Thursday, February 08, 2007

Montreal dreamin'

Image Archives Canada via Université Sherbrooke

I’m in a particularly Montreal state of mind at the moment. My now-favourite former colleague Tara sent me a CD of new tunes, many from Montreal bands. I have it on as I write this. Thanks Tara! You rock!

On the topic of things Montrealais, I am happy to see that they won’t be renaming Avenue de Parc for former Premier Robert Bourassa.

In theory, I’m all for naming things for people of historic significance. The fact that the Halifax school board decided to name all new schools after the road they’re on, thus abdicating its power to suburban land developers and leading to school names like “Astral Drive Junior High” caused me no end of rage (as an aside, one school board member from Sackville defended the policy by pointing to C.P. Allen High School and saying “No one knew who he was anyway.” Well, no, they don’t. But that is what they used to call a “teachable moment” back when the education system still cared about such things).

On the other hand, my Mom works at a school named after a long forgotten schools commissioner. It serves one of Nova Scotia’s historic Black communities. At one point a teacher suggested to a community meeting that the school be renamed for someone with more meaning to the community.

The members of the committee representing parents killed the idea, basically on the grounds of “This is the school we went to and it’s always been called that. It's our school. Why would we want to change it?”

Park Ave is a bit of different case. As MacLean's columnist Paul Wells points out, the street is named for its geography, not any particular historic person (though not equivalent to “The Dirt Trail Near Hector's Garage” as he says, since that would be a name that would matter a lot to Hector and people needing his services).

I’m not sure how much that matters. First of all, Park is one of Montreal’s “personality” streets, like St Laurent, St Catherine and Sherbrooke. Irving Layton didn’t write about bouncing hockey pucks “Off the tits of justice” jutting out from the Cartier memorial on some other street. The "happy smoke" emanating from the weekly Tam Tams doesn’t drift over Robert Bourassa, though I don’t know that he would complain if it did. An entire neighbourhood is named for Park; remnants of immigrant communities that settled there to open businesses and raise their children there remain still.

I will confess a bias, of course. To me, Park – the upper reaches of it anyway – was my Main, only better because it never mattered how I dressed there. I knew the organ playing homeless guy the grocery store would let in on cold days, I knew the Harji’s that ran the small grocery store up the street. My favourite Vietnamese restaurant was just off it on Laurier, I’d walk it every day for years to get to and from work.

Technically, none of that changes if the street is suddenly called “Robert Bourassa,” but somehow it does. Park is homey, it’s unpretentious, it is one of the few things in Montreal untainted by the language wars (hell – it’s even pronounced the same in both languages!) To foist the name of a politician –any politician - would be an intrusion.

But of course, it’s not just any politician, it’s a federalist politician, and this is where Wells makes perhaps the only dumb argument I’ve ever heard him make: namely, that naming Park after Robert Bourassa would be some sort of cosmic balancing for renaming Dorchester for Rene Lesvesque.

Now, admittedly renaming Dorchester – a British Lord who advised union of Upper and Lower Canada largely as way to ensure French assimilation – was a calculated act of spite aimed directly at the heart of Anglophone Westmount (trivia: even after the city amalgamation the stub of Rene Lesvesque within Westmount’s limits is still called Dorchester).

However, renaming Park doesn’t redress that particular situation. I have no doubt that Montrealers would be happy to rename something after Bourassa – the French, both in Canada and here, are champions of situational honours of this sort (ask me, sometime, about the names Strasbourg’s Place Kleber has borne over the years).

The big problem with Well’s concept of tit-for-tat toponymy is that it has to be proportional: the separatist got a major downtown street, therefore Bourassa can get no less. Problem is, there’s only so many of them to go around. Fifty years from now, when people are searching for a way to honour the titan of politics who finally broke Quebec out of its perpetual will-we-or-won't-we politics, are we going to have to learn to call St Laurent "Blvd Mario Dumont?"

In short, what I can’t figure in all of this is why it had to be Park, and not say, Édouard-Montpetit who already has a CEGEP named after him and goes has the added benefit of being the address of Université de Montréal, where Bourassa studied and taught.

Besides, naming the soulless canyon that was Dorchester after Lesvesque was insulting enough - wouldn't giving Park to a federalist be rather rubbing their faces in it?

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