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Literary Cities


(French Literature)

Montréal and the Plateau Mont-Royal
by Kareen Martel, University of Ottawa

White 75-cent stamp with a colour illustration of a street lined with row houses, each with an outside staircase leading to the second floor

Postage stamp depicting a Montréal street scene, June 7, 1978


A lot of ink has been devoted to describing Montréal, and not just by actual writers. On October 2, 1535, when explorer Jacques Cartier tried to give an objective account of his visit to Montréal, called Hochelaga by the Iroquois who lived there, his every word was infused with wonder. Cartier was also struck by the majesty of Mount Royal, which he named and which has continued to inspire many writers.

Black and white photograph of a young man with handwritten annotations in black ink in the top right corner

Émile Nelligan, 1904


In the minds of contemporary readers, Mount Royal is forever associated with the spirit of Émile Nelligan, a Quebec poet who has achieved mythical status. Nelligan lived on Laval Street, near the Saint-Louis Square, where a bust of the poet now stands. Nelligan's ghost also haunts the Château Ramezay in Old Montréal, which is now a museum. It was there that the École littéraire de Montréal met and that Nelligan astounded his audience with his famous poem La Romance du vin (1899). Montréal is the city of many other poets, whose work leaped to public attention, like Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau. And particularly during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and the "night of poetry" in March 1970, a landmark event in the literature and history of Quebec. The writings of Montréal poets Gaston Miron, Jacques Brault and Nicole Brossard are examples of this passionate form of poetry that sought to carve out a place and a language for itself.

Novels of this period, like those by Jacques Godbout and Réjean Ducharme, staked out this same territory and highlighted the Americanization of Montréal and Quebec. Their characters used street language, sometimes even speaking joual, a form of Canadian French. This was the style favoured by Michel Tremblay, particularly in his Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal (published as of 1978 and later translated as Chronicles of Plateau Mont-Royal). These stories describe life in the Plateau in the 1940s, when it was a working-class neighbourhood, and an imaginary boundary divided the city between poor and rich, and Francophones and Anglophones: "Never had anyone in their group gone any farther than Eaton's. West of the big store was the great unknown: English, money, Simpson's, Ogilvy's, la rue Peel, la rue Guy-till after Atwater, they started feeling at home again, because of the Saint-Henri district nearby and the smell of the port."1

The Montréal of today's literature is pluralistic and multicultural, as shown in Monique Proulx's Les Aurores montréales (published in 1996 and later translated as Aurora Montrealis), and the work of immigrant authors Ying Chen and Dany Laferrière.


1 Michel Tremblay. The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant (S. Fischman, Trans.). Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1981, p. 19.

See also Montréal (English Literature)