For the Love of Montreal
Some locals claim that Montreal has only two seasons: winter and festivals. When winter ends, it’s festival season. Months and months of festivals. Festivals all over the city: music festivals and gay festivals, movie festivals and comedy festivals and jazz and arts and culinary festivals. For at least nine months a year, Montreal is an ongoing festival of fun.
I first fell in love with Montreal as a kid when my family traveled there on vacation for Expo 67, the World’s Fair that was based on Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s "Terre des Hommes," Exupery’s 1939 book about dreams and hopes for the future.
Probably the most successful world’s fair of the 20th century, Expo 67 celebrated Canada’s centennial year and even today many Canadians recall it with the same fondness that New York historians feel about the 1939 World’s Fair.
What I recall most vividly about Expo 67 was visiting Habitat 67, the modular housing complex designed by Moshe Safdie. Upon seeing what was then referred to as a "bachelor’s apartment," I declared to my family that this was where I was going to live as an adult.
Montreal has long appealed to gay people, something that must’ve registered with me even as a pubescent. Apart from the fact that the city’s original name was Ville-Marie or "City of Mary," there’s the issue of Montreal’s duality. After all, this is a bilingual city that was founded by both a man, Paul Maisonneuve, and a woman, Jeanne Mance.
The roots of Montreal’s gay village go back to 1869, to a cake shop on St. Antoine Street that was reputedly gay. Today, the Village is centered on St. Catherine Street and readily identifiable by the rainbow pillars at the entrance to the Beaudry Metro station.
For the past few summers, the heart of the gay village has been closed to vehicular traffic from May through September. With the cars and cabs replaced with pedestrians, the backbone of Montreal’s gayborhood becomes a kind of Canadian piazza lined with terraces, pergolas, gazebos, and cafés.
During festival season, "Les Boules Roses" (or "Pink Balls"), a public art installation of 170,000 pink resin balls, dangles above St. Catherine Street to form a pink pearl canopy below which pedestrians parade for eighteen blocks. If you thought the Yellow Brick Road was the apex of gay, then you have yet to preen and pose beneath "Les Boules Roses." More than a mile long, the Village is one of the largest areas of LGBT businesses in North America.
The second-largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris), Montreal brilliantly balances its British, French, and Canadian heritage alongside the years of the Quebecois separatist struggle, and in so doing, the city asserts its own spirited and independent character. For much of its early history, Montreal was known as the "Sin City" of Canada and alcohol remained available throughout Prohibition.
Today, Quebec is one of the most socially liberal jurisdictions in North America. As Pierre Trudeau astutely remarked in 1967 while serving as the Minister of Justice, "There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation."
LGBT people have been protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1977’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, making Quebec the first jurisdiction larger than a city or a county to prohibit LGBT discrimination - and in 2005, Canada was one of the first countries to offer full legal rights of marriage to LGBT people.
Perhaps in keeping with its "sinful" reputation, Montreal has one of the lowest rates of church attendance in North America, in spite of having more than 350 churches within the city. Notre Dame, the city’s famous basilica, features frescoes that display not the tall tales from holy books but rather the history of Montreal - and, apart from the occasional celebrity wedding (such as Celine Dion), Notre Dame is most well known for its spectacular (and secular) sound and light shows.
Recently designated a UNESCO City of Design, Montreal received the award for its citywide emphasis on talent, tolerance, diversity, and technology - and that plurality of values and overall inclusiveness of its citizenry are repeatedly reflected in the city’s more than forty annual festivals.
While there are specific LGBT festivals that occur throughout the year, including BBCM’s Black and Blue Festival during Canadian Thanksgiving (American Columbus Day weekend), and Divers/Cite during the last week of July, as well as the Montreal LGBT Pride Festival in August, there are also festivals that draw nearly as many LGBT people as heterosexuals, such as Igloofest in January, Bal en Blanc in April, and Festival Mode & Design in August.
For those with an aversion to snow and winter, Underground City, Montreal is a series of interconnected complexes, walkways, and tunnels that wind under the city for more than twenty miles. During winter, more than half a million people wander through the underground city, which might be expected in a place where the annual snowfall averages around eight feet.
If you look at a map of Montreal, you’ll notice that the city is shaped like a pair of lips (or a croissant, if you prefer) and it’s fitting that the Tourism Montreal logo, which visitors see all over Montreal, replaces the O in Montreal with a red-lipsticked kiss.
This season, head to Montreal and get a French kiss from a local.
(Travel feature continues on next pages: Where to Eat, Where to Stay, What to Do, Getting There, Additional Info...)