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Report from Montreal, Canada’s other bi-cultural city

March 20th, 2009 · 13 Comments

Unbeknownst to many of you, I snuck out of town in disguise and am currently hiding out in the Plateau area of Montreal for a few days. But I must be really old because it’s only 11 p.m. and here I am, sitting at home instead of wandering up and down St. Laurent or St. Denis, along with everyone else in the city, on the prowl for great live music.

I love Montreal, which has a grubby liveliness to it that is the opposite of Vancouver’s spanking new downtown, and equally a sense of its traditions and history, something that our transient city is only slowly developing. But there is a strange sameness in the way the two cities are split between two cultural worlds.

Here it’s the French and English worlds, of course (with all those immigrant satellites clustered all around). We went to a modern dance production tonight and a young woman in the audience and her mother asked me afterwards what one of the characters had said in the middle of the performance. They were there because the young woman had to review it as part of a class assignment. And they’ve lived in Montreal all their lives, but didn’t know enough French to understand a few sentences of fairly basic storytelling.

As we walk the streets around McGill, we hear predominantly English. When we walked east along Mont Royal, it was so uniformly French I felt as though I were caught in a biopic of Duplessis.

How strange, I thought, at one point. But in the next minute thought about how we live in Vancouver, where there’s an anglo world and a Chinese world, complete with a plethora of newspapers, television and radio stations, cultural events, charitable organizations. None of us think it strange that those two worlds exist in parallel, with news of the major events in each filtering through the barrier, but not much about day to day life.

But, of course, just when I’m convinced the two solitudes here in Montreal are as solitary as ever, there’s a small moment where it seems as though the worlds aren’t so separated. The night before last, I went to a book launch — The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin — with a trance-inducing performance by an internationally known local cellist of the first suite. When it was done, I looked around at the crowd and thought, “Aha, old English Montreal of the first order, out supporting local culture as part of their social duties.” Lots of well-dressed NDG/Westmount types, wine and cheese, many greetings among them and asking after nephews and wives and work colleagues. There was even a guy who looked like a ringer for Mordecai Richler. The same gray hair combed back from his forehead, the same half glasses. Wow, I thought. Even though Mordecai is dead, they’ve found someone to come and preside over the Anglo literary events of the city like a patron spirit.

And then “Mordecai” started talking to the man next to him. This doppelganger for the man who thought the French were ruining Montreal — he spoke perfect Quebecois French. Clearly a member of the French literary establishment, out to support a promising young Anglo author. So maybe not such separate worlds after all.

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  • Len B

    I love Montreal, and was fortunate enough to travel there maybe 50 times or more for work in my past. My spouse was born and raised in NDG. She’s a 16th generation Canadian with English mother and French father. As typical as they come, she even has catholic 3 nuns in the family.

    The cultural divide is what you make of it – I was fortunate enough to see quite a bit of everything there.

    Although I spent a lot of time throughout the city, I worked for a company on the South Shore in Longueuil and would be there during the work day. It was all French and for an anglo speaking little frenglish, it could have been far worse.

    I found once people heard I was from Vancouver, it became a much friendlier experience. I never found one person there with the loath of Vancouver that comes from Ontarians. In fact I’m confident to say that everyone I ever met there had either loved Vancouver or wanted to come here one day.

    The two cities are more akin than most may ever know, and I believe our cultural issues are not all that dissimilar either.

  • Denis

    The very first day we drove into Montreal , it was by my error, transferred from Ontario, we were driving along looking for the Air base at St. Hubert’s. ( It’s not in st Humert, the village) Lots of cars blowing their horns and waving. Hey what a nice bunch of folks. Our French was a few words in high school. At the top of a hill we saw about six lanes of traffic bearing down on us. Couldn’t remember just what En gauche meant. a quick U 180 and we were will everone else. Heading down town . Within a few days we figured out some basic signage and enjoyed a couple of years in and around the big City. Been back a few times and love it. Our youngest was born there. Two kids went to school and spoke local french quite well as kids pick up the language quicker than their dumb parents. Lots of history along the rivers. we plan to go back again soon.

  • glissando remmy

    Once, a friend of mine advanced the idea that Vancouver and Montreal could become sister cities, urban life siblings of sorts (in an ironic way, of Olympic proportions, they probably have become…now)
    Half an hour later, after I stopped laughing I said: “neighbours…maybe, cousins… could be, high school friends…possible, step sisters…close, but not that close. You have to understand that Vancouver people are still from Vancouver and Montreal people are from Montreal!”
    Then, knowing that I’ve lived in Montreal many years ago he asked me:
    “Given a choice now, in which city would you like to live?” to which I responded:
    ”If Montreal and Vancouver were two women, sisters or no sisters, Vancouver would be my wife, Montreal my mistress”
    The term “Ménage-a-trois” came to mind as the perfect arrangement. However, with the rampant cost of air travel and real estate it seemed more of a craving of mine. But who knows?
    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

  • Darcy McGee

    One difference to note here is that Montreal was _founded_ as a bi-cultural city whereas Vancouver has _become_ a multi-cultural city (as have most other large urban areas.) Chinese is simply one of those ethnicities.

    People moving to Vancouver and not learning English or participating in our culture is akin to English people moving to Montreal and not learning French (which is what’s ruined Montreal…it’s what’s turned it into a city that you can live in without ever speaking French.)

    It’s a legitimate choice, but it shows a lack of respect.

  • Mark

    Native-English speaking Quebeckers are far more likely to be bilingual than French-speaking ones. Your anecdote is an anomaly. As a journalist you may want to confirm this via statistics.

  • Mark

    From Statscan: “Outside Quebec, the vast majority of Francophone youth (91%) reported being bilingual, compared to 15% of non-Francophone youth. However, in Quebec, rates of bilingualism were considerably higher for non-Francophones. While 61% of Francophone youth in Quebec reported that they could carry on a conversation in both official languages, fully 90% of non-Francophone youth said they could do so.”

  • Len B

    Thanks Mark. I didn’t agree with Darcy’s post but didn’t feel compelled to research and post a rebuttal.

    Actually P.E.T’s policies regarding Quebec and language were far more destructive to Montreal’s cultural roots than immigrants to that city of any language.

  • fbula


    Thanks for the stats. Yes, it was a shock to me to meet a young woman like that and it’s good to know that statistically it’s not typical. I guess I’m still surprised that exists at all. All of my friends who live there, anglos, are so committed to Montreal that they all have their children in French school even though they could choose English.

  • Len B

    Hi Frances,

    According to the spouse, she believes that one parent must be english to be allowed the option to enroll their children in an english school. If not, French it is. As well, she believes if you’re an immigrant and don’t speak french, you also have to send your kids to a french school. (She’s a bit foggy on that last one though, being here for 11 years has provided some rust.)

    And it’s great to hear your friends are taking the bilingual route, its so much easier when you’re a kid to learn another language.

    We have family in Quebec that speak all french in their house and chose to send their kids to french school. It was something we didn’t agree with because we felt they were missing such a great opportunity to give their kids both languages right from the start. (With a 1/2 anglo father, they had the ability to send their kids to an english school.)

  • Len B

    Oh and two more quirkie things from Quebec.

    a) Moving Day. All home/apartment leases expire there on June 30 at midnight and everyone moves on July 1st by noon.

    Yes everyone. (c’est fucke’)

    b) Rooms are described in whole’s or halfs. When looking for a place, we call things by bedrooms. A 1 bedroom, 2 bedroom, etc..

    They count the rooms in Quebec. Kitchen=1, living room=1, each bedroom=1, each full bath=a half, etc…

    So a 1 bedroom here may be described as a ‘3 and a half’ in their world. But if it had 2 bathrooms, it would be a ‘4’.

    Just for fun, everyone reading this should count up what their home would be to see how crazy this method is. (C’est fucke’)

    Oh, what the hell I can’t leave out this one:


  • fbula


    Oh, I know the rules for who gets into English school in Quebec all too well. (I covered education for the Gazette for a year and wrote numerous stories about this.) All my friends would have the right to send their kids to English school but choose not to.

  • Bill Lee

    “All leases” Stats show that less than 15 percent expire each
    year. Leases are often multi-year. Not “everyone” moves.

    Oh and it used to be in May and caused other chaos.

  • Len B

    Of course I was referring to ones that expire.

    Still if you’ve ever been there on moving day, it is a zoo even if only 15% expire yearly.