Published in the Montreal Gazette on April 6, 2013
The first time I ever visited the old St. James Market at Amherst and Ontario was on December 23, 1971. I went to the historic edifice because on its second floor was housed at the time the Department of Health of the City of Montreal. You see, I needed to have my ‘International Certificates of Vaccination’ booklet stamped, as I was about to undertake my first voyage overseas. I remember thinking at the time that it was a lovely marketplace, it being just before Christmas and all.
The initial St. James Market was constructed at that very same intersection in 1872, the city having purchased the land on June 30 of the previous year. Generally speaking, at the time, the butcher stalls were found inside the building while fruit and vegetables were sold outside during clement seasons. So successful was the market in its early years that a new wing was added in 1889.
(below, the original St. James Market in 1910)
However, the original, relatively – insubstantial structure was demolished in 1930 and subsequently replaced with the one most Montrealers know so well today. Designed by architects Zotique Trudel and Joseph A. Karsch (an Ontario architect who practised in Quebec) in a somewhat modified Art Deco style, it too, like its predecessor, quickly became a hub for the peddling of fresh produce by enterprising farmers. The building consists of three storeys, and an impressive facade marked with many pillars and tall windows.
The elegant edifice was constructed to the tune of $275,000 in the early years of the Great Depression as part of a federal unemployment assistance programme. It was officially opened on November 13, 1931.
In addition to its primary function as a public mart, its upper floors also quickly became a gathering spot for political and cultural happenings down through the years. In that regard, perhaps no other event was more significant than that which occurred on February 11, 1942 when an anti-conscription political rally rapidly degenerated into a violent confrontation with Montreal Police.
On that now – distant day, Quebec nationalist leader, Henri Bourassa, spoke in the Marché St – Jacques (its French language designation) to several hundred people. The fiery veteran politician railed against the desire of the Canadian government of the day to introduce conscription in order to meet troop requirements for World War Two. Also present on the same podium were future Montreal mayor, Jean Drapeau, and many other well-known nationalists of the period.
An estimated 10,000 people were outside the building as well. Most were young and easily influenced. In the due course, the agitated crowd headed through the streets of the city, wreaking havoc in their path. In all, twelve policemen were injured, $3500 in damage, and 17 people arrested, one only 16 years of age!
After owning the edifice in question for over 76 years, the city sold it in 2006. Today, St. Jacques Market is considering adding a fourth floor to the sleek structure for a condominium project. The ground floor, however, and its surrounding areas would remain a public market. The installation of a micro-brewery would also be included in the plan.
Meanwhile, there is perhaps no better time to visit a farmer’s market than spring when they are replete with colourful flowers and various fresh produce. This spring promises to be a very special one at the Marché St – Jacques. Do check it out one day.
Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 9 – 7; Saturday, 9-6; Sunday, 9- 5.
Address: 1125 Ontario Street East
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(below, the existing St. James Market in 2010)