What makes both Montréal and Québec City special are the way they meld the very old and very new. In Québec City, the centuries-old walls that provided military protection are still in place, and the streets and lanes within their embrace have changed little, preserving for posterity the heart of New France.But the city’s St-Roch neighborhood has a youthful pop and an influx of new technology and media companies, bringing with them trendy restaurants and bars.
Montréal has shifted personas over the decades and today is one of the most cosmopolitan and “European” cities in North America. It has mostly shaken off the racy image it developed when the U.S. was “dry” during U.S. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. In those years, American bootleggers, hard drinkers, and prostitutes flocked across the border, much to the distress of much of Montréal’s citizenry. In the 1950s, a cleanup began alongside a boom in high-rise construction. Restoration also began in the old port area, which had become dilapidated and rundown. In 1967, Montréal welcomed international audiences to Expo 67, the World’s Fair.
The renaissance of much of the oldest part of the city, Vieux-Montréal, blossomed in the 1990s and continues today. A newly renovated Quartier des Spectacles arts district, walking distance from the major parts of the city, gives the city a new flair.
To understand the province’s unique politics, you need to back up about 50 years. A phenomenon later labeled the Quiet Revolution began bubbling in the 1960s. The movement focused on transforming the largely rural, agricultural province into an urbanized entity. French-Canadians, long denied access to the upper echelons of desirable corporate careers, started to insist on equal opportunity with the powerful Anglophone minority. In 1968, Pierre Trudeau, a bilingual Québécois, became Canada’s prime minister, a post he held for 18 years. More flamboyant and brilliant than any of his predecessors, he devoted much time to trying to placate voters on both sides of the French-English issue.
Also in 1968, the Parti Québécois was founded by René Lévesque, and a separatist movement began in earnest. The question of whether Québec would stay part of Canada was an underlying issue for decades, and during the 1990s especially it led to an unsettled mood in the province. Large businesses left town, anxious that if the province actually did secede, they would find themselves based outside of Canada proper. Economic opportunities were limited.
Things began to change after the turn of the century. The Canadian dollar began to strengthen. Unemployment, long in double digits, shrank to less than 6 percent. Crime in Montréal, which was already one of the continent’s safest cities, hit a 20-year low. The rash of for rent signs that disfigured Montréal in the 1990s was replaced by a welcome shortage of retail and office space. In 2002, the 28 towns and cities on the island of Montréal merged into one megacity with a population of 1.8 million.
As significantly, the proportion of foreign-born Québec citizens continued to grow. After the arrival of 1.1 million immigrants to the country between 2001 and 2006, foreign-born nationals made up 20 percent of Canada’s population, with Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary their prime destinations. The province of Québec welcomed over 50,000 permanent residents in 2010, with over 46,000 of them settling in Montréal, and another 2,600 in Québec City.
Immigrants have made Montréal their own. Food author Ruth Reichl has written that when she lived there in the 1960s, the streets inhabited by Montréal’s Eastern-European Jewish community “were rich with the scent of garlic, cloves, and allspice emanating from the mountains of pickles and deliciously rich smoked meat that I spied each time a restaurant door swung open.” Those rich aromas of the world’s cuisines remain a defining feature of the city and its neighborhoods.
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