I have recently been apprised – via a unilingual information sheet delivered to all residents in my neighbourhood – that the name of the street upon which I live will change as of this November 18.
The road at issue is Basin Street in Griffintown which, according to the communiqué in question, various francophones ostensibly mispronounce as ‘Bazin’ Street. Henceforth, decrees City Council, it will be known as rue des Bassins. (I hope that some non-francophones do not have difficulty with this pronunciation.)
In my lifetime, Montreal has seemingly had a very cavalier attitude towards protecting historic toponomy. Century old place names have been tossed away in order to honour this or that politician about whose death we all feel badly. Yet, very few other cities seem to react in such a casual fashion when it comes to notable toponymy
A few years ago, when the Coderre Administration zeroed in on altering University Street as a way to pay tribute to Robert Bourassa, I agreed to a radio interview. I pointed out at that time that the intersection of University and Ste. Catherine appeared in the first city directory (Lovell’s) of 1842, and that University Street was even earlier than that in origin – probably in the neighbourhood of two centuries. The crossroad itself was older than Toronto’s iconic Bloor and Yonge Streets; Winnipeg’s Portage and Main, and, say, Vancouver’s Granville and Robson.
I then asked rhetorically if one could image any of those three jurisdictions altering those names in order to commemorate the life of a late legislator.
The interviewer then asked me if I thought that English-language place names were being specifically targeted. I hesitated before responding that I didn’t think so, or, at least, I hoped not. However, I am now beginning to have serious doubts.
If we are now going to introduce as a new criteria for possible street names changes (and goodness knows we have enough of them already) the ability of a particular people to correctly vocalize them, we could find ourselves dealing with a horse of a totally different colour. (I myself am still struggling with the new name for Amherst Street.)
For instance, while recently travelling in an east bound 24 STM bus along Sherbrooke Street, the automated recording that announces each stop francized the pronunciation of the word ‘Bishop’, as in Bishop Street. So bizarre was the final phonic result of this highly questionable practice that it was to me essentially incomprehensible.
One would assume that the individual hired by the STM to make these audio tapes is, in fact, educated, perhaps even bilingual. I suspect that she is but clearly that same person has been instructed to enunciate English words with a very strong French language inflexion. This same STM linguistic aberration occurs as well with the designations ‘Atwater’ and ‘McGill’, and I suspect many others. Indeed, I dare say I cannot help but wonder that if there were a bus crossing Basin Street, perhaps this same authority would signal its imminent arrival with that very word ‘Bazin’.
So, in this case, a 163-year-old place name – whose only issue was being in a language other than French – has been eradicated from this city’s toponymy. As for me, and I think many others, I will continue to call it Basin Street. Why shouldn’t I? The city itself still posts electronic signs on St. Catherine Street publicizing parking availability in the lot under, of all places, Dominion Square. (see image below)
Readers of a certain age will recall that City Hall changed that name in 1987 as well to Dorchester Square at the same time as the creation of René Lévesque Boulevard – some 32 years ago!
Time for our town’s administration to get a grip.
Robert N. Wilkins is a local historian and author of ‘Montreal 1909’. (Shoreline Press, 2017)