Montreal’s frequent and unilateral approach to protecting heritage!

Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 14, 2012.

The City of Montreal has been at it again. Having learned seemingly nothing  from its aborted attempt to alter arbitrarily the toponymical names of Park Avenue and Bleury Street back in the fall of 2006, the Tremblay Administration is now in the process of eradicating from this city’s heritage a place name which has been an intrinsic component of the urban landscape for well-over a century and a half.

Granted, Richmond Street in Point St. Charles is no Park Avenue but its existence has been part and parcel of that community’s patrimony since its very   beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, Richmond Street (along with the historic square of the same name) appears in the 1842 edition of Lovell’s City Directories, the very first street directory published by that company. In reality, it’s more than probable that the modest thoroughfare in question was even a couple of decades older, given the fact that it is named after Charles Gordon Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Governor General of Canada from 1818 until his untimely death in 1819 due to rabies (he is buried in Quebec City’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church).

Regardless, decreed City Hall, what was for the longest time known as Richmond Street will henceforth be known as “Rue de la Sucrerie”.  How did this latest slight to the city’s local history come to be?

Last year, the Southwest Borough Council, with little consultation in the neighbourhood concerned, took the controversial decision for various reasons, all of them relatively insignificant given the historic importance of the road in question. Long-time residents, who intuitively viewed the toponymic manoeuvre with suspicion, immediately met the pronouncement with determined opposition. As is so often the case in a Montreal where citizens are frequently forced to respond to unilateral city action, petitions were signed and protests staged. Arguments always centered on the notable nature of the vintage street designation and locals’ attachment to it. One blogger wrote that “the name Richmond does pop up in countless stories involving The Point and this is just another example of ‘place-name gentrification’ that wipes out all that was before, at least in terms of oral histories”.

The question then is why does the City of Montreal so often treat our historic toponymy (and our own citizens) in such a cavalier and doubtful fashion? Is there not a more appropriate way to proceed in these matters than simply “Father Knows Best”?

At the time of the contentious 1987 renaming of Dorchester Boulevard, I wrote to over a dozen city administrations situated throughout North America to learn how other jurisdictions dealt with such issues. Their responses put this city to shame.

Vancouver, B.C.: “Council has been reluctant to change street names already in existence due to the cost and confusion caused to businesses and residences in the area”.

Houston, Texas: “Generally, 100 per cent of the adjacent property owners must agree to the street change before a recommendation to the city council is made, because of the impact to existing commercial and residential development”.

The former Toronto suburb of Missassauga: “We would initially contact the historical society through the councillors’ offices and receive their comments. Further, we would also contact all the residents on the street and would request their approval of such a street name change”.

The other towns to which I wrote responded in a similar fashion.

Clearly, other municipalities proceed differently. All placed a strong emphasis on the unavoidable costs incurred by changing street names, along with a significant consideration of the impact on the history involved in the proposed modification.

Montreal seems to care about neither.

It is high time that this municipality’s politicians, of whatever stripe, realize that the unique and celebrated character of our city’s colourful and diverse toponymy does not belong exclusively to them to do with as they fancy. Rather, it is the inheritance of all the citizens of Montreal who, although it may be a surprise to some, continually display a strong attachment to their local history and to their community, including its place names.

In short, if the various city authorities cannot voluntarily bring themselves to respect our street-name heritage, then, at the very least, the Montreal City Charter should be amended to protect century-old toponymy against further thoughtless encroachments – such as the recent debacle in Point St. Charles.