Published in the Montreal Gazette on September 15, 2014

With this evening’s vote in City Council on the proposed Robert Bourassa Boulevard only hours away, the time is perhaps fitting to again consider how it came to be that we in Montreal treat our historic toponymy in such an offhand and secretive fashion.

On October 21, 1842, the very first “Alphabetical Directory of the Citizens” of the City of Montreal was issued under the name Robert W. S. Mackay. Montreal’s famous lithographic printing company, John Lovell, published the momentous booklet. Lovell’s is still in business today in Old Montreal.

The initial part of this 1842 inventory lists the names of the various streets and squares dotting our town 172 years ago. There were 141 place appellations in all, nearly one third of which were ostensibly named after saints. About ½ of the these toponymic designations survive to this day, many of which are very familiar – Guy Street, St. Catherine Street, St. Denis Street, St. André Street, etc.

University Street was incorporated into the municipal register of toponymy on November 30th of that same year, some forty-one days after the publication of the Mackay Directory. Therefore, it did not appear in that particular edition, but it did in the years following 1842. “University Street, from Dorchester Street north to Sherbrooke, St. Antoine suburb”, reads its tag in the index. As such, University Street as well would have been 172 years old on November 30 of this year.

Of those vintage place names that still exist to this day, many are found in Old Montreal. Of the others, a lot have been retired from the municipal map (Craig Street, Colborne Street, Victoria Road, Dorchester Boulevard, etc.) while others (Aqueduct Street) have been truncated like University will now become.

The names of some avenues have been switched over to French as, for instance, Mountain Street. One, German Street, was later converted to Rue des Allemands only to be changed entirely in 1895 to L’Hotel de Ville. Interestingly, City Councillors was anglicized and remains so to this day, or perhaps I should not have mentioned that! Indeed, the 1842 Mackay Directory records it as ‘Conseilles (sic) de Ville’ Street.

In the early twentieth century, several road names in the city’s east end were changed with some controversy. For instance, Shaw Street was transformed to Dorion on April 7, 1902 while its neighbour, Gain Street, was altered on April 13, 1908, to Cartier. Interestingly, the latter is christened after Sir George Etienne Cartier (whose complete title was considered too long to fit on a street sign), and not Jacques Cartier.

Furthermore, between those two events, an attempt was made in 1905 to change the name of Craig Street (now, St. Antoine). The resistance was so robust, particularly from the business community, that the proposal was subsequently dropped many months later. Mayor Hormisdas Laporte later apologized to citizens for upsetting them so with the suggestion, while all along confessing that he had no idea Montrealers were so attached to the names of their thoroughfares. Notwithstanding that, in 1972, Craig Street was ultimately removed from the civic atlas.

In short, the intersection of University Street and St. Catherine has been around in this city since 1842. Outside of Old Montreal, it constitutes one of the oldest crossroads in our town, and deserves, as such, to be protected, not put out to pasture. It’s difficult to imagine Toronto altering in anyway the junction of Young and Bloor, nor Winnipeg touching the iconic Portage and Main.

University

Ironically, I received yesterday an invitation from the City of Montreal to participate in a consultative process on the future of the Champ-de-Mars area near the Ville Marie Autoroute. One can only wonder why the municipal authorities seem hesitant to open up a similar course of action when it comes to honouring, in this case, the memory of a deceased politician. What are they afraid of?

Montrealers who love their heritage as reflected in the names of their city’s historic streets and squares should be concerned. There are many Quebec artists and former premiers living their final years. All of them have their devoted followers who will be looking around intently for equally important thoroughfares to name after their heroes. Sherbrooke Street could be one of them, or perhaps even St. Catherine Street itself.

There needs to be an amendment to the City Charter to protect what remains of Montreal’s celebrated centuries – old toponymy from those who know little, or care little, about this town’s diverse past.

 

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