City struggles with new identity

Sun Journal

Montreal: Long known for its French and British background, the Canadian city is being transformed by a wave of immigrants.

October 25, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL -- Saqib Islam's life as a bachelor is ending, and things are getting a bit chaotic.

Upstairs, family and friends buzz and bustle in anticipation of the mendhi, a traditional South Asian ceremony preparing a couple for their wedding.

Downstairs, little girls carrying plates of candles and ceremonial sweets form an eager, squiggly line, preparing to lead Islam up to the main hall and to a chair where he will sit next to his bride, Nyla Rehman, whose face will be hidden from him and the rest of the world behind a jade-colored veil.

Islam's mother, father and sister-in-law debate briefly in Urdu, speaking and gesturing in the urgent, intimate manner of a family trying to get everything just right.

Islam leans against a wall, watching with fond bemusement. "The same thing happens anywhere," he says.

"Anywhere," in this case, is not his native Pakistan but a middle-class suburb of Montreal.

Long known as a place divided between the descendants of French and British colonists, Montreal has been transformed by immigration into a richly multiethnic city. The process has significantly altered the social, economic and political character of Canada's second-largest metropolitan area. Some say it has helped prevent Canada -- the United States' closest ally and largest trading partner -- from splitting apart.

The French character of Montreal runs deep. Explorer Jacques Cartier arrived here in 1535, and French settlement began in earnest in the 17th century with a missionary and trading post on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

The French were soon forced to share the region with their imperial archrivals, the British. Quebec City fell to the redcoats in 1759, Montreal the next year.

Montreal has since been the most prominent crossroads of Canada's French and British cultures. However, like the rest of the continent, it has become more ethnically diverse. In the early 20th century, large numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, some of whom established one of the most sizable Jewish communities in North America, moved to the city.

In the 1960s, Canada liberalized its immigration policy, dropping its preference for Europeans and white Americans. Opening the door to newcomers from other parts of the world transformed Montreal's immigrant pool. Of those who arrived in the city between 1991 and 1996, more than 75 percent were from South and East Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Caribbean.

The city's demographic profile was further changed by the departure of residents who feared what the future would bring.

In 1976, the Parti Quebecois came to power in Quebec province, established French as the official language and called for separation from Canada. In response, more than 200,000 English-speaking Quebecers, including many descendants of the old British settlers, left the province.

The exodus gave Montreal's Anglophone community a somewhat less Anglo-Saxon face. The city's English-speaking minority blends Italians, Eastern Europeans, British and non-Europeans who either had ancestral ties to the Commonwealth or chose English over French as their primary tongue.

The heightened diversity of Montreal has become an issue in the debate over separatism in the province. In 1995, Quebecers narrowly voted against an independence referendum by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent. Sixty percent of French-speakers supported the referendum, but 95 percent of Quebecers who spoke mainly English or other languages voted against it.

Quebec's Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for the outcome. He resigned, but the tone of his comments left a sour, lingering taste for immigrant Montrealers. It was true that they had opposed independence for Quebec, but Parizeau's remark made many of them feel like unappreciated guests in their province.

"He was speaking a certain truth, albeit not very kindly put," says Ronald Rudin, a history professor at Concordia University in Montreal. "On the one hand, there's a sort of celebration of the increased openness of Quebec. At the same time, there's a recognition among many that you're sort of let in the door, but you're not exactly given equal treatment."

Quebec has defined its challenge as maintaining a unique, French-speaking society that can hold its own against the enormous cultural and commercial power of the English language.

A large sign greets arrivals at Montreal's Dorval Airport with messages in English and French that do not mean the same thing. The English reads, "Celebrate our French-Canadian heritage." The French message more pointedly grounds that heritage in language, calling for celebration of "the French-speaking community of Canada."

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