Montréal: The Basics

Rachel Street, Montreal - 2010

City population: 1.65 million

Island population: 1.89 million

Metropolitan population: 3.82 million

Metropolitan area: 4,259 square kilometers (larger than, among others, Hong Kong, New York City, Luxembourg, Singapore, Bahrain, Andorra, Liechtenstein – or conversely, roughly half the size of Puerto Rico or Cyprus)

City area: 431 square kilometers

Dwellings: over 813,000

Metro density: 898.1 people per square kilometer

City density: 4,500 people per square kilometer (comparable with Chicago)

Highest point: Mount Royal at 233 meters above Sea Level (no building in the city can surpass this height, and no land is zoned for buildings taller than 210 meters)

Lowest point: 6 meters above mean Sea Level. Toronto is about 70 meters higher up in elevation, as are most of the Great Lakes.

First inhabited roughly 4,000 years ago, with cultivation beginning around 1,000 CE, the moment of First Contact between the Saint Lawrence Iroquois and French Explorer Jacques Cartier occurred on the Second of October 1535. The village of Hochelaga, likely located within the vicinity of the Roddick Gates of McGill University, was home to some thousand or so people and welcomed Cartier and his crew. They took him to the top of Mount Royal, from which he surveyed the land that extended out in a massive plain in all directions.

The first maps of Hochelaga and Montreal Island date from this time, though they were prepared by a Venetian cartographer who had not himself taken part in the expedition and was working off of hand-written accounts. As such, to this very day directions in Montreal do not generally correspond to actual cardinal points, but are instead based off cartographical errors from hundreds of years ago.

As such, Montreal has the distinction of being one of the very few cities in the world where the sun sets in the ‘south’. Montreal’s street system is largely a grid with several major east-west and north-south axes, both vehicular and pedestrian in nature. Major streets, such as Sherbrooke or Notre-Dame are discussed in terms of east and west with Saint Lawrence Boulevard acting as the dividing line between traditionally French and English Montreal. In actuality, Sherbrooke runs NNE-SSW, while intersecting Parc Avenue runs NW-SE.

By the time Samuel de Champlain reached Montreal in 1608, there was no trace of the village Hochelaga, as it was likely destroyed as a result of on-going inter-ethnic warfare in the intervening 70 years. Paul Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, would establish Ville Marie in 1642, meaning the city has been permanently settled for 371 years (as of 2013) – one of the oldest cities in North America.

The city is the second largest predominantly French-speaking city on Earth, after Paris, with 68% of the metro population speaking it at home, compared with only 17% who speak English. Roughly 20% of the city population speaks a language other than English or French at home, and roughly 60% of the island population is bilingual in both of Canada’s official languages.

Other major linguistic minorities in Montreal: Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Creole, Mandarin & Cantonese, Romanian, Russian, Farsi, Vietnamese, Polish, Tamil, Tagalog, German, Armenian and Punjabi.

The iconic illuminated cross atop Mount Royal stands at about 100 feet tall and features a fibre-optic lighting system that can change colour. It was donated in perpetuity to the City of Montreal by the Société Saint Jean Baptiste in 1929. It was built to commemorate a wooden cross planted by Maisonneuve on December 26th 1643 in gratitude the Virgin Mary for protecting the village against a particularly bad flood. As the story goes the villagers had moved to the top of the modest church they had built when they realized a freak flood threatened to wash the village away, and spent Christmas praying they’d be saved by the intervention of the village’s namesake.

Though the city is the veritable centre of Catholicism and Christianity in Canada, it also has the lowest church attendance and once had, without question, the single greatest number of churches in the country. The ‘Catholic-in-name-only’ population is publicly secular though the city also boasts roughly equal sized Muslim and Jewish populations. Though Montreal’s historic Jewish community traditionally lived near the centre of today’s central business district and along St-Lawrence Boulevard, the community steadily expanded to the North and West, as if in a crescent around Mount Royal, moving into the Plateau, Mile-End, Outremont, Cote-des-Neiges, Cote-St-Luc, Hampstead, Ville Saint Laurent and further on into Laval and the West Island over the course of well over 150 years. A sizeable Chasidic community can be found in the Mile-End district.

The local Chinese community numbers some 72,000 people and can be found in three distinct parts of the metropolitan city. The largest concentration is in the South Shore suburb of Brossard, where Chinese-Canadians make up 12% of the local population. Montreal’s original Chinatown is roughly bordered by Boulevard René-Lévesque to the north, Viger to the south, and bounded by Sanguinet and Bleury to the east and west respectively, though today is more diversified, much like other ‘traditional’ ethnic enclaves and is better described as pan-East Asiatic in nature, though with a strong Chinese influence. A second Chinatown has grown over the past two decades immediately west of Concordia University, this one largely driven by the abundance of Chinese students attending Concordia. As such, the Chinese Consulate of Montreal recently moved into the LaSalle College building on Saint Catherine Street West. This ‘second city’ for the local Chinese community is co-located within Shaughnessy Village, roughly bounded by Boul. René-Lévesque, Sherbrooke, Atwater and Guy. Roughly at the centre of this area is a public square at the intersection of Guy and Boul. de Maisonneuve featuring a statue of Norman Bethune, the Canadian hero of the Chinese Revolution.

Norman Bethune is the single best known Canadian of all time; Chairman Mao’s eulogy of the doctor who revolutionized battlefield medicine and blood transfusions is known, by heart, by hundreds of millions of Chinese. He is almost completely unknown here in Canada, largely as a result of his staunch support of communism and socialism as a deterrent to fascism. There are no memorials to him in Ottawa or Toronto. In Montreal, the local Chinese population lays roses at the base of his statue. He practiced medicine in Montreal at the Royal Victoria Hospital from 1929 to 1936, during which time he became a leading thoracic surgeon. It was also in Montreal where he became a committed communist and sought to use his medical prowess to support the Spanish Republicans fighting Franco, and later Mao Zedong in his fight against the Imperial Japanese.

Near Norman Bethune Square is the main entrance of the Guy Métro station, arguably one of the ugliest in the entire 68-station system, but unique in how it serves a major urban university and has led to the construction of an ‘independent’ component of the Underground City. Guy-Concordia Métro is the fifth busiest in the network, though it was never intended for the traffic it actually handles. As a result of the development of Concordia University around the station, a network of tunnels connecting the buildings of the campus has now been connected to the station proper. In this sense, one can access Guy-Concordia Métro from as far away as Bishop – two streets east of the station’s eastern end, or as far south as Saint-Catherine and Mackay. The two principle entrances are both located within institutional buildings, on one side the operational nerve centre and administrative hub of Concordia, on the other, a major downtown free clinic and CLSC.

Concordia is not the only university in Montreal with it’s own Métro station, but I would argue it’s one of the best connected. McGill Métro station isn’t physically attached to the campus and it’s own limited network of underground tunnels, though curiously the station is near the epicentre of the main section of the Underground City and is a major underground hub. The Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM) is built around the massive Berri-UQAM transit hub and directly attached to the station and main library, but whereas Concordia’s tunnel system is principally used by students, Berri-UQAM’s vast network anchors a major multipurpose traffic and transfer point, the eastern pole of the Underground City. The Université de Montréal is spread out along the northern edge of Mount Royal and as such can be accessed by three different Métro stations, including two directly connected to the university buildings (the namesake station is one of the best looking in the entire network, though is unfortunately located on the least used Métro line).

Other major universities or affiliated independent institutions in Montreal include the Hautes Etudes Commerciales (near Université-de-Montréal Métro station), the École de Technologie Superieur (on Peel south of Saint-Antoine), the Université de Sherbrooke’s Longueuil Campus (located at Longueuil Métro station), the Polytechnique Engineering School and Université Laval’s new satellite campuses. There are numerous private, for-profit colleges and specialty schools and a total of 21 CEGEPs, of which five are Anglophone and 16 Francophone.

Total student population is estimated at around 250,000 making Montreal’s student population one of the largest in the entire world (with more students per capita than Boston, access to eight or nine universities, not to mention the CEGEPs, private colleges and various institutes) and have been ranked as one of the world’s top ten cities to study and be a student. This comes with other international recognitions as one of the best cities to live and work, with a generally exceptionally high quality of life, exceptionally low violent crime rates, a well-respected, innovative and studied public transit system. The list goes on: A UNESCO City of Design. A major international conference and exhibition centre. The world’s largest individual producer of original French language media. A leading centre of medical and pharmaceutical research. The world capital of aviation.

Monocle has dubbed us Canada’s Cultural Capital, a recognition that makes me wonder when, at what point in the future, will we judge cities by their relative cultural wealth?

A city like ours could clean up. We’re well-established on the cultural and academic side of things, providing a concentrated mass of talent and human capital – corporations need access to this kind of talent, and while you’ll find this in most major cities, few provide the entire package as well as we do. It’s not just the brain power, it’s the civic engagement in further developing it, it’s the operational multilingualism, the presence of international organizations and UN bodies, the diplomatic presence, the ease and quality of living. All these factors combined with our city’s generous quantity of class-A office space may one day bring many new companies and corporations to our city, serving to breathe new life into an already heavily diversified and affordable local business environment. Whether we properly sell what Montreal has to offer is another issue altogether, but I would argue strongly we have more than enough top-flight ad firms in our city to get the message out.

Doing business in Montréal is comparatively cheap – the people don’t ask for much, rental properties are affordable and there’s a considerable amount of affordable housing within close geographic proximity of the city or its expansive public transit system. And there’s the human side of business – Montréal provides all the luxuries and entertainment of any major city, and it’s quite affordable to live a rather fun and exciting life here.

I’m confident, to say the least, that our city’s economic future looks bright, across diverse sectors. Whether we choose to make something happen by going on a major publicity campaign to secure new investment and new employment opportunities (to stimulate middle-class growth, raise living standards and services offered through proportional increase in municipal taxation and provide new sources for philanthropic donations, among others) is something for our next mayor to decide. Or perhaps its what the citizenry will demand. For all that Montréal is, its people an increasing disconnection from its apparent leadership. The elections slated for November of 2013 will determine whether or not the citizens will plot a course away from all that has encumbered us in the past. Namely, the overt corruption of the city’s political establishment and the long-standing belief our city is destined to decline.

Sometimes I think we forget how innovative, cutting edge our city really is. Of course there will be hiccups and unexpected challenges along the way – it’s better we deal with them rather than sinking into our colonial mentality of inferiority. Let Canada and Québec resign themselves to significance-by-proxy, let them wallow in the problems of dead foreign empires. We shine brightest when we have the resolve and confidence to go our own way. There is a palpable spirit of individual sovereignty in Montréal, but it exists, uniquely, within an equally palpable sense of local character and cultural significance, one that transcends mere linguistic barriers into the realm of the worldly and universal. This has been our orientation for quite some time.

I’d rather go the hard road with other equally determined individualists than rest on the laurels of past glory, as far too many have done for so long, taking along old hatreds and obsolete business practices along for the ride. Sometimes Montrealers need to stop living in the 19th century; let’s keep the buildings without keeping the nationalism or social conservatism – it doesn’t suit us.

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