Every Montrealer knows that the West Island is not, in fact, an island unto itself: it is simply the westernmost part of Montreal Island, a collection of towns and boroughs home to about 250,000 people. To many anglophones, it is synonymous with “suburbia”; to many francophones, it is synonymous with “anglophones.” Although often portrayed as a sprawling wasteland, the West Island actually has a number of village-like town centres and historic suburban neighbourhoods in its southern half, known to most simply as the Lakeshore.
Still, anyone who visits the West Island may detect a distinct lack of place. Where, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is there?
In many ways, the West Island is more a political construct than an actual place. Sure, its geographic boundaries are very clearly delineated, being surrounded by water on three sides and a vast airport, railyard and industrial area on the other. But, like Mississauga or Laval, it remains fundamentally a collection of old towns and villages knit together by a loose fabric of suburban sprawl. Unlike those two other places, the West Island was never merged into a single municipality, so it lacks their earnest efforts at building a civic identity. Politically, it remains split between nine independent towns and two Montreal boroughs, a legacy of the botched attempt to merge all of Montreal’s municipalities into one.
The Gazette stumbled across this troublesome reality when it asked the readers of its West Island edition what they thought was the defining symbol of the area. The results, which were published this week, give Old Pointe Claire the top spot with 25 percent of votes. It’s a nice place, and it’s home to a well-known 18th century windmill, so fair enough. But the the next most popular icons aren’t even on the West Island: 24 percent of respondents chose Hudson Village and 12 percent chose the Lachine Canal. Some other popular icons include the Fairview Mall, Trudeau Airport, the town of Sainte Anne de Bellevue, the commuter train and — wait for it — the Pointe Claire Aquatic Centre.
Kate McDonnell wrote last week that the Gazette survey “is proof that the area is not, notionally, a single place, except as concerns the Gazette’s marketing policies.” Perhaps she’s right: if nearly half of West Islanders consider an off-island town and a canal most would consider to end on the easternmost fringes of the West Island, what, beyond geography, binds the whole place together?
I asked my friend Cedric Sam, who runs Métro Boulot Resto and Smurfmatic, and who was born and raised in Kirkland, a collection of sprawling subdivisions located in the West Island’s geographic centre. “I’ve always thought it lacked cultural life,” he told me. “It’s a place for SUV drivers, but I guess that’s like any other suburb. But it is really anglo. There aren’t really any other big anglophone suburbs.”
So is the English language the defining characteristic of the West Island? Although seventy-five percent of Montreal’s anglophones live elsewhere in the city, the West Island is where they are found in their single greatest concentration. Most of its towns are majority-anglophone and officially bilingual. Many of the immigrants who settle there do so in order to raise their kids in an English-speaking environment. Cedric, who is francophone but fluently bilingual, told me that his parents moved to the West Island so he and his brother would have a chance to learn English.
Even then, though, the West Island isn’t entirely anglo: a number of municipalities, including Sainte Anne de Bellevue, Senneville L’Île Bizard, are majority French-speaking. Others, such as Pierrefonds, are divided evenly between anglophones, francophones and allophones. In even the most anglophone of West Island towns, like Dollard-des-Ormeaux, the proportion of people who speak English at home is about the same as in some parts of Montreal and its inner suburbs, including downtown, Westmount, Notre Dame de Grâce and the Town of Mount Royal.
Of course, you can’t forget the elephant in the room, what might be termed the West Island’s ethnic divide. The southern half of the area, along Lake St. Louis, is one of the whitest parts of Montreal, populated disproportionately by old-stock Montrealers of British or Irish descent. The northern half, meanwhile, is one of the most diverse parts of the city, more recently-established and home in large part to immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean.
Last month, Steve Faguy, a freelance journalist and Pierrefonds native who writes regularly for the Gazette, pointed out that all of the possible West Island icons were concentrated on the Lakeshore. “Three are in Pointe-Claire, two in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, two span the southern towns, and one isn’t even on the island at all,” he wrote on his blog, Fagstein. “Why is it [Pierrefonds], along with its northern West Island neighbours Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Roxboro, Sainte-Geneviève, Ile Bizard and Kirkland, always get treated like they don’t exist when it comes to the anglophone media talking about the West Island? Does the northern West Island offer nothing of cultural significance?”
So really, then, is it even fair to say that there is a West Island, especially when whatever “West Island identity” does exist has been cultivated by only a narrow segment of the West Island’s population? One solution might be to unify the remaining independent towns into a single West Island municipality. It has worked, to a degree, for Laval and Mississauga, both of which have become more cohesive civic spaces since they were created in the 1970s.
Then again, some would argue that, for all their efforts, both of these mega-suburbs remain as lost as ever: the civic centres of both places revolve around giant malls. Both have been governed by the same strong-willed mayors for more than thirty years, creating a political culture that is moribund and complacent. Maybe the West Island’s problem isn’t unique to the West Island at all: maybe it is endemic to suburbia in general.
Photo by Ben Soo.
Crossposted to Urbanphoto.