City data: Key facts
Geographical area: 624 sq. km
Total population: 1,886,481
Total national population living in the city: 5.6 %
Education level - with degree level or higher: 35.17 %
GDP (PPP) million: US$ 88,493
Creative industries employment: 13.4%
After Kinshasa, Paris, and Abidjan, Montréal is the fourth largest French-speaking city in the world. French settlement in Montréal dates back to 1611, when the explorer Samuel de Champlain established a fur-trading post on the island. By 1763, when France ceded control of Québec to Britain, the people of Montréal were predominantly French, having supplanted the island’s original Mohawk inhabitants.
The relationship of Montréal to the predominantly English-speaking Canadian nation has always been uneasy. The Québécois have fought to preserve their distinctive cultural heritage, including language and religion. Since the 1970s there have been legal battles over a language policy which makes French the sole official language in Québec. A secession referendum in 1995 (with a narrow 51% against independence) failed to resolve these wider issues.
For Montréal the situation is more complex. It is home to Québec’s largest English-speaking population (13.2% speak English as a first language), and to sizeable immigrant communities from non-French speaking countries (33% of residents are foreign-born). While Montréal’s French heritage gives a distinctive character, developing a coherent response to social and cultural issues can be a fraught process when cultural identity is so bound up with language.
In response to these challenges, the city aims to become a ‘cultural mediator,’ focusing upon widening and democratising access to culture. In contrast to many other world cities, it is increasing funding for the arts: its grant to Conseil des Arts de Montréal, the city’s independent arts council, has increased by 5% every year since 2009.
In 2007 the City of Montréal came together with Culture Montréal (an independent organisation acting as the Regional Cultural Council), the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montréal, and the government of Québec and Canada to create a comprehensive Action Plan for cultural development over the coming decade.
The Action Plan included significant investment in Montréal’s major cultural district, the Quartier des Spectacles. This square kilometre is home to over 80 cultural venues with 28,000 seats in 30 performance spaces, 450 cultural organisations and 7000 jobs related to culture. It includes the Place des Arts – Canada’s leading cultural complex with six different concert and theatre halls – and the Place des Festivals, a key public space to host the city’s major festivals.
With over 200,000 students at its universities, Montréal is the ‘university capital’ of Canada, and second only to Boston in North America. Alongside its universities are university hospitals and specialist research centres, contributing to the innovation economy across the city. Montréal is a global leader in the video games industry, which employs almost 7500 people.
Yet despite its vibrant university network, the city faces some challenges which are unusual for a world city. There is a lack of qualified workers, as many university students leave Montréal after graduation, and there is a high drop-out rate among local young people. The city has a lower growth rate, lower disposable income and higher unemployment than other Canadian cities.
Therefore its flourishing arts scene is a major economic driver for the city. Montréal’s cultural vibrancy may partly be due to its low cost of living, which helps to attract creative people. Montréal sees itself as a centre for grassroots culture, encompassing both funded organisations and a network of informal activity in cafés, bars and nightclubs, and on the streets. The city is keen to foster fringe and alternative cultural activities, which it sees as essential source of cultural dynamism. For instance, Cirque du Soleil, which is based in Montréal and is now the largest theatrical producer in the world, was founded by two former street performers.
Montréal is also known as a ‘city of festivals’, hosting over one hundred in total. They include three world-class festivals: the Montréal International Jazz Festival; Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, a festival of French music; and the Festival Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs, the world’s largest international comedy festival. Alongside these, the Festival des Nuits d’Afrique and the Festival du Monde Arabe help to showcase the city’s ethnic diversity. The City of Montréal and its tourism agency, Tourisme Montréal, heavily promotes Montréal’s festivals, and provides funding to around fifty of them. The city views culture as the basis of its global brand.
In 2017, the final year of its cultural Action Plan, Montréal will celebrate the 375th anniversary of its founding and the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. New cultural projects will be launched, including a revamp of the city’s science museums and the creation of a waterfront promenade.
Montréal is a city with a vibrant cultural life, including an active fringe and alternative scene that gives a unique ‘buzz’ to the city. It has a wealth of festivals that drive tourism to the city, and is known as the ‘university capitol’ of Canada. Much of its cultural richness comes from its proud Francophone history: Montréal now is aiming to use culture to unite a diverse city.