It’s astounding that with all the excitement at Montreal City Hall these days that Mayor Denis Coderre still cannot find anything better to do with his time than to tinker around with Montreal’s historic toponymy.
The embattled mayor should know that by selecting University Street to be renamed after Robert Bourassa, he has outdone even the folly of former Mayor Tremblay with his desire to change the name of Park Avenue as a tribute to the late Quebec premier. (In addition, it should be remembered that Tremblay also wished to include the two-century-old Bleury Street in his contentious attempt at a name modification).
For His Worship’s information, University Street has an even older tale in this city than does Park Avenue. According to a 1961 municipal publication entitled “D’où viennent les noms de nos rues?”, University Street was first created on November 30, 1842. Park Avenue, on the other hand, came about in 1883. In other words, University Street has been on Montreal’s toponymic map for well over 170 years, a full forty years longer than Park Avenue.
It is true that a part of University did at one time carry another name. Until 1911, the segment south of Dorchester was known as Hanover Street. Indeed, before moving to Macdonald College at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, the McGill Normal School was located for over four decades right on the southwest corner of Belmont and Hanover. However, I suppose with the approach of the First World War, it was thought best to eliminate the name ‘Hanover’ by extending the name University southward as well.
In contrast, the oldest part of University Street is the very part included in the Coderre proposal. So as Montreal and Montrealers lose yet another of their historic street names, it seems very clear that a rather regrettable pattern has developed.
The last four elected mayors of this city have in one way or another all expressed an interest in altering certain road designations of Montreal. Three of the four – Doré, Tremblay, and now Coderre – have taken it upon themselves to pay homage to someone who was for them a kind of political mentor.
Beyond that, what do these unfortunate episodes all have in common? In each case, there was absolutely no consultation worthy of the term. In this latest instance, we are told that Mayor Coderre spoke with McGill University Principal, Suzanne Fortier, about his plan, and that she did not object. Perhaps Ms Fortier also has no great interest in protecting and promoting this city’s narrative as expressed through its toponymy. Mr. Coderre would have done better standing for an hour at the corner of St. Catherine and University, asking Montrealers what they thought of his idea. I’m sure he would have heard differently.
Montreal is one of the few remaining jurisdictions where the city’s chief magistrate alone can propose changing the appellation of a century old thoroughfare simply to suit his own personal impulse. The now frequent practice has in fact become a form of expected political patronage- the successful pupil rewarding his stirring tutor. Indeed, we have had of late mayors freely appropriating our treasured road monikers to pay homage to their own specific legislative heroes.
If the scheme had only stopped, as was originally suggested, at René Lévesque Boulevard, it would have been less offensive to so many Montrealers, and to our past. However, by extending it through the very heart of the downtown area all the way to Sherbrooke Street, the suggestion takes on a distinct anti – patrimonial perspective. Furthermore, it certainly cannot be assumed that the tiny truncated section north of Sherbrooke will endure very long as University Street.
It is a shame because there are so many other non – divisive and less costly ways to pay tribute to someone – a new bridge, a new highway, a new super hospital, a new concert hall, a new library (and there is one already in Outremont named for Mr. Bourassa). All that is required is a little imagination, a quality that is once again so lacking at City Hall.
Virtually anything not necessitating the erasing of part of our collective past would have been worthy of consideration. In addition to a little mind’s eye, however, it just might have called for some serious citizen input, and I guess that Mr. Coderre has stepped right into another celebrated Montreal practice – that of making decisions all by himself.
Once again, the late Mr. Bourassa deserved better.
Below, 1970 Grey Cup Parade just passing University Street