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Magnificent Montreal

Exploring Vieux-Montréal 
on one of the 
city’s Bixi bikes.

Photo: Jessica Antola

McMillan can get very excited about any of his many interests—white Burgundies, women, the scourge of bottle service, the preservation of Quebec’s language, trains (he and his partner, the chef Frédéric Morin, are so into trains that they’re basing a chapter of their forthcoming book on cooking on the Canadian railways, bringing back to life such otherwise forgotten recipes as “dining car calf’s liver”).

McMillan comes from Irish stock, but he is adamant that the province retain its French nature and language. We’re back in his car now, cruising around between neighborhoods he wants to show me.

“This is a French-speaking province,” McMillan says, fixing me with a sidelong look that says: this is important. “There is, how can I say it, une richesse culturelle for me. I’m not a separatist but I think this has to be preserved at any cost. I feel no kinship, none, with the rest of Canada whatsoever. I worked in Vancouver for a while, and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around why nobody smoked, why the restaurants were full at 6 p.m., and why all anybody ever talked about was salmon. What that city needs is some different blood.”

He pulls over and we go into Wilensky’s Light Lunch, a vigilantly unmodernized, nearly 80-year-old Mile End landmark deli where the one special—the “Wilensky’s special,” beef bologna and salami on a smushed toasted roll, mustard mandatory—is served with one option (cheese). We drink cherry Cokes from a fountain and eat our specials on stools unchanged since the place was featured in hometown literary star Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and the later film version of the novel.

“If it weren’t for the French Canadians rising up once in a while and threatening to break from the rest of Canada, we probably would have been steamrolled in the eighties,” McMillan says approvingly. “We scared away a lot of money. If there hadn’t been this exodus of big business, which was the worst thing and the best thing that could possibly have happened to Montreal, we would have become Toronto.”

Uncertainty. Tension. The question of the survival of French as the dominant language. There is a kind of anxiety here, an always close-to-the-surface conversation about what the city is, where it’s going, and who it will become.

Part of this is the natural consequence of a place divided between two languages and cultures: a province that nearly separated from the rest of the country—then didn’t. And part, I think, is a kind of reverse-aspirational, romantic notion the city has of itself as gritty and real. Whatever the macroeconomics, it is universally agreed that Montreal’s own uneasiness, its volatile internal dialogue, has preserved it as an interesting, creative, affordable, sometimes grubby, much-loved oddity.

The sun is still out a few days later, streaming in the windows of Réservoir, a modern bistro where I’m having lunch with François Dufaux, an architectural historian.

He calls Montreal “an imperfect America and improbable Europe.” It is at the periphery of both, is not quite either, and, as a result, is totally other.

I’d heard several Quebecers refer to traveling to the provinces outside their borders as “going to Canada,” as if to a foreign country. “Technically, it’s the same country,” Dufaux says. “But emotionally, it’s another one.”

The divide between French and English neighborhoods dates to a time when the English were the dominant ruling class and built themselves housing in the west. The French were left to their own devices in the east. Nobody thought to make the neighborhoods connect. The streets literally didn’t run directly east to west, resulting in side-by-side isolation, a kind of de facto Checkpoint Charlie of obliviousness and mutual disregard.

And those external staircases?

“Oh, that’s a bloody Ph.D. thesis,” Dufaux says in a soft French accent slightly colored by his university years in London. The short answer is that it’s an accident of Scottish builders’ influence in the 19th-century development of the city. Whereas displaced Londoners were accustomed to row houses and leaseholds, the Scottish tradition was for year-to-year rentals built on top of one another. When the city imposed new setback laws to encourage green front lawns, the habit of building cheap staircases in back, to maximize interior space, moved street-side and mainstream.

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