Incentive Travel in Montreal – Part 1:
Exploring Montreal’s Oldest Historical Areas
by Anne Thornley-Brown, President, Executive Oasis International
Special thanks to Greg Horn, Editor of Kahnawake News for his assistance and support in preparing information about the First Nations People who originally lived in this area.
Montreal has numerous historical sites for groups to explore during incentive trips. Written by someone who grew up in Montreal, this article describes these sites and the historical events and the people that gave them significance. We’ll visit Mont-Royal, St. Helen’s Island, St. Joseph’s Oratory, Old Montreal, Chinatown, St. Lawrence Blvd. (the main), and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Your team will enjoy exploring these areas and discovering the role that each played in Montreal’s history.
Preparing this blog entry has been a bit of a struggle for me. That’s probably hard to understand as Montréal is the place of my earliest memories. So why has it taken me so long to write about Montreal? I guess many people can relate to the fact that, in the place where we grew up, we have some of our most joyful experiences but also the inevitable disappointments. It’s challenging to be objective and detached when writing about ANY place that we’ve called home. When writing about places we’ve only visited, one is less aware of political sensitivities, cultural nuances and social injustice. When writing about a familiar environment, it’s hard to strike a balance between not offending people and being honest enough not to gloss over certain realities.
I’ve finally decided to take a stab at sharing the rich history and cornucopia of experiences this incredible city offers for incentive travel and team entertainment. I hope that what I share will be of value. If you have any questions or reactions, please post them in comments.
Where do I begin? Well you probably already know that Montreal is an island city. It’s similar to Singapore in that respect. It’s one of the largest cities in Canada and its population is a mix of French, British and a myriad of other cultural influences. Since we’re focusing on historical sites, let’s begin with a bit of history.
The oral traditions of First Nations people, archealogical evidence, and the writings of Jacques Cartier, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, and Father Bartholemew Vimont confirm the fact that Montreal is the site of what was once a First Nations Viallage. I am sure you have heard the First Nations Village was called Hochelaga That is what Canadian history books still teach. Is this accurate? Please take time to review:
It is part and parcel of this blog. However, I uncovered so much information that I devoted a full blog entry to it. It will also tell you how Montreal, Mont Royal and Canada got their names.
Giving Your Team a Sense of Montreal’s Historical Areas
Let’s take a look at some of the areas that will give your team a real flavour of Montreal. In each area, I will:
- provide a synopsis of the historical events that make the area significant
- highlight corporate event venues with a flair that is truly Montréal
- identify hotels that have managed to preserve the character of the areas in which they are situated
Almost all of them have restaurants, function rooms and banquet facilitities that are ideal for meetings and corporate events
When I was growing up and up until 3 years ago when my father passed away, my family lived near the Plateau within walking distance of Mont-Royal. My earliest memories of Mont-Royal are of my father taking my sister and me to Parc Jeanne Mance on Park Avenue, to swing, slide and enjoy ice cream treats after dinner during the summer. That’s where I took my first tennis lessons. It’s still a place where Montreal families relax and play.
On the other side of Park Avenue, at the bottom of Mont-Royal, you’ll find Fletcher’s Field with some of Montreal’s most recognizable landmarks including the bandstand and the Jacques Cartier Monument with the statues of the lions in front and the angel at the top.
Notice Mont-Royal with it’s familiar cross in the background of the photo. The cross was erected in commemoration of the wooden cross that was placed there in 1643 by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the founder of Ville Marie. For years, our family had a perfect view of Mont-Royal and the cross from our living room window and balcony. Monteal’s Maisonneuve Street as well as the city of Chomedy (North of Montreal) were both named in honour of Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve.
Things to do on Mont-Royal
Mont-Royal is a perfect location to enjoy cross country skiing, ice skating, and toboganning in the winter, and hiking in the summer. In the summer, it’s great to walk up there. Groups looking to fit some exercise into their itinerary can do so at no cost.
Places for Corporate Events on Mont-Royal
At the top of Mont Royal you’ll find 2 locations that are ideal for corporate events:
- Lac-aux-Castors (Beaver Lake)
- Chalet du Mont-Royal (the Chalet)
Lac-aux-Castors with its pavillion is suitable for picnics and informal outdoor events in the summer and ice skating events in the winter.
The building in the upper right section of the photo is the 2 story pavilion with washroom facilities, a cafeteria and Le Pavilion, a Mediterranean-style bistro that can be rented for more formal special and corporate events.
The dome that you see in the distance is the highest point in Montréal and the top of L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal. Let’s take a detour and talk about this famous Montreal landmark.
L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal
L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal, is a bascilica built through the inspiration of Brother André in honour of Saint-Joseph, the patron saint of Canada. You can see it from Mont Royal but you access it from Queen Mary Road.
In the summer, you can see, some Catholic pilgrims from around the world ascending the long staircase by pausing and kneeling to pray on each step.
The Observation Centre at the top of L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal is a location from which you can enjoy a 360º panoramic view of Mont-Royal, Montreal and, on a clear day, the Laurentians and the US border. It’s a great place to start or end your trip to Montreal.
Chalet du Mont-Royal
Chalet du Mont-Royal has reproductions of maps depicting the evolution of the city and Mont-Royal from 1535 to 1760. Its walls have photos and drawings with significant events in Montreal’s history.
Built in 1932 in the heart of Parc Mont-Royal (that opened in 1876), it’s available for rental for all types of events including corporate events. Outside Le Chalet is the Belvédère Kondiaronk observation deck. It was named after, the First Nations Chief Kondiaronk. It’s the perfect vantage point from which to get a spectacular view of Montreal’s downtown core, the Olympic Stadium, Le Biodome de Montréal, and Île Sainte-Hélène. (The photo at the top of this blog was taken from the observation deck.)
Let’s take another detour and look at the role Île Sainte-Hélène plays in Canadian history.
Île Sainte-Hélène is a small island in the St. Lawrence River just south of Montreal. One can access it by travelling along across the Jacques Cartier Bridge which was named in honour of Jacques Cartier. On this island, which is a parkland enjoyed by Montrealers and visitors alike, one can visit the Biosphere and the La Ronde Amusement Park or just relax and enjoy the green space. As a child, I remember many picnics at St. Helen’s Island and enjoying time at its beach. The water quality at the beach is still fine for swimming.
Samuel de Champlain did extensive exploration of what was to become Montreal. What is not as well known is that, in 1605, during his 2nd exploration of what was to become Canada, French explorer Samuel de Champlain was accompanied by Mathieu Da Costa, a free man Black man from the Azores. He was hired as his translator to help Champlain communicate with the Native People. Mathieu Da Costa is the first known Black man to set foot in Canada. Clearly, he had been to Canada before or he would not have known the language of some of the First Nations people.
In terms of historical significance, Île Sainte-Hélène was named by Samuel de Champlain in honour of his wife in 1611. In May 1613, Champlain left St. Helen’s Island and explored the great lakes.
Champlain is known as the “Father of New France” as he was given the duties of governing New France without the title in 1620. Lake Champlain and the Champlain bridge that connects Montreal with Brossard were named after him. More recently, St. Helen’s Island was enlarged and used as the site of the Montreal world’s fair Terre des Hommes also known as Expo 67. It is now the site of Parc Jean Drapeau, named after Mayor Drapeau who was Montreal’s mayor for a long time including during Terre des Hommes. You’ll find information about a number of reception halls and venues that are available for events at the Parc Jean Drapeau website.
Restaurants on St. Helen’s Island
- Restaurant Hélène de Champlain
Ideal for corporate events.
The Montreal Casino is on adjacent Île Notre-Dame, a man-made island created for Expo 67. It is another location that is ideal for corporate events.
Vieux- Montréal …..Old Montreal (formerly Ville Marie)
It’s outside Le Chalet that one can get a ride to Old Montreal in a caleche during the summer. Until I was in my late teens and I ran into some American tourists who asked me to take them there, I had only been to Old Montreal a handful of times. Of course, after spending an evening there dining and showing them around, I fell in love with it.
History surrounds you in old Montreal. Many events of historical significance took place in this area. Some but not all of these are reflected in the historical sites in this area. In fact, we could devote an entire blog to Old Montréal and still not have enough space to discuss everything. Many of the buildings have their original exteriors and some streets have been stripped down to the original cobblestones and reserved for pedestrian traffic.
In the basement of Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours you can still see traces of settlements of First Nations people in the area. These date back to before Ville Marie was founded by the French. Old Montréal was the site of France’s Ville Marie settlement.
Although he lived in another part of New France, Quebec City, Father Paul Le Jeune was very active in supporting the French settlement in Ville Marie. It is worth pausing to mention that, in 1628, Canada’s first Black resident was brought to New France. He was an 8 year old African boy from Madagascar who was enslaved and brought to New France. He was sold several times, eventually to Father Paul Le Jeune who baptized him as a Catholic and gave him the name Olivier Le Jeune. Olivier Le Jeune was freed from slavery in 1638.
Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance, who founded the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, and about 50 settlers landed there in 1642 to found Ville Marie (This hospital is of significance to my family as my mother worked there for years.) In 1893, a 41-foot granite obelisk was erected to mark Pointe-à-Callière, the spot where the St. Lawrence River and the Little St. Pierre River used to meet. This land was reclaimed from the river and is now part of the city.
In 1685, King Louis XIV of France’s Le Code Noir established the conditions for slavery in France’s colonies around the world. In May 1689, King Louis XIV of France gave approval for limited enslavement of African and the Pawnee (First Nations people) in Ville Marie and other parts of New France in response to complaints by the colonists about the shortage of labour for servants and other workers. In 1709, he formally authorized slavery throughout New France. In 1734, Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave of African heritage was tortured and hung for allegedly setting a fire to her master’s house that spread and destroyed nearly 50 homes in Ville Marie.
In 1732, the first known Jewish settler in Canada, Ferdinande Jacobs, settled in Manitoba and worked as a fur trader with Hudson’s Bay Company. The Virtual Jewish History Tour – Montreal identifies Aaron Hart, a commissary officer serving under General Amherst, as Montreal’s first Jewish settler in 1760. In 1777, the Shearith Israel Congregation built the city’s first synagogue at the corner of Rue Notre Dame and St. James Street in Old Montreal.
Places to See in Old Montreal
Built in 1685,the Old Sulpician Seminary is the oldest surviving building in Montréal. Practically next door you’ll find Notre Dame Basilica. It was built between 1824 – 1829. This is where Celine Dion was married. Vieux-Port de Montréal is a happening area that is bustling with actvity throughout the year. Native canoes and French and British boats used to land there.
Built in 1705 for Ville Marie’s Governor de Ramezay, you can still tour Château RamezayChâteau Ramezay today. At Chateau Ramezay you’ll find photos and exhibits about Ville Marie and some of the artifcats from what is known as Dawson’s “Hochelaga” archealogical digs (as we discussed in a previous blog entry).
These not to be missed exhibits are of great historical significance and they will give you a sense of Montreal’s early history.
Ville Marie went through a transition after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City. Rather than put up resistance, Ville Marie surrended to England. Rue St. Paul, Montreal’s oldest street, dates back to 1850. The transfer of power from France to England was marked by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In spite of this, many of the original buildings are still standing and Old Montreal retains its original French character and charm.
As you stroll through the streets of Old Montreal, some of the facades are hundreds of years old but the interiors of the buildings have been renovated. They now house art galleries, boutiques, clubs, fashionable cafes, and restaurants.
Where to Dine in Old Montreal
Old Montreal has no shortage of places to dine. Walk down just about any street and you’ll find cafes, bistros and restaurants with superb cuisine. I’ll just highlight three.
- Les Filles du Roi located at the Pierre du Calvert hotel (the restaurant’s venue was once a residence for young ladies of marriagable age who were brought to New France as a way of dealing the shortage of eligible marriage partners for the settlers)
- Crêperie Chez SuzetteEnjoy a scrumptious variety of crepes and fondues. Crêperie Chez Suzette is located at Aux Délices du Vieux Montréal that has 4 restaurants on 2 1/2 floors.
- Gibbys RestaurantAt Gibbys you’ll be able to enjoy steak, seafood and fish in a historical setting. Located in a 200 year old setting, Gibbys is located in what was once the in the Youville Stables on a site founded by Marguerite d’Youville that once belong to the Sisters of Charity (or Grey Nuns).
According to their website:
Part of the original structure was built in 1694, and served as The Grey Nuns’ General Hospital, which cared for the sick and destitute. However, most of the building dates from 1765 to 1850. Youville Stables received its name from the horses’ stalls which were once located in the central courtyard.
Another interesting historical note is that the Little St. Pierre River once flowed in front of the ste. In 1833, it was covered when St. Anne’s Market, now Place Youville, was built.
Corporate Event Venues in Old Montreal
You’ll also want to see the Bonsecours Market opened in 1847. The market stalls are gone but you’ll see boutiques and cafes and enjoy a variety of events throughout the year. Bonsecours Market has 4 spaces that are suitable for corporate events. La Campagnarde on at Aux Délices du Vieux Montréal is perfect for small corporate events. Modern locations include Le Westin Montréal in the heart of Old Montreal.
You can see the English version of this video by visiting the hotel’s website, selecting “English” and clicking on “Virtual Tour”.
Quartier Chinois – Chinatown
If one heads west along Rue de la Gauchetiere or North along Boulevard Saint-Laurent, you’ll come to Chinatown where the Chinese first settled in Montreal and where there is still a thriving Chinese community.
Even many Montrealers don’t realize that this area was originally a large Jewish community during the 19th century. Unfortunately, a lot of the original buildings were destroyed in including the 2nd location of the synagogue for the the Shearith Israel Congregation on Chenneville Street were demolished to make way for the Guy Favreau complex.
Montreal’s Chinatown began to develop around 1850 with the first immigration to what was to be come Canada. In 1867, Canada officially became nation rather than just a British colony. Most Chinese immigrants settled in Western Canada and were employed by CNR to build the railway. When the railway was completed, many Chinese families moved to Montreal, the largest Canadian city at the time, in search of employment. They faced a lot of discrimination and, for this reason. many Chinese immigrants worked primarily in the tailoring and hand laundry business. Both involved long hours and a lot of drudgery.
It has been reported that Montreal’s first Chinese laundry opened in 1887 at Jeanne Mance and St. Antoine. But Lovells indicates that the first Chinese laundry in Montreal opened in 1879 when Wah Lee Chinese California Laundry (pdf) took over a space previously occupied by Telesphore Filion’s barbershop on St. Antoine, north side, about four doors east of St. Lawrence, then described as 501 Craig. It’s currently a parking lot.
The community went through significant challenges starting in 1885 when a head tax of $50 was imposed on every Chinese person migrating to Canada. In 1900, the Head Tax tax was increased to to $100. By 1903, it was boosted to $500, representing about 2 years wages. Between 1923 and 1947 due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. During this period, fewer than than 50 people of Chinese origin were permitted to come to Canada. From this challenging start, the Chinese community in Montreal has grown. Some of my classmates who had families working for long hours and low pay in Chinatown went on to become doctors, engineers and other professionals. This is a testamant to the resilence of the human spirit.
In 2006, on behalf of the Canadian Government, Prime Minister Harper formally apologized to the Chinese Canadian community for the head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. All living members of the Chinese community who had paid the head tax were compensated for this injustice.
As a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time in Chinatown as some of my friends attended the Chinese Presbyterian Church and I would go to the young people’s group on Saturdays. Chinatown used to be a lot larger but a number of developments such as Montreal’s subway system (The Metro), the construction of the Guy-Favereau complex and other developments has meant that some beautiful historical buildings have fallen under the wrecker’s ball. Now that I have had a chance to travel to southeast Asia 16 times, I can safely say that Montreal’s Chinatown does give you a fairly realistic sense of strolling in historical areas of Asian cities.
You’ll find Chinese groceries, souvenirs, antiques, clothing, and all kinds of treats. In another blog entry I wrote about finding the Hello Kitty Dolls that I had first seen in Singapore in Montreal’s Chinatown.
- Holiday Inn Select – an Asian themed hotel
Where to Dine in Chinatown
Years ago, when my was planning to have lunch at a well known restaurant in Chinatown, one of her Chinese friends asked her “How many Chinese poeple do you see eating there?” That was a great tip in selecting a restaurant with authentic cuisine and I use it to this day. So, when you go to Chinatown remember that tip.
I’ll give an example of one place that meets this criteria. It’s a buffet called:
- Jardin De Jade Poon Kai Restaurant
It’s always busy and it’s very popular with Asian families and business people. Other than that, just stroll along Rue de la Gauchetiere and select any restaurant that looks interesting and where you see a lot of Asian families dining.
For a walking tour of Montreal’s Chinatown visit:
Boulevard Saint-Laurent is like a median, the dividing line between the “two solitudes” about which Hugh MacLennan wrote in his book with the same name. At one time, people growing up in Montreal would be more familiar with the West side of the island if they were anglophone and more familiar with the East Montreal if they were francophone. This was due to the patterns of settlement that started early in Montreal’s history. Boulevard Saint-Laurent, cuts right through the city. Head North from Chinatown and, after you cross Sherbrooke Street, you’ll come to an area that is known as “The Main”.
In the communities around Boulevard Saint-Laurent, many poor Jewish and European immigrants settled and got their start in Canada. The area around St. Lawrence Blvd, north of Sherbrooke became the nexus of Montreal’s Jewish Community. It’s in this area where you’ll find the original Schwartz’s Deli and Warshaws. This is where Steinberg’s, now Quebec’s largest supermarket chain, got its start. Few Jewish families live in this area today.
Today, Boulevard Saint-Laurent has residents, fashionable shoppes, restaurants, and cafes from every corner of the globe. It provides a truly multi-cultural experience.
If one walks East along Prince Arthur Street, once one crosses Boulevard Saint-Laurent the city changes and one enters Monteal’s East end that, traditionally, has been more francophone. Right after Carre St.-Louis, you’ll come to Rue St. Denis with many fashionable boutiques and restaurants. (In fact, if you look closely, you’ll spot my favourite creperie but I’m not about to divulge all of my secrets).
- Fondue & Plus (Duluth East of Rue St. Denis)
- Anne ma Soeur Anne – Includes Video
If you continue to head east in Montreal, you will come to Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. It is a merger of Ville de Hochelaga (not to be confused with the First Nations village we discussed earlier) and Maisonneuve.
There are many historical sites in Montreal’s East End communities like Hochelaga-Maisoneuve. Sadly, I don’t know this area well. For the longest time, other than Rosemont, areas East of Rue St. Denis were a blur to me. I have made a point of exploring this area with my son when I have returned to Montreal. One thing is certain, East End or West End, with the unique architecture and layout of the streets, it’s ALL recognizable as distinctly Montreal. Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is an area that more visitors to Montreal and ex-Montrealers who grew up in the city’s West End should make an effort to explore. Its history dates back to 1664 and there are numerous historical sites.
Ville de Hochelaga was annexed to the City of Montreal in 1883. At that time, Maisonneuve (known as Côte Saint-Martin at the time) decided to establish a model industrial city instead of joining Montreal. The city flourished for decades. By 1918, due to its heavy debt load, it also became a part of Montreal.
This excellent website has documents, maps, photos, and an extensive history of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.
Where to Learn More About Montreal’s Historical Sites
This ends our tour of some of Montreal’s historical sites and the events that made them significant. The next time I feel inspired to write about Montreal, I’ll focus on exploring the downtown core, the Golden Square Mile, Little Burgundy (St. Henri), and Westmount.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about the history of Montreal and its historical sites, a good place to start is the:
Memorable Montreal – EXCELLENT! Explores 13 communities in Montreal with an historical overview, maps, photos, and documents.
Anne is a co-author of the book West Indians in Toronto: Implications for Helping Professionals.
Special thanks to Greg Horn at Kahnawake News for reviewing, fact & cultural sensitivity checking the section of this blog related to the history of First Nations people in the Montreal area. Greg Horn is ioriwase on Twitter.
Let Executive Oasis International Bring Your Team to Montreal & Other Parts of Canada
Executive Oasis International would be pleased to build a customized itinerary for you based on your interests. We can also offer you one of our own itineraries that give your group some down time and also a chance to experience some of the historical sites we’ve described.
To arrange an incentive trip to or corporate event in Montreal, please feel free to contact Executive Oasis International for assistance:
- Canada Incentive Travel
- Luxury Corporate Events
- Winter Team Building in Canada
- Wilderness Survival Team Building in Canada
- Great Canadian Race Available in all Canadian cities
- Canada Team Building
Photo Credit: Night View of Montreal from Belvédère Kondiaronk Observation Deck Outside Le Chalet sebwy
Photo Credit: Jacques Cartier Monument at Fletcher’s Field AmiCalmant
Photo Credit: L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal Whalt
Photo Credit: Le Chalet on Top of Mont Royal Flavio Freitas
Photo Credit: Old Monteal dicktay2000
Photo Credit: Gate to Montreal’s Chinatown serhio
Photo Credit: Montreal’s Chinatown addie reed
Photo Credit: Montreal’s Chinatown quinn.anya