The LaFontaine House – Another Landmark in Ruin

John Ralston Saul at the LaFontaine House – credit to Gabrielle Cauchy of Dimedia

The house above is all that remains of the once residential Overdale block, which was torn down in the 1980s in the name of urban renewal. You’ll likely know it better as a parking lot with kebab stand adjacent to Con-U’s fine arts pavilion. Thankfully this house wasn’t destroyed outright, though after years of neglect I can’t imagine there’s much left to save.

The reason eminent Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul is standing in front of this house is because it was once the home of Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, a man of national importance to any self-respecting Canadian and Québecois. This is the man who, along with Robert Baldwin, helped establish responsible government in the 1840s, becoming the de facto Prime Minister of United Canada in 1848.

That’s right; nineteen years before John A. Macdonald became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, LaFontaine the passionate and zealous Patriote, follower of Papineau, was running things at a proto-federal level. If he and his accomplishments were better known in this country, by Canadians of any socio-cultural background, I’d argue we would at the very least feel a bit more comfortable with ourselves, and maybe have a bit more pride too. LaFontaine was a great man who overcame many obstacles and fought viciously to establish a Canada in which the only nationalism was pan-national, open to all minorities, in every sense a post-modern nation. He insisted on speaking French in the assembly and worked tirelessly with Robert Baldwin to establish a new nation of diverse peoples. We owe the country we have today in part to this man. He was one of our distinguished founding fathers.

And we, the citizens of Montréal, have let his house fall into disrepair.

Granted, a park and a tunnel are named after him, but neither will tell you anything about the man, his era or ideas.

The house has been on Héritage Montréal’s threatened list for some time, and city officials have been exceptionally slow to act. The lot has been purchased for $28 million and there are plans to develop a 40-floor condo tower, though a city spokesperson suggests its nothing more than an idea for the moment. One of the partners has suggested that he would like to convert it into a museum, but further stated it must turn a profit.

A for-profit, private museum dedicated to one of Canada’s most important historical figures eh?

For some reason it just doesn’t jive well in my noggin – maybe I’m too closed-minded.

In any event – for the time being the house is still standing and the Overdale block remains a big gaping hole in the urban fabric. It’s been this way so long people just assume it’s how it’s always been. Hard to think there was once a neat little community there.

But it still bothers me that we simply don’t try harder, and that our city officials have been all too interested in not getting involved for almost thirty years.

What will it take for people to recognize and promote their proud heritage? And why are we always so inclined to ‘let the market handle things’, especially the physical remains of our shared history, culture and identity. Some voice in the back of my head is telling me capitalism and the housing market really doesn’t care much for the life and times of one of our finest early leaders.

Food for thought; for a nation so chronically convinced it lacks a character, I wonder why we’ve never endeavoured to protect, preserve and promote the very real links we have to our past.

I’ll be keeping my eyes on this one.