I am perched on the northwest side of Mount Royal on the campus of the Université de Montreal.
For five weeks, the federal government is sponsoring my stay through the Explore program. Students across Canada can travel to different ends of the country for the sake of French immersion, ranging from the far west coast in British Columbia to the separatist strong hold of Trois-Rivières, Que., to where I ended up: Montreal.
For the extent of our time in Montreal, students in the program are immersed in the French language through university-style courses in the morning and frosh-like social events and activities in the evenings.
It is suggested early on by the “animateurs”— the equivalent to camp counsellors — that we avoid the English parts of the city. During one group tour of Montreal’s Plateau, our guide hops onto a park bench and points in the direction of the downtown. “Est là-bas Anglais” he says, gesturing for us not to go there.
On this side of the mountain, the English downtown is out of sight. Instead, the very French and very quaint suburb of Outremont stretches before us.
The profound and intimidating Saint-Joseph’s Oratory, which can be spied from a Quebec thorough-way miles away, is on the same side of the mountain as where I go to class. The ethnically diverse yet still French neighbourhood of Mile End is within walking distance.
While the program is touted as an academic experience worth university credits, a noticeable portion of the students are here to party. By the second week, there is an infectious attitude amongst the student body to take classes and homework a little less seriously and focus more on uncovering Montreal.
Students scoff the chance to go on guided tours of the city’s interior in order to eat at famous eateries, explore unknown sections of the city, watch the weekly fireworks, or attend the many events occurring during the time we are there, such as the Just For Laughs comedy festival or Osheaga.
It’s understandable because of the city we’re in. Many of us have never been to Montreal and for others, this is their first trip to Eastern Canada.
It’s hard to deny that visiting Montreal is like getting a taste of Europe in Canada. The statement may be cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
Historic castle-like structures and pedestrian-only streets are common. We are still in Canada, in one of its oldest cities, and we have somehow travelled across an ocean. Reminders of a separatist past are unavoidable.
A billboard on the campus proclaiming that government spending is helping to create jobs is vandalized in black marker. Canada has been crossed out and “Vive le Quebec Libre” is written in instead, the famous phrase of Charles de Gaulle upon his visit to Montreal in 1967.
There are other reminders that can distort any rosy picture of Montreal. Garbage is simply piled up on the sidewalk, and during my stay, the debate about bridge safety in the city was reignited when a concrete slab from the Ville-Marie Expressway fell to the road below.
Even with these issues, my perception of what a city could be had changed from my time in Montreal.
There is a strong sense of community brought on by the French language and culture that defines the city, despite it being home to a diverse populace.
And the unique identity that Montreal emits is never isolated to one of its regions or suburbs. I feel it while walking on Saint Laurent Boul. or strolling through the quaint community of Outremont. There is a feeling of belonging from a people who seem to genuinely love where they live.
Here, it isn’t enough to be content with where you live, it’s about enjoying the life you have made.
— Photo courtesy of Kwong Yee Cheng