Discovering Canadian History One Station at a Time
Thanks for dropping by. This blog tells the stories behind the names of Montreal’s metro stations. It is inspired by my fascination with the stories that shape the world in which I live. Having just returned to Montreal after eighteen years in the UK, these stories do not get much more immediate than the stations through which I and millions of others pass on a daily basis.
Canada is a fractious nation; only the steel of the Canadian Pacific railway would tie British Columbia to the commercial hubs of Toronto and Montreal, some three and half thousand kilometres east. That was in 1871, and even then Canada was still to take its present-day shape. It was not until 1905, with the confederation of Alberta and Saskatchewan, that the federal government, alongside powerful provinces, administered a unified territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Newfoundland, confounding the myth of westward advance, did not become a province until 1949 and then only by a slim margin.
Quebec, of which Montreal is the biggest city, was one of the first provinces to enter confederation in 1867. It has since been the most eager to leave. By virtue of its French language, Quebec is distinct from the rest of English-speaking Canada. Far more than John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, the largely secular Quebecois commemorate John the Baptist. Much of the work for this project will be completed in the Collection Nationale du Quebec. The emphasis is on the national, and in Quebec Canada Day, the 1st of July, is a day for moving house, as well as recovery from the real party which begins on the 24th of June. The desire for separation led to violence in the 1960s, referendums in 1980 and 1995, and numerous constitutional crises between and since. For the moment though, the steel holds.
The sixty-eight stations of Montreal’s Metro system tell both more and less than this story. More because in the names of the stations is the history of both France and Britain. Only in Montreal could you find Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a French Jesuit explorer and teacher of Voltaire, on the same line as Robert Peel, prime minister of Great Britain and the founder of the London police force. Less because the street names are the people, places and events Montrealers, not Canadians, chose to remember, while the stations that serve those streets are determined by the needs of the city’s traffic and the solutions of engineers. So, for all his importance, John A. Macdonald is only present incidentally. Also only indirectly present are the First Nations and as far as I am aware, at this early stage, not a single metro station recalls their existence.
Still, Montreal is a city famed for its paradoxes and its liberalism. As is fitting for such flexibility, its trains run not on steel, but on rubber. There shall be plenty of surprises. Over the course of the next months I shall be exploring these stories one station at a time. I hope that you will join me in this and will feel free to contribute with your knowledge, questions, comments and corrections.