Griffintown circa 1896

Griffintown’s REM station should honour the Irish

The city’s proposed name for a new train station fails to recognize an important element of Montreal’s history.

When I found out the City of Montreal was considering naming the new REM station in Griffintown after former Quebec premier Bernard Landry — instead of the Irish community so closely associated with it — I shook my head ‘no’ so vigorously I almost gave myself a migraine.

I’m a fan of the current administration. When it comes to social housing, accessibility, public transit and public space livability, their vision aligns with mine. I believe Mayor Valérie Plante has made and continues to make important and well-thought-out decisions. I don’t think this is one of them.

A few weeks after the city’s announcement, workers excavating a hole for the REM station uncovered a burial site and found the bones of at least 15 bodies. If history was trying to tell us something, it certainly wasn’t being subtle about it.

More than 6,000 Irish immigrants who died from typhus during the Irish Famine are believed to be buried in Griffintown. Thousands of people breathed their last breath in crowded, quarantined tents and fever sheds set up in this part of town and many orphaned Irish children went on to be adopted by French Catholic families.

After the city’s intentions were made public, members of the Irish community expressed their dismay. They found the proposal ill-conceived, insulting and incredibly tone deaf. I read the articles and the letters to the editor imploring Mayor Plante to reconsider, and I saw the reactions to those reactions on social media. While some were empathetic, the majority ranged from flippant to downright unkind. Some suggested the request for an Irish name was maliciously motivated by politics and a desire not to see Landry honoured at all. Some seem to think the current Black Rock memorial on a median on Bridge Street, in the middle of an industrial area that absolutely no one walks in, and practically across from a Costco, is a perfectly fine place to memorialize the thousands of Irish who perished here. Can anyone in all sincerity defend that abysmal location?

As a long-time resident of the Sud-Ouest, I’ve always been fascinated by its history. Over a decade ago, before construction started in Griffintown and the condo towers started furiously sprouting up like mushrooms, I went on a lengthy walking tour organized by a local history association. It was late fall and the tour was — if I recall properly — almost three hours long. Halfway through the tour, I lost two of my friends to boredom and cold — they chose to go warm up at a café. I was mesmerized (and dismayed) by what I knew in my heart was about to disappear forever. I needed to see it all.

The historian showed us all the landmarks where a vibrant community of hardscrabble Irish workers once lived, toiled, worshipped and survived. He pointed to the place where St. Ann’s Church used to be before it was hastily demolished. He pointed to the crumbling and decaying old factories, textile mills and foundries. There were more than 50 factories operating in Griffintown by the late 1860s. He showed us the spots where it was rumoured new construction would soon be rising from the ashes of this forgotten ghost town.I looked at this area, once a hub of activity and life, but also of tragedy and poverty; where fires and floods had ravaged but never decimated a hard-working community that helped shape so much of what this city still is.

During Drapeau’s administration, Griffintown was rezoned for industrial use and started to fade away. Construction of the Bonaventure Expressway necessitated the demolition of remaining buildings and Goose Village (where most Irish workers who built Victoria Bridge once lived) was later also demolished to accommodate Expo 67. By the late ‘90s there were barely a couple of hundred residents in the area — if that. Most Montrealers even forgot it existed.

Until, of course, the canal was reopened to pleasure crafts in 2002 and a bike path was designed along its entire length. Suddenly, developers started realizing this area, once left to decay and disinterest, was ripe for exploitation. Old factories were quickly turned into fancy and expensive urban condos. Coveted waterfront land, minutes away from Old Montreal and downtown, suddenly skyrocketed in value.

When public consultations began in the area about future development, there were no residents left to oppose what was about to happen. With little forethought to environmental sustainability, heritage conservation, human-scale development or even infrastructure efficiency, developers’ outlandish plans for 20-storey condo projects were accepted, and construction started. And it hasn’t stopped.

I’m not particularly fond of what Griffintown has become. It was developed far too quickly and with a limited vision, and as a result lacks the character and soul of areas that come back to life organically. Looking at it today, all glitz and glamour and new money, it’s easy to forget what once stood there. But I like to believe Mary Gallagher’s ghost still wanders the streets at night, still searching for her head, utterly amused at the exorbitant prices that condos are fetching in the neighbourhood these days.

I have spent almost 20 years paddling in the Lachine Canal. Whether you’ve ever cycled, walked, picnicked or read a book by the canal’s walls, you need to recognize that they were primarily built by dirt poor immigrant Irish workers (Italians, too.) To marginalize and minimize Griffintown’s Irish connection is to willingly ignore how this city has been shaped and formed by anonymous masses of labourers, the ones who weren’t famous, didn’t go into politics, weren’t educated statesmen and who maybe no one beyond their families knew. But they mattered and they contributed, too.

I’ll be honest: I’m tired of public spaces, streets, metro stations, etc. being named after white male politicians. Can we see some women, some artists, some Montrealers of diverse origins get their dues, too?

Having said that, Bernard Landry should be honoured. He’s a big part of contemporary Quebec history and was influential in shaping the province’s economic and financial sectors. But this isn’t the way to do it. He has as much of a connection to Griffintown as I do to the town of Saint-Jacques, where he was born.

History teacher, co-owner and tour guide of Griffin Tours, Donovan King — who recently wrote an open letter published in La Presse opposed to the naming of the REM station for Landry, and was promptly called a “trou de cul” for his efforts — has proposed that the entire Multi-media City and the adjacent park be named for the former premier. I tend to agree with him.

Public historian and writer Matthew Barlow agrees, too. Barlow, who has written Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, thinks that naming the REM station after Landry is “an insult to the history and the memory of the neighbourhood,” an area that he considers to be “the birthplace of the Canadian industrial revolution.”

“Cities evolve and change, they are living organisms, but they are also a function of their histories,” he says. “Bernard Landry probably does deserve to have a station, or something named after him. But not here.”

Griffintown has become so unrecognizable in its current revitalized form, scrubbed free of the old, that it’s almost understandable that so many have forgotten that this area is steeped in Irish history. But if you listen carefully, the past still whispers and it most certainly speaks Gaelic. A train station named after Griffintown’s Irish history is the absolute least we can do to ensure that its past is commemorated and remembered in the right way. ■