It’s a symbol that’s familiar to all Montrealers. It appears on street signs, official correspondence, libraries, city vehicles, and city councillors’ lapels, to name just a few. But where did it come from and what is its history?
Like many iconic symbols of modern Montreal, the city owes the famous rosette to Jean Drapeau. It was adopted by Montreal City Council in 1981, and like many of Drapeau’s projects it was surrounded by controversy.
The Montreal coat of arms.
Previously the city’s coat of arms, adopted in 1833, had been the main symbol of the municipality. Starting in the mid 1970s many cities accross Quebec began to replace their old coats of arms with stylized logos as their main visual indentification symbols. This was pushed by a number of practical concerns such as ease of reproduction and versatility. The trend was also influenced by modern communication strategies that called for easily recognizable, eye-catching images.
By the early 1980s Montreal’s coat of arms was starting to look decidedly old-fashioned, and Jean Drapeau decided it was time to modernize. He enlisted the help of Georges Huel, designer of the 1976 Olympics logo, to create a new visual identity for the city. This decision, and Drapeau’s handling of the dossier, proved to be highly controversial.
Georges Huel & Associates was granted a $330,000, 3-year contract, without a public call for tenders. The official opposition, as well as the media, vehemently denounced the decision with RCM city councillor Michael Fainstat calling it “an extravagant waste of money”. Nevertheless, Drapeau commanded a overwhelming majority on City Council and the contract was approved in April 1980.
After much secrecy the new symbol was unveiled in March 1981. On its website the city describes the logo as:
“The emblem, which takes its inspiration from the city’s coat of arms, is a minimalist logo that is shaped like a flower, in which each petal forms the letters V and M, the initials for “Ville de Montréal.” The intersecting lines at the centre of the logo symbolize the city’s vocation as a crossroads of communication and civilization.
The four heart-shaped petals signify the deep attachment Montréalers have to their city. An undulating line encircles the whole, representing the island, while the intertwining of plant and aquatic symbolism expresses the wealth of Montréal’s natural environment and the care Montréalers take to preserve it.”
Commentators from across the political spectrum panned it. Letters to the editor in the Gazette described it as a “fancy four leaf clover” and “antiseptic and symbolically meaningless”. Many saw in it a continuation of Jean Drapeau’s heavy handed policies of modernizing the city at the expense of its heritage. One letter went so far as to compare replacing the coat of arms with the new logo to the demolition of the Van Horne mansion.
As always, Drapeau brushed off the criticisms and pushed ahead, and the logo was officially adopted by City Council on March 30th, 1981. The logo was progressively introduced and the use of the coat of arms was reduced to formal contexts. Despite the original controversy the logo is now well established as one of the many symbols of Montreal, and is yet another example of Jean Drapeau’s lasting legacy.