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]

11 thoughts on “What is “Montreal Culture?”

  1. That’s one of the things I noticed when I first got aquainted with Québec. Music and art seem to be more prevelant. I remember noticing that many bars in central Quebec City or in Old Montreal would have someone making music. I also noticed that there seem to be many more people into painting. I assume it’s a product of the cold winters and people finding something to do indoors.

  2. Thanks, Alston! But Frank, it’s just as cold in Toronto. While I do maintain that Toronto has no shortage of personal scale cultural activities, I think you simply see more of that in Montreal.

    I’m more inclined to think it’s (at least partially) a function of economy. White-bread Toronto has long been very concerned with business and upward mobility. Bourgeois pursuits that require long work days. Montrealers have traditionally had cheaper housing and less concern for upward mobility and the trappings of the bourgeois. As a result, evenings and weekends were for enjoyment, not recovery.

    A lot of that has changed. As the economy in Montreal has picked up in the past decade (and housing prices skyrocketed) it is definitely more nouveau-bourgeois than it has ever been.

    I read a telling example of the differences between mainstream Toronto and mainstream Montreal about 10 years ago somewhere. I don’t remember the details, but it was a article about Square Saint-Louis in Montreal. It talked about how in the summer the park was filled with laid-off and unemployed young people who were taking it easy and enjoying the fresh air and their reprieves from working life, and how that contrasted with Toronto, where being out of a job was seen as shameful, and to be not actively looking for work at every waking moment was seen as a sure sign of your imminent failure in life.

  3. O.M.G. Where to start?! OK, having lived a decent amount of time in both cities (13 years Toronto, 10 years Montreal), and being involved in the arts in both, I feel the need to respond to this. :)

    1-My reaction when I first saw your post was ‘Montreal has way more ‘culture’ than Toronto’. I totally agree that for many here it is a part of everyday life. I really think a big part of that is the link to a typically more European-style appreciation of the pleasures in life (and the laid back approach) vs. a typically more American-style ‘go,go,go’ lifestyle – all about work.

    BUT, and that’s a big BUT

    2- I kind of have to agree that Toronto offers a lot more ‘cultural’ events at ALL LEVELS, than Montréal does. This might be partly just a function of the size of the city. There are so many things going on the music scene, theatre scene, dance scene, art scene etc. at a grass roots level and community level in Toronto. And so many of these things have been around for a long time in Toronto. And I also find that there is a lot more support for artists of all stripes (ie. associations, community groups, etc.) in Toronto than you can find in Montreal. I mostly credit this to what seems to be typical Anglo organization-focused approach vs. the Franco- laissez-faire/relaxed approach. A generalization, but it seems to often apply.

    3- Unfortunately, what gets cited as ‘proof’ of culture is exactly what you outlined above. And, as you said, it’s what the old white male establishment is droning on about, as it’s their experience. The arts have taken a great hit in Toronto, basically since the days of Mike Harris (damn him), losing much of the support from the government that it used to have. All performance venues have been re-named with the names of the big businesses that have bought them/pumped $$ into them to keep them alive. Sad, but true. But despite all of that, there still is a lot going on in Toronto. Some things have folded due to lack of funding. But a lot is still around.

    4- If you live in the city proper of Toronto, I find it does feel more ethnically diverse than Montreal does overall. Just more of a variety of ethnicities.

    5- It’s unfortunate that in North America, ‘elite’ cultural experiences – museums, opera, ballet, symphony – are just that, ‘elite’. A russian ex-colleague of mine always found it strange how little we attend those kids of events/institutions as for her, when she lived in Russia, everyone attended. A lot. It’s just not part of our collective culture (in Montreal or elsewhere in Canada) for ‘average’ people to engage in these things regularly -admittedly probably due to the high price associated with them.

    6- Toronto is warmer in the winter ;). OK, to be exact, the winter is way shorter!

    7- And finally, Here! Here! to ignoring those fools and getting back to our guitars and books.

    In the end, I think that Montreal has a more identifiable ‘cultural personality’ than Toronto does. Francophones, in general, are opinionated, and aren’t afraid to show it, and I think this translates into a more defined ‘Montreal culture’. We Anglos and our contained-ness hold back, and therefore it seems that a cultural identity doesn’t exist. But it’s there. Singing and painting and writing and acting.

  4. Toronto’s nickname traditionally has been Hogtown. It’s Calgary that’s known as Cowtown. I’ve lived in both cities and always love getting back to Montreal (“home”) a few times a year.

  5. Having spent half my life living in Toronto (it’s not my fault my parents chose to move there from England!!), and three years in Montreal, I couldn’t agree more!

  6. D’oh! Thanks for the clarification, Paul. (I updated the post.) Damn, I ought to just fire my whole fact-checking department! ;-)

  7. Howdy!

    Instead of typing lots about what is culture and where it is, it might be helpful to actually look at how Maclean’s did their analysis.

    Which is to say that they base it entirely, 100% and completely on spending. Buying books, paying to go to museums, and paying for tickets to shows.

    The big library opened 5 years ago, it has been exponentially more popular than anyone thought – I have no idea if it has cut into book sales, but it might have.

    There are 66 museums in Montreal, I think about 10 of them charge for entry, and then if you have one of those Access Montreal cards you get a significant discount (and there are other ways to go to museums for free or cheap as well). I would bet you dollars to doughnuts, in Toronto, Calgary and the like a majority of museums charge for entry.

    And then finally for the performing arts; in about a week, this city is going to go into Festival Overdrive, and every last one of those festivals will not only be offering performances for free, but the majority of them will be offering more free performances than anyone can see in a lifetime.

    So I ask you, since there is so much free culture here, why would you expect to be ranked high in “Spending on Culture?”

  8. Seems to me the issue is about the difference between what “culture” means “cultured” and how adding the -ed is the equivalent of bringing on a case of ethnic dysfunction.

  9. No matter what type of success Toronto has, it will never be validated by Montrealers. We will never be congratulated, given a pat on the back or a salute. I’m 57 and grew up with my city being mocked as provincial and backward. Maybe it was then … but it isn’t now. Toronto is indeed the cultural centre of Canada and Montrealers just can’t come to grips with it … so they make up their own rules: It’ s not the established arts that signify culture – that Toronto is brimming with – it’s the homey, folky fiddler stuff. Give the rest of Canada a break. You had your chance, and you blew it. With all it’s diversity in Toronto who knows what the cultural profile will look like in years to come … probably quite breathtaking. Montreal is yesterday’s city … Toronto is the future.

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