A Brief History of Montreal

Asides from being a city, Montreal is also an island located in the Saint Lawrence River. Approximately 50 kilometers long, 16 kilometers in width, with a 230 meter mountain occupying its center, it was originally inhabited by the Iroquois who had lived in Quebec for thousands of years. The island was called Tiohtiake Tsi or Ka-we-no-te in the Iroquois language. In 1535, Jacques Cartier (an explorer from France) was amonst the first Europeans to set foot on the island. He and his men climbed up the mountain to place a cross and claim the land in the name of France. Cartier named the mountain "Mont-Royal".

In the early 1600's, the island was colonized by the French and the city of Montreal (originally named Ville Marie) was founded in 1642 by Paul de Chomedey Maisonneuve. The name "Montreal" was derived from the French name Mont Royal.

After the defeat of the French colonists by the British in battle of the plains of Abraham in Quebec city in 1759, Montreal was later occupied and administered by Great Britain. The British did not expel the French from the island but allowed them to continue to live there as subjects of the British empire. Colonists from England, Scotland and Ireland subsequently arrived afterwards to live alongside the French.

Despite being conquered by the British, French Montrealers continued to flourish and exist as the majority living on the island over the subsequent decades. English, Scots and Irish settlers intermarried with the French. Many French Montrealers on the island today still have the last name of a British ancestor (ie: Blackburn, Richard, O'Brien....). Some of these last names have also been Frenchized (ex: O'Briens are now mostly called Brien and have dropped the O). A large number of English speaking Montrealers also have French last names.

Over the 3 centuries since Montreal's original foundation, settlements and towns were established in many different areas of the island. Immigrants from many other parts of the world also moved onto the island. These towns and their populations had continued to grow right up to the present day. Their borders had expanded and connected to adjacent towns, eventually connecting to Montreal City itself. As of 2001, the island was home to 27 towns plus the city itself. The city population stood at 1.4 million and the entire island at 3.9 million (Source: UN Population Division 2000 estimate) .

In order to reduce city deficits, balance budgets and evenly distribute town wealth, the government of Quebec (under the control of the Parti Quebecois) passed legislation in 2001 to merge a number of cities and towns in the province of Quebec. As a result, on January 1st, 2002 the suburb towns on the island of Montreal were forced to become boroughs and merge with the city of Montreal.

There was a huge amount of opposition to the forced merger and a large protest had been held in downtown Montreal demanding that the legislation be dropped. Despite the protests, the merger went ahead. At the time, the political opposition party (the Quebec Liberals) had promised that if voted into power in the next election then they would begin demerger plans to bring the city and its towns (now called boroughs) back to their original status.

In 2003, the Quebec Liberals were elected into government. At the time of writing, there have been talks by the government to instead divide the island into three cities (West, Central, East) based on an island referendum vote. However, no firm plans have been set forward yet.

Written by:
Ben Koorengevel, August 2003

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