Globalised Montréal

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the past few years, there’s been a new trend in Montréal History and historiography that has seen us seek to place the city within a global context.  This is a welcome change from our usual navel-gazing, as we sought to explain developments in Canada solely within a Canadian context.  Certainly, the local context is important, but Canada did not develop in solitude. It was always a colony and nation tied into global political and economic currents, closely related to goings-on in Paris, London, and Washington. Indeed, scholars of Canadian foreign policy have long framed Canada within the North Atlantic Triangle, along with the UK and USA.

But, culturally and socially, while historians have noted the impact of British and/or American ideas in Canada, we have gone onto explain and analyse the Canadian context separate from the global. In Québec, though, perhaps due to political exigencies. Back in undergrad at UBC, Alan Greer’s masterful book, The Patriots and the People was the first study I ever read that attempted to internationalise Canadian history. In it, Greer re-cast the 1837 Patriote rebellions in Lower Canada within the revolutionary fervour that had swept Europe and the United States since the late 18th century. Seen in this light, the Parti Patriote wasn’t just a nationalist French Canadian political party, but part of an international of liberal revolutionaries that had corollaries in England, Ireland, France, the German territories, the Italian countries, the United States, and so on.

Greer’s book fit into the larger work of the revisionist Québec historians, who often sought to put Québec into a global context, both to explain the colony/province/nation’s development, as well as to give credence to Québec’s claims to nationhood. The goal was to  present Québec as a nation commes les autres. Perhaps the book that had the greatest impact on me in this sense was Gérard Bouchard’s 2000 monograph, Genèse des nations et cultures du Nouveau Monde: Essai d’histoire comparée, in which Bouchard examines the development of Québec in relation to other “new world” cultures in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Put this way, Québec’s (and Canada’s) development from the moment of European settlement is globalised and we realise that Canada (and Québec) is not really all that unique.

This tendency to internationalise Québec seems to be continuing with a younger generation of historians. My friend and colleague, Simon Jolivet, has just published his new book, Le vert et le bleu: Identité québécoise et identité irlandaise au tournant du XXe siècle. Simon and I did our PhDs together at Concordia, and in 2006, the School of Canadian Irish Studies there hosted a roundtable discussion that looked at connections between Ireland and Québec, in large part this grew out of the work our PhD supervisor, Ronald Rudin had done early in the decade.  It was probably the most dynamic and informative conference I’ve been at, as ideas flew around the table.  Both Simon and I gained a lot from that conference and it is clear in both of our work.

For my part, I am interested in the Irish in Griffintown, Montréal, over the course of the 20th century. What I look at is, of course, identity, but I’m interested in the shaping of a diasporic identity amongst the Montréal Irish, one that situates the Irish of the city within the global context of the Irish around the world, as well as the links (such as they were) with Ireland itself.  To do so, I make use of post-colonial theory, which seems particularly à-propos for the Irish, descendents of a colonial culture in Ireland, living in Montréal, the largest city of the French diaspora and thus necessarily a post-colonial location.

And this is what Sean Mills picks up in his brilliant new book, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal. Mills situates Montréal within that postcolonial framework, and examines the ideas of decolonisation and colonialism within activist circles in Montréal in the 60s. The activists were heavily influenced by what was going on in the world around them, in de-colonial movements in Algeria, Tunisia, and, especially, Cuba, as well as the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s. Certainly, they were well aware of their skin colour and Canada’s place as a first-world nation. But the ambivalence of Montréal (still the economic centre of Canada in the 60s) is something Mills excels at drawing out. As the decade went on, American activists, in particular African American activists like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, became influential in the de-colonial struggle of the French Canadian majority of the city.  This was further complicated by Montréal’s own black population, which also identified itself with the ideas coming out of the United States and the Caribbean. And as Montréal became a more complicated city, ethnically-speaking, to say nothing of the actions of the FLQ in October 1970, ideas of decolonisation lost their appeal.

Nonetheless, what is clear is that Montréal is a global city, one that takes its cue from its global connections as much as its local ones. Indeed, this is the basis of my next project about layers of diaspora on the urban landscape of the city. In the meantime, it also gives me a way to situate my own work on the Irish of Montréal in a larger global context.

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