière. For stories about everyday life on the Plateau, try Michel Tremblay’s short stories.
Painting & Visual Arts
Québec’s lush forests and icy winter landscapes have been inspiring landscape artists since the 19th century. Horatio Walker was known for his sentimental interpretations of Québec farm life such as Oxen Drinking (1899). Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1880–1970) is famed for his watercolors of the Québec countryside. His portraits of majestic elms along Montréal avenues can be viewed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Québec's surrealist-influenced Automatistes movement of the 1940s produced a number of artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923–2002), whose works are on permanent display at at Montréal’s Musée d’Art Contemporain and Québec City's Musée National des Beaux-Arts.
Reflecting the strength and diversity of Québec's film industry, three consecutive Québecois directors earned Oscar nominations in the Best Foreign Film category between 2010 and 2012: Denis Villeneuve for Incendies, Philippe Falardeau for Monsieur Lazhar and Kim Nguyen for Rebelle (War Witch).
If you come across Rue Rufus Rockhead near Marché Atwater, don’t think it’s named after a character from The Flintstones. Jamaican-born Rufus Rockhead was the owner of Rockhead’s Paradise, the hottest downtown jazz club in the 1930s and ‘40s. It hosted the likes of Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, and Sammy Davis Jr.
William Shatner left his native Montreal for Star Trek long ago, but the city still loves him. McGill University, his alma mater, awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2011. ‘Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself,’ he told students. ‘I do it all the time and look what I got.’
A hit TV show in French is Tout le Monde en Parle (Everybody is Talking About It), a current affairs program hosted by comedian Guy A Lepage. It’s controversial, snappy and the first stop for anyone doing anything in Québec’s public arena, from politicians and actors to war heroes.
Montréal boasts two great contemporary dance festivals: the Festival TransAmériques (www.fta.qc.ca) in late May/early June focuses on new creations by Canadian and international performers. The Quartiers Danses festival (www.quartiersdanses.com) in September stages performances at venues ranging from the Atwater Market to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Parc du Mont Royal.
Montréal resident Margie Gillis is a modern dancer of international renown who combines performing, teaching and choreography all over the world. She has choreographed solo shows for Cirque du Soleil and in 2013 was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her lifelong artistic achievement.
Roch Carrier’s short story ‘Le Chandail de Hockey’ (The Hockey Sweater), is well known by hockey fans. Due to a mail-order mix-up, a child is forced to wear a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey in a small Québec town teeming with Montréal Canadiens fans. It’s a parable of the friction between French and English populations.
People & Culture
Montréal’s social scene is nothing if not passionate. Political apathy can turn into fiery protest overnight, while the potent mix of French, English and many other languages bubbles away in a stew that’s sometimes tense. But a love of music, festivals and food somehow makes it all work.
At the local level, Montréal is seeking to regain political equilibrium after a turbulent period in 2012-13 that saw major student protests and three changes of mayor within 12 months. Current mayor Denis Coderre, elected in November 2013, came into office on the heels of corruption scandals that spelled the doom of long-time mayor Gérald Tremblay and his immediate successor, Michael Applebaum. The Liberal-leaning Coderre made ethical integrity a cornerstone of his campaign, pledging to appoint an inspector-general for ethics, limit individual campaign donations to $100, and build a coalition government that would mix political newcomers with seasoned politicians from multiple parties. While Coderre barely squeaked into office with 32% of the vote, his populist, non-partisan style and pragmatic initiatives – such as pledging $50 million a year to fix potholes – have earned him widespread approval during the first half of his four-year term.
Meanwhile, at the provincial level, with the Parti Québecois coming off a dispiriting 2014 defeat and Québec's newest political party, Coalition Avenir Québec. joining the Liberals in opposing sovereignty, the question of separatism has moved decisively to the back burner.
French is the official language of Québec and French Quebecers are passionate about it, seeing their language as the last line of defense against Anglo-Saxon culture. What makes Montréal unique in the province is the interface of English and French – a mix responsible for the city’s dynamism as well as the root of many of its conflicts.
Until the 1970s it was the English minority (few of whom spoke French) who ran the businesses, held positions of power and accumulated wealth in Québec; more often than not a French Quebecer going into a downtown store couldn’t get service in his or her own language.
But as Québec’s separatist movement arose, the Canadian government passed laws in 1969 that required all federal services and public signs to appear in both languages. The separatists took things further and demanded the primacy of French in Québec, which was affirmed by the Parti Québécois with the passage of Bill 101 in 1977. Though there was much hand-wringing, the fact is that Bill 101 probably saved the French language from dying out in North America. If you’re at a party with five Anglophones and one Francophone these days, the chances are everyone will be speaking French, something that would have been rare in decades past.
According to Québec's latest census, native French speakers in the Montréal metropolitan area number 2,395,525, while native English speakers number 439,845. More than 50 per cent of Montrealers from a variety of backgrounds speak both official languages.
Québec settlers were relatively cut off from France once they arrived in the New World, so the French you hear today in the province, known colloquially as Québécois, developed more or less independently from what was going on in France. The result is a rich local vocabulary, with its own idioms and sayings, and words used in everyday speech that haven’t been spoken in France since the 1800s. Accents vary widely across the province, but all are characterized by a twang and rhythmic bounce unique to Québec.
To francophone Quebecers, the French spoken in France sounds desperately posh. To people from France, the French spoken in Québec sounds terribly old-fashioned and at times unintelligible – an attitude that instantly ruffles feathers in Québec, as it’s felt to be condescending.
Quebecers learn standard French in school, hear standard French on newscasts and grow up on movies and music from France, so if you speak French from France, locals will have no difficulty understanding you – it’s you understanding them that will be the problem. Remember, even when French-language Québécois movies are shown in France, they are shown with French subtitles.
Young Montrealers today are not particularly concerned about language issues. Most grew up speaking both languages, and people you meet in daily life – store owners, waiters and bus drivers – switch effortlessly between French and English.
Signs of Pride
Québec’s French Language Charter, the (in)famous Bill 101, asserts the primacy of French on public signs across the province. Stop signs in Québec read ‘ARRÊT,’ a word that actually means a stop for buses or trains (even in France, the red hexagonal signs read ‘STOP’). Apostrophes had to be removed from storefronts like Ogilvy’s in the 1980s to comply with French usage, and English is only allowed on signage provided it’s no more than half the size of the French lettering. Perhaps most bewildering of all is the acronym PFK (Poulet Frit Kentucky) for a leading fast-food chain.
The law is enforced by language police who, prompted by complaints from French hardliners, roam the province with tape measures (yes – for real!) and hand out fines to shopkeepers if a door says ‘Push’ more prominently than ‘Poussez.’ These days, most Quebecers take it all in their stride, and the comical language tussles between businesses and the language police that once featured regularly on evening newscasts and phone-in shows have largely disappeared.
Montréal is the seat of Québec’s French-language media companies and has four big TV networks. New-media firms such as Autodesk Media and Entertainment are renowned for their animation and special effects, and the Cité du Multimédia center in Old Montréal is an incubator for start-ups.
The Montreal Gazette (www.montrealgazette.com) is the major English-language daily, with coverage of national affairs, politics and the arts. The big French dailies are the federalist La Presse (www.cyberpresse.ca) and the separatist-leaning Le Devoir (www.ledevoir.com).
Le Journal de Montréal (www.journaldemontreal.com) is the city’s rollicking tabloid, replete with sensational headlines and photos. Though much derided, the Journal does the brashest undercover and investigative reporting in town and has the city’s biggest daily circulation.
Montréal's last free alternative weekly is the French-language Voir (www.voir.ca); it covers film, music, books, restaurants, and goings-on about town.
Canada’s only truly national papers are the left-leaning Toronto Globe and Mail (www.theglobeandmail.com) and the right-leaning National Post (www.nationalpost.com). The Walrus (thewalrus.ca) is a Canadian New Yorker/Atlantic Monthly–style magazine, with in-depth articles and musings from the country’s intellectual heavyweights. Canada’s weekly news magazine Maclean’s (www.macleans.ca) and the sophisticated general-interest magazine Maisonneuve (www.maisonneuve.org) are also full of high-quality writing.
L’Actualité (www.lactualite.com) is Québec’s monthly news magazine in French. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s site (www.cbc.ca) is an excellent source for current affairs.
One of the things visitors first notice here is how well dressed people are – and it’s not just the women that stop traffic. Conservative colors prevail in law and banking, but in media, IT and other businesses, local men might sport a chic olive-green suit with a lavender tie, which their counterparts in Vancouver, Toronto or even New York wouldn’t dream of donning.
French-language fashion blogs like Zurbaines (zurbaines.com) and Mode Montréal (www.modemontreal.tv) follow the local fashion scene, as do English-language counterparts such as the Montreal Fashion Blog (themontrealfashionblog.com) and Vitamin Daily (vitamindaily.com/montreal/fashion).
Whether artists, students or entrepreneurs, it seems like everybody knows the look they’re going for and pulls it off well. Label watchers put it down to the perfect fusion of European and American fashion – Paris's bold willingness to experiment coupled with an American practicality that makes people choose what’s right for them rather than what’s necessarily in fashion. In short, Montrealers have fun with clothes and are happy to flaunt it.
Québecers are active year-round, jogging, cycling and kayaking on warm summer days, with cold wintry days bringing ice-skating, cross-country skiing and pickup hockey games on frozen lakes.
Sporting events – which can essentially be subcategorized as hockey followed by everything else – draw huge numbers of Montrealers. The essential experience is to journey into the great hockey hall of the Bell Centre to catch the Canadiens (canadiens.nhl.com) gliding to victory.
Other key spectator moments include watching the mighty Alouettes (www.montrealalouettes.com), a Canadian football team with plenty of muscle (despite being named after a songbird); rooting for the Montréal Impact (www.impactmontreal.com) soccer team; and attending the Formula One Grand Prix du Canada (www.circuitgillesvilleneuve.ca).
For those who’d rather join the fray, there are plenty of outdoorsy events. The Tour de l’Île, for instance, is one of Montréal’s best-loved participatory bike rides, when tens of thousands fill the streets for a fun cycle (28km or 50km) around Montréal. There’s a palpable energy in the city that even non-pedalers enjoy.
In winter, green spaces become cross-country ski trails, and ponds and lakes transform into outdoor skating rinks at places like the Old Port and Parc La Fontaine.
Other great ways to enjoy the scenery include white-water rafting down the Lachine Rapids (or surfing them if your life insurance policy is in order), kayaking idly down the Canal de Lachine, or simply heading to ‘the Mountain’ (Parc du Mont-Royal) for a bit of running, pedal-boating, ice-skating, sledding, snowshoeing, bird-watching or – if it’s Sunday – gyrating and/or pounding your drums at the free-spirited tam-tam jam.
CJAD 800AM (www.cjad.com) Talk radio
CBC Radio One 88.5 FM (www.cbc.ca/radio) News and current events
CHOM 97.7 FM (www.chom.com) Classic rock
Global Montreal (globalnews.ca/montreal) Television
CTV Montreal (montreal.ctvnews.ca) Television
CBC Montreal (www.cbc.ca/montreal) Television
Carved in stone on Québec City's Parliament building and emblazoned on every license plate in the province, the simple motto ‘Je me souviens’ (I remember) eloquently expresses the Québecois sense of pride and identity as North America’s largest and oldest French-speaking culture.
The French spoken in Québec has swear words centering on objects used in church services. Where an English speaker might yell ‘fuck’, a Quebecer will unleash ‘tabarnac’ (from tabernacle). Instead of ‘oh, shit!’, a Quebecer will cry ‘sacrament!’ (from sacrament). There are also combos like ‘hostie de câlisse de tabarnac!’ (‘host in the chalice in the tabernacle!’).