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Masking Multiculturalism: Montreal West and Canada 150

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--June 23, 2017.

larger_friend.1.jpgThere’s no community more well known to me than the on-island suburb of Montreal West. Having spent many formative years demonstrating my acrobatic abilities at local parks, deep-sea diving in the public wading pool, and seeking new lands from the tops of tree branches, I continue to feel a certain attachment to Montreal West that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. One of the best parts of my summers growing up were the weekly festivities at a small park in the center of the town. From outdoor screenings one week, to pet shows the next, and Hungarian night the following week, the eclectic selection of events never struck me as odd before, nor did I question what kind of messages they were sending to the local community. This summer, several nights at the park are being sponsored by the Department of Canadian Heritage in connection with Canada 150.

Interested in seeing the affect this would have on my community’s traditional celebrations, I decided to pay a visit to the town’s Multicultural Night on Tuesday June 13th. I left disappointed, but filled with a fresh perspective on what it means to celebrate Canada’s diverse multicultural makeup, and how it ought to be something we collectively learn more about, not passively marvel at.

larger_friend.3.jpgBefore I delve into the happenings at the Montreal West Multicultural Night, I thought I might introduce those unfamiliar with the suburb to an overview of its history. While little exists in terms of a formal study of the town’s past, Montreal West has its own appointed town historian, a local resident named David Watson. Watson took it upon himself to compile a historical account of the town’s past as part of its centennial celebrations in 1997. He traced back the earliest documented street in the area, namely Upper Lachine Road, now known as Avon Road (Watson, 3). In 1672, it was recorded to have been used as a footpath to Fort Rémy, a walled village contained within the current confines of Lasalle. Its most important use, however, was during the War of 1812. In order to protect food and ammunition supply lines to the British, local authorities fortified the steep hill near Upper Lachine Road, building a lookout at the top of what is now Easton Avenue, and improving Upper Lachine Road by transforming the sheer bluff into the recognizable gradual slope it is today (Watson, 3).

Besides its use as a military outpost, a stagecoach line ran daily along the road, from the downtown depot on McGill Street to the steamboats carrying mail at the Lachine Wharf (Watson, 4). As a matter of convenience, farms were set up along the route, many of which were settled by those who had been given land under the French regime. Three main farms comprising almost 400 acres collectively would come to evolve into the current town of Montreal West. Two of the farms were owned by the Décarie family, the members of which were most likely descendants of Jean Décaries, who settled in NDG in 1653. This family name is one of the oldest names associated with the area (Watson, 4).

A public road separated the Décarie farms, and it was this same public road that I found myself on during Montreal West’s Multicultural Night. As I arrived, I noticed a gathering of people had already formed at the park. Many were hustling to secure a spot in line for the food stands, while others huddled together at the foot of a stage where a steel drum band had captured their attention. Guided by my escalating appetite, I did a quick tour of what the night had to offer in terms of food. Pizza and pulled pork overshadowed a smaller Jamaican patty stall, the three options representing the selection of ethnic eats one could find that night. As I settled down on a park bench to tuck into my cultural delicacies (I chose pizza, so some of the blame falls on me), I angled myself towards the stage and readied myself for an exposé of the diversity for which Canada is known. What I wasn’t prepared for was the series of spectacles that were performed, all of which were devoid of any type of appreciation beyond the aesthetic appearance and instrumental beats.

larger_friend.4.jpgWithout any introduction to the different performances, viewers were forced to remain passive observers, unable to connect to or take away from the displays of multiculturalism. Not only were the origins of the stage performers undisclosed, but nothing was said in terms of how the performances related to their cultural backgrounds, nor was any information provided so that those in attendance might have a chance to learn more about what they were witnessing. Instead, echoes of “Mommy, look at those hats!” and “those are weird shoes” could be heard from the most impressionable age bracket, while those old enough to absorb new information were deprived of any educational components.

With the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation approaching, I find it high time that we move away from a simplistic acknowledgment of the multitude of cultures present within Canada’s population. Instead, providing engaging entertainment that challenges the observer’s intellect would force Canadians to appreciate more than the visual aspects of a performance. Remembering that this year also commemorates the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, it’s important to distance ourselves from the style of world's fair expositions, where the display of non-Western societies was used to “summarize, categorize, and evaluate the whole of human experience.” (Swift, 2493).

larger_friend.5.jpgIn general, world's fairs traditionally placed industrial competition at the forefront of the exhibitions, while the foreign and less familiar cultures on display were meant to contrast the advancements of the Western world (Fromm, 91). I am reminded of these international events as I revisit the happenings at Montreal West’s Multicultural Night. While certainly not on the same scale as a world’s fair, the obscure parade of cultures was placed on an alien runway, leaving the audience to gaze and marvel without a chance for in-depth appreciation. Thankfully, I plan to attend several other Canada 150 events in Montreal West and other neighbouring communities. I hope to be able to contrast this night with future displays of Canadian culture, and progressive participation.

Annette B. Fromm, “Ethnographic Museums and Intangible Cultural Heritage Return to our Roots,” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 5.2, 2016.

Anthony Swift, “World’s Fairs,” in Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, Detroit, 2006.

David Watson, Montreal West Looking Back. Montreal Junction: A Pictorial History of the Town of Montreal West, Quebec, Montreal, 1997.

*Rebecca Firiend is an Honours student in Public History at Concordia University in Montreal. She interned at QAHN in 2017. This is the first installment in her series focusing on community celebrations taking place this year in Montreal neighbourhoods in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary.