Toward A New Collective Narrative for Montréal

Félix-Antoine Joli-Cœur
Félix-Antoine Joli-Cœur was the architect of Je vois mtl, a 2014 event that brought together 1,500 leaders from every industry to revitalize the metropolis. He since founded Idéesfx, a consulting firm that turns ideas into projects and whose principal mandate was the creation of Amplifier Montréal, a group of actions that seek to redefine civic engagement.

How can we help the metropolis make better use of its incredible assets? For starters, it may be time for Montrealers to come up with a new story to tell each other about their city.

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.


After Boston, Montréal is the North American city with the highest number of students per capita. And its economic, political, social, and cultural leaders never miss a chance to say so. With good reason: it may be the best thing the Québec metropolis has going for it. Paradoxically, ask these same leaders how many universities there are in Montréal and you won’t get the same answer twice.

This haziness, at first glance, stems from the lack of consensus about what exactly defines a university. There are four if we only count multi-faculty universities (Concordia, McGill, Université de Montréal and UQAM), seven or eight if we include single-faculty institutions (HEC Montréal, Polytechnique Montréal, ÉTS, and the INRS, which no one ever knows whether to include), and 11 if you also tally -TÉLUQ, ENAP, and the Longueuil campus of the Université de Sherbrooke, thus rounding off Greater Montréal’s relevant and original higher education offering.

However, because this haziness comes up in other conversations about Montréal as well—starting with the definition of which Montréal we’re actually talking about (the city, the island, the metropolitan area)—we could venture to say that our university counting problem cannot merely be explained by a lack of consensus over academic jargon, but by a straight-up lack of clarity about what defines Montréal and the difficulty we have in agreeing on a common story.


Immersing ourselves in pre–Quiet Revolution Montréal by reading Gabrielle Roy or Mordecai Richler gives us a picture of a very different city. Between the city as it was then and as it is now stand more than half a century of successful and sinister initiatives that completely transformed our urban environment and social fabric. Yet this change is a blind spot in our collective psyche. What we’ve built together for the last 50 years is Québec. We took French Canada and made its borders synonymous with the province’s borders; we created the ministries of Education, Health, and Culture; chased away the priesthood; and jumped feet first into the modern age. Above all, we put a lot of effort into getting Québec ready to become a country or a key player in the Canadian Federation, depending on where your personal allegiance lies.

This is the kind of work that made Québec such a forward-thinking place, a place now recognized as a nation by the House of Commons and a member in good standing of the International Organisation of La Francophonie. But all this energy spent on nation-building left very little mental space to devote to what the metropolis itself should be. Our obsession with building Québec did not really hold back Montréal’s development as a city with a worldwide reputation for being modern and sophisticated. But it did undermine the construction of a shared vision of Montréal.

Our obsession with building Québec did not really hold back Montréal’s development as a city with a worldwide reputation for being modern and sophisticated. But it did undermine the construction of a shared vision of Montréal.

Accordingly, the facts on which we should focus our collective attention remain a mystery to most. Fact: Montréal is indeed the second-largest student city in North America, yet we paradoxically have the lowest university graduation rate, which largely explains our sub-par economic performance. Fact: Montréal has one of the continent’s most dynamic downtown areas, with one-tenth of Québec’s GDP generated within the 10 square kilometers bordered by UQAM, McGill, Concordia, and the river. Fact: half of Québec’s population lives in the Urban Agglomeration of Montréal, an exceptional nation-to-metropolis ratio only matched by certain South American cities. Our collective narrative of what Montréal is disregards these core elements and so many more, not through forgetfulness or denial, but because the very idea that we share a common history and urban future is a new, emerging concept.


I remember hearing the late Marcel Côté speak during the Montréal Arts Council Arts-Business Award ceremony, a few days before he announced that he would be running for city office in 2013. He’d just received the highest honours for his exceptional philanthropic commitment, and the SECOR consulting firm founder was generous enough to share the prize with the other finalists. However, he ended up butchering their names, one after another, turning his act of generosity into a farce. In some ways, this incident foreshadowed the turn his campaign would take: never had such a prominent candidate yielded such poor results in Montréal’s municipal elections. His proposals, often brilliant, were systematically ridiculed, as if this builder’s -creative and agile spirit made him look like a blundering fool. On the contrary, this non-linear approach was his strength, allowing those who valued his opinion to have a clear grasp of his ideas, making his vision accessible instead of sententiously opaque.

At the outset of his campaign, Côté proclaimed that Montréal was a bilingual city. The idea seems obvious to many, a given that even finds its way into the City of Montréal’s coat of arms, whose rose, thistle, and clover represent the contributions of the English, Scottish, and Irish communities to the construction of the metropolis, alongside the French fleur-de-lys. But this historical reality is in direct contradiction with the collective narrative of contemporary Québec, whose sole official language is French.

There’s no question that Montréal sets itself apart from the other cities of the continent and of the world by virtue of its French status, which sharply contrasts with the 40 or so large cities that surround us. There’s also no doubt about the importance of the preservation of French Montréal in ensuring the survival and outreach of Québec’s identity. But just as the spot where cold and hot water meet in the ocean allows for the creation of a spectacular marine ecosystem, Montréal is a rich and exciting city because its French roots have always evolved in contact with anglophone, allophone, and First Nation communities.

Côté was compelled to unequivocally retract this statement, shrugging it off as a “beginner’s mistake.” To the delight of his adversaries, it was just the beginning of a long string of strikes against the voting majority’s sensibilities. Unfortunately for those who’d like Montréal to send a loud and clear message, it was a missed opportunity to reconcile our view of the Québec nation with Montréal’s burgeoning narrative, a reconciliation which will inevitably require the recognition of both the French fact and the contributions of the anglophones, allophones, and First Nations to the construction, past and future, of the city.

Montréal is a rich and exciting city because its French roots have always evolved in contact with anglophone, allophone, and First Nation communities..


Trying to label something poorly defined is always a risky proposition. Yet it’s exactly what a team of top creators, graphic designers, and marketing specialists attempted to do in 2008, when the Montréal Metropolitan Community set out to group the region’s 88 cities under a single logo and slogan. After hundreds of interviews, multiple surveys, and, most importantly, countless hours of work sessions spread out over two years, the team concluded that what defined Montréal wasn’t a specific set of shared values, but, on the contrary, the absence of strong shared values which, combined with an extraordinary collective tolerance, made our agglomeration a peerless “freedom zone.” Hence the proposed slogan: “Le Grand Montréal, l’espace pour se réaliser,” [Greater Montréal, make it real] under a multicoloured M.

To experience this freedom zone, all you need to do is walk along Saint Catherine Street, between Saint Laurent Boulevard and Guy Street. You’ll encounter a unique mix of functions that you won’t find anywhere else: sex shops stand alongside churches; prestigious business addresses—which in other cities are often relegated to daytime-only business districts, such as Boston’s Financial District or Chicago’s Loop—are stuck between theatres and stores of all kinds.

Clearly, too many of our fellow citizens suffer from social exclusion. But you need to travel, study, or work elsewhere to really grasp the extent to which Montréal is actually a very tolerant place, where it’s possible to live out one’s uniqueness and nonconformism completely undisturbed.

Talking about a "freedom zone" is just as dangerous as trying to put a hazy idea into words. As soon as it was brought to the attention of the general public, it was immediately shot down, since neither journalists nor public opinion understood the merits of paying for creative work, nor the relevance of launching an initiative that united the metropolitan area’s different cities. If the idea that we share a common metropolitan story is an emerging concept, this episode shows how difficult it is even to agree on something as basic as its title.

The absence of strong shared values, combined with an extraordinary collective tolerance, made our agglomeration a peerless “freedom zone.”


The extraordinary thing about large cities is that within a confined area, they gather millions of individuals whose destinies find themselves connected in some way. Today, the cities that stand out are those that offer these individuals many opportunities to meet each other, to forge relationships and collaborate. Exceptional cities are especially those that develop out of shared values and build by seeking to achieve a collective dream. Bilbao, a Basque city a bit smaller than Québec City, has managed to scale the ranks of Europe’s top tourist destinations. We often credit this renaissance to the opening of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect Frank Gehry, and many cities have attempted to recreate the "Bilbao effect" by investing massively in iconic architecture. However, as Gorka Espiau, advisor to former Basque President Juan José Ibarretxe, points out, the Guggenheim was not the beginning of the city’s renaissance, but rather the culmination of two decades of collective work whose starting point was realizing that the future of Bilbao and of the Basque Autonomous Region were intimately and ultimately linked. The museum showed the world the substantive work undertaken by a population that reoccupied its metropolis, an act founded on a collective culture and a shared projection into the future.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to show Brian Bowman, the young and dynamic mayor of Winnipeg, around Montréal. After a stroll through the Quartier des spectacles, we got into a Téo taxi—Montréal’s response to multinational corporation Uber—to visit the Pointe-Saint-Charles police operations center. Mayor Bowman, who is also dealing with Uber’s presence in his city, was particularly impressed by the level of sophistication from Téo, which is built on a fleet of electric taxis equipped with the latest technology. But his chief of staff, trained as an engineer, gave us a reality check by showing us that every technology used by Téo—from car geolocation to the remote control of their energy levels—was already rather mainstream. Patrick Gagné, the head of the company, was quick to recognize this, while indicating that Téo’s innovation wasn’t a matter of choosing one or other of these technologies, but of combining them in an unexpected way.

Like Téo Taxi, Montréal doesn’t shine because of any single feature, but rather because of the rare coexistence of a number of characteristics. For Jayne Engle, Canadian-American urban activist, these defining features are social peace and multilingualism, as well as a strong culture of creativity and entrepreneurship. Social peace largely refers to Montréal’s status as a “freedom zone.” With a few regrettable exceptions, regardless of sex, age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, it’s possible to wander around Montréal pretty much anywhere, at any hour, and feel safe. This social peace, the foundation that allows citizens to freely express their individuality, is in stark contrast to the continent’s other major urban areas. All the more so since Montréal is a multi-ethnic city—one citizen out of three is born outside Canada. Yet not only does this not manifest itself in significant social tensions, on the contrary, the Montréal area allows immigrants to keep their native language longer than elsewhere, making Montréal the city with the highest rate of trilingualism in North America. Creativity and the entrepreneurial bug are already widely celebrated, in this city which the Cirque du Soleil and Compagnie Marie Chouinard call home, and which launched Leonard Cohen, Ieoh Ming Pei, and Normand Laprise and saw them take their careers to dizzying heights. Rare are the cities that are both quiet and booming, since social peace is often more of a collective soporific than a source of creativity. In Montréal, the creative spirit feeds off rich encounters, because they are diverse, but also because everyone is free to express their singularity.

To these three characteristics, I would add another. Montréal is located at the outskirts of a vast and superb territory, accessible via an extensive network of rivers and lakes, a territory rife with natural resources, as well as (his)stories. If Montréal is so unusual, it’s because it is the metropolis of such an unusual territory. Building Montréal’s collective history, bringing us together around shared values doesn’t mean breaking with Québec’s collective history. Narratives are non-exclusive: they compound and can even mutually strengthen each other. It’s by reconciling how we see Montréal with this Québec history that has monopolized our attention for half a century that we can manage to usher in a narrative that brings us together.

In Montréal, the creative spirit feeds off rich encounters, because they are diverse, but also because everyone is free to express their singularity.

The four features that I outlined as a basis for a stronger narrative about Montréal are no more than a rough draft. The wonderful thing about the modern age is that citizens do more than recite their collective history; they write it out. Writing this story about Montréal is one such strong collective project, a project that can make this a better city, a city that better comes to terms with its past and demotion as Canada’s first city, its present defined by a multicultural population and an extraordinary will to create, and above all its future, by better assuming its responsibility as the metropolis of the Québec nation and the importance of its participation in redefining what cities are in the 21st century.