17 May 2017


When I was a teenager, my hometown celebrated its 1250th anniversary. A few years prior, Switzerland feted its 700th birthday, based on the nation's mythical founding on an alpine meadow on August 1st, 1291. I recently came upon the commemorative coin we got in school.

1250 years, or even 700 years, that seems like an unfathomable amount of time. Or as Eddie Izzard put it: No one was alive then! But it is far from unusual in Europe, where history comes from.

By and large, the town and the country have aged well. Today, modern conveniences are abundant, the infrastructure is first class, and even if the population is ageing, it can rely on cutting-edge health care to keep adding candles to the birthday cake.

In North America, old has a different meaning, and people here are not willing to wait for millennia to pass until they can throw a party. This year, Canada is turning 150, and the federal government is going all out with events to mark the occasion. It also hopes that Canadians will follow it to the great outdoors, courtesy of free admission to all National Parks.

Montréal, of course, ever uneasy with just waving the Maple Leaf flag, prefers to focus on a celebration of its own. And it has found a reason.

375 years ago today, on May 17, 1642, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve put a flag in the ground on the base of Mont Royal and founded Ville-Marie, the nucleus of what grew into Montréal. (He was likely sold on the location when he saw the splendid Boulevard de Maisonneuve running the length of the city, bicycle lanes and all....) This event must be commemorated, and only a sourpuss would point out that Samuel de Champain had already established a first trading post on the island in 1611, not to mention the Iroquois village of Hochelaga, which had existed long before that. 

A website was launched, and even a mobile app found its way on my phone. Tonight, with much fanfare (courtesy of the city's symphony orchestra), a spectacular light show on the Pont Jacques-Cartier was inaugurated. Countless artsy events will follow throughout the summer - your (provincial!) tax dollars at work.

One could use the occasion to take a look at the city's health. Such a checkup would reveal a stagnating economy, crumbling bridges and roads, lacking or endlessly delayed public transit infrastructure, corruption in police and politics, excessive wait times for health care, and the highest tax rates in North America. No surprise, then, that the city prefers to direct citizens' attention to shiny lights.

But don't think that I am just a negative nancy. I don't mean to rain on the parade, not least because I plan on attending it. As the world capital of orange construction cones, Montréal is quite literally work in progress. A bit more modesty and honesty wouldn't hurt, but these are not traits typically associated with grandiose French character.

This does not mean the city has no reason to be proud: 375 years after its foundation, my home town consisted of a few feudal farms and a mill. The residents lived in subservient conditions under the thumb of local aristocrats, before succumbing to the plague or the flu at age 35. By comparison, Montréal is paradise indeed!

So for its birthday, let's cut the city some pork slack. Joyeux anniversaire, Montréal - here's to many more!

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