Looking Back : Monumental
by Valérie Rhême
translated by Andrée McNamara Tait
The Monument-National, currently owned by the NTS, has been a major creative center which has presented mythical
figures from here and abroad such as Édith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Gratien Gélinas, and Molly Picon. While many are familiar
with this aspect of the Monument, some may be surprised to discover, while visiting the exhibition Monument-National: A Site of Great Undertakings,
inaugurated last February, that it has also been a popular university, the home of major social and political movements, and the rallying
point for many minorities.
The Monument-National played an important role for Quebec and Montréal, says historian Jean-Marc
Larrue, the mastermind behind the exhibition. It became monumental but not, however, because of its original vocation. It is the many
unexpected events that have made its journey so remarkable.
When the building was inaugurated, the
Association Saint-Jean Baptiste (today known as the Société
Saint-Jean-Baptiste SSJB) wanted to give francophones,
who had been a majority in Montréal since 1861, an important
community and cultural centre. At the time, the city had a dozen
monuments to the glory of British heroes and nothing to commemorate
the courage of the founders of New-France.
Its geographical location, however, placed
it at the historical junction of the French (east of St. Laurent
Boulevard) and English (in the west) sections of the city. Before
long, thanks to the influx of immigrants arriving in Montréal,
the Monument found itself at the heart of the Jewish and Chinese
districts. Not only did these two communities pass through its
doors, but also the Irish, the citys large anglophone bourgeoisie,
and people from various other minorities. Everyone mixed with
the francophones who frequented the building. The Monument-National
stood out as a major multi-ethnic community and cultural gathering
This cohabitation was probably unique in the world, adds Jean-Marc Larrue. It demonstrates
the ambivalence of the French-Canadians of the time who were nationalists and had a certain apprehension towards anything foreign, all the
while demonstrating openness and Christian charity. Jews, who were destitute, arrived here by the thousands and stayed within their community
(in order to protect their culture). Francophones also felt threatened at the time. In this same way (and for the same reasons), they helped
the Chinese, the Italians
The diversity of Jewish activities held at the Monument reveal how important it was for that community: aside
from New York, it was the biggest centre for Yiddish theatre in America and remained so until the end of the 1940s. Religious services marking
the Jewish New Year were held within its walls from 1903 to the middle of the 1930s; the first Jewish Canadian Congress took place there
in 1919, as well as a multitude of other important events for the community.
This natural cohabitation sometimes made for some strange bedfellows. At one point, in 1930, Adrien Arcand, the
head of the Christian National Socialist Party (a French-Canadian, anti-Semite group) used the Monument as a platform to denounce Jewish
imperialism and materialism; a few days later, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, was there, encouraging
nationalist zeal amongst Jewish Montrealers.
It can also be said that, at the time, the Monument was the seat of all the political debates that marked Quebec
until the beginning of the 1960s. From Honoré Mercier, who made his last speech in 1893, Wilfrid Laurier, Henri Bourassa, and Lionel
Groulx to Pierre Bourgault in 1966, the voices of all of Quebecs and Canadas speakers rang out in the great hall.
Even before the first stone was laid for the Monument-National, the Dames de la Société
(Ladies of the Society) later known as the Dames patronesses (Lady Patrons) then Fédération Saint-Jean-Baptiste
played a major role in constructing the Monument. They worked diligently to raise the necessary funds because they viewed this
project as an opportunity to improve the living conditions of French-Canadian women, by starting the first public courses open to women,
for instance, and by demanding access to post-secondary education. Women such as Marie Gérin-Lajoie the Fédérations
leader and Idola Saint-Jean an early militant and symbol of Quebecs francophone suffragettes also
created support networks for women and fought to obtain the vote. For nearly 40 years, the Monument-National was considered the home of
and Workers Movements
When Jean-Marc Larrue is asked how the Monument could have been at the source of so many important movements,
he simply replies: The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste oversaw the social issues that the government of the day did not
take care of. Popular education was at the heart of the preoccupations of the Sociétés directors, who instituted
the Monuments public courses, technical courses for adults. They trained thousands of people over some 60 years. The subjects
taught varied and evolved along with Quebec society: engineering, law, accounting, hygiene, physics, arts, history, and literature were
on the bill. The Monument acted as a popular university. You could say that the École Polytechnique, École des Hautes
Études Commerciales, and the Conservatoire dart dramatique all have their roots there, explains Jean-Marc Larrue.
The same can be said for unionism and mutualism in Montréal. Through the actions of the SSJB, the Monument
supported workers action by housing a multitude of associations for workers: travelling salesmen, factory workers, shop ladies,
etc. Since banks refused to lend money to the less affluent, these workers created their own alternative banking services at around the
same time that Alphonse Desjardins was founding his first Caisse populaire in Quebec City.
Jewish and French Canadian amateur performers in the cantata Ruth, in front of the
Monument-National in 1914
The Monument-National started to decline in the 1950s, as St. Laurent Boulevard became overrun by crime and prostitution.
The Monument was spared from the demolition ball three times and was designated a cultural property in 1976. The School took
ownership in 1978 and completely renovated the building from 1991 to 1993.
Since then, the Monument has continued to be a training institution and creative centre; the public performances
of the NTSs francophone and anglophone students are produced and presented there. This major performing-arts presenter also hosts
professional artists of all disciplines and world-renowned events such as the International Jazz Festival and the Festival de théâtre
des Amériques. The old eclecticism remains. The Monument-National continues to be a place for creation, training, and presenting,
says Jean-Marc Larrue. Its the best thing that could happen to it!
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