History of Montreal

The story of Montreal begins in 1535 with Jacques Cartier, who sailed from France in search of a route to Asia and discovered an island in the St Lawrence River. An Iroquois village called Hochelaga lay at the base of a 233-metre mountain which rose majestically from the middle of the island. From the summit of the mountain, which he named “Mont-Royal,” Cartier could see miles of fertile plain through which the St Lawrence flowed. To his disappointment, however, the river was barred to the southwest by impassable rapids. These rapids were christened “Lachine” (which means China in the English language) because of the belief that beyond them lay the route to China.

Cartier had discovered a natural transportation centre, but it was not until the next century that France recognized its value.

In 1609, Samuel de Champlain, the founder of New France, established a trading post just west of today’s Place Royale in Old Montreal. Zealous missionaries followed, attempting to convert the natives to Christianity. The first real colony was established in 1642 by Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve. He brought with him Jeanne Mance, who was destined to establish the first hospital, and a small group of settlers. The devoutly Catholic settlement was placed under the protection of the Virgin Mary and named “Ville-Marie de Montreal.”

Life for the early settlers was rugged and uncomfortable. A devastating flood nearly wiped out Ville-Marie during its first winter. Maisonneuve planted a wooden cross atop Mont-Royal in thanksgiving for their survival. Today, a huge steel cross stands as a reminder of Montreal’s earliest citizens. One of them, Father Vimont, ended his first Mass with the prophecy, “You are a grain of mustard seed, that shall rise and grow till its branches overshadow the earth.”

Settlers persevered through severe winters and incessant fighting with the Iroquois, and many more continued to come, lured by the burgeoning fur trade. Montreal’s location, at the junction of the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, made it a natural hub for communications and transportation. The St Lawrence River provided the link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The Richelieu River to the south led to Lake Champlain and the headwaters of the Hudson River.

In 1701, after sixty years of bitter fighting, a treaty was signed and peace was made between the French colonists and the Iroquois. The first half of the eighteenth century was dominated, however, by constant war between the French and English. When Quebec City fell to General Wolfe in 1759, the French moved the capital of New France to Montreal. On 8 September 1760, Montreal surrendered to the British. Its population of 5,000 was almost entirely French. The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 marked the official end of the French regime and the start of British rule. The war had ended, but the clash of Anglo- and Francophone cultures was destined to shape the dynamics of the city for the next two hundred years.

Political discontent made peace elusive for Montreal. Americans attempted to take advantage of unrest in the city in 1774. In the hope of expanding their thirteen colonies, members of the First Continental Congress of Philadelphia invited the people of Quebec to send delegates to their forthcoming session. Although the invitation was not accepted, General Montgomery led American troops into Montreal in November 1775. They occupied the city for seven months, fleeing after a defeat in Quebec City when a powerful British fleet sailed up the St Lawrence.

The War of 1812 brought another military invasion by the young republic to the south. American troops, emboldened by victories to the west, opened a new front and again marched on Montreal. The campaign was effectively stopped when Colonel de Salaberry’s forces, comprised of British regulars and French Canadian militia, won a victory at Chateauguay, south of Montreal.

Prosperity reigned under British rule. Scottish and British traders reorganized the fur trade and triggered phenomenal growth. The famed coureurs de bois and voyageurs braved incredible hardships for the merchants, who sent them out to trap and trade in the wilderness. By the nineteenth century, Montreal was Canada’s major commercial metropolis.

In 1841 Montreal became the capital of the United Canadas (Upper Canada, now Ontario, and Lower Canada, Quebec), a title it retained until 1849. The city became the lifeline of an expanding nation. Its port served as the funnel through which the rest of Canada was connected with the Old World. Great ocean ships laden with manufactured goods of every description sailed 800 kilometres up the St Lawrence to deliver their wares to the port of Montreal. Improvements to the port and the development of the railroads fuelled the ever-increasing trade.

The early twentieth century was a period of prosperity and expansion for Montrealers, but the arrival of the Great War brought tensions to the surface. The declaration of hostilities by England immediately plunged Canada into the conflict. French and English alike enlisted in great numbers to support the Crown, but as the war dragged on the call for more troops became more insistent. Conscription was passed in 1917 and was met by protests and riots in the city. The issue was one of many that divided French and English opinion.

Between the wars, Montreal gained a reputation as a second Paris. Prohibition in the United States and much of Canada was defeated in Quebec. Montreal was host to great numbers of American tourists, lured by its fun-loving lifestyle. The liquor trade boomed and so did renowned nightlife, but the fun was decidedly dampened by the advent of the Depression. World War II brought the hardships of shortages and rationing to Montreal, and again the issue of conscription raised protests from French Canadians, who were in turn criticised by English Canada.

The period directly after the war restored prosperity, but local government was widely viewed as corrupt, and areas of the city were downtrodden and poor. The election of 1954 of Mayor Jean Drapeau was the start of a vigorous campaign to place Montreal in the forefront of sophisticated modern cities. A renaissance of the downtown area of Montreal began in the 1960s with the construction of Place Ville-Marie, the first of many underground complexes linked by the city’s ultra-modern Metro system. The purpose behind the creation of this “underground city” was to alleviate some of the hardships of the harsh winter months. The city experienced a building boom, and it was during this decade that Place des Arts, Montreal’s centre for performing arts, was completed. The vision of a thrust toward modernity for Montreal was accompanied by a renewed respect for the past. The restoration of the historic district, Old Montreal, was completed, and today the area charms long-time Montrealers and tourists alike.

Drapeau’s most successful scheme to launch Montreal’s reputation as a centre of international cultural activity was in 1967. Expo 67, the first officially recognized World’s Fair in North America, was a source of pride for all Canadians. The enormously successful Expo was a springboard for the city to host a number of international events. In 1976, Montreal was the site of the Summer Olympic Games. Accompanied by considerable construction, the Games were a great success for sportsmanship, but marred by the tremendous cost that resulted in large, unplanned deficits. The construction of Olympic Stadium was completed in time, but the roof, originally envisioned to be ready for the opening of the Games, was not in place until more than ten years later.

Throughout Montreal’s history, the French culture has prevailed, but not without tensions between the city’s two main groups. During the thirty-year span of 1941-71, Montreal’s populationed doubled. A migration from the French countryside into the city accounted for much of this growth, bringing unilingual Quebecois to live side by side with Anglophones. The English minority traditionally dominated the business world and held positions of power, while the French majority felt themselves to be victims of discrimination. New immigrants from other cultures gravitated towards English, as it seemed to be the path to success. The Quebecois, surrounded by a sea of English in North America and made to feel second-class in the heart of their own province, feared for the survival of their culture and language.

In 1959, the Liberals, led by Jean Lesage, ushered in “The Quiet Revolution.” During this period Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Rene Levesque began to gain prominence in Montreal. The two, of decidedly different viewpoints, would dominate local and national politics throughout the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Montrealers were swayed by each, and indeed saw no dichotomy in supporting both; Trudeau for the federal government, and Levesque for the provincial government. Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 1968, and throughout his tenure fought, above all, for a united Canada.

In October 1970 Canadians were shocked when a terrorist group kidnapped James Cross, a British Trade Commissioner, and Pierre Laporte, the Quebec Minister of Labour in Montreal. Cross was eventually freed, but Laporte was murdered, and Trudeau sent riot troops into his home city under the War Measures Act. The actions of the police, marked by violence and brutality, enraged the citizenry.

Rene Levesque also eschewed violence but saw the need for a more autonomous Quebec. He founded a political party in 1968, the Parti Quebecois, and sent panic throughout Canada when he swept the provincial polls in 1976. He espoused sovereignity-association, which to most Anglophones meant a break-up of Canada. The response in Quebec was cathartic. The articulate Levesque gave voice to a people who needed to reassert pride in their heritage and reclaim majority control over their province. French became the official language in Quebec, signs were to be in French only, and English-speaking parents from outside the province were to send their children to French schools.

The political tension resulting from the movement to assert French language rights took its toll on Montreal’s economy in the 1970s. Many corporate headquarters moved out of Montreal. During this exodus of Anglophones, investments dwindled, as did the population. By mid-1980s the trend was reversed, and Montreal’s population figures and economy once again took an upward turn. Separation, while always discussed, became less of a burning issue, but enormous change without violence had been accomplished.

Today, Montreal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world, is truly the heart of the province of Quebec. A city of great history by North American standards, its skyscrapers also remind us that it looks ever towards the future. Visitors to Montreal are delighted by the opportunity to experience a taste of Europe in North America. Montreal’s fans are fiercely devoted, and their interests range from film to food, from hockey to jazz, from technological research to shopping. But more than anything it is a city of warmth, a warmth that permeates even the chill of the Canadian winter.