Montreal, Depictions of a Mid-Size Metropolis

By Collin, Jean-Pierre | Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Montreal, Depictions of a Mid-Size Metropolis


Collin, Jean-Pierre, Canadian Journal of Urban Research


The current period seems to be a good time for overviews of the Montreal urban area and for predictions about its future. Indeed, as Germain and Rose pointed out in their recent portrait of urban issues in Montreal (2000), the city and the entire urban area are clearly in a transition period. The mid- 1990s appear to have marked the end of several decades of difficulties and the beginning of a long-awaited revitalization.

Metropolitan Montreal in the first decade of the new millennium is exhibiting a remarkable economic performance. Metropolitan Montreal in the first decade of the new millennium is undergoing a renewal of its municipal and metropolitan political institutions. Metropolitan Montreal in the first decade of the new millennium is emerging as a cosmopolitan city that is open to the world, especially in its cultural products and tourism industry.

But this kind of optimism is recent. After remaining unchallenged in its position as the metropolis of Canada from 1880 to 1930 (Gournay and Vanlaethem 1998), Montreal gradually ceded this role to Toronto. The city's decline in the Canadian and North American urban hierarchy after the Second World War was coupled with a long period of economic and urban restructuring. In short, during the latter half of the twentieth century, Montreal had to cope with losing its status as Canada's metropolis to Toronto, while simultaneously experiencing a gradual transformation of its economic structure, its demographics, its political institutions, etc.

Until the early 1990s, Montreal seemed destined to undergo endless restructuring and a continual decline. Studies on the city in the first half of the 1990s were characterized by discouragement and alarmism (Coffey and Polese 1993; Thibodeau in Tellier 1997; Possibles 1991) in the face of a recovery that never seemed able to take foot. From 1976 to 1995, Montreal appeared to be "going to the dogs" [Translation] (Tellier 1997: 4), judging by the exceptionally high unemployment rate in both the city and the metropolitan area, compared with other North American urban areas of similar size. In short, in the early 1990s, Montreal seemed to have become, like a few other cities in the northeastern U.S. and the American Midwest, a capital of poverty and unemployment.

Within this chorus of analyses, several authors had suggested that revitalization factors had also been at work since the 1960s, ensuring Montreal's transition from its status as Canada's metropolis to its role as the metropolis of Quebec in the city's quest for a new identity (Linteau 1994; Senecal and Manzagol 1993; Germain and Rose 2000).

A Francophone "reconquest" of Montreal (Levine 1997) was accompanied by the city's growing ascendancy over Quebec as a whole, driven by a dynamic service sector (Lamonde and Martineau 1992). In practice, this enhanced metropolitan role is based on Montreal's successful transition to the new economy, as seen in the aerospace, biopharmaceutical, information technology and communications sectors. "Montreal has also become the cultural metropolis, with its radio and television networks, publishing houses, and concert promoters. It draws talent from throughout Quebec and exports its cultural products province-wide and beyond" [Translation] (Linteau 1995: 54). In the past ten years, there has been a rapid growth in these phenomena.

But the revitalization factors identified have less to do with Montreal's integration into the Quebec context than with the city's role on the continental and international scene, whether in the transportation sector (especially in container handling), industrial restructuring, changing labour force skills, the presence of international organizations (especially ICAO), or cultural elements that will play a part in Montreal's future.

Moreover, the city's role as the metropolis of Quebec is not particularly unique. As Senecal has pointed out, metropolitan domination in Canada is not as definitive as has been the case in other national contexts. …

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