Opinion piece online with the Westmount Examiner since December 2006.
It is often said that young people today have little or no appreciation of the importance of history in their lives; that the whole field is irrelevant and boring to them. Is it little wonder that some youth might think that way?
For a province which prides itself in our motto “Je me souviens,”
we, adults, certainly do a number on our collective history. The recent arbitrary decision to re-name Park Avenue and Bleury Street not surprisingly brings back bitter memories of the 1987 controversy surrounding the Dorchester Boulevard affair when a 150 year old popular street designation was wiped from the municipal map by another mayor who also felt he owed something to another former Quebec premier.
Unfortunately, the problem of abandoning our history is not simply restricted to toponomy. From logos to buildings, we in Montreal are apparently hell-bent on eliminating much of the evidence that other people actually lived here before us. By way of example, the construction in the Latin Quarter of the CHUM French- language super hospital (which, ironically, could easily have been named after Robert Bourassa) will lead to the demolition of an entire block of magnificent Victorian greystones, including a pre-Confederation church building found opposite Viger Square. Surely, with a little imagination, a project of this scope and budget could easily re-cycle these historic edifices into the site. It’s been done elsewhere, even occasionally in Montreal. So far, Mayor Tremblay has yet to express an opinion. Why am I now not surprised?
Sadly, we are more often than not governed by individuals who have no particular love ( or worse still, knowledge ) of this city’s colourful and vibrant past. Their unspoken mantra would appear to be: “History only really began when I arrived on the scene.”
The present municipal regime, for instance, like the Doré Administrations of the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, seems to believe that the good fortune of Montreal’s unique and varied heritage as reflected in its streets and buildings, belong exclusively to them. We have only to consider the mayor’s clearly un-democratic disregard of popular opinion in the Park Avenue and Bleury Street dispute. And, in addition to the Dorchester Boulevard debacle, the Doré city hall made absolutely no effort, despite repeated appeals from now very well-known heritage organisations, to save the majestic Queen’s Hotel on Peel Street in 1988.
For those of us who delight in history, it’s discouraging to say the least. Many good people have dedicated – some voluntarily – a life time of work devoted to promoting the varied story of this city. As a genealogist, I regularly seek out my ancestors’ imprints as I walk along the streets, avenues, and boulevards of this beautiful city. It’s indeed a tribute to those who came before us that they left so much behind and of which much remains, even when faced with the flagrant indifference of our local politicians. In short, it’s an attitude problem, and many have the wrong one, or no attitude at all.
The Gazette wrote editorially in its October 9, 2006 edition: “Indisputably we all owe a debt to those who came before us; our artifacts, our knowledge, our culture, we have inherited them from generations now buried, whose industry and prudence and judgment and wisdom created what we call our birthright. We should be grateful to them.”
I could not have put it better myself. The unnecessary and contentious (not to mention expensive) re-naming of streets is symptomatic of a greater malaise in a society which is becoming increasingly self-centered, and hostile to its past. If we want our children to appreciate those who came before us, we must lead by example. That way, and only that way, will we build a more tolerant and all-embracing community.
In a word, our heritage should be added to, not subtracted from.
For the moment, “Je me souviens?” I don’t think so.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Robert N. Wilkins is a local historian and a regular contributor to the journal of the Quebec Family History Society, an anglophone genealogical association based in Pointe Claire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org