Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 6, 2013

The next time you are downtown to submit your passport application, do keep in mind that Montreal history is right under your feet.

For some time now the Canadian Passport and Service Canada offices have been located in the federal office building commonly known as Complexe Guy Favreau. The edifice, steeped in controversy at the time of its construction in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, lodges much of the national government’s bureaucracy in this city along with some current residential housing.

The massive multiplex runs along rue de la Gauchètiere from St. Urbain to Jeanne Mance Streets. The erection of the structure took place over large swathes of historic Chinatown and led to a great deal of dissension on the part of that particular community. To help appease the neighbourhood at the time, a significant number of park benches were set up on the southern half of the main concourse of the building. They have proved to be very popular, particularly on cold winter days.

Much of the northern half of the edifice – the part facing Complexe Desjardins found across the street – was constructed over an old park known as Dufferin Square, one of the few green spaces found in that corner of the town at the time. Little known to most Montrealers is the fact that, in order to help compensate for that specific loss, Complexe Guy Favreau contains a rather large and pretty inner courtyard, which is very much open to the public. It is an oasis of tranquility in the middle of a busy city centre, and is frequently visited by those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown, if only for a short period of time. A critic in planning once described it as “an urban design delight”.

(below, an Errol Macdonald photo depicting part of the the inner courtyard of Complexe Guy Favreau, Dorchester Boulevard, Montreal)

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Also unfamiliar to most is the point that much of the now federal site was for the better part on the nineteenth century a graveyard. Styled the ‘St. Lawrence Burial Ground’, the cemetery served this city’s Protestant community from 1797 until the early 1870’s. It’s where James McGill was first buried when he died in December of 1813. At the very back of the graveyard was found a mortuary chapel which, from 1858-1861, in addition functioned as the first structure used by the Church of St. John the Evangelist, now located on President Kennedy.

Also known as the Dorchester Street Burial Ground, the memorial park came to a slow death after the opening of Mount Royal Cemetery in the autumn of 1852. By the early 1870’s, the old boneyard was so very much disused that the municipal administration decided to create a public square with the increasingly dilapidated setting. Citizens were given the opportunity to first transfer bodies from there to the new Mount Royal graveyard. Some did; some didn’t, and the story of the cemetery was more and more forgotten as the decades passed.

Consequently, when the foundation work on Complexe Guy Favreau started in 1978, labourers were quite surprised when they suddenly unearthed near the corner of Jeanne Mance and Dorchester Boulevard perfectly – intact windowed, metal caskets of two long lost Montrealers. They were the coffins of Noah Shaw who died in 1836 at the age of 16 and his brother, Edward Payson Shaw, who died in 1844 at the tender age of six. As was so often the case in those arduous Victorian times, the latter child was accidentally killed in his father’s carpentry shop on Nazareth Street in Griffintown.

Later that same year, the Gazette reported on December 7 that the two boys were re-interred in their original, unopened coffins in Mount Royal Cemetery along with the assorted bones of another sixty individuals, many of whom were members of the British garrison serving in this city prior to 1814.

Wherever we walk, our civic ancestors walked before. The now well-established Complexe Guy Favreau is but one very clear example.

 

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