Walking down the street in Montreal, I am struck by the sheer diversity of the place. The multitude of ethnic restaurants and the variety of languages uttered by passers-by demonstrate the fact that this small island represents many continents of the world, in addition to its identity as a French-speaking North American metropolis. Statistically, immigrants make up more than 28 per cent of Montreal’s inhabitants.
As a recent arrival in Montreal from Nottingham in the UK, I was excited to discover new and varied neighbourhoods. I travelled to Jean Talon Street in Parc-Extension, one of the city’s lowest-income and most diverse communities, to learn more about the immigrant entrepreneurs that provide the cross-cultural charm that Montreal is renowned for. What I found is a place of great variety, constant change, and optimism.
Strolling out of the Parc metro station I am struck by the lack of French influence. There are no takeout signs for poutine; in its place the word “souvlaki” is lit up in neon red letters, alongside a Greek Orthodox church and a Hellenic travel agency. Turning onto Jean Talon, it’s clear that Greeks are not the only neighbours. Indian restaurants, African beauty shops, and Pakistani tailors have collectively transformed the street into an diverse metropolis. Entrepreneurial activity serves as an essential route of economic advancement and social mobility for many immigrants.
My first stop is an African supermarket (with the franglais name “African Marché”). Sitting behind the counter is Abraham, who moved to Montreal in 1988 from Ghana, and opened his business in 1997. Business for him is thriving, he proudly tells me. After changing location from nearby Acadie to Jean Talon, which receives more pedestrian traffic, the supermarket has expanded on an already successful operation. With stiff competition from at least three other local African food stores, I ask Abraham what sets his shop apart from the rest. He tells me that it is all about the diversity of his produce. His range is extensive. Ghanaian staples such as yam, cassava, and gari ginger line the shelves amongst spices such as melegueta pepper and annatto seeds, in addition to Western foods. Abraham explains how he has expanded his client base beyond the African community. His varied choice of produce attracts local South Asian customers to the shop for essentials on a daily basis. Many people travel from downtown Montreal, he claims earnestly, just to buy “something a bit different.” To market his business, Abraham relies on word of mouth and the occasional ad in local papers. “People find out about this place and tell others, and then they all just keep coming back,” he states.
For me, the friendly nature of this business is hugely inviting. It enables its success. Within the ten minutes of my short interview, Abraham laughs and jokes with each of the three people who walk in. It’s clear that he genuinely enjoys interacting with his customers, demonstrating the community spirit that characterizes this small, dense neighbourhood.
Just four doors down it’s a surprisingly similar story. Hidden away at the top of a worn staircase is the Restaurant Pakistanaise. I ask Musa, the owner, if being on the second floor affects business, and whether he needs to advertise a lot. “Not at all,” he replies. Musa seems to share Abraham’s optimism. Word of mouth is enough, he said, and the restaurant’s reputation precedes it. I arrive there at two in the afternoon and the place is almost full. Musa moved to Montreal in 2001 from Palana, India, and set up the business that same year. His clientele is mainly Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi, many of whom live locally. He assured me that people travel from all over eastern North America to visit his tiny restaurant. While I had my doubts, his packed dining room certainly spoke to his success.
What I found interesting about interviewing Musa, and many of the immigrant entrepreneurs on Jean Talon, is the level of pride they possess. I asked everyone the same question: “What has been the biggest difficulty you have faced since starting your business?” The majority of people, including Musa, told me they had no serious difficulties. Some vaguely mentioned the inconvenience of having snow in winter, but there was no one clear concern, no united issue of discontent. It seems that the desire to display a positive, successful image leads these optimistic entrepreneurs to downplay the setbacks and problems they’ve faced.
Of course, not all of the businesses on Jean Talon are faring as well as Restaurant Pakistanaise and African Marché. I interviewed Kallicauis, who owns a Greek bakery, Mimosa, with her husband. Opened in 1976, Mimosa is one of the oldest businesses on the street. At first, the couple from southern Greece were swamped by customers. For much of the past forty years, the Greek community in Parc Ex was booming, and there was great demand for the baklava and savoury Greek pastries that this shop prides itself on. Since the 1980s, many Greek residents moved on to other neighbourhoods and suburbs, and a variety of shops opened to serve the area’s growing South Asian population. Living remnants of the area’s old Greek character such as Kallicauis’ store are scattered throughout the neighbourhood, but many struggle to attract customers amidst Parc-Ex’s constantly changing ethnic mixture. Kallicauis tells me how business now is quieter than it ever was. Instead of relying on traditional Greek desserts, her best selling product now is her elaborate birthday cakes that South Asian families buy for children’s birthdays.
I found it fascinating to witness how the new generation of immigrants on Jean Talon have changed the commercial character of the neighbourhood, and how old businesses adapt to shifting demographics. Stories like Kallicauis’ demonstrate the self-sufficient nature of this bustling, diverse street.
The student area where I previously lived in Nottingham attracts many immigrants due to the low housing prices. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, there seems to be little economic opportunity available for them. Parc-Extension provides a happy alternative.