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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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