A multitude of voices

by Sherry Simon

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


Many different languages are spoken in Montreal's Mile End district. Photo: Getty Images

To my surprise, I’ve developed something of a career as a tour guide. I enjoy walking through my neighbourhood with visitors, pointing out buildings and landmarks, telling stories about history, literature, religion, food. But my favourite subject is language. I take pleasure in explaining how this area of Montreal sits on the dividing-line between the historically English and French zones, how it developed an in-between character, refusing allegiance to one side or the other, preferring the polyglot conversations of immigrants and newcomers.

The neighbourhood is called Mile End, fully integrated into the French language and often written as the French “Mile-End”. Though the term goes back to the 18th century, fell out of use and was only reanimated in 1970, it captures the ambiguities of this neighbourhood’s character as a border zone. Where is the beginning of the mile that comes to an end here? What kind of end is this place, and how does it inspire new beginnings?

The site that I usually begin with is visually dramatic. Picture a 1960s institutional building, a school built in yellow brick with orange and red panels. The name, Collège français, is prominently lettered across the façade and beside the doorway there is a colourful mural. If you back up to the sidewalk across the street, the scene changes. The top of the building is not a flat roof but rather a tall brick arch on which there is a semicircle of Hebrew letters. What you are seeing is the forehead of a synagogue whose face has been quite simply plastered over.

A Jewish synagogue has been converted into a school. Such re-purposings are common. But this is a botched job. The result has a feeling of irreverence, as if this were less a transformation than a takeover.

For some fifty years the most common language on the streets was Yiddish

In fact the building as it stands today nicely encapsulates the history of the neighbourhood. The area was built around the turn of the 20th century for middle-class English and Irish inhabitants, its first institutions a YMCA and an Irish Catholic church. But soon Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were the main inhabitants.  A rich network of schools, synagogues, cultural associations, bakeries and corner stores sprung up and for some fifty years the most common language on the streets was Yiddish.  The Bnei Jacob synagogue was built in 1918, with several schools built nearby. By the 1960s, however, most of these Jews had gone, exchanging their Yiddish for English and their apartments for more spacious suburban homes in the west end.

The private Collège français saw an opportunity to purchase the now empty Jewish schools which had been deserted as well as the proud Bnei Jacob synagogue.  This transaction happened against a backdrop of massive political and linguistic change in Montreal.  Beginning in the 1960s, the turbulence of what is known as ‘la Révolution tranquille’ or ‘the Quiet Revolution’ resulted in the toppling of the old Anglo power structures and their replacement by the new francophone bourgeoisie.  Language laws ensuring the primacy of French accelerated the visual and oral  translation of the city into French.

The overlay of the Collège français façade on the former synagogue is one of countless  instances of this process of translation―with the relabelling of stores, institutions, and public buildings of all kinds. There was resistance to this process, conducted under edict, but also a general consensus that French was the language of the future. Most of these rebrandings left no traces, but occasional glimpses of past languages resurface, peeking out from under the crumbling paint of old shop signs, or, as with the synagogue, appearing as a Hebrew forehead conveying a message from another time.

From the 1960s to the end of the millennium, the area had no single dominant language. Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Ukrainian were all heard on the streets, as was the Yiddish of the ultra-observant Hassidic Jews. These closed communities arrived in Montreal from Europe in the 1950s as survivors of the Holocaust, continuing to keep the language alive, in contrast to the earlier generations of Jewish immigrants who left Yiddish behind. English was still the dominant language, but French was increasingly present.

Let’s move now to another building, one whose unusual shape has made it an icon of the neighbourhood. This is a huge church with an oversized dome towering over a popular street of cafés and food shops.  It’s called St. Michael the Archangel and its language history, though complex, can be easily summarised. Built for the Irish population of the neighbourhood in 1915, it is today shared by an Italian and a Polish congregation. The architect was a prominent francophone Quebecer, Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne, and its interior design by one of the most famous Canadian Church decorators, the Italian Guido Nincheri.

This polphony seems appropriate for a church whose parishioners are immigrants. The interior of the church is unusual, its Byzantine structure crowded with frescoes and Art Deco peacock red windows, fake Moorish balconies and images of Falling angels on its pillars.  It is also crowded with  images of the saints who recall the origins of each of the Church’s communities. In Saint Michael's we find the standard saints of Christendom but also the Italian San Marziale, Saint Anthony of Padua, Thérèse de Lisieux, Our Lady of Czestechova and Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan worker priest executed at Auschwitz.

The stories carried by the saints make the church an intersection of narratives. We hear of the Irish famine, the forced migration of the peasantry of southern Italy, the dramas of Communism and its struggles with the Church in Poland. Recited in chorus, the overlay of languages and histories would fashion a fabric of strange harmonies, the soundscape of the neighbourhood.

The campanile of Saint Michael's resembles a minaret. In 1915, this reference to the oriental origins of Christianity would have been purely exotic but today it draws the church into a new web of relations, suggesting new communities and alliances.

For much of the 20th century, Mile-End was one of the most cosmopolitan districts of Montreal.  But as the century ended, the boundaries began to loosen and the neighbourhood lost its unique character. Mile-End is no longer especially diverse: this identity has been taken over by Côte-des-Neiges, Parc Extension or Ville Saint-Laurent. Today Mile-End is considered one of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, not because of its ethnic diversity but mostly because of its hipster cafés and arts scene.  When the summer comes, the streets are filled with tourists who have signed up for tours that include bagels and Hassidic synagogues, the recording studios of internationally successful indie bands and innovative pocket green spaces. The easy dialogue between English and French, the presence of third languages―these are taken for granted, not only in this district but in most areas of today’s confidently Francophone city.

The once simple language map of Montreal has been replaced by a more complex picture. More than half of today’s Montrealers were born outside of Canada.  New immigrants come from all over the globe, the highest numbers from Haiti, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and  France.  Immigrant languages are no longer clustered in one area along the boulevard Saint-Laurent.  And ironically the immigrants who do work there look very different from those at the beginning of the century. Instead of  East Europeans working at the sewing machines in sweat shops there are highly skilled young immigrants from France working for video game producers.

How are Mile-End’s many languages to be remembered? If a neighbourhood can be said to have a sensibility, then Mile-End's has to do with polyglot interaction, passage and exchange. Its history says much about Montreal as a community defined by translation, by conversations that continue to enrich and enliven its urban spaces.

Translated by Jess Smee

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