History of Montreal

From Academic Kids

The human history of Montreal spans some 8,000 years and started with Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois. Jacques Cartier became the first European to reach the area now known as Montreal in 1535 when he entered the village of Hochelega on the Island of Montreal while in search for gold. Seventy years later, Samuel de Champlain unsuccessfully tried to create a fur trading post but the local Iroquois defended their land. The first permanent European settlement was established in 1639 and a mission named Ville Marie was built in 1642 as part of a project to create a French colonial empire. Ville Marie became a centre for the fur trade and French expansion into New France until 1760 it was surrendered to the British army. British immigration expanded the city and the city's golden era of fur trading began with the advent of the locally-owned North West Company.

Montreal was incorporated as a city in 1832. The city's growth was spurred by the opening of the Lachine Canal and Montreal was the capital of the United Province of Canada from 1844 to 1849. Growth continued and by 1860 Montreal was the largest city in British North America and the undisputed economic and cultural centre of Canada. Annexation of neighbouring towns between 1883 and 1918 changed Montreal back to a mostly Francophone city. During the 1920s and 1930s the Prohibition movement in the United States turned Montreal into a haven for Americans looking for alcohol. As with the rest of the world, the Great Depression brought unemployment to the city but this waned in the mid 1930s and skyscrapers began to be built.

World War II brought protests against conscription and caused the Conscription Crisis of 1944. Montreal's populations surpassed one million in the early 1950s. A new metro system was added, Montreal's harbour was expanded and the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened during this time. More skyscrapers were built along with museums. International status was cemented by Expo '67 and the summer Olympics. A major league baseball team, called the Montreal Expos started playing in Montreal in 1969 but the team moved to Washington, DC in 2005. Montreal now constitutes one of the regions of Quebec.

Skyline of downtown Montreal, seen across the  from
Skyline of downtown Montreal, seen across the Saint Lawrence from Île Sainte-Hélène

The Village of Ville-Marie

The area known today as Montreal had been inhabited by the Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois for some 8,000 years, while the oldest known artifact found in Montreal proper is about 4,000 years old.[1] (,63,0,102004,816263.shtml) The first European to reach the area was Jacques Cartier on October 2, 1535. He reached the area after speaking to a Iroquois chief in present-day Quebec City who told him of a shiny stone upstream from his village. Cartier listened to him, and believed he was describing gold, which lead him to the village of Hochelega, on the Island of Montreal. The local Iroquois took him to the top of Mont Royal and Cartier planted the first of the mountaintop's famous crosses in honour of Francis I, his sponsor. Unfortunately for Cartier, the shiny stone turned out to be quartz (or perhaps Pyrite, also called Fool's Gold) not gold.

Seventy years after Cartier, Samuel de Champlain went to Hochelaga but the village no longer existed. He decided to establish a fur trading post at Port Royal on the Island of Montreal, but the local Iroquois successfully defended their land. It was not until 1639 that a permanent settlement was created on the Island of Montreal by a French tax collector named Jérôme Le Royer. Under the authority of the Roman Catholic Société Notre-Dame, missionaries Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and a few French colonists set up a mission named Ville Marie on May 17, 1642 as part of a project to create a colony dedicated to the Virgin Mary. One of the members of this group of settlers was Jeanne Mance, who, in 1644, founded the Hôtel-Dieu, the first hospital in North America. In November of 1653, another 140 individuals arrived to enlarge the settlement that eventually became known as Montréal.

Ville Marie became a centre for the fur trade, and the Iroquois resumed their attacks on the settlement. Despite the continuous attacks, Ville Marie prospered as a centre for the Catholic religion and the fur trade, as well as a base for further exploration into New France. It was the jumping-off point for the French exploration of the interior by such explorers as Jolliet, La Salle, La Vérendrye, and Duluth. A peace treaty was signed in 1701 between the Iroquois and the French stopped further expansion. The town was fortified in 1725 and remained French until 1760, when Pierre de Cavagnal, Marquis de Vaudreuil surrendered it to the British army under Jeffrey Amherst. Fire destroyed one quarter of the town on May 18, 1765. A few buildings from this era remain in the area known today as Vieux Montréal and in a few places around the island.

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the French and Indian War and France chose to keep Guadaloupe instead of its Canada colony. Now a British colony, and with immigration no longer limited to members of the Roman Catholic religion, the city began to grow from British immigration. In 1775, American Revolutionists briefly held the city but soon left when it became apparent that they could not take and hold Canada. More and more English-speaking merchants continued to arrive in what had by then become known as Montreal and soon the main language of commerce in the city was English. The golden era of fur trading began in the city with the advent of the locally-owned North West Company, the main rival to the primarily British Hudson's Bay Company.

The town remained populated by a majority of Francophones until around the 1830s. From the 1830s, to about 1865, it was inhabited by a majority of Anglophones, most of recent immigration from the British Isles or other parts of British North America.

From the early part of the 18th century, the Scots-Quebecer immigrants who chose to make Montreal their home played a key role in the city's cultural, scientific, and business life. Although at their peak, the Scots made up only a small percentage of Montreal's population, they had an impact on the city far beyond their numbers. Scots were instrumental in building the Lachine Canal that turned the city of 16,000 inhabitants into one of the most important and prosperous ports in North America. It was also Scots who constructed Montreal's first bridge across the Saint Lawrence River and who founded many of the city's great industries, including Morgan's, the first department store in Canada, incorporated within the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1970's; the Bank of Montreal; Redpath Sugar; and both of Canada's national railroads. The city boomed as railways were built to New England, Toronto, and the west, and factories were established along the Lachine Canal. Many buildings from this time period are concentrated in the area known today as Vieux Montreal. Noted for their philanthropic work, Scots established and funded numerous Montreal institutions such as McGill University, the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec and the Royal Victoria Hospital.

The City of Montreal

Missing image
Montreal courthouse in 1880

Montreal was incorporated as a city in 1832. The city's growth was spurred by the opening of the Lachine Canal, which permitted ships to pass by the unnavigable Lachine Rapids south of the island. Montreal was the capital of the United Province of Canada from 1844 to 1849, bringing even more English-speaking immigrants: Late Loyalists, Irish, Scottish, and English. The now large and wealthy Anglophone community built one of Canada's first universities, McGill, and built large mansions at the foot of Mont Royal. The economic boom also attracted thousands of immigrants from Italy, Russia, Eastern Europe, and other parts of French Canada.

In 1852, Montreal had 58,000 inhabitants and by 1860, Montreal was the largest city in British North America and the undisputed economic and cultural centre of Canada. From 1861 to the Great Depression of 1930, Montreal went through what some historians call its golden age. What is today Old Montreal was then the most important economic centre of the Dominion of Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railway made its headquarters there in 1880, and the Canadian National Railway in 1919. With the annexation of neighbouring towns between 1883 and 1918, Montreal became a mostly Francophone city again. The tradition to alternate between a francophone and an anglophone mayor began and lasted until 1914.

War and the Great Depression

Montrealers volunteered to serve in the army to defend Canada during World War I, but most French Montrealers opposed mandatory conscription. After the war, the Prohibition movement in the United States turned Montreal into a haven for Americans looking for alcohol. Americans would go to Montreal for drinking, gambling, and prostitution, which earned the city the nickname "Sin City." Despite the increase in tourism, unemployment remained high in the city, and was exacerbated by the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression. However, Canada began to exit the Great Depression in the mid 1930s, and real estate developers began to build skyscrapers, changing Montreal's skyline. The Sun Life Building, built in 1931, was for a time the tallest building in the Commonwealth. During World War II its vaults were the secret hiding place of the gold bullion of the Bank of England and the British Crown Jewels.

Canada could not escape World War II. Mayor Camillien Houde protested against conscription. He urged Montrealers to ignore the federal government's registry of all men and women because he believed it would lead to conscription. Ottawa was furious over Houde's insubordination and put him in a prison camp until 1944, when the government was forced to institute conscription (see Conscription Crisis of 1944).

Growth after the wars

After the population of Montreal surpassed one million in the early 1950s, Mayor Jean Drapeau laid down great plans for the future development of the city. In 1958 he started development projects that had provisions for a new metro system and an underground city, the expansion of Montreal's harbour, and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. New buildings were built on top of old ones in this time period, including Montreal's two tallest skyscrapers up to then: the 43-storey Place Ville-Marie and the 47-storey Tour de la Bourse. Two new museums were also built, and finally in 1966 the metro opened along with several new expressways.

The city's international status was cemented by the World's Fair in 1967 (Expo '67) and the summer Olympics in 1976. The fair alone was anticipated to attract 50 million visitors. A new major league baseball team, called the Montreal Expos, was named after the Expo and started playing in Montreal in 1969; the team moved to Washington, DC in 2005. The Summer Olympics were held in Montreal in 1976. Except for a few years during the 1960s, Drapeau was the mayor until the mid-1980s and brought Montreal into a new era even as Toronto overtook it as the economic centre of Canada.

Montreal celebrated its 350th anniversary in 1992, prompting the construction of two of Montreal's tallest skyscrapers: 1000 de La Gauchetière and 1250 René-Lévesque. Currently, Montreal's favorable economic conditions allow further improvements in infrastructure with the expansion of the metro system and the development of a ring road around the island. Neighbourhood gentrification is also occurring. Montreal now constitutes one of the regions of Quebec.

One island, one city

The idea of uniting the island of Montreal under one municipal government was first preposed by Jean Drapeau in the 1960s. The idea was strongly opposed in many suburbs, although three towns (Rivière des Prairies, Saraguay and Saint-Michel) were annexed to Montreal between 1963 and 1968.

In 2001, the provincial government announced a plan to merge major cities with their suburbs. As of January 1, 2002, the entire island of Montreal, home to 1.8 million people, as well as the several outlying islands that were also part of the Montreal Urban Community, were merged into a new "megacity". Some 27 suburbs as well as the former city were folded into several boroughs, named after their former cities or (in the case of parts of the former Montreal) districts.

During the 2003 provincial elections, the winning Liberal Party had promised submit the mergers to referendums. On June 20, 2004, a number of the former cities voted to demerge from Montreal and regain their municipal status, although not with all the powers they once had. Baie-d'Urfé, Beaconsfield, Côte-Saint-Luc, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Dorval, Hampstead, Kirkland, L'Île-Dorval, Montréal-Est, Montréal-Ouest, Mont-Royal, Pointe-Claire, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Senneville, and Westmount voted to demerge. The demergers will come into effect on January 1, 2006.

Anjou, LaSalle, L'Île-Bizard, Pierrefonds, Roxboro, Sainte-Geneviève, and Saint-Laurent had a majority in favour of demerger, but the turnout was insufficient to permit demerger, so those former municipalities will remain part of Montreal. No referendum was held in Lachine, Montréal-Nord, Outremont, Saint-Léonard, or Verdun - nor in any of the boroughs that were part of the former city of Montreal.

Origin of the name

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View of downtown Montreal, with the city's tallest building 1000 De La Gauchetière (far left); Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral; and 1250 René-Lévesque (far right)

Montreal was named for the island of Montreal, which in turn was named for Mount Royal.

It is not certain how the name changed from Mont Royal to Mont Réal. In 1556, Italian geographer G.B. Ramusio translated Mont Royal to Monte Reale in a map. In 1575, François de Belleforest became the first to write Montreal, writing:

… au milieu de la compaigne est le village, ou Cité royale iointe à vne montaigne cultivée, laquelle ville les Chrestiens appellerent Montreal…
"In the middle of the field is the village or royal colony near a cultivated mountain. Christians call this town Montreal."

During the early 18th century, the name of the island came to be used as the name of the town. Two 1744 maps by Nicolas Bellin name the island Isle de Montréal and the town, Ville-Marie; but a 1726 map refers to the town as "la ville de Montréal." The name Ville-Marie soon fell into disuse to refer to the town, though today it is used to refer to the Montreal borough that includes downtown.

In the modern Iroquois language, Montreal is called Tiohtià:ke. Other native languages, such as Algonquin, refer to it as Moniang. [2] (

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