The City Talks — City, Nation, and Empire: The Urban Texture of Montreal’s 1960s

On February 17, Sean Mills delivered the latest lecture in The City Talks series at the Legacy Gallery. His lecture connected urban history with larger historical narratives (political, national and international).

He started his lecture by saying that cities are incubators of new ideas, and are therefore sites of power and politics. He pointed to recent events in Africa and the Middle East to show the intersection between political foment in large cities and national/international politics. Something similar happened post-WWII, when decolonization movements developed in the “Third World.” This was tied to new “liberation theory,” which was influential even in Montreal.

Mills made three points about Montreal in this lecture:

  1. Decolonization theory had a role in creating different ideas about the city.
  2. There was activism of various kinds in Montreal during the 1960s.
  3. The connections between theory and activism fueled massive protests in Montreal and throughout North America.

He said he was surprised by the extent of anti-colonial thinking in Quebec, and that it was large and influential because it provided a way to understand the concerns and interests of people living in Montreal. There was a long history of economic, political and linguistic discrimination against francophones in Quebec, and this was symbolized for many Montrealers by the physical separation between the lower class, francophone east side of the city and the upper class, anglophone west side. But there was also the possibility to carve out spaces of protest in the city, with some radical cafes providing spaces for intellectual mixing and cultural hybridization, which allowed exchange of anti-colonial ideas and space to organize protests. However, he noted that these weren’t perfectly utopian spaces, since woman and First Nations people were often marginalized from these sites of intellectual foment.

My notes on the second point are a bit hazy, but indicate that there were lots of grassroots organizations in 1960s era Montreal, protesting bad municipal zoning decisions, creating medical clinics and fighting for women’s rights. I’ve got an intriguing note that “social animators” helped reduce apathy, but I’m not quite sure what that refers to. Perhaps somebody else who was there can expand on this in the comments.

Among the protest movements influenced by larger theroetical considerations were women’s liberation, student and Caribbean/Black/African movements, as well as language politics. Radicals involved in these movements founded of a municipal party called the FRAP (Front d’Action Politique) in 1970. Although electorally unsuccessful, it was influential in protesting city decisions that kept poor people poor, investment in mega-projects and in demanding citizen control of development and funding for public housing and clinics. The labour movement later extended these gains after FRAP lost grassroots support.

Mills concluded by saying that these movements, and their intellectual underpinnings, have left a complicated legacy that transformed the city and the province. This shows, he said, that cities incubate power and resistance to power.

Among the many insightful questions after the lecture, someone asked about the importance of Expo ’67 to municipal politics. This relates to my proposed thesis topic on public space at Expo ’86 and Century 21. I was interested to hear that Expo ’67 was a site for protests, especially by the labour movement. Mega-projects in that era (including the 1976 Olympics) apparently “galvanized” people who felt marginalized, leading to protests.

Somebody else asked specifically what the legacy of these movements has been. Mills said that many have been forgotten, but that Quebec’s labour movement is still powerful. Particularly interesting is that the student movement in Quebec is more powerful than elsewhere in Canada, and that the language it deploys is usually more about democracy that about self-interest.

The next City Talks lecture is on March 24 at 7:30pm. It features Judith Garber from the University of Alberta, and is entitled “How Political Are Streets?” The venue has changed for this talk, and occurs at the Victoria Event Centre, 1415 Broad Street.

For my previous coverage of The City Talks see:

This entry was posted in Expo, First Nations, Land Use, Montréal, Planning, Public Space, Research, University Courses, University of Victoria, UVic, Victoria, World's Fair. Bookmark the permalink.

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