Montreal’s Cultural Diversity Heritage

par Fourcade, Marie-Blanche

Chinatown Gate at the intersection of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Boulevard René-Lévesque in Montreal.

As the main point of entry for most immigrants to Quebec, Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in North America, moves to the beat of multiculturalism. Cultural communities are a major component in the identity of this metropolitan centre. However, their presence has often been obscured by the dominant French or English-language cultures. Whether it be buildings, monuments, public spaces, works of art, place names or simply the general atmosphere of certain areas, the heritage contributed by the cultural diversity of the city is very apparent. Often it delineates the neighbourhoods where various cultures live and even coexist. Consequently, cultural diversity has always been an issue of public concern both for city administrators and politicians alike and is often central in debates-particularly when it is a matter of defining what constitutes and what should constitute Montreal's urban heritage.

Article disponible en français : Patrimoine de la diversité culturelle à Montréal

Cultural Communities in the City: the Faces of Diversity

In most places, cultural heritage is often mixed (NOTE 1) and Montreal is no different. It would be impossible to discuss Montreal's French-speaking heritage without taking into account the various cultural influences that have had an impact on it and brought renewal to the city.

Most Montrealers are familiar with Chinatown, which is considered to be one of the oldest ethnic neighbourhoods in the city, with its magnificent sculpted arches, monuments and businesses. This "Little Empire" is rich in cultural symbols. At the other end of Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Little Italy, or Piccola Italia, is a major public attraction, with its dolce vita atmosphere and variety of cafés and specialty grocery stores, which are an open invitation to experience Mediterranean cuisine. In a way similar to these two neighbourhoods' strong ethnic flavour, many other Montreal neighbourhoods are, to a varying degree, home to cultures from over 200 countries.

Sourp Hagop Community centre complex in Ahunstic-Cartierville district.

You don't have to be a particularly attentive city dweller to discover the many ethnic attractions - whether houses of worship or community centres - that are spread across the urban landscape. Monumental feats of architecture mark the presence of different communities in their respective neighbourhoods. The Sourp Hagop community center, for example, is a symbol of Armenian community life in the heart of Ahunstic-Cartierville district. The church, with its thee-sided roof and orange-hued brick, looks similar to a stack of volcanic tuff. The Vietnamese pagoda Tù-Quang is shaped and decorated like a Buddhist temple. These two monuments are landmarks tucked in among the residences, bars, stores, and other buildings of the neighbourhoods where they are located. (NOTE 2)

Besides these distinctive buildings, there are many architectural or urban elements that add colour to public spaces and parks. The well-maintained Parc du Portugal (NOTE 3) is one such element. Created in the heart of the Portugese neighbourhood in 1975 and renovated in 1987, the park is a sort of window with a view of Portugese culture, with its fountain and its azulejos (squares of ornamentale arthen ware that traditionally cover the front of a house). The park is a uniting feature joining the restaurants and boutiques that testify to the Iberian origins of the residents of this Boulevard Saint-Laurent neighbourhood.

The various place names come from hundreds of places (NOTE 4) that are representative of their respective countries or regions of origin. There is, for example, the Parc des Açores (or de l'Arménie). (NOTE 5) There are other place names that make cultural references such as rue Athéna or rue de Verdi. (NOTE 6) Additional place names are reminiscent of major public figures of various respective communities such as Parc Albert-Malouf or Parc Bissainthe. (NOTE 7) The city's works of architecture, sculptures and place names confer Montreal with a multicultural heritage legacy that is officially recognised by its various communities and municipal authorities. Approximately fifty sculptures decorate the city, among which you can find Simon de Bolivar, Isabelle la Catholique, Dante and Itzhak Rabin. Each sculpture tells the story of its local community or country of origin. Other monuments, such La Puerta de la Amistad [The Friendship Gate] and a piece of the Berlin Wall celebrate the relationship between the host country and the country of origin.

Parc Toto-Bissainthe au coin de la rue Hutchison et de l'avenue Van Horne.

Another essential element of the Montreal's diverse cultural heritage is the city's unique characteristic flavour otherwise know the Montreal "Je ne sais quoi" [I don't know what] (NOTE 8) This characteristic ambiance is tightly linked with the city's spontaneous informal activities and daily life. From the city's wide variety of small boutiques, grocery stores, restaurants and cafés to its lively streets filled with exotic sights and sounds, the place is full of life. You can tell by the shapes and colours of the buildings, the names of the businesses, the signs posted and the languages spoken in an area that you are in a particular neighbourhood. The numbers and concentration of specific kinds of businesses in certain parts of the city create a particular atmosphere. The characteristic variety of urban landscapes represents an almost unconscious familiarity for long time inhabitants, whereas for newcomers it constitutes an entirely new experience. Perceptions of such sensations can be associated with the neighbourhood Parc-Extension. Int his "Little India" there are clothing stores, fabrics and saris, food stores, restaurants, travel agencies and other businesses that decorate rue Jean-Talon.(NOTE 9) The Indian, Pakistani and Sri-Lankan communities of the city may not have their own street names or monuments, but they do havea place where they can return to their roots and reinforce their identity.

Some of the more informal faces of cultural diversity are not only present in commercial areas, but also in the daily lives of citizens. If you look closely at the detail added to various residences, you'll notice the small Mediterranean gardens neatly arranged every spring next to the houses of Italian, Greek, and Portuguese families. These vestiges of various time-honoured traditions take into account their modern location and climate. Every summer, tomatoes and grapevines attract the attention of passers-by. In addition, one can often see decorations or religious ornaments indicating the origins and beliefs of the local residents. The Portuguese azulejos, with their protective saints (NOTE 10) or the mezouzahs(NOTE 11) in front of the houses of the Jewish families are examples of individual expressions of a sense of belonging to a particular culture.


The Value of Legitimizing a Diverse Cultural Heritage

Treating diversity as national heritage requires an immense paradigm shift with respect to other approaches already used in determining what constitutes cultura lheritage. (NOTE 12) It is impossible to apply the traditional heritage conservation criteria when deciding on what constitutes the cultural heritage of an urban landscape that has arisen from the establishment of peoples of diverse origins. The selection criteria generally used for evaluating the pertinence of heritage sites (age, history, art, authenticity (NOTE 13) must be reinterpreted, rationalized and expanded. Certain landmarks have a history that is neither very long standing nor a part of local traditions. Nevertheless, they still tell the stories of how various communities were established and developed over time, as well as relating a bit of the history and present day circumstances of their countries of origin.

It is also important to go beyond purely material elements of heritage and consider their overall role in society. Buildings, monuments, public spaces, works of art and place names are all daily manifestations of culture. They also serve as territorial markings allowing groups to publicly affirm their presence and be recognized by other groups. This diversity heritage also testifies to the immense efforts that various communities put into adapting to a new environment and establishing their roots in a new land. In this way, they are writing their own chapter in the history of their adoptive city and country.


Valuing and recognition of Diversity Heritage

The official recognition of the heritage of Montreal's various ethno-cultural communities is relatively recent. There are several reasons that can explain this. From a provincial perspective, from the earliest days, those interested in heritage in the 1830s were almost uniquely concerned with the quest to find a collective cultural identity for Quebec French-speakers. (NOTE 14) Identifying and preserving historical relics mostly revolved around the French and English settlers-which didn't leave much room for the history of immigration. The public interest and will to invest time in commemorating immigrant history started to gain momentum at the end of the 1990's, when Boulevard Saint-Laurent was designated as a National Historic Site by the Governmen tof Canada. For many of Montreal immigrants, the neighbourhood was a preferred location for settling in after arrival. It was in the context of globalisation that the desire and will for mutual cultural recognition of intangible heritage began to develop.

Advertising for the FRAG tour circuit in Little Italy.

The extremely heterogeneous character of these heritage sites is one of the reasons why their recognition was late in coming. How could they be classified and dealt with in a coherent and equitable way? There are many theoretical, political and technical challenges involved in such a process. As a result, there is no systematic procedure for recognising diversity heritage. Recognition of various sites is therefore is largely due to the efforts of individuals and community organisations. Such was the case when Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense [Church] was designated a National Historic Site in November of 2002. The project was driven by the Church's restoration committee and by the Société de Diffusion du Patrimoine Artistique et Culturel des Italo-Canadiens [Society for the Recognition of Italian-Canadian Cultural and Artistic Heritage]. Likewise, the heritage designation of Place de l'Unité (which commemorates six great Haitian revolutionary figures was inaugurated in May of 2007. The initiative was led by the Association Culturelle Haïtienne La Perle Retrouvée, a Haitian community group. Not only do these examples demonstrate the strength of local organisations, but they also demonstrate how certain ethnic groups must take their own initiative to manage their own property and ensure the preservation their culture's shared memory.

Even if Montreal's mixed cultural heritage isn't managed in a systematic and organised way, numerous activities demonstrate how recognition continues to grow and develop. The project FRAG sur la Main, led by the Organisation ATSA (Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable), is a good example of this. Boulevard Saint-Laurent has become a visual and auditory attraction. With it's permanent signs and local broadcasts that showcase the cultural history and flavour of the migrant populations, it is a local attraction that retraces the daily life and evolution of local populations, as well as suggesting possible tourist destinations. (NOTE 15) Furthermore, for the last several years, Italian Week and the Festival du Monde Arabe (FMA), with their varied event programming, have contributed to increasing awareness and understanding of cultural diversity. As for museums, there are projects such as the Cliniques de Mémoires, which were run by the Centre d'Histoire de Montréal, conjointly with the local Portuguese community in 2003 and the Haitian community in 2004. These projects worked to identify sites and educate the public about the history of immigration in Quebec. Guided tours (NOTE 16) in travelogs, as well as those organised by companies such as Amarrages sans Frontières(NOTE 17) or Kaléidoscope (NOTE 18) are also available in certain areas of the city. Little by little, Montreal's diversity heritage is moving from simply being the interest of certain marginal groups to gaining more a widespread formal recognition.


Marie-Blanche Fourcade
Postdoctoral Researcher
Université de Montréal



1. Turgeon, Laurier, Patrimoines métissés: contextes coloniaux et postcoloniaux, Paris/Québec, Éditions de la Maisondes sciences de l'homme/Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 2003, 234 p.

2 The Armenian Church Sourp Hagopis located in Ahunstic-Cartierville district at 3401 rue Olivar-Asselin. Next to the church is the community centre and the Armenian Prelacy [the offices of an Armenian church Prelate]. On the other side of the street is the school. The area is busy all week with its gym, documentary resource centre, restaurant, meeting rooms and a large number of associations and media resources. The Buddhist Pagoda Tù-Quang, located at 1978 rue Parthenais, mainly serves the local Vietnamese community. In addition to being a residence for monks and a place of worship, the temple is also a place of philosophical teaching.

3. Parc du Portugal is located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and rue Marie-Anne.
Germain, Annick, Mabel Contin, Laurence Liégeois et Martha Radice, "À propos du patrimoine urbain des communautés culturelles : nouveaux regards sur l'espace public", in Jébrak, Yona et Barbara Julien (dir.), Les temps de l'espace public urbain : construction, transformation et utilisation, Montréal, Éditions Multimondes, 2008, p. 126-128.

4. Répertoire historique des toponymes montréalais, Portail de la Ville de Montréal:,11241558&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL (webpage consulted on March 3rd, 2009).

5. Parc des Açores is located on avenue de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, between rue Rachel and Avenue Duluth

6. Located at the corner of rue Jean-Talon and Avenue de l'Épée, Parc Athéna, named after the Greek goddess of thought, wisdom, war and arms, was so named in 1986, in honour of the Greek community in the neighbourhood. Rue Verdi, referring to the Italian composer Giusseppe Verdi, was so named in 1968, in honour of the Italian community in La Salle.

7. Located in the Ahunstic-Cartierville neighbourhood, Parc Albert-Malouf was so named in 1998, in honour of a public figure in the Lebanese community. He was the first lawyer to become a magistrate in Quebec and is very involved in numerous Lebanese and Syrian organisations. Located in the Le Plateau neighbourhood, Parc Toto Bissainthe was so named in1996 in honour of Marie-Clothilde Bissainthe, an artist and actor of Haitian origin.

8. Drouin, Martin et Marie-Blanche Fourcade, "Pardon ? Vous avez dit : Patrimoine immatériel montréalais ?", Téoros, vol. 26, no 2, (été 2007), p. 76.

9. Cauchy, Clairandrée, "Les communautés de la nouvelle vague. De 'Parc Ex' à 'Little Hindustan'", Le Devoir, 23 décembre 2003, Les actualités, p. A1.

10. The iconography found on the azulejos generally includes patron saints such as Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Anthony of Padua It also includes biblical characters such the Virgin Mary or Christ.

11. Mezouzah means litterally, "the upright of a door". In Hebrew it is "a cylindrical case hung on the upright of a door that contains a parchment on which several biblical verses are written. (...) Many Jews consider the mezouzah as an object that protects the house and its inhabitants (...)", Khorn, Irene, Art et Judaïsme, Évreux, Éditions de l'Olympe, 1998, p. 19.

12. Lucie K. Morisset, Des régimes d'authenticité. Essai sur la mémoire patrimoniale, Rennes, Presses de l'Université de Rennes, 2009, 126 p.

13. Noppen, Luc et Lucie K. Morisset, "De la production des monuments. Paradigmes et processus de reconnaissance", dans Laurier Turgeon, Jocelyn Létourneau et Khadiyatoulah Fall (dir.), Les espaces de l'identité, Quebec city, Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1997, p. 40-41.

14. Martin, Paul-Louis, "La conservation du patrimoine culturel : origines et évolution", dans Les chemins de la mémoire. Monuments et sites historiques du Québec, vol. 1, Québec, Les publications du Québec, 1990, p. 1-17.

15. ATSA, Frag sur la Main,, (webpage consulted on February 18th, 2009).

16. Aïnouche, Linda, Le tour du monde à Montréal, Montréal, Guides devoyage Ulysse, 2008, 335 p.

17. Amarrages sans frontières, (webpage consulted on February 18th, 2009).

18. Kaléidoscope, (webpage consulted on February 18th, 2009).



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