A Spire on Saint-Denis

Saint-Jacques at dusk in the Latin Quarter
On the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Denis streets lies the Église Saint-Jacques, its Gothic steeple jutting into the sky over the south end of the city’s young and trendy Latin Quarter. As the sun goes down and the electric lights start to burn the church almost looks like the stone-faced chaperone of a party that is going to go on for a long, long time. 

Built in the early 1820s to become Montreal’s Catholic cathedral, Saint-Jacques is a metaphor made out of stone. Because Église Saint-Jacques has a little secret that no passerby would guess until he trod the stairs to enter:

It isn’t a church.

Walk up the steps of Saint-Jacques and enter the doors, and the hordes of young smokers catching a few drags in front of stain glass windows and graffiti tip you off to Saint-Jacques’ contemporary purpose – the façade of the University of Quebec at Montreal, known by its French initials: UQÀM.

For centuries all over Quebec, the Catholic Church held a preponderant role in daily life. It controlled the hospitals, it ran the schools, and it had a hand-in-glove relationship with the government.

Not a place to find a confessional
The 1960s changed that during a process here that became known as the Quiet Revolution. The province took over the hospitals and the schools from the church, consolidated and took control of key industries such as the power company, and created a middle class in the realm of the civil service.

In the midst of these changes, Quebec also spawned UQÀM, which opened in 1969. By planting a public university aimed at the everyman square in the middle of an old cathedral, the province was asserting its primacy over that of the old institution that had been the de facto government for hundreds of years.

It’s easy to feel that Catholicism is a vestige here (I’m something of a lapsed Catholic and I thought that way), until something makes you realize that maybe it isn’t.

Recently the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordered the mayor of Saguenay to remove a crucifix from city hall and stop reciting a prayer to open meetings. This immediately caused an uproar, as the mayor swore he’d appeal, and both the province’s two most important political parties vowed they’d sponsor legislation to keep these symbolic things in the public sphere. The mayor even added, according to the Globe and Mail, that Christians accommodate minority religions too much at the expense of their own.

And columnists took to this one too. A writer for The Gazette bemoaned the fact that minority rights are being crushed in the path of Quebec identity politics. A writer for La Presse lamented while it's probably legally correct that the halls of government will likely have to rid themselves of the trappings of the church, a piece of the province’s culture would go out the door with them.  

"Soon we'll pass the point of no return!" Well, maybe.
Whether religious symbols belong in public spaces is not for me to say. In addition to everything else, I'm a foreigner. But I’ve come to view Église Saint-Jacques as a reverse-metaphor in Quebec. It isn’t that this province is a largely secular place with a cultural and religious exterior, it’s the other way round. It’s a liberalized society that still retains some of the old time religion, it just depends on the context. 

You see it at Christmastime: restaurants and stores close up early, and the white streets on Christmas Eve look like the abandoned set of a 1950s holiday film. In the states, even in small towns restaurants and movie theatres stay open at ungodly hours of the evening to cater to surly throngs of shoppers in a constantly escalating quest for consumption. 

At that same time of year on the corner of Saint-Denis and Sainte-Catherine streets, there is a video lightshow projected onto the walls of the old Église Saint-Jacques. The whole church is lit up in the night sky with moving symbols of the season. It is similar to a display shown on the cathedral in Amiens, France.

Those who enter the Saint-Jacques now do so to take classes, read, or smoke a few with some friends. But if the building’s guts now hold a university, its spire is still a marker for a religion that still retains a certain amount of influence in Quebec. Just ask someone in Saguenay. 

Welcome to Paradox Island

This blog will be devoted to expatriate life in Montreal, where I live.
I’ve worked as a reporter in some pretty interesting areas. I wrote for a newspaper in Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara, I covered crime in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I covered courts in perhaps the wackiest city of them all, Miami (which, as everyone knows, is quite close to the United States).
Those places all had their quirks. But the layers of culture, language and politics here definitely put Montreal in another category. That’s why I dub this island city of 3.7 million Paradox Island.
Internationally Montreal is the face of French Canada, a city as full of joie de vivre as ice and snow. It’s a culinary capital where future Parisian chefs get their chops together to make the jump to France. It’s a centre for cutting edge film and music that usually attracts serious respect and rarely ends up being pre-fab or overcommercialized.
But within Quebec Montreal is the redoubt of English Canada, with a downtown core where English is the lingua franca. The biggest city of an officially French-speaking province boasts a top-flight university that draws a student body from across the rest of the country to learn in the language of the Saxons.
Though no one seems to know for sure, encrypted in the flags of the city and the province appear the watermarks of two different forms of cultural currency.
In many ways Montreal is an international city, a former host of the Olympic Games, a metropolis where more than 20 percent of the populace is foreign-born (including one scribe I can think of), and a cultural switching post for two of the world’s major languages. In other ways it’s an inward-looking town that’s never outgrown a provincial atmosphere, a place where homegrowns who’ve hit the big time are perennially celebrated, even if Hollywood Beach, Hollywood, Cal., or Paris is now their home.
In the coming weeks I plan to delve further into to this city’s kinks as I read them. And I want to shape a dialogue with this blog; please send any comments along the way.

-- Billy