Culture  From Urbain to Hubert

Ryan Healey investigates the stories behind our saintly-named streets

In the beginning, there were priests. It’s 1672, and, after saving two-thirds of a New France garrison from scurvy, developing an extreme fondness for Algonquin tobacco, and “going native” a la Kevin Costner circa Dances with Wolves, one François Dollier de Casson returned to Montreal to lay out its streets. This François Dollier de Casson picks out ten saint-driven names (Saint-Joseph, Saint-Paul, and so on) with the hope to get people more easily into his new church at Notre-Dame. Voila, the old port then – as now – recalls men who died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, preached the gospel to pagans in northern France, and ruled against requisite circumcision for gentiles. Just like that, Montreal began with streets fit for the Vatican.

But wait: there’s something hubristically funny in these original names. Since 1672, there’s been a double intent in the practice of naming Montreal streets that feels really unsettling and weird. Dollier de Casson baptizes this approximately 18 by 220 foot dirt rectangle as “St. Jacques,” ostensibly after the itinerant apostle and witness to the Transfiguration. But, in fact, it’s a gesture at his late pal, Frère Jean-Jacques Olier, a stout, decent guy and hater of dueling. Then there’s “St. Gabriel,” celebrating the archangel and messenger of God who spans three major monotheisms, as well as M. Gabriel de Queylus, another Sulpician clergyman. St. Lambert commemorates Lambert Closse, who was killed by Algonquins at the corner of his now “namesake” street.

This pattern of self-serving street names goes well beyond the Sulpicians’ survey – St. Urbain references the farm of Urbain Tessier (of great historical obscurity); St. Denis concerns a barrister and publicist named Denis-Benjamin; St. Hubert, the Hubert Lacroix family of landowners. So we have these saint-streets, where men appear to be circumventing the whole two-posthumous-miracles-and-life-of-heroic-virtue thing to immortalize themselves in Montreal’s collective memory. However dead these street names are, they never were alive. When the dead string of letters (S-t-D-e-n-i-s) begs close examination, that signifier speaks more of a militiaman and lawyer than the third century Parisian bishop beheaded on Montmartre. I don’t know how I feel about this yet.

I read about most of this stuff in the 1897 History of Montreal, including the streets of Montreal by J. Douglas Borthwick, a clergyman. It’s a hysterical read if you don’t find it troubling – one of his primary concerns whenever introducing a new street: “No great manufactures are found in this street.” He has this pasty, cocksure British voice that’s probably representative of his contemporary English Montreal: “A square is seen in this street. ‘Richmond Square.’ It is one of the blots on the city. I don’t think there is such a miserable square in Montreal.” Taking this guy as a synecdoche, he’s also representative of a sea change in street names as Englishmen began occupying the city council and naming the streets they created on their estates. “Roy Street is called after a man of this name and so is Drolet Street named after a well-known citizen (still living) of that name, Chevalier Drolet.” Drolet was 31 at the time. The result of all this is a city named after governor generals (Sherbrooke, Amherst, Aylmer, Cathcart, Dorchester, Metcalfe), politicians (Drolet, Laurier, Viger) ,and landowners (Beaubien, Clark, Bagg, Decarie, Durocher, Guy, McTavish, and, of course, McGill). As with anything humans do unilaterally, many don’t make sense: “Pine Avenue is a misname. There is not a single pine tree to be seen in the whole street.” Rachel Street is named after – if you can follow this chain – Christine-Rachel Cadieux de Courville, wife of Jean-Baptiste Verneuil de Lorimier, brother of the patriot Chevalier de Lorimier, executed in Montreal on February 15, 1839.

Beyond this completely batshit power-tripping rests the question, how should a street name be? Religion seems like too flimsy of a gesture now (and apparently, then too), and industrialists and aristocrats feel disgusting. In such times of need, we turn, of course, to Art. But, what we find on the Montreal map is that this impulse to name streets prettily came only after the main arteries already had referents. There’s avenue Calixa-Lavallée, after the pianist and composer of “O Canada,” but it’s squirreled away in Parc Lafontaine (how often do you check street signs in the park?). There’s boulevard Cremazié, of metro-station renown, referring to a rather patriotic French Canadian poet, but that’s sandwiched between lanes of the Autoroute Métropolitaine. But I’m being McGill-centric (I mean, there’s you and me here, and a lot of the Hochelaga archipelago to cover), as there’s Louis-Hémon in Parc Ex, named after a suicidal novelist. In Little Italy there’s Dante, just below Mozart. I’m talking as if this is progress, but I don’t actually know – the whole act’s spoiled once you think of some possible, gentle, bougie motivations, like your mom appreciating how “avenue Mozart” looks on a letterhead or something.

This is the kind of thing I feel when I read that the latest street name adopted by the City of Montreal is “la rue de la Sucrerie,” which has been in effect since mid-September. Official documents stress that the name alludes to the importance of the local Redpath sugar factory, but I mean, it’s still candy street, the very definition of saccharine. And, I can’t blame just one bishop in 2011. Someone applied to the Toponymic Council of the City of Montreal for this name, argued it before them, then pushed it to the city council, before a decision was sent to the provincial level Toponymic Commission of Québec. Many people read this over and approved. A name will be made. My unease here isn’t easily communicable. There are approximately 5,993 toponyms in Montreal, a hunk of earth we’ve mostly made that’s been named for us, maintained by a Commission that claims “jurisdiction regarding all types of places.”
It’s not just the names alone that feel sad, but that we need names, that to communicate “the macadam rectangle abutting florid graffiti and some mansard roofs that extends from park to park” requires the syllables “Duluth.” It’s some kind of pre-verbal thing that makes me want to shut up.