Je suis montréalais

Montréal barricades by Jenny SERRANO

« Well maybe it’s just the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man – I don’t know who I am, but, you know, life is for learning. »
– Joni Mitchell

Bienvenu à la rentrée. This year, for a change, I actually went to class for the first day of school.

At the beginning of the lecture, the professor asked a seemingly benign question:

“How many non-montréalais or non-québécois are there?”

Maybe it was the heat, or maybe it was the daydreaming, but I found myself putting my hand up, then pulling it back down, and instantly falling into a new existential crisis.

Am I or am I not montréalais?

I sometimes forget that I am a relatively recent addition to the Montreal landscape. As of the date of this post, I have lived in our fair city for 1 year, 9 months and 7 days. But I’ve successfully masked my recency:

Because I study the urban environment, I am much wiser to the issues affecting Montreal than the average resident.

Because I don’t mind being alone but fear being lonely, I have gone out of my way to befriend anyone willing, which makes it seem as if I know more people than I actually do.

Because my parents live in the god-awful suburban Toronto sprawl and, my sister, with her family in the American South, when I say I’m going home, well, there’s really only one place I’m going to: Montreal.

But strip away the romance and I’m confronted by certain facts. I’ve really only lived here for a year and a half. I’ve honestly missed most of the great moments of Montreal history. And except for the rare occasion, I’ve pretty much never left the 2km radius that encircles my home like an electric fence.

While I do speak French, it lacks the colour of the local dialect as I stubbornly stick to my own personal accent in the name of diversity. And there are definitely some Montreal traditions I could do without: Moving Day, shoddy construction jobs, and manila envelopes given to Mafiosi.

In the end, I realize whether you’ve been here 500 days or 500 years, if you live and love this city, you have the right to call yourself Montréalais. As the old saying goes: Un Montréalais, c’est quelqu’un qui reste à Montréal. Banlieusards need not apply.


  1. Hmm… I am slightly offended by your post. I guess the “Banlieusards” would apply to me, even though I have lived in Montreal my whole life. I am downtown almost everyday, and know a hell of a lot more about the city than what surrounds the plateau or your “two kilometre radius”, and am always up to date with all news political, urban transit, and events. And in fact, I think most locals are up to date with the urban environement, “Banlieusards” or not. Like other locals, I vote, work, pay taxes, and contribute to local charities.
    The thing about people who live in the city, especially students from out of town, you don’t understand the wider scope of things. You are all against new condo/housing developments in the city, but yet snub your noses up at the suburbs. So where are people supposed to live? With gentrification in what was once poor neighbourhoods, as where my parents grew up, the population is then pushed out of the city farther and farther as more and more people come in, especially for a university education. Those neighbourhoods that were once ours have been bombarded with yuppies willing to pay MORE than the require rent just to swoon landlords into letting them rent, thus purposely causing inflation. And what makes you entitled to live in those neighbourhoods that locals can no longer afford? Student loans? Parents’ pocketbooks? And then you condemn people for living outside of the city who actually need to earn to money to make rent? Not everyone is as fortunate.

  2. Margo: I think the comment about “Banlieusards need not apply” was more of a tongue-in-cheek reference to the advertising campaign that the City has been running trying to entice people to move from the suburbs to Montreal.  The “Un Montréalais, c’est quelqu’un qui reste à Montréal” slogan was run on posters alongside posters that told people to “habitez sur la Rive-Sud…de Laval”.

  3. I prefer living in the city for many reasons, but I, too, hope for the day that city folk (and urban planning students) stop condemning the suburbs, and vice versa. I say learn not to blame others in order to see our own choices as right, even when others choose the opposite of what we do.

  4. I personally don’t understand area-code snobbery either. It makes no sense to me at all that Ile Bizard should be considered an integral part of Montreal, but not Longueuil. Surely the people at the other end of the yellow line have contributed, contribute, and will contribute massively to our cultural, social and economic wealth. The river is a physical barrier that we have long overcome – let’s get over our psychological barriers too.

  5. I think that the point of this article was not so much about geography, but rather a reflective consideration on the meaning of “belonging to a place”. Emile, I love your “don’t mind being alone but fear being lonely” description – that so applies to me too!

    I moved to Montreal when I was 30, and without a doubt this is the place that I feel is my home. I have been here for fifteen years now, but I felt that way not long after arriving here. I have even turned down job offers in other cities (London, Paris, NYC, and elsewhere) because I value my “life in Montreal” more than my professional success.

    From my perspective as a polyglot global-citizen, I would say that you “belong” to wherever you choose to call “home.” I was born in New York, and grew up in the US, but I get highly offended if anyone refers to me as an American.

    So what makes someone a Montrealer? Media campaigns notwithstanding, the fact that they say they are one!

  6. C’est question réthorique… Selon certains, je ne suis pas Montréalais même si ça fait 7 ans que je reste ici et habité plusieurs quartiers et que j’en connais franchement plus que n’importe qui sur Montréal. Comme plusieurs choses dans la vie, c’est comme la chanson de Fabienne Thibault «Question de feeling». Connaître tel ou tel projets de condo, ça ne fait pas toi un Montréalais. You look like a dumbass who’s never going to buy something. Être Montréalais, c’est aimer et vivre sa ville, pas savoir les enjeux urbains de l’heure. It”s a vocation and a somtimes a well paid job. ;-)

  7. I think if someone chooses to live here than that makes them a Montrealer. Having said that, I think the real test is whether you choose to stay here after you’ve finished school. Too many students come here and then leave after they graduate. 

    As for the suburbs, I think it’s important to understand that there are areas of the south shore that are far more urban (St-Lambert, parts of Longeuil) than areas within the city (new parts of St-Laurent and R.D.P. come to mind). Not that it really matters in determining one’s status as a Montrealer, though you’re description of “god-awful suburban Toronto” and the “banelieusards” implies that you think it does.  Of course, you’d have to travel beyond a 2 km radius of downtown to know this :P 

  8. Margo, I find no shame in condemning areas of the metropolitan area that unnecessarily destroy agriculture and virgin farmland, waste valuable resources, promote a culture of isolation, suspicion, and unabashed commercialism, display poor urban form with often dismal architecture, and in return spew traffic and people who “think they know the bigger picture” straight into the heart of the city, bulldozing everything in their paths with this grotesque sense of entitlement whilst carrying two tons of metal with them wherever they go. Are we suddenly supposed to be sympathetic of people who would gladly continue to raze our precious inner city neighborhoods to shave a few minutes off of their commute or make it easier to park?

    See how it feels to be stereotyped?

    I know there are good, honest people in the suburbs (I wouldn’t brave the WI bus routes otherwise), but why does that mean I can’t criticize the awful planning behind these communities, the pitfalls of near-oligarchy that they represent, or the parasitic relationship between the modern N.American city and its suburbs? On top of that, are we now supposed to somehow equate Saint-Lambert with the form, history, and economic and cultural contribution of neighborhoods like the Plateau, Mile End, Centre-sud, Hochelaga, Petite-Patrie, etc.? Or deny what they mean to the metropolitan area as a whole? Face it, these places are different, in both what they contribute to our culture and the built environment itself. I don’t doubt that you *know* Montreal, but what do you do for the place now besides spending money? (That’s an honest question.)

    For the record, I’m an ex-pat American who has been living in and around the metropolitan area for 10 years. I’m bi-lingual and actively involved in the upper tiers of Montreal’s fine arts community. I’ve been welcomed with open arms and have never had shame about my status as an immigrant. I strongly resent Margo’s assertion that those who live in the city now somehow don’t belong. Keep this judgmental, class-based hierarchy out in the suburbs where it makes sense…

    …and by that, I mean:

    “Those neighbourhoods that were once ours have been bombarded with yuppies willing to pay MORE than the require rent just to swoon landlords into letting them rent, thus purposely causing inflation. And what makes you entitled to live in those neighbourhoods that locals can no longer afford? Student loans? Parents’ pocketbooks? And then you condemn people for living outside of the city who actually need to earn to money to make rent? Not everyone is as fortunate.”

    You make it sound like these neighborhoods are as homogenous as the ones designed and built off the island.

    We are entitled to live in this city by our work, pride, and care for the place. I WORK for my rent, every moment I am awake. I WORK to make my city a better place, every time I step outside my apartment. There’s over a million of us who do this, every day. And I don’t gripe about it, because this city is enabling me to do so. You give a little, you get a little.

    The neighborhoods were never “yours,” unless you are denying the city’s multicultural heritage. And if they were “yours,” did “we” take the place over or did “you” choose to abandon rather than to re-invest. Either way, you see that gentrification is a complex issue. Using your logic: does it mean we should have let these neighborhoods decay and rot into slums? What about the poorer neighborhoods in Montreal that are STILL competitvely priced? Do they just not exist to you? Come on down to Verdun or Ville-Émard Saint-Michel, and call someone a yuppie.

    I worked even when I was a student paying exhorbitant international tuition rates so that “you” wouldn’t have to work the entire way through school to be able to afford it. Oh how nice it would have been to spend my summers at a cottage at the Lac-St-Jean or in Charlevoix. Not a single one of my outsider colleagues were these privileged stereotypes that you’re using to make this ridiculous assertion. Do you have any idea how tied to the city these students (and universities) are, and have been for more than a century? Is the value they bring to the city completely lost because we’re not “from” here?

    I have an immense amount of pride in what I’ve been able to achieve here and how much I’ve taken from and brought to the Montreal community. My education was a huge part of that. I fight to live here, I love our neighborhoods and their futures in spite of an overwhelming system constantly trying to suburbanize our lives, from every level of government to every single occupancy vehicle that complains its way over these rickety bridges.

    I call myself a Montrealer with pride. I have enough pride for my city that I will never take my tax dollars or cultural and economic contributions to Brossard or to Laval or to St Eustache. That makes me entitled to live here, even if you cast me among les autres. How dare you question that?

  9. MB – Wow, that was a beautiful rant! Too bad it will be buried in a comment that few people will read. Maybe it could be tweaked a bit and become a full entry in Spacing Montreal. What would be an appropriate title? Waves of change or stagnant ponds: what does it mean to LIVE in a city?

  10. I have little love for the suburbs in general, but they`re definitely not as bad as I have heard them described – often in inappropriately derogatory terms from individuals who did not grow up here. A particularly egregious sentiment put forth by a Torontonian I met a few years back described the West Island as a `cultural wasteland` – this is a bit much, my how foreigners can be hyperbolic! I grew up in the West Island (Pierrefonds), and moved downtown just about as soon as I could when I started university. A few issues to consider. First, in retrospect, I probably should have stayed in the West while at Concordia, given that the train station is a mere five minutes on the bus from my home, and train itself takes a mere 25 minutes to make it to Central Station. Generally, I`d say the northern portion of the West Island, particularly St-Laurent, Pierrefonds and DDO, have good public transit service, service which has improved dramatically in the last ten years. Service in the rest of the West Island is also generally decent, and has been improving. Remember, there are many youths in the WI, and public transit is their primary means of getting around – a new honda hatchback on your 16th birthday isn`t as common as you may think. Second, much of the West Island was developed from either former farmland or former vacation-home hamlets running along the edge of Lac St-Louis, Lac des Deux Montagnes or the Back River; ergo, expect quaint little cottages (some quite old) along or near the remnants of the former Chemins du Roi (today Gouin Blvd along the northern edge and Bord-du-Lac/Lakeshore Blvd along the southern edge). This being said, while development is rampant throughout the West island, it has rarely been of the slash and burn variety. If you`ve seen recent pictures of new middle class housing developments in Markham you know what I mean. By contrast, many of the suburban residential developments in the West Island were developed from models used to construct TMR, Hampstead and Cote-St-Luc – the garden city concept is certainly alive and well throughout most of the West Island; trees are bountiful and park space is proportional and ubiquitous – there are few areas void of such necessary public space. I`ll admit the communities of the West Island could do a lot more to promote local culture and develop more cultural infrastructure – certainly there are numerous strip malls and car dealerships I`d love to dynamite and have them rebuilt as parks, schools or theatres, but all in due time. We must also recognize most of the WI is less than 50 years old – peanuts by City of Montreal standards. Ideally, the collective communities of the WI will one day soon recognize they`d be better off if they had a closer working relationship with the City of Montreal – whether via direct annexation or through a large WI cooperative body. Either way, as a proud Montréalais and as a kid who lived in utter peace, serenity and security in the WI, I`d like to see far more integration. I`d also like to increase the City of Montreal`s tax-base by the roughly 2 million people who live in the Metropolitan region. When was the last time someone introduced themselves as a Lavalois, a St-Hubertien or a Hudsonite? The suburbs may be boring and commercial, but the citizens are all Montréalais at heart – they should be welcomed into the fold, not ridiculed for having a bungalow on a half-acre of land…

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