375 Years of Montréal History, in Four Parts

We asked four historians to tell us about Montréal, from its founding to the present day.


Montréal, the Wild, Mystical Trading Post

Laurent Turcot
Laurent Turcot is a professor of history at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. The Canada Research Chair in the history of recreation and entertainment is the author of Sports et loisirs, une histoire des origines à nos jours (Gallimard, November 2016), and, in collaboration with Stéphanie Neveu, of Vivre et survivre à Montréal au 21e siècle (Hamac/Septentrion, October 2016).

In the beginning, there was Hochelaga. Before it was royal, the mountain that overlooked the river was Native American.

Then Cartier and Champlain showed up. The island was rife with extraordinary richness. It was located at the heart of the Saint Lawrence River’s most fertile plain, and allowed for control over -access to the interior of the continent and the Great Lakes, a new place to start exploring, much to the displeasure of the natives.

The Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal mystics, under the guidance of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, are the ones who made the French city project a reality in 1642. The goal wasn’t merely to settle there, but to convert the natives as well. Better yet, to turn Ville-Marie into a bastion of evangelization that would also populate this Christian paradise (the Canadian martyrs would also see to it, in their own way). In France, no one believed in this city, neither the Compagnie des Cent-Associés nor the governor, and the Cardinal de Richelieu, the monarchy’s strongman, even less. However, the obstinate will of the evangelists would silence these metropolitan nay-sayers. Yet the city would only remain the hoped-for “city of God” for 20 years—soon enough, the Iroquois peril would crash down on Montréal.

A 100-meter palisade that sheltered 70 French souls was built. The city was surrounded, and anyone who ventured outside the fortifications often fell prey to those dubbed the “Savages.” This didn’t prevent the city from prospering, however: the community acquired a hospital, then a school, thanks to Marguerite Bourgeoys. The Société de Notre-Dame collapsed in 1650, and the island was finally handed over to the Compagnie des Prêtres de Saint-Sulpice in 1663.

Born under the auspices of mysticism and evangelization, Montréal quickly became an important fur trade hub. But it was religious community properties that continued to trace the city’s map: Recollets to the west, Jesuits to the east, and Sulpicians, Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, and the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame in the centre. The city of a hundred spires, as Mark Twain would later describe it, was erecting its first bell towers. But the native threat continued to loom; peace had to be made.

In 1701, representatives of New France signed the Great Peace of Montréal treaty with 39 First Nation chiefs, who appended their signatures in the form of ravishingly beautiful animal pictograms. At the time, Canada was populated by nearly 14,000 inhabitants, including 2,100 in Montréal. The city was particularly mixed back then: Canadians, French (arrived from overseas or just passing through), Native Americans (residents or slaves), Afro-Americans (enslaved, rarely emancipated), and Acadians (exiles or fugitives).

Throughout the 18th century, Montréal was largely spared the vagaries of war. But on September 8, 1760, the city—and, with it, the rest of Canada—surrendered, and the British were added to an already motley cast of characters.


The Art of Cohabitation

Jean-Philippe Garneau
Jean-Philippe Garneau is a professor at the UQAM Department of History.

For the 4,000 or so Montréal dwellers began an imposed and lasting cohabitation with the English forces. The “Britishization” of Ville-Marie, slow and erratic at first and picking up speed after 1815, certainly constitutes the defining factor of this critical period in the city’s destiny. From 1832 until Confederation, the majority of the population originated from British migrations. Some early settlers had dreams of striking it rich, like Anglo-Scottish merchants attracted by the fur trade. Many others simply fled inhospitable shores in search of a better fate (American revolution, British industrialization, and especially the Irish famines). Some of them ended up there by force of circumstances: demobilized German troops, soon-to-be-emancipated black or Native American slaves. Henceforth, the Desrivières, McGills, Frobishers, and Todds would rub shoulders in the dirty side streets of Montréal; Jean-Baptistes and Marie-Annes would live alongside Williams and Janes. It was an unusual mix that gave Montréal a new identity whose traces the city still bears today.

Cohabitation wasn’t always happy and easygoing, to say the least. Faced with occupying armies (again during the American invasion in 1775–1776), bruised by the political violence erupting in the streets, wiped out by contagious diseases spread by immigrants, powerless witnesses to the bloody crushing of the Patriotes in February 1839 or the burning of the Canadian Parliament in 1849, the city was built in the face of adversity. Its inhabitants had to learn to make do with the -irritants and hazards created by this difficult coexistence. Little by little, Montréal became divided. Sociability evolved around the various denominations in church, in social institutions or associations that proliferated in the 19th century. Neighbourhoods had a tendency to -attract city-dwellers of similar origins: French Canadians dominated in the eastern districts, the Anglo-Protestants in the west. The Irish -occupied Griffintown, while the anglophone upper classes withdrew to the mansions of the Golden Square Mile.

Easily surpassing the threshold of 50,000 residents by 1850, Montréal experienced an impressive growth that yielded new or heavier inequalities than there were before. The city became the hub of economic development in British North America and gained the status of commercial metropolis that went with it. Disparities escalated: (very) rich owners neighboured (very) many less fortunate tenants, soldiers, prostitutes, or unemployed; on Place d’Armes, the Bank of Montréal proudly taunted the new Notre-Dame Basilica; the gas of the streetlights lit up only certain streets, leaving entire sections of the city in the shadows; the steamships broke the elegant rhythm of the sailboats moored in the new port, while the railroad loomed on the horizon; Republican ideas and science split with Rule of Law or sermonized dogma. For the casual observer, Montréal appeared to be a patchwork of new and old ways of thinking and doing, which progressively unravelled under the pressure of a modernity already in full swing.


The Great Transformation

Éric Bédard
Doctor of history at McGill University and professor at TÉLUQ, the Université du Québec’s distance education university, Éric Bédard is notably the author of Réformistes : Une génération canadienne-française au milieu du 19e siècle (Boréal, 2012) and of History of Québec for Dummies (For Dummies, 2013).

During the century between the terrible fire of 1852 and the end of the Second World War, Montréal underwent considerable transformation and left its old rival Québec City in the dust for good. From 1870 to 1930, its population increased tenfold and reached the million mark, making it the most populous in the country. From 1905 to 1914, its territory saw unprecedented expansion, swallowing Ahuntsic, Saint-Henri, Rosemont, Maisonneuve, and 20 -other municipalities.

Port city, financial centre, industrial capital, Montréal experienced spectacular prosperity: a stock market was created (1874), entrepreneurs built docks in the east end, Canadian Pacific opened the Angus shops (1904), and then the Québec state created the École Polytechnique (1873), HEC Montréal (1907), and the École Technique (1911). Université de Montréal was finally granted autonomy in 1920.

Along with this extremely rapid growth came the grandeur and misery of urban living. At the turn of the 20th century, the Golden Square Mile’s upper crust built magnificent residences around McGill University, rode in lovely horse-drawn trams and went for strolls in Mount Royal Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, also responsible for giving New Yorkers their Central Park. In working-class neighbourhoods, life was clearly a lot more difficult. In 1891, Montréal still had 6,600 outhouses, and pedestrians often ran into dead animal carcasses. Until the 1910s, a significant percentage of housing didn’t have running -water. Water and milk were of poor quality, which had a devastating effect on infant mortality rates. To fight against this scourge, a group of philanthropists founded Saint Justine Hospital (1907) and social reformers provided mothers with pints of pasteurized milk.

This poverty had many faces. From the mid-19th century, thousands of Irish Catholics sought refuge in Montréal and contributed to the hard work carried out on the Lachine Canal. At the turn of the 20th century, the city welcomed many Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, Italians dreaming of a better life, and a few thousand Chinese, ostracized in Western Canada. This poverty was primarily French Canadian, however. This is because Montréal welcomed tens of thousands of down-and-out farmers from the surrounding countryside. Toward the end of the 19th -century, francophones made up a little more than 60 per cent of Montréal’s population, while until 1860, the city was by and large English. In 1880, francophones reached a majority in city council; in 1914, with the election of Mayor Médéric Martin, the rotation rule came to an end.

Starting in 1924, the year the cross was erected on Mount Royal, French Canadians celebrated their Saint Jean with spectacular parades. While the sheep may have been their mascot, they were far from all sharing the same -values. Some followed the dictates imposed by their bishops and avoided bad books or refrained from going to the -movies on Sunday after church—the Ouimetoscope opened its doors in 1906. But many of them did as they pleased: freethinkers such as Joseph Guibord, Freemasons like Honoré Beaugrand, headstrong women akin to Éva Circé-Côté, and that’s without mentioning the unknown ones who defied their priests, for example by using contraception during the Depression in the 1930s.

During the Second World War, the face of Montréal became more familiar. Due to an economic boom and the benefits wrested by the unions, a middle class took shape. In 1941, 19 per cent of Montréal households already had a car, half of them had a telephone at their disposal, and 85 per cent owned a radio set. In 1944, the Québec government under Adélard Godbout broke the back of the electr-city conglomerate by nationalizing Montreal Light, Heat and Power, a monopoly that had been raking in obscene profits since the beginning of the century. The belt-tightening of the Depression was a thing of the past, as well as the fear of conscription. Instead, optimism was available in spades. People attended Gratien Gélinas’ annual revues, laughed at the impressions performed by a young Olivier Guimond and La Poune at the National, watched American films, squeezed into Montréal Canadiens hockey games where a young Maurice Richard displayed his brilliance. For many households, the skies were finally clear and dreams took shape—including that of living in the suburbs.


From Brutal Modernization to Friendly City

Mathieu Lapointe
Doctor of history at York University, Mathieu Lapointe is the author of, among others, Nettoyer Montréal : les campagnes de moralité publique, 1940–1954 (Septentrion, 2014). He is a guest researcher at McGill University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal (CIRM).

During the postwar period, Montréal went through such drastic changes that the city as it stands today would be nearly unrecognizable to its 1945 citizens. This transformation started slowly but picked up speed with the “public morality” campaign that shook the metropolis in the 1950s.

This era’s thriving nightlife, the heyday of Montréal cabarets, had its flip side—the proliferation of brothels, gambling dens, and speakeasies. The police and certain politicians were suspected of tolerating them in order to placate a mob that could be very useful come election time. The era’s very own Charbonneau Commission, the Caron Inquiry (1950–1953) discredited the administration that was in place, paving the way for the election of 38-year-old Jean Drapeau, supported by the Civic Action League. He would preside over Montréal’s great modernization.

Modernity, integrity, and especially traffic, because Montrealers, just like all North Americans, fell in love with cars and suburbs, where for the longest time the major metropolitan growth would be concentrated. In order to alleviate the congestion of the downtown core, expressways (Ville-Marie, Bonaventure, Metropolitan) and boulevards (Dorchester, Decarie) were punched into the urban fabric, through working-class neighbourhoods whose destruction was justified in the name of the fight against “slums.” The old Red Light District was partially razed to make way for a new social housing complex, near which the new Place des Arts was built. The “Faubourg à m’lasse” was severely amputated by the construction of the new Maison Radio-Canada—a symbol of the shift of entertainment toward television and radio, at the expense of downtown cabarets. Across the street, Complexe Desjardins was erected, a symbol of francophones winning back control over their economy.

While Montréal may no longer have been Canada’s metropolis, it was becoming increasingly clear that the city was Québec’s metropolis. It was the venue where the important events in Québec’s modernity were played out: the national issue and the fight to assert the rightful place of the French language; immigrant integration; the many social movements, in a city familiar with unemployment and poverty, on top of well-established traditions of student, union, and community activism. These big debates were echoed in the media, which was also highly concentrated in the metropolis, contributing to the feeling of alienation of other regions. While at the beginning of this period the city’s face was still a very English one, the rise of a more confident nationalism in French Canadians, soon rechristened “Québécois,” upset the anglophone community, which continued to be very aggressive—from fighting against language laws to opposing municipal fusions in the 2000s.

Despite the exodus of about 300,000 residents, exacerbated by the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, the community held together and renewed itself, namely through an influx of immigration.

Montréal’s ethno-cultural diversity exploded when the racist criteria of Canadian immigration policies were dropped in the 1960s and 1970s. Because of this change, Mayor Drapeau’s ambition to make Montréal an international city became a reality, as epitomized by the major events he would oversee: Expo 67 and the Olympic Games.

The economy has seen its share of bleakness. The decline of traditional industries in the period between 1970 and 1990 plunged old working-class neighbourhoods like Hochelaga-Maisonneuve into poverty. However, a reconversion towards a service-based economy led to a recovery accompanied by a real estate boom. Neighbourhoods once avoided by the middle class experienced renewed interest. This gentrification gradually pushed lower-income inhabitants toward neighbourhoods at the very edge of the island or gave rise to cohabitation between the rich and the poor that stirred up bitterness and anger.

Nonetheless, Montréal boasts numerous assets for the present and future. Unlike many North American cities, it benefits from a dense urban fabric that was developed prior to the automotive city and was enhanced by the construction of the metro. Suitable for walking and biking, it is both vibrant and relatively peaceful, tolerant, and affordable. Montrealers have a lot to be proud of, even if their hockey team has lost its glory of yesteryear.