I’ve got a big birthday coming up. The exact number doesn’t matter, but trust me, it’s big. Put it this way: In the 1950s I was a child, but now… I’m not. So I’m getting contemplative. Here is a wistful vignette of a bustling and burgeoning city, a warm and welcoming place – my Montreal – and how it changed.
First, take a peek back at 1947 bilingual Montreal (I was two years old that year) in a remarkable eight-and-a-half minute movie called “Montreal by Night,” made at the National Film Board – fittingly by two filmmakers, one French and one English. This little mini-documentary perfectly captures the unique flavour this city had.
When you get back here, come along with me one day in, say, 1953, as my mother takes me to the dentist. We take streetcar Number 3 downtown… it trundles down St. Catherine Street and stops near my dentist’s building. We plough through the throngs of walkers and shoppers to his address, 1117. After a scary elevator ride to his floor – I hate this elevator, it’s too much like a cage and rises much too fast, so as it comes to a stop it kind of leaves my stomach on a different floor altogether. The smiling elevator lady seems amused at my discomfiture as she lowers the brake.
Soon I am sitting in Dr. B’s black-leather-and-chrome chair, clutching the armrests, my knuckles white as chalk. My mother patiently waits in a corner of the room until Dr. B is done with me and I am free to go. Mom and I go down in the same elevator with the same elevator lady, yet strange as it may seem, I am no longer nervous and my stomach is no longer fluttery. In fact, now I’m hungry! I know what’s in store.
We have a tough choice to make: either we go to Eaton’s basement and scarf down their wonderfully slurpy chopped-egg sandwiches followed by a small chocolate sundae for dessert – just to get a start on cavities for my next dentist trip – or we walk a little further and cross St. Catherine to Honeydew. This is my mother’s favourite place, I’m never sure why, but she loves their signature honeydew drink. I’m more partial to the Eaton’s fare, though.
Meanwhile we are threading our way through the shoppers, passing newsstands, glorious movie theatres, restaurants galore, fancy clothing boutiques, while cars honk and bus fumes mingle with cigarette smoke trailing from smokers as they pass us, snippets of French and English conversation wafting on the haze. After Mom and I finish our restaurant snack, we head back home on the Number 3. A child’s-eye view of 50s Montreal comes to an end for the day.
Things are very different now. I’m not just referring to the death of the streetcars, but something way more insidious: all of the apostrophes disappeared! Eaton’s became Eatons. In fact, that famous department store is no more, another victim of the fallout of “Bill 101.” Woolworth’s, Morgan’s, Simpson’s – first the apostrophes went, then the stores themselves. Those glorious theatres? The Loew’s, Palace, Capitol, Princess, etc. – gone.
Bill 101 – the law passed in 1977 to “protect the French language” – may as well have taken a giant scythe to the English-speaking population of Montreal. The Anglos, Irish, Italians, Scots and Jews from many countries, descendants of immigrants who arrived here as far back as the 1700s, not that long after the French, in fact; who helped the city to flourish, who had founded businesses, schools and hospitals, now were subject to draconian laws forbidding the use of English in many areas.
(The law served to partially assuage the French separatist movement, which started in the ’60s and waxed and waned throughout subsequent decades.)
Yes, the streetcars gave way to our subway (Métro); we were proud of Expo ’67 and later “Man and his World,” and the ’76 Olympics – thanks for all that, Mayor Jean Drapeau! Nevertheless, by the late 1970s, tens of thousands of English-speaking Montrealers had pulled up stakes and left the province for kinder pastures, along with their children and many of their businesses, including head offices of major companies. It was painful for those who left… and perhaps even more painful for those of us left behind. I still love it here. But it’s just not the same.