History of Montreal

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Although Montreal's history tracks back long before Jacques Cartier "discovered" the island in 1535, the intrepid explorer can certainly lay claim to being the first European to see it from the top of Mount Royal, the city's centrally-located volcanic mountain.

Amerindians referred to our beloved grounds as 'Hochelaga,' and used the island as a meeting place where tribes could discuss trade and other important matters. But, hundreds of years ago, building cities wasn't one of their fortes, and the official founding date for Ville-Marie (later to become Montréal in honour of the King of France) is May 18, 1642, when Jeanne Mance and Paul de Chomedey Sieur de Maisonneuve came ashore with about 40 colonists, and proceeded to drive out the Iroquois.

The buzzing colony, known as Nouvelle France, became a major jumping off point for fur traders, explorers and settlers who wanted to venture further inland towards the Great Lakes and down into the Mississippi Valley. In 1760, Montreal had a population, mostly French, of about 4,000. The architecture of this period can be seen in buildings such as the Old Saint-Sulpice (Sulpician) Seminary and Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel.

The second event that would eventually shape modern Montreal happened in 1763 when, following the British victory in the Seven Years War, France was forced to relinquish its North American territories.

Under British rule, Montreal became an important port (the largest inland port in the world) as well as Canada's largest city and commercial hub. It was home to Canada's first banks, mercantile houses and fur-trading companies, centred on St-Jacques Street (or Saint James, as the British called it) in Old Montreal. You can get a good look at buildings still standing from this era, including the Molson Bank and the Bank of Montreal.

Between 1800 and 1850, the city experienced a population explosion, going from about 9,000 to 57,000. For five years, between 1844 and 1849, the city even served as Canada's capital until a rampaging crowd burned down the buildings that housed the legislature.

The mid-19th century saw the city expand into manufacturing and heavy industry as well as become the railway centre for Canada. A flood of job opportunities drew both immigrants from overseas and rural Quebecers and the population continued to soar, reaching half a million by 1911.

By that time, the city's Golden Square Mile area, Atwater to the west, Park to the east, Mount Royal to the north, and Rene Levesque to the south, held some 70 percent of all Canada's wealth. Huge properties such as the 60-room Ravenscrag Mansion on des Pins W were commonplace.

It was also around this time that immigration other than from the British Isles brought in the third wave of Montreal's development. European Jews, Italians, and Greeks joined Irish and Scottish immigrants to make the city a much more cosmopolitan place.

Shortly after the Second World War, Montreal began a slow, steady decline in influence and power as the Canadian economy looked southward to the U.S. and away from a weakening Great Britain. Corporate headquarters migrated to Toronto, which began to receive the bulk of new investment.

The shift was accelerated by two factors: the building of the St-Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ships direct access to the Great Lakes, and the revival of Quebec nationalism, which started with the so-called Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and culminated in the election of a separatist government in the late 1970s. This led to a further exodus 'down the 401,' as the highway between Montreal and Toronto is called.

But, despite these woes, Montreal managed to hold its head high through the 1960s and '70s, thanks to its tenacious mayor, Jean Drapeau. A man with grandiose visions, Drapeau orchestrated the building of the city's subway system (the Metro) in 1966, snagged the prestigious Expo '67 international exhibition, and then sold the city as the site for the even more illustrious 1976 Summer Olympics.

Today, Montreal may have relinquished the honour of being Canada's largest and most economically influential metropolis. But it still relishes the role as its most spirited and international city, the French gastronomic centre of North America, and a place where historical strands join to create a potent mix of pride, art and culture.

- Michael Mirolla