What is “Montreal Culture?”

Way back in 2001, Quebec’s then Culture Minister Diane Lemieux commented that she felt Ontario had no real culture. Everyone in Quebec snickered. Everyone in Toronto got huffy. The debate raged across Ontario with various ministers of this and that standing up in their respective legislatures and declaring that Ontario does, indeed have culture. Lots of culture! They would trumpet the various symphonies, theatres, and museums to be found in and around Toronto as irrefutable evidence. In Quebec we just rolled our eyes.

The issue has popped up again. None other than MacLean’s magazine, so very much a Canadian institution (which is to say, it is 90% from and about Toronto), has issued the results of some surveys and resulting rankings of cultural activities in various Canadian cities. Lo and behold, Montreal ranked quite low, which raised a lot of eyebrows and prompted MacLean’s to toss this nugget up on the web, complete with a photo of rioting Habs fans, as if to underscore just how uncultured we are here in Montreal:

MacLean's Article

What MacLean’s doesn’t get — which is the same thing that all those barking Ontarians didn’t get in 2001 — is that Montreal culture is not about symphonies, theatres, and museums. The famous Montreal culture is the stuff that happens every day, with regular people. It’s about the extent to which regular folks here are engaged in cultural activities as a normal part of their lives. How so many people know how to play — and actually do play on a regular basis — musical instruments. The way regular folks go to small-budget movies and neighbourhood theatre productions (regular people, not just faux-ho hipsters). It’s about how regular people think it’s completely normal to read a lot of novels and to be able to talk about writers and literature outside of the Twilight and Harry Potter series. It has to do with the extent to which people are aware of the small acts of music, literature, and theatre that happens every day all around them.

We’re not all like that. There are plenty of tight-assed people in Montreal who can think of nothing more interesting than their jobs and their daily commutes. People who haven’t read a piece of fiction in 20 years and who parade themselves off to a fancy restaurant every Valentine’s day and pay big bucks for good seats at the Basilica Notre-Dame’s performance of The Messiah every Christmas and are glad when it’s over because they’re off the hook for another year.

But many, many people are culturally engaged. I think of the first impressions I had of the people I’ve worked with over the years (I’m an office drone). At first many of them seem pretty dull, but then you get to know them and you discover that this software geek does salsa and tango dancing on weekends. That project manager plays clarinet in a neighbourhood klezmer band. The engineer in the corner has a fine arts degree in ceramics. On and on.

Of course there are people like that in Toronto too. Toronto, which, as urban legend has it, was declared by UNESCO to be the world’s most ethnically diverse city*, is jammed with people just like that; people who cook for passion, who publish small chapbooks of poetry while scraping out a living as a bookkeeper or bank clerk. People who saw on fiddles at night and sing in amateur choirs on weekends.

The difference is this: the predominant attitude about culture in Toronto is still highly influenced by its old, white, Presbyterian “Hogtown” past. That’s a tired hold-over from the days when Toronto had no ethnic diversity to speak of, and was composed primarily of a bunch of working class stiffs and a handful of rich Scots and Englishmen. (By the way, the only difference between Toronto and Montreal back then was that Montreal had more of those wealthy anglos, and its working class was 80% francophone.)

In that way of thinking, “culture” is indeed defined by symphonies, theatres, and museums. And lets not forget opera. In other words, “culture” is something you look at, not something you do. Spectator culture. More specifically, black tie spectator culture. If you don’t have to buy an expensive ticket for it, it isn’t culture.

That attitude prevails in the arguments by those indignant white collar stiffs back in 2001 and in the orientation of the MacLean’s surveys and reports. Well, I hereby declare that culture is alive and well in Montreal, but it is a participatory culture that you don’t need an expensive ticket or a tuxedo to be part of. It happens every day with the choices people make with regard to how they divide their time, how they amuse themselves, and how they pursue their interests.

And it happens in Toronto as well. Toronto, that city of neighbourhoods. That city of ethnic diversity where every street is like a little tower of Babel. But those old Presbyterians up there in their stuffed white-collar shirts, those parliamentarians and editors, are stuck in 1932. As for the rest of us, we can pretty much ignore those fools and get back to our books and guitars.

* UNESCO never said any such thing. From what I can gather, it started with a University of Toronto professor who used UNESCO data to arrive at that conclusion according to his own criteria. This was picked up by the mayor’s office and touted as a UNESCO finding. The press then ran with the story based on the mayor’s declaration. [Source 1: CERIS Policy Matters # 11, Oct. 2004, “The Anatomy of an Urban Legend: Toronto’s Multicultural Reputation(PDF), Source 2: to.ronto.ca/demographics]