Thursday, April 03, 2008

Old Montreal

Today, I did something that I had been saving for myself all winter. I visited Old Montreal.
Incredible. An area the size of a medium size town frozen in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. There were places that made me gasp: masterpieces of the stonemason's art, beautiful buildings built by the French, the English and the Scots. I walked for miles down streets that my own ancestors and relatives had seen more than a hundred years ago, looking virtually the way they did when my great-great-grandparents had this picture taken here in the 1890s.

I saw the place where Charlee Le Moyne D'Iberville was born, saw the old City Hall where Charles De Gaulle made his famous "Vive le Quebec libre" speech, the cathedral, and hundreds of buildings that any city in North America would kill to have.
Many of these buidings have restaurants and galleries. Some are empty. A surprising number of upper floors -- perefect for loft apartments -- are vacant. If I lived in Montreal, I'd certainly try to make a deal for one of them.
Toronto has only a few old buildings of note: the flatiron near the St. Lawrence Market, the old bank incorporated into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Osgoode Hall and the buildings around the University of Toronto and Queen's Park. The heart of old Toronto, King Street East, was allowed to decay and fell to the wreckers' ball. The old Parliament buildings (both on Parliament Street and on Front) are gone. the old city hall and the Don Jail were almost lost. Trinity Church is buried in the Eaton's Centre. But Montreal, by accident and design, saved so much, and the original buildings, incorporating the wealth of the fur trade, then of the canals and railways, were masterpieces. But there are small gems, too: buildings that go back to the French Regime; an old governor's chateau that was lived in by Benjamin Franknlin when the Americans occupied the city; streets that were walked upon by the greats of Canada's history, from Maisonneuve to Papineau, to Sir John A. and Sir Wilfrid. The narrow streets speak of the millions who have come and seen this wonderful city.

(No one mentions De Gaulle was looking at Nelson's Column when he made that "Vive Le Quebec Libre" speech. That's one monument that's not kept up so well. You can barely make out the words carved into the sandstone.)

This town should have been able to steal New Orleans' tourist trade. Yet there were very few people, and hardly any obvious tourists. Partly, it's the short-sightedness of the provincial government that keeps this place from becoming a must-see tourist attraction. And anyone who says Montrealers aren't friendly has obviously never been here.
If two languages were welcome in business and government, this city would become a new San Francisco. it really would be a world-class city. It is a slate waiting to be written upon. It has not been frozen in time by Americans or English Canadians. It has been stifled and crippled by Quebec politicians trading on the rube's perennial hatred, fear and envy of big cities and the "foreign" elements they contain. The Bloc, PQ and ADQ all trade in this noxious prejudice.
It's a coomon trait all over the civilized world. Here, it's a the gospel of the political class, safely ensconced in ethnicaly-cleansed Quebec City.

When I started teaching at Concordia, I wrote on this blog that Montreal is so cool it hurts. And I barely knew it. This is the most amazing place. Every Canadian should see it.
So much of Canada knocks my socks off. BC is amazing. The north shore of Superior is like one giant work of art. Ottawa is the physical embodiment of Canadian politics. Toronto is, well, Toronto. (I can say that because I was born there).
This year, I want to see the East Coast close up.
The more I szee this country, the more I love it.

(Here's a true Canadian scene: a squirrel drinking maple sap at Loyla College, where I teach. Photo by Maia Bourrie)

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