Published in the Montreal Gazette on March 28, 2015

In September of 1909, Montreal merchants and City Hall jointly sponsored an ‘Old Home Week’. The well-planned event took place from September 13 to September 20 and it is estimated that over 100,000 former Montrealers returned to the burgeoning municipality to have a look around the town they once called home. Many had not been to the city in over half a century, and, as one can only imagine, an awful lot had changed during those fifty years!

While it is unlikely that many of the visitors would have required the services of a tour guide, for those who did there was McGarr’s Sight-Seeing Automobile Tally-Ho that was all the rage in Montreal in the still early years of motorized transport. The colourful vehicle was found in an ideal location just outside the palatial Windsor Hotel on Dorchester Street.

Below, McGarr’s ‘Tally – Ho’ vehicle out side Windsor Hotel, Montreal.McGarr'sSight-SeeingAutomobileTally-Ho Nowadays, sightseers have a much wider selection of personal assistance in exploring a city. For instance, a chance encounter late last December brought me in contact with Jean – Philippe Riopel, museologist and local city tourist guide. Riopel, who was born in Chambly thirty-one years ago, is a genuine aficionado of Montreal history and heritage. He is also a member of the Association professionelle des guides touristiques(apgt), a non – profit volunteer organization, run by practising, professional licensed tour conductors within the City of Montreal. In fact, the young Riopel is an administrator on the Board of Directors of the association.

His keen interest in this town’s chronicle, and that of Chinatown in particular, was piqued by his father, Jean Riopel, who was a policeman posted at Station 33 through the better part of the last two decades of the 20th century. Often on weekends young Riopel would accompany his dad in patrolling on foot the historic neighbourhood. Anyone over the age of 50 in Chinatown knows well the older Riopel, as well as his son. To this day, the keen tour guide feels that he was deeply marked by these previous outings with his father.

In his early his twenties, Jean – Philippe Riopel undertook, like so many youths do today, the requisite, mind – altering   journey around the planet. He was away from home for two years, four months of which he spent in China, a country and culture to which, by his own admission, he is greatly attracted. Nevertheless, when asked about his ability to speak the language, Riopel self-effacingly responded: “Even when I said I don’t understand in Chinese, they didn’t understand.”

Below, Jean – Philippe Riopel in China in the early 2000’s.Jean-PhilippeChina

Upon returning to Montreal, he embarked on a programme in museum studies at Collège Montmorency and, somewhat later, a ‘Guide de Montréal’ course at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec. Riopel continues his learning to this day as he is registered in a related curriculum, this time at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Riopel works principally for four different city tour guide agencies: Kaléidoscope, Guidatour, Fitz & Follwell, and Greyline. Not surprisingly,   the inveterate trekker specializes in excursions in and around Chinatown, where he has lived now for nearly eight years. It is the area of Montreal that he knows best. He particularly enjoys showing visitors the Buddhist temple found in the basement in the building adjacent to his own flat.

The young man’s passion for Montreal history extends even to his own back yard where he has discovered, just below the surface, several items dating from the 1800’s, including part of a chamber pot! Then known as the ‘Faubourg Près – de Ville’, the area was one of the first to develop after the completion of the demolition of city’s old fortifications in 1822. Riopel is convinced that much more could be discovered with further exploration but as a tenant he feels he cannot undertake the archeological dig without the consent of his landlord.

Below, various items unearthed in the backyard of Riopel’s flat in Chinatown.ChamberPot According to municipal regulations that govern the trade, only licensed, bilingual individuals are permitted to serve as tour guides in the city. In 2014, there were some 166 in all, 128 of whom are also members of the agpt. Most, like Riopel, work freelance and are available to the large touring companies when needed. A handful, however, have found permanent work at places like Notre Dame Basilica or the Pointe à Callière Museum of Archeology and History in Old Montreal.

Jean – Philippe Riopel can be reached at: riopeljp@gmail.com

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