Category Archives: Montréal Stories

The odd saga of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s entrance

Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.
Desmarais Pavilion of the MMFA , Moshe Safdie (architect). Ground broken in 1989, project completed in 1991.

A few years ago I was at O’Hare with an hour and a half to kill between flights and after a quick bite and a coffee I was keen to go have a smoke. Unsure of where the exit was located, I approached two TSA agents and asked “how do I get outside?”

Annoyed, one replied “you go out through the front door.”


Whether notoriously complex to navigate Mid-West international airports or a stately fine arts museum, every good building needs a well-designed, fairly obvious, and effectively welcoming entrance.

Though this may seem obvious, consider there’s been considerable controversy concerning how Montrealers accessed their fine arts museum. The issue of access has led to a major renovation of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Hornstein Pavilion (the neoclassical structure on the north side of Sherbrooke Street), as well as the subsequent ‘permanent closure’ of that building’s massive wooden doors for nearly a decade. And when the museum sought a major expansion in the 1980s, what was ultimately completed was focused on yet another entrance.

I say this because I remarked last weekend that the MMFA’s entrance on the south side of Sherbrooke has been closed for renovations and that patrons were instead to enter through the portico, passing the immense marble columns and oak doors just as Montrealers had done a century ago when the Hornstein Pavilion was a brand new addition to Sherbrooke Street, the crown jewel of the Square Mile.

The front doors of the main pavilion were closed in 1973 when the museum undertook a three-year renovation. They’d remain closed after the MMFA re-opened on the 8th of May 1976 because it was thought the neoclassical styled entrance was elitist and ‘undemocratic’. This wasn’t a uniquely Montreal phenomenon either; several other major North American arts museums were closing the old doors and building new entrances to better connect with the public.

In the case of the MMFA, this move was likely a consequence of the MMFA’s historic attachment to Montreal’s Anglophone elites and the changing political climate of the day (it also happened that the MMFA was an entirely private endeavour up until 1972, at which point it began receiving funding from the provincial government, which in turn helped secure the expansion plan).

To coincide with the opening of the new pavilion built further up Avenue du Musée, architect Fred Lebensold closed the main doors and inserted a new double-ended entrance under the monumental staircase. In lieu of ‘being uplifted physically into a temple of art’, visitors instead went through revolving doors located under bubble domes on either side of the staircase, and down into a main lobby. Organized in this way, visitors would walk through the museum – and the history of art – chronologically, with the oldest items in the museum’s collection located at the lowest level.

There was a practical concern as well – Lebensold argued the opening and closing of the main doors too radically altered humidity levels within the museum. The grand re-opening of the front doors came about in the summer of 1983 to coincide with a major retrospective on the works of William Bouguereau; it would signal the beginning of a new era for the museum, one of large-scale and very popular exhibits, along with new plans to expand.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Parure des Champs : many Montrealers of a certain age are doubtless quite familiar with this painting.

The Bouguereau exhibit and the desire for a major expansion of the MMFA came at around the same time as Bernard Lammare was appointed president of the museum’s board of directors. He was the major driving force, along with Paul Desmarais, to build the museum’s third pavilion, across from the original pavilion and aforementioned 1976 addition (now known as the Stewart Pavilion). What would become known as the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion (completed in 1991), is known to most people today simply as the primary means by which one enters the MMFA. It’s an immense arch made of the same Vermont marble quarried for the original building’s columns and façade, and is located on the south side of Sherbrooke. Standing on Avenue du Musée looking down, it’s just about all you see; the archway defines your path as always leading back to art. From other points on Sherbrooke, it blends into the background a bit better.

Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1989
Desmarais Pavilion under construction - 1990
Desmarais Pavilion under construction – 1990

I’ve always been intrigued by Moshe Safdie’s Desmarais Pavilion because the most obvious and monumental portion – that of the glass-atrium entrance – isn’t a gallery and doesn’t really involve any art. It’s more like a foyer, a controlled and separate environment where a combination of environmental effects give the impression of grandeur without drawing your eye to any one particular element. You’re simply standing in a deceptively large room that leads to anywhere and everywhere. I feel this impression is emphasized by the notorious staircase that forces visitors to move at half-speed. The galleries, bookshop, restaurant and assorted offices and classrooms are all ‘hidden’ behind the white-marble ‘entrance cube’ and the adjacent remaining façade walls of the New Sherbrooke Apartments, built in 1905 and integrated into the Desmarais Pavilion after a fair bit of lobbying on the part of heritage activists like Phyllis Lambert.

Top: Safdie's first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel built in 1905.
Top: Safdie’s first proposal, assuming the demolition of the New Sherbrooke Apartments. Bottom, the integrated approach, keeping the façade of the Beaux-Arts styled apartment-hotel.

Lamarre initially wanted to have the remnants of the New Sherbrooke razed so that Safdie could have a clean slate and create something modern and monumental. Opposition to this idea came not only from heritage activists like Lambert, but also from then-new mayor Jean Doré, who had promised greater public consultation when it came to major urban redevelopment projects. Ultimately, with the excellent examples of Maison Alcan and the Canadian Centre for Architecture perhaps providing some additional motivation, it was decided the new pavilion would integrate the façade of the New Sherbrooke, despite the additional complications of having to work around supporting beams. The end result was widely praised, a nice balance of the modern and innovative combined with the protection and renewal of the antique; new inserted into old without much disturbance.

In the span of 20 years the MMFA changed its front entrance three times, but with the Desmarais Pavilion, it finally had something people seemed to really like. Attendance began to rise steadily and has been high ever since. For the past two years, the MMFA has held the title of most-visited arts museum in all of Canada.

So who knows, maybe there really was something to be said for putting the entrance at street level and closer to the people. If the museum’s attendance numbers continue to rise, I suspect they may need to open more doors.

In search of the Fat Damned English Ladies from Eaton’s

Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 - credit to the Montreal Gazette
Pierre MacDonald, August 1989 – credit to the Montreal Gazette

Here’s an example of a contemporary Quebecois myth you’ve likely heard before:

At some point in the past Quebec Anglophones were openly hostile to Francophones and insisted that Francophones speak English whilst conducting business transactions. This supposedly widespread phenomenon was illustrated with the image of a rotund middle-aged woman working behind the counter at Eaton’s, speaking the Queen’s English and insisting anyone who wants her service should do the same.

I’ve heard this story and variations of it for as long as I’ve cared to have an opinion on Quebec independence. The story is often brought up to suit various purposes, either as demonstrative of the ‘Westmount Rhodesian’ stereotype of old-school Anglophones, or to demonstrate the relative success of Bill 101 in ensuring Francophone dominance in our day-to-day lives.

Some, including Mathieu Bock-Coté of the Journal de Montréal, refer to the ‘grosses madames de chez Eatons’ not only as though this racist, sexist, characterization were an evident historical fact, but additionally claim the phenomenon of Anglophones refusing to do business in the language of the local majority is alive and well today.

If you have any common sense, you’ve doubtless thought this story was a touch far fetched.

It certainly never made any sense to me. Why on Earth would a business of any size prohibit their staff from speaking both official languages? Doing so would be a disastrous policy. Moreover, why would any business openly antagonize Francophones by hiring people such as this aforementioned stereotype? If I ran a business and discovered one of my staff was conducting themselves as such, they would promptly be fired. Any manager or business owner with a modicum of common sense would do the same today inasmuch as fifty, seventy or one-hundred years ago.

Let’s keep something in mind: Montreal has been a primarily Francophone city since before Confederation. The last time the relative populations of Anglophones and Francophones in Montreal were even close to parity was back before the Rebellions of the late 1830s. In the last 100 years, the largest the Anglophone population ever was (in all of Quebec), was 880,000 in 1971.

It is entirely unrealistic to imagine at any point in time in the last 100 years of our city’s history that saleswomen working in the city’s major department stores were instructed to not speak French or were hired specifically because they were unilingual Anglophones. It goes against the very nature of capitalism and basic customer service practices. It’s even more unrealistic to imagine there was some kind of concerted effort amongst the Anglophone minority to snub Francophones and/or antagonize the majority population to prevent them from shopping on Sainte-Catherine.

And yet, despite the fact that the stereotype of the fat unilingual Anglophone lady doesn’t jibe well with reality, there’s the very real fact that it is taken as historical truth and that the entire story is utter bullshit.

Here’s what really happened:

In January 1989 then provincial industry and commerce minister Pierre MacDonald granted a La Presse journalist an hour-long interview, during which time the reporter asked what MacDonald thought of the language debate. At the time the Quebec Liberal government had just invoked the notwithstanding clause to uphold its ban on bilingual signs, and linguistic and nationalist/federalist tensions were running high.

MacDonald replied candidly that he was sick of the debate.

As it was reported in the Montreal Gazette shortly thereafter, and again in the May 1st 1989 issue, MacDonald was said to have called some Eaton’s clerks “fat, damned English ladies who can’t speak a word of French” (for those unaware, Eaton’s was a major national department store chain that went under around 1999-2000; in 1989 their Montreal flagship store was located at University and Sainte-Catherine and was one of the premier shopping destinations in the city). The Gazette article was itself referring to comments made by MacDonald in the La Presse interview from earlier that year. An opinion piece in La Presse dated to January 17th 1989 by Lysiane Gagnon excoriates the minister for having repeated the ‘sentiments of his colleagues who, evidently were wise enough not to repeat the racist and sexist statements of some their own constituents.’

In the context of the question “what do you think of the language debate?” MacDonald had answered that he was personally sick of it and that the phrase “fat, damned English ladies from Eaton’s who can’t speak a word of French” was an example of the language used by extremists on both sides of the debate (meaning both the Francophone and Anglophone communities had linguistic extremists who were either unwilling to speak with the other camp and/or felt excluded by them).

The Gazette’s ombudswoman in 1989, Stephanie Whittaker, felt it was necessary to clear the air on June 26th 1989 when she pointed out the inconsistency in the Gazette’s own narrative in an article entitled “Small inaccuracies can gravely distort news stories”.

Tell me about it.

What’s embarrassing for the Gazette is that they reported the inaccuracy, as fact, in MacDonald’s obituary, published on July 10th of this year.

The same mistake was repeated by La Presse writer Émilie Nault-Simard in her October 25th 2013 article “Les grosses Anglaises de chez Eaton.”

Too bad for Pierre MacDonald. Not only was he often misquoted as the source of a statement that did not reflect his own views, but by referring to this clichéd stereotype wound up inadvertently solidifying its place in our common memory. So much ink was spilled attacking the minister for his remark the fact that he wasn’t speaking of his own experience, nor even of any kind of recorded experience, somehow became unimportant.

And now, for some people, it’s accepted as a historical fact. Nault-Simard, writing for La Presse, even attempts to bring the mythological fat English ladies into the fold of Quebec history by arguing the Quiet Revolution was in part a reaction against them (and in additional historical revisionism, Ms. Nault-Simard refers to the Fédération des femmes du Québec, founded by Thérèse Casgrain and critical of the minister’s alleged comments on the grounds of the inherent sexism, as an Anglophone women’s group!)

I say again, there were no fat unilingual Anglos at Eaton’s. The Gazette reported it couldn’t find any on January 15th 1989, and letters published in La Presse on January 26th 1989 indicated at least three Montrealers who, by their own admission, couldn’t find any either and had always been served in French when shopping at Eaton’s.

Both Pierre MacDonald and Lysiane Gagnon were referring to a cliché, a stereotype, a mischaracterization and a fabrication that existed before MacDonald’s 1989 La Presse interview.

But a cliché isn’t a historical fact no matter how many people believe it.

What’s interesting to me is how local media dealt with the obvious miscommunication. For La Presse the problem was that an important cabinet minister felt such an obviously racist and sexist comment would in any way be representative of mainstream Quebecois sentiment. Gagnon objected to the sexist and racist stereotype on the one hand, then attacked MacDonald for not realizing there’s demonstrable proof French was the overwhelming language of commerce in Montreal, as it was then and as it is now. According to Gagnon, the same day MacDonald referred to the ‘fat damned English ladies’, the Conseil de la langue française issued a report indicating French was first in the shopping malls, department stores and small businesses across the city. It should be noted that Gagnon’s piece, entitled ‘La vendeuse et le ministre’, defends Anglophone linguistic rights, attacks the Bourassa government’s Bill 178 as being unnecessarily damaging and further adds that Bill 101 was more flexible in terms of the languages used on commercial signs.

Gagnon is a noted promoter of Quebec’s language laws.

For their part, the Gazette seemed incapable of choosing a narrative. At first they reported MacDonald as having made the remarks himself as an indication of his own opinion, seemingly approving of Bill 178 as necessary to protect the French language against Anglophone linguistic extremists under the employ of the T. Eaton Company. Then the Gazette corrected their earlier story and appropriately explained MacDonald was not expressing his own views. Then, inexplicably, the Gazette returned back to their original story, and continued reporting it as fact and as demonstrative of MacDonald’s personal views until the minister corrected them in May of 1989. It would take until June of 1989 for the Gazette to get their story straight, and only after the paper’s ombudswoman went to the extraordinary step of issuing a fairly comprehensive explanation of the prolonged communication breakdown.

And even once this was done, the story had been so widely taken out of context it even made its way into Mordecai Richler’s controversial ‘Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!’ as, you guessed it, an indication of MacDonald’s personal feelings.

So to recap: there were never any ‘fat damned English ladies at Eaton’s who couldn’t speak a word of French’, it was all one big game of broken telephone.

And it’s unfortunately become an indelible stain on the historical record, accepted as a real example of things used to be.

Special thanks to Kevin Areson for helping with the research.

Montreal Saturday Night – St. John’s Ambulance Edition

Glow - Saturday Night

Get first aid training.


After a delightful evening up in the Mile End about a week ago I came across an unfortunate scene on the way to Laurier Métro. An elderly woman was riding her bike when a bag slung across the handlebar had become ensnared between the spokes, causing her to take a nasty fall. Head first.

I didn’t see it happen, just that several cars had stopped and a crowd had gathered in its aftermath. The woman was on the ground, twisted up into her bike, trying to get up while people gathered near commanded in both official languages not to get up.

That’s when I knew to step in.

I got my first aid training at St. John’s Ambulance last fall, graciously paid for by my previous employer. The instructors and instruction was top-notch, and it’s conveniently located right next to Jarry Métro in the same building as Justin Trudeau’s constituency office (so there’s a reason to go right there). I took the CSST ‘secouriste’ first aid course, which covers all the basics. Most importantly, it gives you the confidence to involve yourself and execute simple first aid techniques that will, in most cases and above all, provide immediate comfort and stability in an emergency situation. In retrospect I wish I had taken the course earlier, as it has so far proven quite useful. You may remember an incident of police brutality I witnessed at the April 3rd anti-austerity demonstration, in which a retired teacher was smashed with a shield by a marauding line of riot cops.

Then, like last Saturday night, it was instinctual to step in; there’s nothing nearly as serious as head trauma. I kept her head still and ran through the litany of questions – name, address, where do you hurt, who can we call, do you know where you are etc.

Ultimately it seemed to look worse than it actually was. She was wearing a bike helmet, a really geeky-looking one at that, and it may very well have saved her life.

We’ve lost too many sisters in bike accidents recently…

In any event, get first aid training. Ask your employer if they need a secouriste and volunteer to do the training, it’s entirely worth it. It has nothing to do with saving lives; if you’re lucky you’ll never be in a position in which a life depends on your actions. I prefer that responsibility ultimately lie in the hands of paramedics, nurses, doctors and surgeons. First aid is about providing comfort first and foremost.


As an aside to the aforementioned, the emergency response was as follows:




Someone needs to explain to me what the logic is here. This was a bike accident. I understand that the cops are needed to manage traffic and see if it was a hit and run or drunk driving accident, and that the firefighters are the mandated first responder in our city (though the logic behind that one escapes me as well), I just don’t understand why they need to dispatch a firetruck and several firefighters when a smaller vehicle and fewer responders would suffice.

The extant method must be obscenely expensive.

The firefighters and police who responded initially did what they could to help the woman, but they all had to defer to the paramedics who were ultimately responsible for securing her neck and moving her onto the stretcher and into the ambulance.

There must have been at least a dozen people and four emergency vehicles responding to a bike accident.

This seems to be a bit much, and I can’t help but wonder if it might not be worthwhile to develop a dedicated first responder service for the myriad emergencies that simply don’t require big costly vehicles and elite emergency service personnel.

Firefighters fight fires, that’s what they’re trained to do. Thus, they should be available to respond to fires, not bike accidents.

Anyways, just another Saturday night in Montreal.

Don’t be a bystander…

What a Night it Was


6:15 pm on a Friday night and Lionel-Groulx is busier than I’d expect. Throwback jerseys abound. Suburban knuckleheads on pilgrimage, smiles and high spirits all around.

The train arrives packed and we press ourselves in tightly, as though compelled by some invisible Tokyo subway platform attendant at rush hour. Squeezed in I find myself face to face with old friends and a common agenda.

Baseball. Lost opportunities. Nostalgia. Hope. Rebirth. Novelty.

Being there…

The Métro took it’s sweet time snaking it’s way through the tunnels of the city centre to Pie-Ix, pausing longer and longer as we slowly crossed the city, each time an increasingly agitated brakeman telling us, for the love of god, to let go of the antique mechanical doors that not a week ago nearly halved the head of some old woman.

It was slow and uncomfortable and no one cared. For the first time in a decade there was a baseball game to attend and that’s all that mattered.

Disembarking at Pie-IX I quickly lost track of my friends in the absolutely massive crowd surging its way to the stadium entrance. I had never seen the station ever look quite so busy, and a line stretched from the M̩tro turnstiles to the stadium and back again, pulsing to the beat of the Bucket Drummer. My heart sank Рwas this the line to get in?


We quickly learned that this was the now infamous will-call wait line, thousands strong and perhaps the single longest line of human beings I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My pace quickened. Tickets in hand we’d waltz right on in.

Walking into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium is very much like stepping back in time. Almost immediately I noticed my cellphone reception was shot, and that the seething mass of vendor kiosks and food carts reminded me not so much of baseball as it did a kind of food court you’d find in the middle of an epically massive 1980s video game arcade. Pink and baby clue neon lights and harsh overhead lighting stands out in my mind. Oddly appropriate and cacophonous Techno music was playing in the background as an assorted gaggle of sports fans – many of whom wearing Alouettes and Montreal Canadiens jerseys and caps – slurped down overpriced poutine and pizza slices from carts seemingly shipped over from La Ronde.


Security guards and staff were decked out in clothing that must have been designed in the late-1980s and stored in boxes since the Expos’ folded. This, in conjunction with the overall retro aesthetic and lack of technology (no cellphone reception, no Interac, too few and generally outdated ATMs, antique scoreboards etc.) only re-enforced the strangeness of the situation. It was utterly bizarre.

I overcame the bewildering scene and propelled myself towards the upper deck seats behind home plate with my name on them. Moving swiftly through the bowels of the Big O comes naturally enough – the shape and size of the immense structure compels movement, the ramps almost make you want to run – it was apparent enough to all the children racing around.


When I get to the upper deck with my date we discussed whether we should grab our seats or get something to nosh on. We both had an admittedly absurd craving for a ballpark frank we knew we’d gladly pay a hefty sum for just to say we’ve had the experience of doing so. Eating a hotdog while watching an MLB game in the Big O.

Strike that off the ‘things to do in Montreal’ checklist…

Such occurrences are rare these days.

We decided to take our seats imagining there would be vendors working the bleachers, and besides, the game had already began. That’s why we came here after-all.


And not a moment later there I was watching something that hadn’t been seen in our city in just about a decade and I personally hadn’t witnessed in twenty-seven years. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan growing up, I preferred hockey, and later rugby. My interest in and appreciation of baseball came much later, and is nearly entirely as a consequence of the saga of the Montreal Expos as a franchise and the lasting impression the club (and to a greater extent the sport and the stadium) has had on our city.

Baseball in Montreal isn’t entirely about baseball. It’s about the city and its people.

Baseball is symbolic. Baseball is metaphor.

And resurrecting the Expos, long shot though it may be, has everything to do with people power and nothing to do with baseball as a business.

And yet, sitting there, one of 46,000 fans who filled the Big O on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think Warren Cromartie and the Montreal Baseball Project had succeeded at least in rounding first base as far as they’re own business case was concerned. They had proved that, ten years after the loss of the Expos, professional baseball could still draw significant interest in Montreal. Then they proved it again Saturday afternoon when 50,000 people showed up to the second part of the Jays-Mets pre-season double-header.


Think about it – what kind of a game was this? An exhibition game between the Jays and the Mets, with the ground crew sponsored by the Quebec Egg Council, at the stadium that’s always been ‘too far away’ to be of any use? A total no-frills affair of no real consequence for either ‘away’ team? Just this first step alone was a bit of a long-shot in its own right. The stadium looked like it had just been re-opened after being completely shuttered for the last decade; the back bleachers were dusty with old cigarette butts still lying where they had been extinguished underfoot decades past.

But none of these minor and major inconveniences mattered. Everyone was happy to be watching a ball game. The stadium was nearly full, and it has more than twice the capacity of any of the other major sports venues in our city. No one was bitching about politics, or even this year’s endless winter. The crowd was as diverse as the city, with fans cheering both teams despite the assumption we’d be rooting for the Blue Jays out of some kind of misguided patriotism. The most awkward moment of the night was doubtless the half-hearted attempt to get a bunch of Montrealers to sing the Blue Jays’ version of ‘take me out to the ball game’ but even though I find group sing-alongs fascistic in nature and couldn’t possibly cooperate the crowd was in one of those typically Montreal ‘anything goes’ moods and saved face by joining in at the end.


The game itself was great and provided plenty of excitement, but I can’t help but wonder how many spectators were thinking to themselves, pretty much all night, ‘how long will we have to wait until this happens again?’

After all, we don’t want to be teased, and Montrealers are sensitive enough as is.

What I saw on Friday night was step in the right direction and proof not only of baseball’s viability, but of the Olympic Stadium’s utility as well. I imagine the next step for Cromartie and the MBP will be to secure one or more regular season games to see if they can replicate their recent successes. From there planning would shift to next year and a set of exhibition and regular season games played at the Big O on a set schedule, say eight games over the span of four months to see if baseball can be sustained past the novelty stage. If all that works they’ll have much of their business case already made and all the evidence they need to support it before seriously starting the MLB-courtship, franchise-development and stadium design and financing stages.

So we shouldn’t get our hopes up we’ll see the Expos return any time soon, but I think it’s a safe bet we’ll see more baseball at the Big O in general.

My personal hope and desire is that the people in charge over at the RIO (Olympic installations board) get funding for minor aesthetic and functional improvements and do all they can to secure more sporting events at the Big O generally speaking. In a really ideal world some kind of a deal would be worked out to secure a set number of CFL and MLS games (with anticipated over-sized crowds), in addition to more exhibition and/or regular season MLB games and maybe even an NFL exhibition match too. Why not? It’s a sports venue, the people in charge of it should be in the business of ensuring it’s used for large-capacity sporting events.

The experience made me think the Big O could be the kind of ‘people’s stadium’ with local teams playing a few games each season at the Big O with heavily discounted tickets for the upper deck sections so as to encourage high attendance (and further ensure pro sports remains accessible to the people who have helped subsidize their development, both directly and indirectly.


On a closing note, two other things worth mentioning. First, when I ordered my franks I concluded the transaction in French, my mother tongue. The vendor, upon hearing my Anglophone accent decided to switch to English. I continue speaking French, to which he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you spoke English’.

I said I do, and that I speak French as well and I typically just go with whatever’s most instinctive at a given moment. I told him he should never apologize for being so accommodating, it’s far too stereotypically Canadian.

We shared a laugh.

Much later on, travelling back home on the Métro, I noticed the determined stride and Lupine-blue eyes of Gilles Duceppe leaving the crowded Métro train in a huff. I said, rather too excitedly, ‘hey look it’s Gilles Duceppe!’ to which the crowd responded with ‘ooohs’ and ‘awwws’, such as it is when local aristocracy tread too close to subterranean common-folk.

What a night it was…

Which Catherine is Ste-Catherine Street Named After?

The only known and likely historically inaccurate portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha
The only known and likely historically inaccurate portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha

Kate McDonnell did me a solid and linked to my recent article about the future of the Faubourg on her site, the Montreal City Weblog (which should be regular required reading if you want to know what’s going on around town), but also pointed out that the right way to write what I might pronounce as ‘Saint Catherine’s Street’ should in fact be written (and pronounced too) ‘Ste-Catherine Street, despite the fact that my word processor is screaming red underlines at me for doing so.

Anyways it got me thinking – which Saint Catherine does the street refer to?

Is it Catherine of Alexandria, the virgin martyr whose touch apparently destroyed the eponymous breaking wheel and was later beheaded by the pagan Roman Emperor Maxentius?

Or was it Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy, philosopher and theologian who brought an end to the Avignon Papacy and helped restore Pope Gregory XI to the Holy See?

The answer is possibly neither as it was once a fashionable convention to name city streets after prominent locals and add a saintly prefix. Perhaps the best known example is Saint-Urbain, named after the 17th century landowner Urbain Tessier.

If the street is in fact simply named after a member of our city’s former bourgeoisie, perhaps it might be prudent and politically expedient to officially name the street in honour of Kateri Tekakwitha, baptized Catherine Tekakwitha and also known as Lily of the Mohawks, canonized by Pope Benedict XVI as recently as 2012.

I mean, she’s as close as this city is going to get to having it’s own saint (* untrue, see below), and she’s been immortalized in fiction both by Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers) and William Vollman (Fathers and Crows). Her story doesn’t inspire me to become a Catholic, but it’s inspirational insofar as it makes me think about what life was like during this city’s colonial period. It’s captivating in its own right. So why not make it official and remove the ambiguity? I think there’s a case to be made here; if one of this city’s most important streets is to be named after a saint, why not make it our saint?

I say such a move may be politically advantageous simply because our mayor has already indicated he wants special status for Montreal with regards to the implementation of Bill 60 (the proposed secularism charter) and clarifying the origins of the street’s name (to coincide with a major redevelopment of the strip) would demonstrate the mayor’s doing the real ‘frontline’ work when it comes to protecting and promoting cultural identity in Québec. It’s a move that appeals to traditionalists and conservatives and is almost assuredly guaranteed not to offend the sensibilities of religious minorities or social progressives.

Just a point of clarification really, a win-win that shows the people the mayor’s got novel solutions to the PQ’s problems.

*** Update ***

So the Commission de toponymie du Québec indicates that the origins aren’t entirely clear and that it has only been more-or-less officially known as Rue Sainte-Catherine for two hundred years. Prior to that it was named both Chemin Sainte-Catherine and Chemin Saint-Jacques.

The Catherine and Jacques could be a reference to a ‘road inspector’ (I’m assuming that means surveyor/street-namer) named Jacques Viger (not the mayor) and his daughter, Catherine-Elizabeth.

Or it could be named in honour of a Catherine de Bourbonnais who lived on the street in the 18th century.

But it seems as though the oldest reference may in fact be of a religious nature, given that road once ran to a convent run by the Soeurs de la Congrégation.

Leaving us right back where we started: no clear answer.

*** Update II ***

I should have know better, Montreal already has two saints.

Saint Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the Grey Nuns and patron saint of widows and troubled marriages.

And Saint André of Montreal, also known as Brother André, the apparent miracle-maker of Mount Royal.

So in this case, Saint Catherine Tekakwitha would be the closest this city’s going to get to having its own First Nations saint, given that she never actually lived here and was buried across the river.

Montreal Book Reviews: The Watch That Ends The Night


Christ, what a book.

I can’t write a review of this book that would do it any justice, so read Nick Mount’s 50th anniversary review for The Walrus instead.

It’s long been rumoured that the book’s protagonist, Dr. Jerome Martell, is based on the late, great Canadian surgeon Dr. Norman Bethune, (arguably the most famous Canadian of all time) and indeed, there are many similarities, though the author maintained the character of Dr. Martell wasn’t based on anyone in particular, though acknowledged Jerome was nonetheless similar in demeanour to a Dr. Rabinovich whom MacLennan knew, and who lived and practiced in Montreal in the 1930s. Apparently they had ‘similar backstories’.

Jerome Martell’s backstory, as told in the novel, is perhaps the most engaging thing I’ve read in the last five years.

I mean, talk about a page turner.

I didn’t know much about The Watch when I picked it up, other than that it takes place here in Montreal mostly in the 1930s and 1950s, which is in and of itself enough to get me to read just about anything. That there was this apparent connection to Norman Bethune was an added plus, and then I discovered it’s the inspiration for the Tragically Hip song Courage (for Hugh MacLennan).

The song’s reprise “courage, it couldn’t have come at a worse time” neatly paraphrases the story’s climax.

The Watch That Ends The Night tells the story of a man returned from the dead. The aforementioned doctor, who, again much like the real Dr. Bethune, left a promising career in Montreal to fight fascism in Europe, returns home after over a decade, much to the surprise of his former wife, his now university-aged daughter and best friend (the novel’s narrator, based on MacLennan and his life and experiences in Montreal in the 30s and 50s) who had stepped in to handle the familial responsibilities after they had received bad information suggesting the doctor had been killed by the Nazis. The character of Jerome Martell isn’t seeking to pick up his life where it had left off, but rather, he returns in an effort to bring closure to those he had left behind. Unfortunately and in parallel with Canada (and much of the developed world) as MacLennan describes it, the ‘lose ends’ of the 1930s come back to bite everyone in the ass, albeit in a subdued and sad fashion.

This is just a cursory overview of the plot, and it’s not giving anything away either. I won’t go in to any more detail but will simply say for something written about lives lived eighty years ago the book has a remarkable timelessness about it – it still seems very pertinent and I wondered whether any of the key social questions of the era have ever been answered.

It is in part a criticism of the generation which had survived the Depression and the Second World War but lost it’s desire to effect large-scale progressive change during the Cold War (and more specifically, the really shaky early years of the Cold War, back in the day when cities like Montreal had squadrons of interceptors on standby at Saint-Hubert airport and air raid sirens dotted suburban skylines. Back when we had bomb shelters built into the basements of federal government buildings downtown. I find it almost impossible to imagine what it must have actually felt like to live in a large city anticipating nuclear attack…)

For MacLennan as narrator, The Watch‘s present tense is the early 1950s, when Montreal was Canada’s metropolis and the Korean War was threatening to draw the United States into a direct conflict with the USSR, one many suspected would quickly go nuclear. MacLennan refers back to this ‘sword of damocles’ constantly, in parallel with his character’s present, and Jerome Martell’s previous wife Catherine’s troublesome heart, afflicted as it is and growing weaker with each passing year. Catherine symbolizes much of the youthful hope and popular socio-political engagement of the 1930s, and here too I can only imagine what that must have been like. I would say we’ve always been a politically engaged city, but there is a politically-militant class here. Imagine what it must have been like when the general population was engaged to the same degree, when a worldwide generation of people were organizing to improve our collective well-being, in some cases with terrifying results.

I had never considered, for example, that the rise of socialism and fascism (and everything in between) during the interwar years was a kind of response to a generation’s loss of faith with the established order after the First World War. MacLennan traces the curve from popular engagement, the days when communists and fascists were organizing themselves in the streets of Montreal, when Lionel Groulx established his Blue Shirts, when Mussolini was painted into the ceiling of a Roman Catholic church in Montreal’s Little Italy (etc.) through the forced socialization and state-planning of the war years and then into the era of prosperity and ‘apprehended annihilation’ which followed. MacLennan describes the budding of a modern Canada – precocious, stronger than it appears, but perhaps like a teenager who matured too quickly, fundamentally unsure of itself despite its outward, largely aesthetic confidence.

The two focal characters, the male and female leads, are both bridges from the 1930s, when they were individually at their peaks and served as channels for hope and courage against a growing darkness. Between their, and the narrator’s, three points of view they collectively relate the coming of the darkest hour, something else I’ve had a hard time rapping my head around. Hitler came to power in 1933 and for six years the world assumed the worst was coming, and they were right. For six years he preached fascism and fascism grew in Europe. Alliances were formed, territories annexed. What I hadn’t appreciated was that Hitler presented himself as the Europe’s primary defence against Communism, and thus also the primary defender of Christianity against State Atheism. When he invaded France, it was (as the Nazis described it) to stop the spread of socialism and international communism, both of which were thought to be spread by ‘foreign subversives, immigrant terrorists’ etc.

Sound familiar?

Suffice it to say I have an entirely new perspective on the origins of the Second World War, and of the long-term implications of the Spanish Civil War.

MacLennan’s emotionally exhausted and existentially bankrupt early Cold War society leaves the great questions of an earlier generation unanswered, the negative implications of which are illustrated by the calamities that befall the three central characters after the doctor returns from the dead.

The insinuation is pretty straightforward – the past is going to catch up with us.

In any event, an inspired and probing book, and a profoundly Canadian book in the grand tradition, mixing social analysis and criticism, history, tragedy and relatable, personal Pyrrhic victories.