Montréal: The Basics

Tour KPMG Montréal

City population: 1.65 million

Island population: 1.89 million

Metropolitan population: 3.82 million

Metropolitan area: 4,259 square kilometers (larger than, among others, Hong Kong, New York City, Luxembourg, Singapore, Bahrain, Andorra, Liechtenstein – or conversely, roughly half the size of Puerto Rico or Cyprus)

City area: 431 square kilometers

Dwellings: over 813,000


Metro density: 898.1 people per square kilometer

City density: 4,500 people per square kilometer (comparable with Chicago)

Highest point: Mount Royal at 233 meters above Sea Level (no building in the city can surpass this height, and no land is zoned for buildings taller than 210 meters)

Lowest point: 6 meters above mean Sea Level. Toronto is about 70 meters higher up in elevation, as are most of the Great Lakes.

Le Pélican - 1993

First inhabited roughly 4,000 years ago, with cultivation beginning around 1,000 CE, the moment of First Contact between the Saint Lawrence Iroquois and French Explorer Jacques Cartier occurred on the Second of October 1535. The village of Hochelaga, likely located within the vicinity of the Roddick Gates of McGill University, was home to some thousand or so people and welcomed Cartier and his crew. They took him to the top of Mount Royal, from which he surveyed the land that extended out in a massive plain in all directions.

The first maps of Hochelaga and Montreal Island date from this time, though they were prepared by a Venetian cartographer who had not himself taken part in the expedition and was working off of hand-written accounts. As such, to this very day directions in Montreal do not generally correspond to actual cardinal points, but are instead based off cartographical errors from hundreds of years ago.


As such, Montreal has the distinction of being one of the very few cities in the world where the sun sets in the ‘south’. Montreal’s street system is largely a grid with several major east-west and north-south axes, both vehicular and pedestrian in nature. Major streets, such as Sherbrooke or Notre-Dame are discussed in terms of east and west with Saint Lawrence Boulevard acting as the dividing line between traditionally French and English Montreal. In actuality, Sherbrooke runs NNE-SSW, while intersecting Parc Avenue runs NW-SE.

Boul. René-Lévesque West
Boul. René-Lévesque West

By the time Samuel de Champlain reached Montreal in 1608, there was no trace of the village Hochelaga, as it was likely destroyed as a result of on-going inter-ethnic warfare in the intervening 70 years. Paul Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, would establish Ville Marie in 1642, meaning the city has been permanently settled for 371 years (as of 2013) – one of the oldest cities in North America.

The city is the second largest predominantly French-speaking city on Earth, after Paris, with 68% of the metro population speaking it at home, compared with only 17% who speak English. Roughly 20% of the city population speaks a language other than English or French at home, and roughly 60% of the island population is bilingual in both of Canada’s official languages.

Place des Nations, Expo 67 - Bill Cotter Collection

Other major linguistic minorities in Montreal: Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Creole, Mandarin & Cantonese, Romanian, Russian, Farsi, Vietnamese, Polish, Tamil, Tagalog, German, Armenian and Punjabi.

The iconic illuminated cross atop Mount Royal stands at about 100 feet tall and features a fibre-optic lighting system that can change colour. It was donated in perpetuity to the City of Montreal by the Société Saint Jean Baptiste in 1929. It was built to commemorate a wooden cross planted by Maisonneuve on December 26th 1643 in gratitude the Virgin Mary for protecting the village against a particularly bad flood. As the story goes the villagers had moved to the top of the modest church they had built when they realized a freak flood threatened to wash the village away, and spent Christmas praying they’d be saved by the intervention of the village’s namesake.

Corrid'art installation on McGill University grounds - 1976

Though the city is the veritable centre of Catholicism and Christianity in Canada, it also has the lowest church attendance and once had, without question, the single greatest number of churches in the country. The ‘Catholic-in-name-only’ population is publicly secular though the city also boasts roughly equal sized Muslim and Jewish populations. Though Montreal’s historic Jewish community traditionally lived near the centre of today’s central business district and along St-Lawrence Boulevard, the community steadily expanded to the North and West, as if in a crescent around Mount Royal, moving into the Plateau, Mile-End, Outremont, Cote-des-Neiges, Cote-St-Luc, Hampstead, Ville Saint Laurent and further on into Laval and the West Island over the course of well over 150 years. A sizeable Chasidic community can be found in the Mile-End district.


The local Chinese community numbers some 72,000 people and can be found in three distinct parts of the metropolitan city. The largest concentration is in the South Shore suburb of Brossard, where Chinese-Canadians make up 12% of the local population. Montreal’s original Chinatown is roughly bordered by Boulevard René-Lévesque to the north, Viger to the south, and bounded by Sanguinet and Bleury to the east and west respectively, though today is more diversified, much like other ‘traditional’ ethnic enclaves and is better described as pan-East Asiatic in nature, though with a strong Chinese influence. A second Chinatown has grown over the past two decades immediately west of Concordia University, this one largely driven by the abundance of Chinese students attending Concordia. As such, the Chinese Consulate of Montreal recently moved into the LaSalle College building on Saint Catherine Street West. This ‘second city’ for the local Chinese community is co-located within Shaughnessy Village, roughly bounded by Boul. René-Lévesque, Sherbrooke, Atwater and Guy. Roughly at the centre of this area is a public square at the intersection of Guy and Boul. de Maisonneuve featuring a statue of Norman Bethune, the Canadian hero of the Chinese Revolution.

St. Urbain's Footmen
St. Urbain’s Footmen

Norman Bethune is the single best known Canadian of all time; Chairman Mao’s eulogy of the doctor who revolutionized battlefield medicine and blood transfusions is known, by heart, by hundreds of millions of Chinese. He is almost completely unknown here in Canada, largely as a result of his staunch support of communism and socialism as a deterrent to fascism. There are no memorials to him in Ottawa or Toronto. In Montreal, the local Chinese population lays roses at the base of his statue. He practiced medicine in Montreal at the Royal Victoria Hospital from 1929 to 1936, during which time he became a leading thoracic surgeon. It was also in Montreal where he became a committed communist and sought to use his medical prowess to support the Spanish Republicans fighting Franco, and later Mao Zedong in his fight against the Imperial Japanese.


Near Norman Bethune Square is the main entrance of the Guy Métro station, arguably one of the ugliest in the entire 68-station system, but unique in how it serves a major urban university and has led to the construction of an ‘independent’ component of the Underground City. Guy-Concordia Métro is the fifth busiest in the network, though it was never intended for the traffic it actually handles. As a result of the development of Concordia University around the station, a network of tunnels connecting the buildings of the campus has now been connected to the station proper. In this sense, one can access Guy-Concordia Métro from as far away as Bishop – two streets east of the station’s eastern end, or as far south as Saint-Catherine and Mackay. The two principle entrances are both located within institutional buildings, on one side the operational nerve centre and administrative hub of Concordia, on the other, a major downtown free clinic and CLSC.

Gasworks II

Concordia is not the only university in Montreal with it’s own Métro station, but I would argue it’s one of the best connected. McGill Métro station isn’t physically attached to the campus and it’s own limited network of underground tunnels, though curiously the station is near the epicentre of the main section of the Underground City and is a major underground hub. The Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM) is built around the massive Berri-UQAM transit hub and directly attached to the station and main library, but whereas Concordia’s tunnel system is principally used by students, Berri-UQAM’s vast network anchors a major multipurpose traffic and transfer point, the eastern pole of the Underground City. The Université de Montréal is spread out along the northern edge of Mount Royal and as such can be accessed by three different Métro stations, including two directly connected to the university buildings (the namesake station is one of the best looking in the entire network, though is unfortunately located on the least used Métro line).

Université de Montréal - not the work of the author

Other major universities or affiliated independent institutions in Montreal include the Hautes Etudes Commerciales (near Université-de-Montréal Métro station), the École de Technologie Superieur (on Peel south of Saint-Antoine), the Université de Sherbrooke’s Longueuil Campus (located at Longueuil Métro station), the Polytechnique Engineering School and Université Laval’s new satellite campuses. There are numerous private, for-profit colleges and specialty schools and a total of 21 CEGEPs, of which five are Anglophone and 16 Francophone.

Total student population is estimated at around 250,000 making Montreal’s student population one the largest in the world.

Cover of the 1972 Summer Olympics 'bid-book' - photo credit unknown

Geographically, Metropolitan Montr̩al is some 4,400 square kilometers large, making it an exceptionally big city in terms of area. By comparison, the five boroughs of New York City are but 785 square kilometers large. This 4,400 square kilometer area accounts for Montreal, Longueuil, Laval, and just about all the independent communities in a 50 km radius from Mount Royal. The economic power of the city extends far further, as the city serves as a hub for communities and growth in an area extending perhaps as far as 150 km in all direction from atop the mountain. Metro Montreal, as defined above is, by area, larger than Hong Kong, Bahrain, Andorra, Saint Lucia, Luxembourg, Singapore Рor put another way about half the size of Cyprus or Puerto Rico).

Half the size of Cyprus!

The island of Montréal (one of between 320 and 350 islands in the Hochelaga Archipelago) is about ten times larger than the island of Manhattan, which is itself about the size of Ile-Perot.

The City of Montréal & its Metropolitan Region - by Wikipedia contributor Chicoutimi (many thanks!)

Yes, we’re a low density city and we’ve got a lot of room to grow. There are still large tracts of natural wilderness and agricultural fields on Montreal Island, though we’d be wise to protect these areas as best we could. About half of Ile-Jésus is undeveloped, and most of the larger islands in the archipelago are still agricultural in nature. Most of Metro Montreal is, by area, residential, though within close proximity to still untapped wilderness. Montreal, as an administrative region, is closely related, economically, culturally, politically, with the regions of the Montérégie, Lanaudière and Laurentides regions, occupying a central role commanding Southwestern Québec and parts of Eastern Ontario and upper New York and Vermont states.

An earlier view of Ste-Catherine's facing West from Union - not the work of the author.
An earlier view of Ste-Catherine’s facing West from Union – not the work of the author.

The metro region contains North America’s largest inland port, one of the world’s largest, with four wharves, 35 berths and 2,200 vessel arrivals, 38,000 passengers and over 1.6 million containers in 2011. The Port of Montreal, as well as the Saint Lawrence Seaway, are maintained open year-round with the assistance of Coast Guard icebreakers, which have served to largely eliminate the once annual floods endemic to the region and has helped position Montreal as the major ocean-going transfer point for the Great Lakes Economy.

Prior to the Place du Centre development, this is what "uptown" Montréal looked like - not the work of the author.
Prior to the Place du Centre development, this is what “uptown” Montréal looked like – not the work of the author.

Add to this major port three airports. The principal airport, located under ideal traffic conditions twenty minutes from the downtown, is Québec’s busiest and third busiest in Canada, serving the Greater Montreal region as well as parts of the northeastern United States and eastern Ontario. In 2012 just under 14 million people used Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, with 231,000 aircraft movements. The airport is co-located with the headquarters of Air Canada, the nation’s flag-carrier, as well as an expansive Bombardier Aerospace assembly facility. Air-Transat, Sunwing Airlines and Air Inuit are also based out of Trudeau. General aviation services are among some of the most expansive in Eastern Canada with several major firms operating from the airport. It is one of four key hub airports in Canada and a major port of entry, with 62% of passengers, some 8.4 million people, on non-domestic flights in 2012. The airport features two particularly busy routes; Montreal-Paris is the eighth busiest route between Europe and a non-European destination, with 1.16 million passengers in 2012, and Montreal-Toronto, the 14th busiest in terms of flights per week.

Airship R100 over Montreal, ca. 1930

The city’s two other airports include St-Hubert, located 16 km to the east of the city, the busiest general aviation airport in Canada, 6th busiest in terms of aircraft movements. It is co-located at a former RCAF station, since folded into the umbrella of CFB Montreal. Also located at the site is the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency. St-Hubert was Montreal’s first airport, and welcomed the British dirigible airship R-100 in 1930, one what was likely the first direct trans-Atlantic flight to reach a Canadian city directly from Europe.

Thirty-nine kilometers to the northwest of the city is what remains of Montreal’s former principle airport, Mirabel International. It was the largest airport ever planned, occupying an area of nearly 400 square kilometers and envisioned to serve 50 million passengers by the turn of the 21st century. The airport became operational in 1975, but planned express trains and highway extensions (including a planned route to serve Ottawa and it’s 1.4 million citizens) were never realized, making the airport difficult to access. Lack of a high-speed rail link to the city centre, in addition to a division between domestic flights operatic chiefly from Trudeau, while international flights were diverted to Mirabel (and with no direct link between the two main airports) made Mirabel unpopular with airlines and locals alike. As the city of Montreal’s economy decline relative to Toronto, the planned expansions to accommodate 50 million passengers became difficult to justify and were subsequently scrapped. Today all passenger traffic is now routed through Trudeau which recently completed a major refit designed to eventually accomodate 20 million passengers. Mirabel is now principally used for cargo flights, general aviation and aviation-related industries, such as Bell Helicopter Textron and Bombardier Aerospace – discussion about an eventual return to Mirabel once Trudeau becomes over-saturated as fairly common in Montreal, and as such the airport’s passenger terminal is ‘mothballed’ for potential future use. Both Mirabel and Trudeau airports have train stations built into the main terminals, though neither is currently being used as intended. A rail-link between Trudeau airport and downtown Montreal has been on the books for several years, though on-going disagreement between the city’s airport authority and the local commuter rail agency has so far kept the plan in limbo.

Planned and existing highways connecting to Mirabel Int'l Airport

Montreal may very well have the most extensive local rail network in North America, largely as a consequence of being the nation’s economic capital for more than a century after Confederation and strategic location at the doorway to the Atlantic Ocean. Canadian National Railways is headquartered in Montreal and Canadian Pacific was headquartered in the city until 1997 (though it still maintains considerable local operations as Eastern Terminus of the line). The rail network connects Montreal with, among others, Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Québec City, Halifax and Windsor and domestic rail service is provided by Via Rail (itself also located in Montreal) and Amtrak (for American destinations – discussion of creating a high-speed rail link between New York City and Montreal has been on the books for some time, owing principally to the cities being top tourist destinations for each city, respectively; current travel time is 12 hours). Montreal boasts several rail yards, including the massive Taschereau Yards situated along highway 13 near the airport, between the Lachine/Dorval industrial park and the Town of Cote-St-Luc. The former rail yard along highway 20 between the Angrignon exit and Turcot interchange is now a gigantic open lot running south of the Falaise St-Jacques, owned by the provincial transport ministry and slated to be re-developed into a new highway and zones for development.


In additional to commercial and passenger rail, the commuters of the extended metropolitan region are served by the Agence Métropolitain de Transport, a public transit agency that operates five (soon six) rail lines designed to funnel commuters from the furthest reaches of suburbia (including several semi-rural areas) into the city core. There are two principle downtown train stations – Gare Centrale on Rue de la Gauchetiere and Gare Lucien-L’Allier on Rue de la Montagne. Gare Centrale (also known as Central Station) is situated roughly between McGill and Bonaventure Métro stations while Gare Lucien-L’Allier (co-located at the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team) is connected both to the similarly named Métro station as well as Bonaventure (through an extension of the Underground City tunnel network around the Bell Centre and the former Windsor Station of the Canadian Pacific Railway). Both train stations happen to find themselves more or less in the centre of the city’s expansive RÉSO underground passageway network, and are connected to numerous skyscrapers, hotels, convention centres, shopping malls, parking garages and entertainment venues, all within ‘walking distance’ insofar as they can be reached simply by walking there, entirely indoors.

Tatouine-styled Réso Tunnel

The Montreal Métro is the city’s other ‘railway’, though the rails in this case are designed to feed electricity to the trains. The Métro trains run on rubber wheels set on an elevated concrete track. As a result of using rubber tyres in lieu of steel wheels, the trains can more easily climb and descend gradients, something useful in a city largely wedged between a mountain and a river across several plateaus. Moreover, rubber tyres provide a generally smoother ride and can be stopped far faster than traditional steel wheels. Replacement of Montreal’s current fleet of Métro trains is to begin in the next couple of years, as part of the stock has been in service (with modernizations and upgrades) since the Métro opened in 1966. The incredible lifespan of the trains owes primarily to the fact that Montreal’s Métro was designed to operate exclusively within the climate controlled environment of subterranean tunnels and preventative maintenance techniques developed by the STM over the course of the years. There are 68 stations across four lines, the first 26 of which were developed between 1962 and 1966. The Métro is used as a high-capacity, high-operational tempo service within the most densely populated portions of the city, with extensions to serve Longueuil and Laval, the second and third largest cities in the metropolitan area. All Métro stations except for one have direct connections with the STM’s surface bus fleet which offers regular, express and overnight service across the island.

A Proposed Métro design by DashSpeed
A Proposed Métro design by DashSpeed

Many residents of the metropolitan region typically cover great distances on a regular basis as population density outside the city proper is exceptionally low. Hour-long bus rides can be a common feature of daily life if commuting from either the eastern or western edges of the island to the city, but despite the time requirements the STM can generally offer decent ‘door-to-door’ service. The city is well designed for automobiles though this, in conjunction with the corrosive and damaging effects of annual snow-removal campaigns, leaves the roads worse for wear. Congestion isn’t as bad as it once was, though it is still a problem what with on-going infrastructure upgrades and renovations at several key junctions. Enhancements to the public transit grid and repopulation efforts within the ‘Métro-Zone’ (i.e. the region of the city where the Métro is most readily accessible) have somewhat lessened the load on Montreal’s highways.

Royal Victoria Hospital in Winter
Royal Victoria Hospital in Winter

As to the city and metro region’s population, both are exceptionally diverse (about 20% of the population speak a language other than French or English at home) and it ranks as the second most populous French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. About 68% of the metropolitan speak French at home, with English speakers accounting for 17% of the population. About 56% of the total metro population are considered bilingual in French and English, and the 20% foreign language mother-tongue speakers are, by law, mandated to become proficient in the French language. As you might imagine, Montréal is not merely a multilingual or multicultural city, it transcends this level into the realm of true cosmopolitanism – a city where all languages, races, religions and cultures meet and interact in peace and security.

Trams at Place d'Armes ca. 1940s (Montréal)
Trams at Place d’Armes ca. 1940s (Montréal)

There are very few cities like ours. The world would be better off with more.

We have one of the largest student populations in the entire world (with more students per capita than Boston, access to eight or nine universities, not to mention the CEGEPs, private colleges and various institutes) and have been ranked as one of the world’s top ten cities to study and be a student. This comes with other international recognitions as one of the best cities to live and work, with a generally exceptionally high quality of life, exceptionally low violent crime rates, a well-respected, innovative and studied public transit system. The list goes on: A UNESCO City of Design. A major international conference and exhibition centre. The world’s largest individual producer of original French language media. A leading centre of medical and pharmaceutical research. The world capital of aviation.

Graffiti Mural in NDG - not the work of the author.

Monocle has dubbed us Canada’s Cultural Capital, a recognition that makes me wonder when, at what point in the future, will we judge cities by their relative cultural wealth?

A city like ours could clean up. We’re well-established on the cultural and academic side of things, providing a concentrated mass of talent and human capital – corporations need access to this kind of talent, and while you’ll find this in most major cities, few provide the entire package as well as we do. It’s not just the brain power, it’s the civic engagement in further developing it, it’s the operational multilingualism, the presence of international organizations and UN bodies, the diplomatic presence, the ease and quality of living. All these factors combined with our city’s generous quantity of class-A office space may one day bring many new companies and corporations to our city, serving to breathe new life into an already heavily diversified and affordable local business environment. Whether we properly sell what Montreal has to offer is another issue altogether, but I would argue strongly we have more than enough top-flight ad firms in our city to get the message out.

Advertisement for the 1967 Alfa Romeo Montreal - that's right, we once had a sports-car named after us...

Doing business in Montréal is comparatively cheap – the people don’t ask for much, rental properties are affordable and there’s a considerable amount of affordable housing within close geographic proximity of the city or its expansive public transit system. And there’s the human side of business – Montréal provides all the luxuries and entertainment of any major city, and it’s quite affordable to live a rather fun and exciting life here.

Expo 67
Expo 67

I’m confident, to say the least, that our city’s economic future looks bright, across diverse sectors. Whether we choose to make something happen by going on a major publicity campaign to secure new investment and new employment opportunities (to stimulate middle-class growth, raise living standards and services offered through proportional increase in municipal taxation and provide new sources for philanthropic donations, among others) is something for our next mayor to decide. Or perhaps its what the citizenry will demand. For all that Montréal is, its people an increasing disconnection from its apparent leadership. The elections slated for November of 2013 will determine whether or not the citizens will plot a course away from all that has encumbered us in the past. Namely, the overt corruption of the city’s political establishment and the long-standing belief our city is destined to decline.

Montréal Marriott Conceptual Rendering

Sometimes I think we forget how innovative, cutting edge our city really is. Of course there will be hiccups and unexpected challenges along the way – it’s better we deal with them rather than sinking into our colonial mentality of inferiority. Let Canada and Québec resign themselves to significance-by-proxy, let them wallow in the problems of dead foreign empires. We shine brightest when we have the resolve and confidence to go our own way. There is a palpable spirit of individual sovereignty in Montréal, but it exists, uniquely, within an equally palpable sense of local character and cultural significance, one that transcends mere linguistic barriers into the realm of the worldly and universal. This has been our orientation for quite some time.


I’d rather go the hard road with other equally determined individualists than rest on the laurels of past glory, as far too many have done for so long, taking along old hatreds and obsolete business practices along for the ride. Sometimes Montrealers need to stop living in the 19th century; let’s keep the buildings without keeping the nationalism or social conservatism – it doesn’t suit us.

4 thoughts on “Montréal: The Basics”

  1. I was born and raised in Montreal but have been living in Ottawa on and off since 2001 because of my work. I miss Montreal every single day of my life since I’ve left. I literally think about MTL every day and have been depressed about living in Ottawa ever since I’ve moved (no offense meant towards those who like Ottawa). It just pales in comparison. Montreal is in my blood, my DNA. I miss it so much. Your article did not help – it made me miss MTL again lol. Admittedly I have not read it all. It’s a piece I plan to tackle bit by bit to make sure I digest it well and don’t rush through. I’m glad it’s there when it’s time for my next dose of mtl history. Cheers.

  2. Finally got around to reading this page of your site, which (as a transplanted Montrealer) I have enjoyed for some time. (There some typos to fix: PET-Dorval is the “principal” airport, the US passenger rail company is “Amtrak” …) Keep up the good work!

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