Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, Saturday, May 23, 2009.
Built in the popular neo- classicism style of the day, and situated on what was once picturesque Viger Square, the old ‘Ecole des hautes etudes commerciales’ was inaugurated on October 4, 1910. The Commerce School, a purely secular institution, was the first in Canada. It remained at that historic site until it relocated in 1970 to the Université de Montréal, after which the elegant edifice served, up to 1988, as one of several campuses of Dawson College.
The H.E.C. (its French acronym) was the result of the initiative of the then premier of the province, Sir Lomer Gouin. Designed by the architectural firm Gauthier and Daoust, the building cost $100,000 in the money of the day and was considered a critical investment in helping francophones compete on an equal footing in the mostly English – speaking world of business.
Today, re-named and refurbished, the Edifice Gilles Hocquart is home to the Montreal branch of the Quebec Archives. Since May 11, 2000, it is also the tranquil meeting place of genealogists and family historians from all over who are busily piecing together the puzzle that is so often one’s family story. In fact, a quick glance at the mandatory sign-in ledger reveals that that is about the only reason people frequent the spotless facility.
All civil status records over a century old are now housed in the archives on Viger Square. These documents are essentially the fabled second register that religious institutions were obliged to keep and to forward to the local Protonotary Office at the end of each year.
All that changed on January 1, 1994 when the Quebec government took direct control for keeping records of births and deaths.
Since its revival as the Quebec Archives, the building took the name Hocquart in memory of one of the better intendants (there were not too many good ones) who administered Quebec while under French rule. Gilles Hocquart is also considered to be the father of Canadian archival records.
The reading room is worth the visit in itself. A large space with three wrap-around galleries, it was originally home to Montreal’s Commercial and Industrial Museum. When it closed its doors in 1956, the area became the library of the H.E.C., a vocation it has more or less kept with the Quebec Archives today.
There are over 17,000 visitors a year, many of whom are out-of-province day trippers determined to track down their Quebec origins. The staff is thoroughly professional and friendly, though occasionally struggling with English in what are more often than not rather complex conversations.
Even if you are not interested in researching your ancestors, pay the Hocquart building a call. Its restoration in 2000 fetched it the Quebec Order of Architects’ Prix d’excellence for that year and is a fine example of what can be achieved when structures are preserved instead of demolished. A leaflet entitled a ‘Self-Guided Building Tour’ is available at the main entrance for those who venture inside.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out the ‘Four Giants of St. James Street’ which were donated to the Archives in 1999 by Power Corporation. You can’t miss them – they tower over you ominously just before the security desk!
The Edifice Gilles Hocquart is found at 535 Viger East and opens six days a week at 9:00 A.M. It is closed on Mondays.