Montreal is a unique North-American city, but what makes her so unique?
Most of us would agree that Montreal is a bilingual, multicultural city that welcomes immigrants, businesspeople, students and tourists alike. People fall in love with her and never want to leave her.
I have often thought about this as I watched my city’s flag wave during parades and celebrations, at the same time reflecting on the long history of cooperation between Montreal’s four founding communities: the French, the British, the Irish and the Scottish that brought us where we are today. It was these early settlers that saw the potential of a city built on this island and set her on a unique course in history. The only symbol I felt was missing was that of the native population of these lands.
“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” – Winston Churchill.
Traces of human settlements on the island of Montreal date back more than 8000 years. Upon the arrival of Jacques Cartier’s in 1535, there was an Iroquoian village on the island now known as Montreal. Called Hochelaga, the village stood at the foot of the Mount Royal. In 1642, when French colonialists Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, whom are credited with founding Montreal (then Ville-Marie), the previous settlers were no longer there.
Once Britain conquered New France in 1760, the 70,000 strong settlement of New France was infused with over a million British Americans. New France’s fate as a part of the British colony was soon sealed through the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763 by Louis XIV in order to end the Seven Years War. Since Britain was concerned by a potential revolt in its new colony, it agreed to protect French immigration which was to continue, as well as the Roman Catholic religion. It was then that the Francophone and Anglophone communities began to build together, side by side, what we now know as the City of Montreal.
In 1825, the opening of the Lachine Canal permitted larger vessels to cross deeper into Canada which further spurred the city’s growth. Though the city’s official incorporation only happened in 1832, Montreal was already a major port city for the new colony. It was then that the city’s first mayor, Jacques Viger, designed our beautiful coat of arms and our inspiring motto: “Concordia Salus”, which means Salvation through Harmony.
In 1838, Louis-Joseph Papineau and Wolfred Nelson led the Patriot Rebellion in an effort to obtain true independence for Lower Canada from the British crown, but their rebellion was crushed by the loyalist army. In 1839, the Governor hanged 19 of the captured patriots, but was planning to release those found guilty of lesser crimes and compensate those whose property was destroyed during the revolution. It is then that the Tories, vehemently opposing any amnesty, torched the Parliament and effectively robbed the city of the status of Capital. Montreal was the capital of the united Province of Canada only from 1844 to 1849.
After the Tories torched the Parliament in 1849, the British government decided to move the capital of Canada to Toronto. After hesitating for a while, the British crown chose the smaller and quieter city of Ottawa, straddling the Ottawa River between Upper and Lower Canada, to govern over the new dual colony. In 1860 he Prince of Wales laid the last stone in Montreal’s Victoria Bridge and on July 1st 1867, Canada was proclaimed a Canadian Confederation.
That was over 150 years ago, but Canada’s duality was forever imprinted on the soul of the city of Montreal. I believe it is that linguistic duality that has allowed Montreal to develop in such a unique manner, and allowed it to become the shining beacon of Canadian bilingualism and multiculturalism that it is today.
But, could this identity be changed?
Being a bilingual city within a majority Francophone province within a majority Anglophone country gives us a definitive advantage in the new millennium. But this situation also makes us very vulnerable, especially if we forget about our city’s history and do nothing to protect and valorize the identity of our city. Just as vulnerable as if we stand by as the communities that form Montreal’s mosaic are oppressed.
Since the provincial government decides on language and identity politics for the municipalities and that it does not seem to represent us and members of it even seem to despise bilingualism and multiculturalism, it is essential that Montrealers become involved in the management of their own well-being and, most importantly, that they don’t take anything for granted.
Throughout this year, because of the provincial bill 14 and now the new bill 60, with its section 40 that seeks to seal discrimination into the Charter of the Human Rights and Freedoms, I saw panic, despair and division taking over the city I love. Until recently, our de facto bilingualism has promoted the spirit of peaceful coexistence and cooperation in Montreal, but all that has been threatened with the addition of article 1 into our city’s charter back in 2008.
Article 1 says ‘Montréal is a French-speaking city.’
For the first time in almost 375 years of history, the elected officials declared that Montreal has a linguistic preference.
Is that fair?
Was there a public consultation?
Shouldn’t Montrealers have the right to self-determination as a metropolitan community representing a quarter of the Quebec population?
A revealing new study about our city’s bilingualism and multiculturalism was published last month by MBA Recherche. The results of the study show that not only Montrealers, but the majority of Quebecers, regardless of the language they speak, agree that Montreal is and should be a bilingual city. Most also agree that Montreal should be a multicultural city that is open to the world and is inviting to immigrants.
Montreal and Quebec benefit from a bilingual Montreal both economically and culturally. It makes perfect sense, since Montreal is a mecca for tourism, education and it is the beating heart of Quebec’s economy, the economic hub for most Quebec buyers, producers and retailers. We host almost 20 million visitors per year spending almost 3 billion dollars and 56% of them come from the rest of Canada. We also produce 35% of the province’s GDP with 21% of the province’s population (Ville de Montréal area). The impact is even greater, if you consider the Greater Montreal Area, now home to 50% of Quebecers. We are Quebec’s premier metropolis and it is undeniable that our economy and culture depend on both linguistic communities cooperating.
The study surveys in details the attitudes Quebecers have towards bilingualism and multiculturalism within the city of Montreal, as well as the perceived impacts these have on the social and economic situation of the city. The results reveal that:
- 80.6% of Quebecers agree that Montreal is a bilingual city
- 92.8% agree that it is a multicultural city
- 92.4% agree that it is a city open to the world
- 88.5% agree that Montreal welcomes immigrants from around the world
- 93.5% agree that Montreal welcomes tourists from all over the world
The survey was conducted online with 1103 participants, 72% of whom were born in Quebec with both their parents and their grandparents were also born in Quebec. The results were segmented by place of birth, birth place of the parents and by mother tongue. Although the francophones are more conservative in their evaluation of the city, the results still show a clear alignment on the vision and the perception of Montreal.
Shackling Montreal to the new article 1 of the city’s Charter would thus represent a gross injustice, increasing language tensions and interlinguistic bullying – all things we have been longing to leave behind.
Why does Montreal’s bilingualism matter?
I have been living in Montreal for 16 years now, but it was only a short year ago, on September 4th 2012 when Pauline Marois won the elections and an attempt was made to kill her, that I realized how fragile linguistic peace in our city is. Up to that point, I had remained blissfully ignorant to this reality, believing that our city embodied linguistic harmony… believe it or not.
This was a traumatic moment for me and it pushed me to get involved in the linguistic debate, finally realizing how the tricks of politicians as well as media distortion and sensationalism have radicalized citizens and how the information distributed in the two languages is different. After the incident, and following a few weeks of research, I was shocked to discover that a decade prior our city was mysteriously assigned a linguistic preference in the form of an addition to the city’s charter, article 1, voted discreetly without as much as a whisper or a public consultation.
As a fully bilingual (actually trilingual) Montrealer who knows the history of my new home country, I was confused when the Parti Québécois suddenly declared English “a foreign language’’, one not to be welcomed in elementary schools, as a college option or in the workplace. This rather odd and incongruous statement has spurred me to explore on which grounds they allowed themselves to make such a claim.
In my mind, Montreal was bilingual for as long as anyone can remember. It has lived through tensions and cooperation, getting more diverse and more cooperative over time. I was proud to have become a “true Montrealer’’, born abroad, but fully embracing both major languages of my new country along with some other cultures and languages that surrounded me in my new home. Montreal, to me, is not simply a city where the two official Canadian languages are used, but quite admirably the continent’s most bilingual city, with over 50% of the population on the island knowing both French and English, an ability most of our businesses rely on. Our city’s architecture and history are undeniable testaments to this diversified heritage and it was a deep shock for me that anyone in political power would stake a claim that English is a foreign language or that Montreal is only a French-speaking city.
The fact that Montreal accepts 85% of all Quebec’s immigrants is no coincidence; it is our open, accepting, connected, diversity-loving and multilingual image that welcomes newcomers and assures them that this is the right place for them to start their life in their new home country. The linguistic duality and the bilingualism of Canada, Montreal being it’s shining beacon, will always attract immigrants, as long as they see it as place of peaceful coexistence, and not one of the often tired, old conflicts, like back in their country of origin.
But with this new unilingual clause in our charter, one needs to be concerned about the future of Montreal as its image and attitude slowly begins to change. When Louise Harel, Micheal Applebaum or Harout Chitilian tell us that Montreal is and should be a French-speaking city, I can’t agree to that, I feel the time has come to unite our voices in support of Montreal’s bilingualism and respect of both languages, as well as the great history that has brought us to this unique place in history.
It is not too late to put our city back on its rightful path and proudly declare that we want to be officially recognized as a bilingual city. Majority of Montrealers and Quebecers know that Montreal is, should be and benefits socially and economically from being what we are – Bilingual. And actually, most of the time we get along wonderfully in this duality and we should show our pride more often.
So why being constantly apologetic? Why allow that our culture and our economy be bound by the narrow minded ambitions of ethno-centric politicians servicing the radical nationalistic elite?
Montreal’s salvation can only be achieved through harmony: this implies the equitable treatment of both of our languages, as well as a profound respect for those who cherished and nurtured these lands well before us.