The centuries-old walls that protected Québec City over the centuries are still in place today, and the streets and lanes within their embrace have changed little, preserving for posterity the heart of New France.

Not so in Montréal. It was "wet" when the U.S. was "dry" during U.S. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Bootleggers, hard drinkers, and prostitutes flocked to this large city situated so conveniently close to the American border, mixing with rowdy people from the port, much to the distress of many of Montréal's citizenry. For 50 years, the city's image was decidedly racy, but in the 1950s, a cleanup began alongside a boom in high-rise construction, and restoration began in the old port area, which had become a derelict ghost town. In 1967, Montréal welcomed international audiences to Expo 67, the World's Fair.

Today, much of what makes Montréal special is either very old or very new. The city's great gleaming skyscrapers and towering hotels, the superb Métro system, and the highly practical underground city date mostly from the 44 years since the Expo. The renaissance of much of the oldest part of the city, Vieux-Montréal, blossomed in the 1990s.


To understand the province's 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, industrial entity with a pronounced secular outlook. 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, eccentric, 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. Inevitably, there was a radical fringe, and it signaled its intentions by bombing Anglophone businesses. The FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec, or Québec Liberation Front), as it was known, was behind most of the terrorist attacks. Most Québécois separatists, of course, were not violent, but the bombings fueled passions and contributed to a sense that big changes were coming.


For decades, secession remained a dream for many Québécois. In 1995, a referendum on sovereignty lost by a mere 1% of the vote.

During the 1990s, an unsettled mood prevailed 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.

By 2000, though, things began to change. The Canadian dollar began to strengthen against the U.S. dollar. Unemployment, long in double digits, shrank to less than 6%, the lowest percentage in more than 20 years. Crime in Montréal, which was already one of the continent's safest cities, hit a 20-year low. The presence of skilled workers made Canada a favored destination for Hollywood film and TV production. The rash of FOR RENT and FOR SALE 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.

Today, the quest for separatism seems to be fading. Conversations with ordinary Québécois suggest they're weary of the argument. In March 2007, the Liberal Party, headed by Jean Charest, won a minority government, while the new Action Démocratique du Québec party won an out-of-nowhere second-place victory. The separatist Parti Québécois, meanwhile, placed a distant third with just 28% of the vote. The moment marked, many think, the beginning of the end of the campaign for independence.

As significantly, the proportion of foreign-born Québec citizens continues to grow. After the arrival of 1.1 million immigrants to the country between 2001 and 2006, foreign-born nationals made up 20% 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. In some areas of Canada, Chinese dialects are outpacing French as the second most commonly spoken language. Visitors to Montréal may notice large pockets of neighborhoods where the primary languages spoken are Mandarin and Cantonese.


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