Putting Montreal under the microscope

by Patrick Lejtenyi, BA'97

The multicultural appeal of comedian Sugar Sammy was explored at a recent colloquium organized by a new McGill research centre devoted to exploring all the facets of Montreal

Montreal, most people would agree, is an interesting place. Politically, culturally, linguistically, ethnically and — from what we're discovering at the Charbonneau Commission — ethically, Quebec’s metropolis has much to offer to those who want to peer closely at what makes this unique city tick.

McGill will soon be launching a first-of-its-kind research centre where academics from a multitude of fields can do just that.

The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal, co-founded by Quebec studies coordinator Stephan Gervais, BEd'94, MEd'97, and associate professor of French language and literature Gillian Lane-Mercier, PhD'85, is being described as a kind of agora for academics whose field of research is and of Montreal. Scholars from architecture and literature will rub alongside colleagues with expertise in law, neurolinguistics, political science and history. Lane-Mercier says the centre will be unique -- certainly in Canada, and perhaps worldwide.

While similar city-studying programs exist at other universities in London and New York City, Lane-Mercier says they tend to be focused on using those cities as comparative case studies—measuring them against other cities in any number of disciplines. But the CIRM is interested specifically in looking at Montreal. Obviously, adds Gervais, within the context of Quebec and Canada, but making the city the focus of research rather than as a benchmark. The fledgling centre has already garnered significant media interest, with articles in several Montreal dailies and radio appearances behind it. Lane-Mercier says that she started receiving inquiries from the general public as soon as the centre’s creation was announced. It’s a development she welcomes with open arms. “It has to be a two-way street,” she says. She hopes the centre will spark many lively discussions about Montreal's many characteristics.

An example of that sort of dialogue was on display last month when the CIRM organized its first colloquium. At one presentation, doctoral student Sunita Nigam explored the multicultural appeal of Montreal comedian (and former McGill student) Sugar Sammy and his ability to reach audiences across linguistic boundaries. An unexpected audience member, Sugar Sammy's manager Martin Langlois, added his own thoughts about the comedian's rise, explaining that Sugar Sammy himself had asked Langlois to attend on his behalf.

In another presentation, assistant professor of architecture David Theodore, BA'91, BSc(Arch)'94, BArch'96, MArch'01, offered a scathing look at architectural decisions made in Montreal that failed to consider how the public already used a space that was then re-developed – such as the plaza in Place des Arts and the square outside St. James United Church on St Catherine Street.

Award-winning author and architectural scholar Witold Rybczynski, BArch'66, March'72, DSc'02, was the colloquium's keynote speaker. Gervais says that around 80 per cent of the presentations were either in French or switched back and forth between English and French. Lane-Mercier sees this interplay as an example of “active bilingualism, where both languages are spoken, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph.” Fitting, says Gervais, for an institute studying a city in which an estimated 20 percent of the population speaks three languages.

This being Montreal, however, and with the interview taking place just a few days before Montrealers elected a new mayor, there are certain topics on the minds of everyone with an interest in the city -- first and foremost being corruption. Here, Gervais and Lane-Mercier both smile when asked if the centre would be offering any policy suggestions to making the city more manageable.

“We want to disseminate knowledge, not policy,” Lane-Mercier says. “We hold to the belief that research can contribute to the better understanding and improvements of a city. But the research has to be known throughout the community, and that includes the political community. We want to make sure our discourse and findings get out and integrate with different elements of civil society.”

files from Victoria Leenders-Cheng