The Mad Adventure

Nicolas Langelier
Nicolas Langelier is the editor-in-chief of Nouveau Projet, which he founded in 2012.

Photos: Olivo Barbieri
Olivo Barbieri is a photographer known for his aerial photographs that simulate shallow depth of field. He has participated in numerous international exhibitions. His photos of Montréal were published in The 60s: Montréal Thinks Big, the catalog of an exhibition organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture.


Montréal has always been a border town, a relay city. A hub. A point of arrival (from La Rochelle, Liverpool, Odessa, Guangzhou) and a point of departure (toward Fort Detroit, Nashua, Calgary, Blainville). A place where languages and backgrounds, aspirations and inclinations have blended. The Ottawa River, paddled for hundreds of kilometers, offered its furs over to the merchants of Saint Paul Street. The Saint-Constant or Lavaltrie farmer, having sold his meagre possessions, arrived in Pointe-Saint-Charles with his family and made the acquaintance of his apartment’s landlord, an Anglo, and met the Irish family that shared his landing. The young French girl, working holiday visa in hand, stands -before a customs agent at Dorval and asks him to repeat his question. Montréal’s history is made up of this accumulation of millions of such stories of brushes between worlds, cultures, different ways of seeing life, death, and a bit of everything in between.

This cobbled-together, perpetually patched city has a somewhat slippery, evasive future. The city’s future will emerge from the confusion, maybe, and take an as-yet unimaginable, unpredictable shape. Montréal has always been an experience of the uncertain.
When I think of Montréal I think of Samarkand, of Alexandria, of the cantina in Star Wars. It’s about transactions, negotiations, uneasy yet fruitful cohabitations. I think of the city’s slogan, concordia salus—salvation through harmony—and I tell myself that the city’s harmony has, for 400 years, owed a great deal to the universal language of money. I see something positive in that; a pragmatism that flattens out differences. This city was never that -conducive to ideologies. The conversion of the Indigenous peoples, socialism, or nationalism—be it French Canadian, English Canadian, or Québécois—never found any favourable ground in this rich black earth. But when the mother of a French-Canadian family dresses her family from a Jewish-owned shop, when a man born in Calabria rents out his three-and-a-half to someone from Petit-Goâve, when a Tunisian Montrealer buys a pound of butter at the Vietnamese depanneur, what might divide us is erased. The essentials, like eating, finding lodging, getting dressed, living, just living, remain. And dreaming, when time permits.

Every day, all over the city, a million of these potential shocks are managed by Montrealers.

Of course this coexistence hasn’t always been easy. It’s still not easy. Montréal’s history is punctuated with confrontations, from the Iroquois Wars to Fredy Villanueva being shot to death by the Montréal Police (SPVM), by way of the destruction of the Canadian Parliament in 1849, the country’s participation in two world wars, Saint-Léonard’s linguistic conflicts, and tensions with the Hasidic community. And the, again, language-based struggles between the municipal fusions—and many more. Every day, all over the city, a million of these potential shocks are managed by Montrealers.


This border identity existed right from the outset. For 30 years before the utopic attempt to rebrand Montréal into Ville-Marie by a small group of wealthy French mystics, Samuel de Champlain had already established, at Pointe-à-Callière, a position of seasonal trade. “Over the course of the years that followed,” says Paul-André Linteau in his Brief History of Montréal (the original French title is Brève histoire de Montréal), “Montréal became a place for encounters between the Indigenous peoples and the French traders. The former arrived in groups, throughout the summer, canoes laden with furs from the north which they traded for European products.”

Then, 375 years ago, Paul de Chomedey, Jeanne Mance, and the rest of their little band of intrepid pioneers arrived. Their patrons, the wealthy and the mystics cited above, announced their intentions clearly when they created a company called Our Lady of Montréal Society for the Conversion of Savages in New France (Société de Notre-Dame de Montréal pour la conversion des Sauvages de la Nouvelle-France). The pitch: Ville-Marie would be a place where Indigenous peoples and whites could live side by side, sharing their day-to-day lives, their religion, and their agrarian technologies.

It is difficult to imagine the mix of courage and blind faith required of these French travellers to found a city so far from the limits of their civilization, at the heart of a magnificent but inhospitable land (Iroquois raids by day, glacial floods in spring, never having enough of anything, ever). Montmagny, governor of Québec City, could not help but cast a disapproving eye on the whole affair, qualifying it as a “mad adventure,” giving rise to several centuries of rivalry between Québec City and Montréal.

The Montrealers had gotten a taste of what would little by little be their raison d’être: commerce.

The Indigenous people, meanwhile, were much more interested in the fur trade than in the whims of the white man’s god. Similarly for the Montréalistes, as they were once called, who discovered soon enough that the city’s position, at the foot of rapids requiring portage and at the confluence of two great courses of water leading straight to the heart of the continent, offered exceptional business opportunities. The city soon cast aside the name of Ville-Marie as well as its initial evangelizing mission and its stone fortifications, which had not served against any genuine enemy attack—like the stretch of the Canadian Pacific railroad, there were a number of breaches used by people to come and go more easily, but no one really cared. The Montrealers had gotten a taste of what would little by little be their raison d’être: commerce.

The Baron of Lahontan—certainly not the last resident of Montréal to combine the title of hero, deserter, courtier, and writer—wrote in 1685:

You would like to know, you say, what consists the commerce of the city of Montréal. Here it is (…): The island’s inhabitants and its surroundings make their purchases in the city twice a year, buying the merchandise 50 per cent higher than in Québec City. The neighbouring savages, established or vagabonds, bring beaver, elk pelts, caribou pelts, fox, and sable, in exchange for guns, power, lead, and other necessities. Everyone traffics with liberty, and it is the best profession to become wealthy in very little time.

A great fair was held every summer on the shore in front of the city, and the hundreds present brought their pelts, made deals, and filled their canoes with the fruits of their negotiations.

Little by little, Montréal caught on to an essential law of commerce: it’s a good idea to eliminate the middleman. And so Montrealers set off for themselves to discover the immense continent. To get furs, or else to build and maintain a network of permanent trading posts all the way to Montréal, to be negotiated, cured, and redirected to the rest of the world. The Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, the western Prairies, the Mississippi Basin—Montréal was at the heart of that incommensurable territory where dozens of different languages were spoken, where the lakes were as large as seas and pine forests were as tall as cathedrals, where bayous and arid plains and an overabundance of rivers and brooks flowed. The interior continent became Montréal’s backyard.


If this new turn provoked tensions, setting the Québec City elites’ teeth on edge, the city’s commercial vocation gave rise to a singular mentality. “The draw of the West and military expeditions created a geographic mobility that gave Montréal society a particular allure—men were constantly elsewhere—and a spirit of adventure. The search for glory or fortune shaped a distinct mentality typical of a border town,” writes Paul-André Linteau. Québec City and Trois-Rivières were French cities implanted into the Saint Lawrence Valley, but Montréal was already North American.

The Conquest happened, and with it an end to the French empire in North America. But Montréal, of course, kept its exceptional location and, for a long time, played a central role in North American transit. People flooded to its port from Scotland, England, and Ireland to “get rich quick,” as Lahontan had noted a century earlier. Same for those who poured in from the old, overpopulated countryside. The city became a metropolis for a country with a brilliant future. A gem of an empire far more grand than what the French had previously experienced.

In 1894, when Télesphore Saint-Pierre wrote his History of French Canadian Commerce in Montréal, 1535–1893 (Histoire du commerce canadien-français de Montréal, 1535–1893), Montréal was still under the hold of this vision. “Whatever the politics of our governors,” he wrote, “it is evident that Montréal is destined by its geographic position, by its means of communication with the North-West, by the intelligence and the energy of its citizens, to become the principal port of the immense and fertile region that extends to the north and to the west of the Great Lakes, and the metropolis of one of the largest countries in the world. This is the firm hope of all its children.” (Of course, at the time, a quarter of all of Montréal’s children died before the age of one, at least among the French-Canadian working class. One out of four. But let us not allow the hazards of public health in the Victorian era to tarnish the author’s lyricism.)

Until World War I, and even afterwards, Montréal controlled the vast majority of the country’s naval, rail, and banking transactions. The city’s grandiose hopes appeared to be justified.


It seems to me that those among us who grew up in Montréal between the 1960s and 1970s had the impression that the city, and what it represented, had a hopeful future.

Certainly, Toronto had wrested from Montréal the title of Canadian metropolis, the railway business was no longer what it once had been, and neither was naval transport. Many manufacturers and head offices had migrated elsewhere. The suburbs aspirated young families. Signs of decline became visible, around the Lachine Canal and in the numbers at Statistics Canada. Things started to die. From the working-class population of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve to the unique accent of born-and-bred Anglo-Montrealers, described by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker as, “Faintly British, with amused, interrogative upward-turning endings.”

But the years after World War II and those of the Quiet Revolution were also periods of positive upheavals. There was the undeniable success of Expo, the metro, and the new downtown. The city had started thinking big, and it continued to expand, led by a sometimes megalomaniac but inspired mayor. It retained a certain cachet of an international metropolis that Toronto had yet to earn, and, with the Québécois state growing, Montréal fit itself right at its economic, cultural, and demographic heart. And there was all this unexploited human, economic, and physical potential in Montréal.

Clearly, between Montréal’s ambitious dreams for the future and the reality of the 20th century, something was lost.

The east end of the city, for example, was still a semi-rural territory. From the windows of the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital, where I was born in 1973, you could see the old farmlands in the northeast, in Saint-Michel, in Saint-Léonard, and in Anjou. Toward the south, you could observe the pharaonic construction of the stadium and the Olympic Village. The 19th century on the one side, and a certain notion of the 20th on the other. If Montréal had lost a great deal of its superb début of the 20th century, it had kept, from its glory years, an impulse, an élan towards the fore, which permitted it to project itself into a necessarily sparkling future. And so it seemed obvious to plan a 300-station metro, some of the world’s most modern airports, and to predict a metropolis of seven million inhabitants by the year 2000.

But a dozen years after the birthing wing at Maisonneuve-Rosemont, my friends and I gathered before other windows, our high school’s windows. The Olympic Stadium’s mast had just been finished, a long decade after the Games, and for us, children of the east that had grown up in proximity to an inelegantly truncated pedestal, it was exciting to finally see the tower stretch skyward, with the downtown cityscape as its backdrop. Our math teacher, Mr. Coutu, brought us rapidly back to another reality. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” he said from behind us, dashing any hopes about the quality of its construction and of Montréal’s future in general.

Clearly, between Montréal’s ambitious dreams for the future and the reality of the 20th century, something was lost. Above the macroeconomic context, the great world tendencies, and the socio-political upheavals, Québec was secured, a realization that, little by little, sunk into Montrealers. Things were going to be much more complicated than they’d anticipated.

And, in fact, the decades that followed were not tender. The recession in the 1990s, boarded-up shop windows, socio-economic problems. Two and three consecutive mandates by two mediocre mayors, Pierre Bourque and Gérald Tremblay, their petty, insider administrations. A provincial government that couldn’t care less about Montréal. A federal government that didn’t do much better (building, for example, the Canadian Space Agency in the middle of a field in Saint-Hubert, instead of downtown as just about everyone in Montréal would have preferred). And the “rest of Québec” that seemed to have decided that Montréal was the enemy. Young Anglos continued to flee the city as soon as they had a diploma in hand, or even before. The suburbs, with their “urban town houses” and parking incentives, stretched lazily all the way to Saint-Jérôme, Oka, L’Assomption, Saint-Hyacinthe. Eaton’s died, Ben’s closed, Saint Laurent Boulevard seemed to shut down entirely. Anecdotal moments, but nonetheless symbolic. A British urban branding specialist, visiting the city in 2006, said to La Presse, “The road from the airport gave me a bad impression. I saw it and I told myself, ‘I’m not in the right country, I’m in Kazakhstan.’” For a long time it seemed that, not unlike Kazakhstan’s, Montréal’s best days were behind it.


Then, against all hope, little by little, signs of a possible renaissance began to appear. It may be arguable, but it seems to me that, not unlike in the 17th century, everything started near Pointe-à-Callière. The Cité du Multimédia, in the early 2000s, in a neighbourhood where there wasn’t much other than buildings abandoned to squatters and to illegal party organizers. For the first time in forever, a sign of growth shot out. Then the signs came in bulk. There was a brief but euphoric period when the Montréal music scene was one of the hottest on the planet, thanks to Arcade Fire, of course, but also others, all the way to Malajube, who, improbably, had people talking about him internationally for a while. The arrival of Ubisoft in Mile End and the ensuing arrival of all of those young French people, bringing with them a culturally fresh breath of air and an inexhaustible source of overqualified interns. The city’s structural interventions, the international quarter and the theatre district, the creation of Projet Montréal and the election of its first representative, in 2005, favoured putting forward Jane Jacobs–type principles and tactical urbanism. And in a stunningly short period, entire neighbourhoods came back to life. We could go on enumerating the positive changes that occurred in Montréal over the last decade for ages.

This week I attended a wedding at the foot of the Olympic Tower, in a space redesigned according to these new urban principles by a company called Pépinière & Co. that was cofounded by one of these young French immigrants settling in Montréal. The place that was until only recently a symbol of decline, that was, moreover, the city’s collective shame, is starting to be rehabilitated. Desjardins is in fact on the verge of installing offices in the tower, which, even in 1986, seemed improbable.

Something’s happening in Montréal. What’s more stunning is that the city is shifting despite the continued presence of the many unfavourable influences listed above. Montréal’s mayor, an ex–federal deputy desperate to channel the spirit of Jean Drapeau but who only seems like a mini Régis Labeaume, remains mediocre. Montréal is still grappling with a provincial government that imposes damaging decisions—in particular with regards to the city’s infrastructure and transportation. The suburbs continue to develop in a manner that harms everyone, from taxpayers to the environment. Unacceptable economic and social inequalities persist.

The great ambitions of the 19th century or of the 1960s have been traded in for more modest objectives. Which is not a bad thing

But Montréal has found new allies in young Anglos from Saskatchewan, Michigan, or even, “Tabar-fucking-nak,” as my anglophone hairdresser says, from Toronto. They’ve made up for those who’ve left over the decades. These newcomers, with slim means and a strong work ethic, have compensated for our large cultural institutions, which often have a tendency to hold their cards close to the chest. The Caisse de dépot took over where the Parti Québécois left off and where the Québec Liberal Party let the city down.

Projet Montréal and a few other orphan elected officials mitigated the absence of the mayor and his party’s vision. Venture capital is giving signs of finally wanting to replace the old-guard Anglo money. Dynamic and visionary foundations are acting while our governments finance yet another study.

The great ambitions of the 19th century or of the 1960s have been traded in for more modest objectives. Which is not a bad thing. A neighbourhood finally revitalized to be more user friendly for its residents is as important, on many levels, as a universal exhibition. A safe and far-reaching network of bike paths is worth as much as one or two highway interchanges. It’s a question of priorities, it’s about another scale of values, it’s a question of asking what’s really important.

The great ambitions of the 19th century or of the 1960s have been traded in for more modest objectives. Which is not a bad thing. A neighbourhood finally revitalized to be more user friendly for its residents is as important, on many levels, as a universal exhibition. A safe and far-reaching network of bike paths is worth as much as one or two highway interchanges. It’s a question of priorities, it’s about another scale of values, it’s a question of asking what’s really important.


This is where we are, nearly 375 years after the arrival of our audacious evangelical colonizers on this ground, on which, on a lovely day in May 1642, Father Vimont foretold a fantastic future for the city: “What you see is but a mustard seed,” he said, “but it has been thrown by hands so pious and animated with the holy spirit and with religion that, without a doubt, Heaven must have great plans, and I have no doubt that this little seed shall produce a great tree, will produce marvels, will multiply and extend in every way every direction everywhere.”

Imagine the magnificent view that day. The wide river running nearby. The green islands. Forests as far as the eye could see on the opposite shore. The Eastern Townships’ hills on the horizon, Mount Royal’s soft slopes bathed in the sunlight of early summer, and the great dome of sky above it all. You can understand the way the context seemed favourable to such fortune.

The city has, in reality, often reached the height of these predictions throughout 350 years. Montréal has multiplied and has extended in every direction. Montréal has created marvels. It has also had less glorious moments, inevitably, in particular in the recent past.

Around what might Montréal’s reinvention turn? New technologies, of course. Social innovation. Quality of life. Creativity. And the old Montréal specialty, commerce.

But Montréal has reinvented itself repeatedly over the course of its history. From a trading post and religious mission, to the first Canadian city, to a British colony’s capital, to a continental metropolis where English is the dominant language, to a provincial metropolis where French is spoken. And we may believe that we are at the cusp of yet another reinvention, one that will allow the city to fully enter the 21st century. The real 21st century, not the one we imagined in 1945, or 1967, or 1973. The 21st century of climate changes, of cultural diversity, of the internet. The century of Elon Musk and of the brilliantly radical people we have yet to meet.

It is my own optimistic prediction, perhaps influenced by the particular context of the summer twilight as I write this—the orangey sky of Mile End, the bikes piercing noiselessly through the quasi-tropical air, life abounding everywhere, hundreds of thousands of simultaneous conversations held in every language, all the diversity of a Saturday night at the heart of a million people, and even the unlikely coincidences that are probably occurring at this very moment, the fortuitous encounters worthy of a village, the unexpected parallels that might be determining factors in history.

Around what might Montréal’s reinvention turn? New technologies, of course. Social innovation. Quality of life. Creativity. And the old Montréal specialty, commerce.

But maybe there’s another Montréal specialty that deserves to be put forward: compromise.

The art of people with diverse backgrounds and aspirations harmoniously cohabiting. In a world that seems bent on destroying what is left of hopes of peace and world justice founded on the day after the end of World War II, those hopes that filled Expo 67, is showing optimism as unreasonable as thinking that Montréal could be a positive model for the rest of the world to follow? Maybe. But unreasonable optimism did, in fact, build the backbone of commerce in this city, from Maisonneuve to Jean Drapeau to Alexandre Taillefer, to Marguerite de Lajemmerais to Simonne Monet to Laure Waridel.

We can safely say that Montréal is better than ever thanks to its spirit of cooperation. The two large communities who built this city often did so by turning their backs on one another, for all kinds of understandable and complicated reasons. Francophones and anglophones doubled up their structures, clubs, and associations. But what we’ve seen appear in a relatively short time (15 years? Twenty? Twenty-five? More?) is a veritable cooperation, in all disciplines, which act as politics, business, culture, education.

It’s no different with other cultural communities. We’re not perfect. Systematic discrimination remains a constant challenge, but it seems pretty clear that Montréal is a city that has managed its very large diversity pretty well. Montréal’s rich cultural communities have greatly contributed to this cohabitation, in the example of thousands of invisible people who work to make this diversity possible.

The talent for compromise and cooperation is also manifested these last years in all sorts of forums where representations of various milieux and backgrounds, often opposing, have succeeded to consider and work together for the city that they would like to build. I think for example of Je vois/fais MTL or Amplifier Montréal, which have built consensus where, not too long ago, there was mostly disagreement.

Concordia salus reads the Montréal slogan. Now more than ever, when we look at what is happening in the United States or in Europe, not to mention the Middle East, it seems essential to keep our heads on straight.


“It’s a city that waits,” said the poet Michèle Lalonde, in an issue of Liberté consecrated to Montréal in 1963. I had the same impression in 1999, coming back to town after a prolonged sojourn in London. A languor that covered and choked everything, like the dust of Pompeii. A city searching for itself, not knowing what it was good for.

But it seems to me that this is much less true now, in 2016. With an ardour not seen in a long time, Montrealers have stopped waiting for something—a divine or governmental intervention, a textile renewal, a settling of the national question, a mayor that can do the job—and have, instead, chosen to multiply the small gestures, conscious that their city will undoubtedly never again be Canada’s metropolis, or its great port, or the spinning centre of its aerial traffic, but that it could be something else, in its own way, something they could be proud of and enjoy every day.

This renewed vigour Montréal owes to courageous people, men, women, and children who, as in the 17th century, have come to live here in the 21st by way of other countries or from the north. But they also owe those people who, every day, make the choice to stay in Montréal and to invest in it, instead of leaving for Berlin, Toronto, or Sainte-Julie.

This cobbled-together, perpetually patched city has what it takes to become the border town of a hinterland still larger in scope than the interior of a continent. A new backcountry, a new world in which we could become explorers, continue the mad adventure, and go on, together, to do incredible things.

Mile End, Montréal
July 2016