A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.
Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.
What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).
That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.
The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.
I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.
Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.
That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.
And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.
I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.
At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.
And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.
We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.
Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a trip back in time.
The year is 1758 and the ‘Seven Years’ War‘ had entered its fourth year in North America. The conflict was the largest international conflagration since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, and involved every ‘great power’ (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire) of the era. It was a contest between two grand coalitions, one led by Great Britain, the other by Bourbon France, and was fought throughout Europe, the Americas, West Africa and even as far afield as the Philippines. By its end, Britain would be the predominant global power, a position it would retain until the mid-20th century. But it would come at a cost for the British: within a decade of the war’s conclusion thirteen British colonies would rebel to form the United States, the nation that would ultimately replace Britain as the predominant world power a little under two centuries later. And even more importantly, some of the more immediate consequences of the Seven Years’ War would contribute to the French Revolution, arguably one of the most important events in human history. This in turn leads to the rise of Napoleon (and coming full circle here, we have Napoleon’s t-shirt. It’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the story behind why we have it is the subject of another article).
As it would happen, a key event in this geopolitical crisis would take place in Montreal. Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, the last Governor General of New France, would surrender the town and all of New France to the British on September 8th, 1760, a little under a year after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Though this moment has been characterized as a devastating blow for the nascent community, because the town of Montreal escaped the fate of Quebec City it quickly became the new seat of British military, economic and political power in what would just over a century later become Canada. In so doing, Governor Vaudreuil and the Chevalier de Lévis exercised sound judgement and common sense that not only saved the community, but would further guarantee the long-term survival of the French Canadian people, as the Old World’s ‘rules of war’ would be thoroughly respected: property rights and deeds were upheld; religion, customs, laws, language and culture were all retained and the British guaranteed the right of safe-passage back home for anyone who so desired. The French colonial administrators and military personnel packed-up and sailed back to France, leaving behind them a distinct society over a century in the making.
The map above is entitled ‘Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montreal or Ville Marie in Canada‘ and dates back to January 30th, 1758. It was engraved by Thomas Jefferys, a London cartographer also known as the ‘Geographer to King George III’, and would have been used by the British as they prepared for a potential attack. This is Montreal at the time of the Conquest. Jean-Claude Marsan has indicated that this map was likely based off a previous French example, though in most respects it is an accurate depiction of what Montreal looked like.
At the time Montreal was one of the largest settlements in France’s North American possessions: the population of the town of Montreal in 1760 was roughly 5,000, with perhaps 8,300 in total living on-island (the island’s total population was about the same as Quebec City in 1758, though these population figures would have changed during the course of the conflict, especially after the Siege of Quebec). In all of New France there were but 65,000 inhabitants, this compared to an estimated 1.5 million people living in the English colonies along the Atlantic Coast. France’s loss of its North American possessions to the British is hardly surprising, given this severe population imbalance. In his seminal study of the evolution of Montreal’s urban environment, Marsan points out that the Bourbon monarchs of France spent about as much on their colonial efforts as they did on their recreation at Versailles, and indebted the community of Montreal to pay for its own defences.
In 1758, Montreal was a metropolis by French North American standards, though it wasn’t particularly impressive when compared to British American cities like Boston (with an estimated population of 16,000 in 1742) or Philadelphia (13,000 the same year). Montreal was still chiefly a fortified frontier town, but given its position at the confluence of the Outaouais and Saint Lawrence rivers, not to mention its geographic attributes, was of remarkable strategic importance.
At the very end of the Ancien Régime period of Montreal’s early history, the 8,300 or so citizens who lived on-island would have occupied some familiar territory. There would have been several other smaller settlements dotted around the island, including Sault-au-Récollets (at the Back River), Pointe-Claire, Lachine, Senneville (along with its fort) and Pointe-aux-Trembles, as well as the Sulpician Fort, the towers of which remain standing at the top of Fort Street on the grounds of the Grand Seminary. The main settlement where the majority of the population lived would have occupied much of what we today call Old Montreal. The town pictured above would have run west to east from McGill to Saint-Hubert running from the northern wall (along today’s Saint-Antoine) down to the riverfront. There would have been just five roads leading out of the fortified town, each with small clusters of houses lining the streets outside the walls. The roadway heading northwest (and perpendicular to the river) is none other than The Main, Boul. Saint-Laurent, arguably Montreal’s most storied street.
The two main east-west arteries, Rue Saint-Paul and Rue Notre-Dame, haven’t changed since they were laid out by François Dollier de Casson in 1672, as were the smaller intersecting north-south streets, like Rue Saint-Francis-Xavier, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Jean and Saint-Pierre. The wall that surrounded Montreal in 1758 would have been constructed in 1717 by the famed military engineer Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry, and it’s within the confines of these protective walls that Montreal began to grow in earnest.
The 1758 map details the city’s most important buildings, some of which exist to this day. First and foremost is the Sulpician Seminary on Place d’Armes, whose construction dates back to 1687. The seminary’s clock, installed in 1701, as well as its gardens, are the oldest of their kind on the continent. The second oldest extant building pictured here is the central section of the former Grey Nuns’ Hospital, called the Freres Charron General Hospital at the time. This building, located outside the protective walls but south of the Rivière Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.
Montreal’s other important buildings in 1758 would have included the parish church of Notre-Dame, located in the middle of Place d’Armes and adjacent to the Sulpician Seminary. Notre-Dame Basilica would replace the parish church in 1829, with the church’s bell tower razed upon the completion of the basilica’s bell towers in 1843. Across Rue Saint-Sulpice was the convent of the Congregation Notre-Dame and the Hotel-Dieu, the town’s principal hospital, which they ran. The Hotel-Dieu was established on that site in 1688, and would have burned and been rebuilt three times by 1758.
Further east (and identified by the letter C) is the Chateau Vaudreuil, also designed by Chaussegros de Léry, which served as Governor General Vaudreuil’s official residence and was destroyed by fire in 1803. Subsequently, the land was bought by local merchants and turned over to the city on the grounds it became a public market. Place Jacques-Cartier has stood on the site ever since. Just north, at the intersection of Rue Notre-Dame, stood the Jesuit Church, Convent and Gardens, with the church located at what is now Place Vauquelin, and Montreal City Hall occupying what was once the Jesuit’s gardens. A little further east and we come across a interesting note: ‘a small chapel burnt down’. The chapel that burned was the very first erected in the colony at the behest of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1655. That chapel burned in 1754, four years before this map was made. The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel that stands on the very same location today dates back to 1771.
At the far eastern edge of the town (at the letter E) stood a ‘cavalier’, which is a type of fort built inside a fort and on much higher ground, though as is indicated in the legend, it lacked a parapet. This is where Montreal’s few artillery pieces would have been located: close to the river’s edge and the eastern gate, defending the town’s arsenal and boat yard.
The links between the fortified frontier outpost of 1758 and the modern metropolis of today are at times difficult to discern. We know the city is old because there are parts that look and feel old, but the superficial antique aesthetic is misleading. Much of Old Montreal only dates back to the mid-late 19th century and some of the best-preserved examples of local Ancien Régime architecture are located, in some cases, a fair distance from the original settlement. One of the principle reasons why so little is leftover from the French colonial period is in part due to the numerous fires that swept through and destroyed parts of the town (and some of the more important buildings) throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s ironic that the protective walls that surrounded the town exacerbated the danger of large fires given the increase of population density within its walls. It also didn’t help that timber was the still the preferred construction material well into the mid-late 18th century.
By 1758 the danger of fire was far more threatening than attack by the Iroquois, and so small villages had begun to appear outside the town walls along the established ‘chemins du roy’. These roadways, much like the street grid of Old Montreal, are the most important and enduring elements of Montreal’s first urban planners. Life outside the protective walls would have had some serious benefits, namely a breath of fresh air. As the colonial era town lacked a sewage system, waste of all kinds were simply thrown into the street. Moreover, there was a fair bit of agriculture and all manner of farm animals inside the gates, often free to move about as they pleased. So the urban-suburban rivalry of Montreal is about as old as the city itself. In 1758, about 40% of the island’s population lived outside the walls.
Montreal in 1758 would have been positively medieval; the basic layout of the fortified town mimicked examples in the Southwest of France and on the English borders with Wales and Scotland from roughly four or five centuries earlier. The basic housing design, examples of which have survived in the form of traditional Quebecois architecture, are also medieval in nature, similar examples being found in Normandy. One particular element of the town’s early design was that it had two principle open spaces – one in front of the parish church (today’s Place d’Armes) and another, a market place, closer to the river and with its own gate (today called Place Royale). Here we find another urban design element that has survived to this day: the lower town, closer to the river, is the most densely populated and would have been home to the town’s merchant class. The upper part featured the town’s major religious buildings, all of which featured stately gardens. This layout also recalls that Montreal was initially conceived as a religious mission, and so those buildings occupied the higher ground of the Coteau Saint-Louis. The grade separation of the classes for the most part remains intact; the wealthiest neighbourhoods of modern Montreal are at the base of Mount Royal, the working class neighbourhoods are still ‘down the hill’ and located within proximity of the river.
Some things really never change. Individual buildings dating back to the heroic colonial era may be in short supply, but the impression of the village illustrated above is our most enduring link to Europe. You can still see the Montreal of 1758, you just have to know where – and where not – to look. Or perhaps ‘how not to look’ as it’s more often than not the spaces between the buildings, the roads and squares, that provide the greatest wealth of clues to the town that once was. This is where we discover that the roots of Old Montreal in Old Europe, and an urban aesthetic which reaches back nearly a millennium.
Montreal: a modern medieval city…
Author’s note: thanks to Alan Hustak for some corrections. First, technically Montreal never surrendered, but rather capitulated what with the overwhelming odds stacked against the town and its people in 1760. Doing so allowed the terms of surrender to be negotiated and as such facilitated Montreal’s successful, peaceful transition from one empire to another. In addition, Montreal was not the largest settlement in New France at the time, as I incorrectly stated in this article’s first draft. The population of Quebec City would have been roughly 9,000, and Trois-Rivières at about 8,000, with Montreal’s town population at 5,000 and the island’s population at roughly 8,300. These figures would have been precise up to around the time of the Seven Years’ War, though likely changed after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Siege of Quebec.
If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend spending some time in the Old Port this Summer, and specifically a walk along Rue de la Commune. Enjoy a nice meal on an outdoor terrace, walk along the Harbourfront Park and take in the wide variety of activities available in Montréal’s Old Port during the peak Summer tourism months.
And remind yourself as you look out over the water towards Ile-Ste-Helene, the Casino, Habitat 67 or the Jacques-Cartier Bridge that once upon a time – not too long ago in fact – you couldn’t see any of it, because the Port of Montréal was still fully operational in the sector currently known as Vieux-Montréal.
As the photos here demonstrate, the Old Port was once the port, and the area currently occupied with restaurants, boutique hotels and galleries was once highly industrial/commercial. All those sweet lofts you now covet were once working-class housing, and the port had a bit of a reputation for being a seedy, run-down part of an old city falling apart at the seams. Consider the size of Grain Elevator No.5, and imagine three elevators of a similar size, not to mention cold-storage warehouses and functioning piers and all associated logistical equipment, ripped out from their moorings and cleared away. Though this was doubtless a smart move for the city (as more modern port facilities were constructed further East and the area once occupied by the port was turned into one of the classiest neighbourhoods in the city), it nonetheless had a deep impact on the psyche of local inhabitants.
Here’s where dates are key. The renovation of Montreal’s Old Port and the relocation of the commercial seaport took place in the late 1970s. It involved cooperation between three levels of government with the Fed leading, as the Port of Montréal is a crown asset. At the same time – the same year in fact – the much dreaded economic reaction to the election of the PQ in 1976 was beginning to manifest itself. The Péquistes were talking Bill 101 and an eventual Referendum, and some major corporations once headquartered here pulled up their roots and shipped off to Toronto (In 1978 it was the Sun Life Insurance Company, once a major white-collar employer). The near simultaneous destruction of much of the industrial component of the Old Port signified, for many, an irreversible turn of fortune – a Montréal equivalent to Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River Fire.
FYI – if you want a local blues-rocker’s take on this era in city history, check out Walter Rossi’s “Down by the Waterfront”; off of 1980’s ‘Diamonds for the Kid’ – scroll over to read the lyrics. I can’t say for certain it’s about life on our particular waterfront, but from what I’ve heard and read, life was a bit different back when the Port actually emptied directly onto de la Commune. Consider that Montréal’s role as a major transit point in international smuggling operations has pretty much maintained itself since before the War – it’s just that back before the mid-1980s, most of that smuggling was going on where currently American tourists go to get a taste of Europe on the cheap. Dig?
Moving the port facilities further East was obviously a wise decision, as the expansion allowed the Port of Montréal to develop into North America’s premiere inland port. In fact, I’d even go so far to say it made the Saint Lawrence Seaway somewhat obsolete, as ocean-going vessels can now easily dock in Montréal and transfer their cargo directly onto waiting trains, access the oil terminals and have access to larger spaces and more modern equipment to unload cargo containers. Moreover, by moving the port to a more or less dedicated industrial area, away from the city and next to a major military base, cut off from residential area by better zoning, rail lines and Boul. Notre-Dame Est probably did quite a bit to remove, if not eliminate some the seedier elements associated with major port cities from the picturesque Old Quarter.
I think one of the biggest problems we had with regards to our Old Port redevelopment (read this neat 1979 Montreal Gazette article about planning for the new Montréal Harbourfront), was that there was a lull period throughout most of the 1980s as the old was removed, the ground de-contaminated, the area re-designed etc. It seems as if the Drapeau & Doré administrations didn’t adequately communicate the Old Port redesign scheme as a major investment with guaranteed returns, at least not well enough to counter the growing perception that Montréal was becoming a washed-up second city.
Part of the problem may have had to do with the fact that ‘harbourfront/dockside/portlands’ renovations were a kind of weird 80s and 90s urban-planning technique designed to ‘re-invigorate’ failing American rust-belt cities, most of which kind of came up flat. I think Montréal succeeded wildly, though it shows – when you walk around the Old Port ask yourself who works there in the off-season. It still has a viable economy besides tourism, and has been re-integrated into the urban fabric, quite expertly in fact. Consider the types of services, spaces, places and institutions in the Old Port – this is now a place to live, work and play. Few other cities have been able to rehabilitate such a large area on such a grand scale; how much money has been invested into the Old Port and Old Quarter since the mid-1980s? I can bet you it probably dwarfs what was spent on the Olympics.
It’s unfortunate that, as a result of our extremely successful port renovation scheme, we lost this:
And it’s also kind of amazing that we did, given that so many other cities went with conversions of old port-side warehouses and storehouses into international markets – think South Street Seaport in NYC, or Faneuil Hall in Boston. And given how successful other markets have become in Montréal, you’d figure there would be an effort made to rekindle a bustling Old Port market. I’d love to see small motor boats coming in from up and downriver with fresh produce. Actually, I’d get a huge kick out of it. Imagine the people watching you could do! Imagine how much more life it would breathe into the port, and how many more Montrealers may go there – tourists be damned.
On a final note – there are two elements of port life I would like to see reintegrated into the Old Port, and I can imagine it would allow for an interesting and distinct character. For as nice as it is, the Old Port still seems a little too dependent on tourist dollars to keep going – at certain times of the year, let’s face it, the Old Port can be anything but hospitable, with much of Rue de la Commune boarded up until the Spring. I’d like to see actual sailors, people from all over the world, enjoying the Old Port and utilizing it as anyone may use a city, but there is a lack of affordable hotels in the area, as pretty much everything is geared towards wealthy American and European tourists. If this was altered slightly, and additional services for sailors were located in the Old Port, it would add a degree of authenticity (which can’t hurt) that may translate into additional sources of steady income for the Old Port as a neighbourhood and community.
As it stands right now, the Old Port is a bit of an oddity in Montréal. It’s gorgeous, it’s antique, it’s wealthy and fun. But there are parts which still seem a bit off – is it weird to have a playground in your front yard? The fact that there is no so little actual port activity in the Old Port gives it a Disney World pseudo-realistic feeling. What if a ferry terminal and a dedicated cruise-ship pier were built, and the Old Port reprized its role as a major transit point? I can imagine the Old Port would acquire a degree of cachet heretofore unknown, one it could potentially bank on. Not to mention that there is a potential gold mine in opening up the Old Port, with its remaining facilities, as a new passenger transit hub. Today there are no ferries between Montréal and say, the South Shore, or West Island, or anywhere else accessible by water. There are very few cruise ships, and a lack of investment in new facilities will prevent Montréal from becoming a major cruise ship tourist destination (and if you’ve ever been up or down the Saint Lawrence, you know why that’s kind of ridiculous).
I think we’ve got a weird creativity problem coming from the semi-corporate, semi-public-interest corporations running our primo public space. They offer a bland foreign substitute when they ought to be pushing to fix significantly larger problems. Once again, a problem – lack of public beaches – which could necessitate a fantastic response – a metropolitan plan to clean our local waterways and rehabilitate the beaches which occur naturally on-island. And once again, a complete lack of vision.
As you can see above, this new ‘urban beach’ is destined to be situated at the eastern tip of the Quai de l’Horloge. Currently, the area is pretty run down, not having been renovated since, by the looks of things, the early 1990s. Most of the beach would extend down the inner side of the Quai’s marina, offering a pleasant view of the Old Port and many ostentatious yachts. If they construct a new pavilion at the end of the Quai, with appropriate facilities, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t go there. It may quickly become a douche-bag/white-trash repository with juiced-up muscle-heads parading around ceaselessly with popped-collars and rococo-Catholic tattoos, but hey, just because that’s exactly what you’ll find at the;
1. Beach at Parc Jean-Drapeau
2. Oka Beach
3. Eastern look-out on the Mountain
4. La Ronde
5. The Orange Julip
6. For some reason the Oratory?
doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen in the Old Port too, right? That would be pretty fucking lame.
Maybe you run this risk in every place people congregate, but it seems as though a beach without the possibility for swimming is basically a place where you get drunk while sun-bathing. And if you can’t cool-off by taking a dip, then your just going to drink. I’m no teetotaler, but we should think this one through. Off the bat it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be family-friendly, and that’s where the money lies. But perhaps I’m taking liberties; there’s no reason to think that this new development would be treated any differently than the rest of the facilities, restaurants, pavilions etc throughout the rest of the harbour-front. In my opinion, they do generally good work – so here’s hoping it succeeds.
Ultimately, any new development in the Old Port is probably worth it, and this area could use a renovation, and this one is as good a plan as anywhere else. It has worked in Paris, though I feel the Parisian example is significantly better connected to the urban traffic dynamic. This beach is planned for the end of the Quai, in an area which is otherwise used for parking. That being said, it’s not isolated when you consider it in relation to the placement of other facilities along the linear park – in other words, it could be a ‘pole of attraction’ designed to stimulate increased traffic at that end of the Old Port, an area which is currently being redeveloped with high-density residential housing.
The big problem with this kind of development is that it’s so simple, so unimaginative. Aside from the fact that it’s an imported idea, it doesn’t consider the bigger local issue, which is that we live on an island that once had numerous natural, largely public beaches and clean water to bathe in. Now we don’t.
We’ve shut ourselves out of an interesting industry – resort tourism – as a result. Consider how many other cities built along rivers have almost immediate access to large public beaches, boardwalks and resort, beach-side communities. New Yorkers have access to this, as do Cariocans; hell, even Londoners can escape to Brighton! But we’ve lost our beaches as a result of our previous industrial development. It also doesn’t help that Lac St-Louis is sort of a collecting pond for industrial waste and pollutants coming down from the Great Lakes, and so instead of planning and creating funds to clean our river and lakes, we announce cheap imitations with great fanfare.
As I said, pretty fucking lame.
What do you think we should do? Does this argument make sense? Hope this was clear – feedback & constructive criticism always appreciated.