Oscar Peterson Montreal

On naming Montreal places after Oscar Peterson

The latest and perhaps most awkward commemoration for the jazz legend follows a series of controversial and sometimes successful attempts at appropriate honours.

There’s a David Cross routine where he goes through the random nonsense that you used to be able to buy in mail-order catalogues like Skymall that is so characteristic of the mindless consumerism of late-stage capitalism (time mug: the mug with a watch face glued to it, for instance) called “An Existence Predicated on Manufactured Necessity” that I think about every time I hear someone bring up the idea of naming something, somewhere in Montreal after Oscar Peterson. The recent news that the city will name a new public plaza on McGill College Avenue after Peterson seemed to have been reported in much the same way as a late-night infomercial advertising some product you didn’t know you needed: finally—Montreal has recognized Oscar Peterson.

Place Oscar Peterson in Montreal

I suspect it won’t actually be the last place to be named after Peterson — my guess is that the CDPQ will name the REM station currently being built under McGill College Avenue after Peterson as well. So one day commuters from the exoburbs will be able to get off at Gare Oscar-Peterson and step out into Place Oscar-Peterson and maybe hear some jazzy Muzak as they make their way to run out the clock on their existence in the bland office towers lining Montreal’s irredeemable 1980s showcase street.

I’m kidding of course — those office towers are obsolete. They’ll be turned into overpriced condos. One might be called l’Oscar (Le Peterson already exists a few blocks away).

Before I go any further I’ll say this: I enjoy the music of Oscar Peterson and he is worthy of being commemorated as far as I’m concerned.

Moreover, as a public historian, I’m thrilled that there is a modest effort (and interest) in naming places and spaces after Indigenous people or people of colour in our city. Montreal has a serious commemorative deficit in this respect — particularly in Ville-Marie borough — and so these efforts ought to be encouraged. Furthermore, the city did ask Peterson’s family and got their permission, and apparently they’re quite happy, and that’s good, too.

The problem, as I see it, with regards to this particular commemoration is threefold: 1. There is already a park and a concert venue named after Oscar Peterson; 2. This part of town has neither a connection to Peterson nor to jazz music; 3. The notion we needed to name an “important place” after Peterson is unfortunately wrapped up in a long weird history of language politics and historical revisionism that has nearly nothing to do with Peterson or jazz music.

Bienvenue à Montréal.

By my measure, this is now the fourth public commemoration of Peterson in Montreal. Concordia University was first to do so when they named their concert hall in NDG after Peterson in the late 1990s. Next, a park in the neighbourhood he grew up in, Little Burgundy, was renamed to commemorate Peterson in 2009. These are both excellent ways to commemorate a famous Montreal jazz musician—what could be more appropriate than a performance venue and a park near where Peterson grew up?

Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, Concordia University, Montreal

Additionally, a mural funded by the city and featuring likenesses of Peterson called Jazz Born Here went up on the side of a building at the intersection of St-Jacques and des Seigneurs in 2011. This mural is located near the park that bears Peterson’s name.

The City of Montreal — and more specifically the Sud-Ouest borough government of 2008 — chose to rename a park after Peterson as a compromise, because at the time a petition was circulating to rename something a bit bigger and potentially far more controversial. Originally, the idea had been to rename Lionel-Groulx metro station after Peterson. As best as I can figure, the plan to rename the station after Peterson can be traced back to a petition launched by one Michael Citrome in 2008. Citrome’s proposal was that renaming the station after Peterson allowed the city to stone the two proverbial birds: honour Peterson with an appropriately located commemoration while simultaneously getting rid of the only Montreal metro station named after a virulent anti-Semite, Catholic supremacist and fascist apologist.

In case you don’t know, the Abbé Lionel Groulx was a Catholic priest and Quebec historian who popularized a conservative, ultramontane Quebec nationalism. He wrote prolifically and is credited with reinvigorating interest in Quebec’s early history, particularly the French Colonial period, which he described in heroic terms. Groulx is commemorated in different forms: he has a CEGEP, a mountain and two streets in Montreal named for him.

One of those streets is in the Sud-Ouest borough, and the metro station takes its name from the street. According to Martin Bérubé of Propos Montréal, the street was named Rue Albert up until 1973, at which point it was changed on the order of former mayor Jean Drapeau, a disciple of Groulx. The station was originally to have been called Station Albert, something Drapeau evidently considered less than ideal. So the street was renamed on the order of the mayor so that the station would then in turn have to take the name of the renamed street, thus honouring Groulx at a time of surging Quebec nationalism.

Governing Byzantium was a less convoluted affair.

And in case you’re wondering, no, Lionel Groulx never (as far as I can tell) lived anywhere near the station or street that bears his name. Given Groulx’s thoughts about maintaining racial purity, it’s unlikely he ever would have lived in a predominantly Black neighbourhood. 

Lionel Groulx

The idea to rename Lionel-Groulx metro station indirectly stems from Esther Delisle’s original research prepared as part of her PhD, which she defended under unusually public scrutiny in 1992. Delisle’s thesis argued that Groulx and several other high-profile members of the Quebec intelligentsia of the 1930s harboured a deep resentment of Jews and basically everyone else who wasn’t a French-speaking Catholic Québécois who could trace their family trees back to the early 17th century. Moreover, these same individuals, Delisle demonstrated, wrote often and encouragingly about fascism and the fascist movements growing in Europe at the time. Had Delisle published her work today, she’d likely be handed a tenure-track position and become a fixture on Tout le monde en parle. But because her work was published in 1992, at the very height of the second wave of the Quebec sovereignty movement, she was pilloried and told in no uncertain terms that she was committing career suicide. It was a firestorm not fundamentally different from today’s debate as to whether pointing out the racism of Quebec’s past constitutes Quebec-bashing. 

The proposal to rename the station emerged in the aftermath of the “Delisle-Richler Controversy” and the Second Referendum, when in 1996 Jack Jedwab, currently the head of the Association for Canadian Studies, made an off the cuff remark about the wisdom of having a station named for Groulx (though he didn’t propose a new name for the station). But merely mentioning that the station should be renamed because of Groulx’s antisemitism prompted a swift reaction from Quebec nationalists, some of whom argued that this would “open Pandora’s Box” and that history and historical figures “can’t be judged by modern social norms.”

Sound familiar?

It seems that the decision to name a plaza on McGill College Avenue after Peterson comes as yet another compromise after yet another wildly popular petition to rename Lionel-Groulx metro station. The most recent effort came about in the summer of 2020 and gained upwards of 26,000 signatures. Despite this, and despite the city’s acknowledgement last year that the “times they are a-changin’” what with Black Lives Matter and the nation’s sudden realization that John A. Macdonald was a world-class asshole, renaming the station was “complicated” in the words of an STM spokesperson, chiefly because there’s both a moratorium on doing such things and because stations are named after well-known geographic locations. Never mind that the STM will happily rename a metro station — as they did in 2014 — at the slightest suggestion the International Civil Aviation Organization will pack up for warmer climes. Never mind that rue Albert was deliberately renamed in 1973 to then have a station named after a historic figure. 

You might suggest renaming Avenue Lionel-Groulx to Avenue Oscar-Peterson as a way to get around the STM’s strict rules, but here we get to the other side of the coin: not everything can be named after Oscar Peterson, even if it does seem that way. Lionel Groulx is probably completely off limits — the ultra-nationalists would be apoplectic and we’d all have to endure another couple of weeks of TVA talking heads and Mathieu Bock-Côté bemoaning the decline of French culture in Montreal. If recent trends are any indication, English place names are fair game for renaming, but French names would be a different issue. Moreover, there are some geographic limitations as to what can be renamed for an anglophone — a proposal to rename the Place des Festivals (otherwise known as where the Jazz Fest happens) makes sense, but was likely a little too far east and a little too close to the Quebec government’s major investments in Montreal’s urban environment (UQAM, Place des Arts, Complexe Desjardins, Hydro-Québec’s head office etc).

Place Oscar-Peterson can go somewhere in Montreal, but not anywhere.

Naming a new plaza for Peterson is all fine and good, though locating it on McGill College Avenue paradoxically makes no sense from a commemorative vantage point while simultaneously being an excellent political decision. To the latter point, something new is being created (avoiding the trouble that comes with renaming something), and the new public space will be located in a central location, giving Oscar Peterson a recognition on par with his celebrity and accomplishments. Moreover, given the popularity with this specific part of the city with tourists, the city has chosen one of the very best known Montrealers to identify with this space. That the city also has the approval of Peterson’s family is an added win.

By contrast, Peterson had no connection to McGill College Avenue — as best as I can tell the jazz clubs he played at were not located here. In fact, McGill College Avenue wasn’t the street that it is today during Peterson’s early life in the city, but rather a narrow and somewhat forgotten side street whose once upper crust row houses were low-end apartments and boarding houses by the middle decades of the 20th century. Nearly all of what had been there during Peterson’s formative years was demolished in the 1970s and 1980s when the street was enlarged with an aim to create what exists today, arguably the most corporate postmodern 1980s-styled street in the whole city. 

It doesn’t exactly scream “jazz!”

James McGill statue (CBC)

The name of the street the new plaza will be located on, however, isn’t supposed to be changed, and this poses a problem that should have been more thoroughly considered. Much in the same vein that it might not be appropriate to name the park next to Lionel-Groulx metro station after a prominent Jewish Montrealer, naming a plaza for Oscar Peterson on a street named McGill carries a similar problem. Not only did James McGill enslave Black and Indigenous people as his servants to work the land that would become McGill University’s downtown campus, but his wealth—the money that allowed McGill College to be created in the first place—was derived from an economic system that was wholly dependent on slavery. In other words, it’s within the realm of possibility that Peterson’s Afro-Caribbean ancestors harvested raw sugar or cotton either as enslaved people or indentured servants as part of the economic foundation of late-18th century British mercantilism from which James McGill’s fortune derived. Ryerson University is going to be renamed; McGill may not be too far behind.

How much longer the place name McGill College Avenue will remain socially viable remains to be seen.

I hope the city now feels it has adequately recognized Oscar Peterson and will move on to recognizing and commemorating the plethora of other Montrealers — particularly those who aren’t white men from the 18th and 19th centuries — who are more than deserving of being recognized in some official capacity. That said, I would also argue the city needs to broaden its scope of what constitutes an appropriate recognition. Naming the outdoor piano program for Peterson, or establishing a citywide free piano lesson program in his name, always seemed to me like a far more appropriate commemoration than a mass transit station or a plaza with a fountain in it. ■

Read more articles by Taylor C. Noakes here.