ELECTION: Artists demand leadership in protecting The Main National Historic Site

A Canadian federal election has been called and never before have Montreal artists in the Quartier des Specatcles been so politically engaged and mobilized. A cultural war of unprecedented proportions is under way in the new Entertainment district, pitting an alliance corporate developers and the Mayor of Montreal against local artists,  heritage activists, and the living culture of the neighbourhood. The most recent battle, fought within The Main National Historic Site, saw artists declare victory after foiling attempts to expropriate their historic venue, the storied Café Cleopatre, and evict them and their burlesque performances from the Quartier des Spectacles.

The Quartier des Specatcles is an area that should be of interest to politicians on municipal, provincial, and federal levels. The fact that a billion dollars of taxpayer’s money is being spent to revitalize the old Red Light District requires careful attention to detail, especially given recent evidence of rampant corruption in the Quebec construction industry.

On the federal level, the Quartier des Spectacles sits squarely within two electoral ridings: Westmount-Ville-Marie, run by Liberal astronaut Marc Garneau, occupies the western sector, and to the east is the Laurier-Sainte-Marie riding, run by the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Gilles Duceppe. Interestingly, the boundary that separates the two ridings is St-Laurent boulevard, also known as The Main National Historic Site, which is the location of the fierce cultural war being waged between the Save The Main coalition and the Angus Development Corporation/Tremblay Alliance. While both Garneau and Duceppe are considered very high-profile politicians in their respective parties, their commitment to Québecois culture is questionable: neither politician objected when the corporate alliance attacked The Main National Historic Site and the Québecois artists working there. The artists had to fight alone to save the Café Cleopatre, and they are still fighting the protect real Montreal culture against the corporate onslaught of Disneyfication that is threatening The Main National Historic Site.

The Main is considered sacred and holds a very special place in the hearts of Montrealers. As the first street to stretch beyond the ancient fortifications of Old Montréal, The Main is renowned as a gateway of immigration, a multi-cultural boulevard, the heart of the old Red Light District, and the spine of Canada’s most artistic neighbourhoods. It’s latest role is taking centre stage in the new Quartier des Spectacles, serving as the historical connection between the Place des Arts and Quartier Latin poles. If redeveloped properly, The Main National Historic Site would seem to be an obvious historical asset to the Quartier des Spectacles, but presently it is not even indicated on official maps displayed in the Place des Festivals. Tourists looking at the map will be unaware that a National Historic Site is nearby, and indeed is running right through the middle of the Quartier des Spectacles.

Federal candidates should pay careful attention to this cultural war on the border of Duceppe and Garneau’s respective ridings. Not only should they be concerned that their constituents, including artists and immigrants, are under attack by powerful corporate forces, but also because in 1996 it was the federal government themselves who declared The Main a “National Historic Site of Canada.

The government’s rationale behind the designation was that “National historic sites are places of profound importance to Canada. They bear witness to this nation’s defining moments and illustrate its human creativity and cultural traditions. Each national historic site tells its own unique story, part of the greater story of Canada, contributing a sense of time, identity, and place to our understanding of Canada as a whole.” The heritage designation suggested the fabled corridor must maintain a “sense of history”, and to protect it insisted that “intrusive elements must be minimal“. The future looked extremely bright for The Main.

Commemorative Integrity is a term used to describe the health or wholeness of a national historic site. As defined in the National Historic Sites Policy (of Canada), a state of commemorative integrity can be said to exist:

  • when the resources that symbolize or represent a site’s importance are not impaired or under threat;
  • when the reasons for the site’s national historic significance are effectively communicated to the public;
  • when the site’s heritage values (including those not related to national significance) are respected by all whose decisions and actions affect the site.

Unfortunately, as time passed it became increasingly evident that The Main National Historic Site was failing in all categories needed to achieve commemorative integrity. All sorts of corporate intrusive elements began to appear, putting the site at risk and causing local citizens to complain.

The Main is undoubtably Canada’s most abused National Historic Site. Corporations have taken over with invasive and abusive advertising practices – Billboard trucks, giant advertisements, stealth marketing ploys, “street parties” hosted by online gambling companies, and a host of other manipulative commercial activities. Such blantant violations have led to criticism that The Main National Historic Site, far from being protected, is becoming Disneyfied at the expense of the real culture. Disneyfication is a process whereby something real is replaced by a fake, corporate imitation.

Disneyfication occurs when authentic culture is eliminated in order to replace it with a fake, corporate version that is somewhat akin to a shopping mall. Often called “monoculture” or “Generica”, the Disneyfied space proceeds to disempower artists, small businesses and citizens in order to facilitate profit-making for corporations.  In this case there is even an official plan to gentrify the neighbourhood by attracting “premium” developers to replace the displaced culture. Disneyfication is a rampant problem in the Quartier des Spectacles and The Main National Historic Site.

For example, according to the federal government, one of the most important reasons for protecting The Main was its connection to the theme of welcoming and immigration: “In the collective psyche of Montréal, Boulevard Saint-Laurent is the immigrant corridor…Immigrants still see Boulevard Saint-Laurent as the place where they find fellow immigrants; their workplace and their community institutions are there. The cosmopolitan aspect of Boulevard Saint-Laurent intrigues and reassures them.” However, historic immigrant businesses have been evicted, such as  Ã‰picerie Importations Main, Montreal’s first Middle-Eastern grocery store (established in 1924), to make way for an office tower that will also see heritage Victorian architecture destroyed.

Despite these clear violations of the National Historic Site’s raison d’être, even the Mayor of Montreal teamed up with developers to try and evict other immigrant businesses, such as the historic Café Cleopatre, owned by Johnny Zoumboulakis. When Zoumboulakis refused to leave, in a heavy-handed gesture, the City issued an expropriation order. The reality on the ground was far from the federal government’s claim that “Immigrants still see Boulevard Saint-Laurent as the place where they find fellow immigrants; their workplace and their community institutions are there.” Indeed, the federal government did nothing as immigrants, their workplaces, and community institutions were directly attacked by corporate powers.

Another example of Disneyfication is the destruction of several historic performance halls in the Quartier des Spectacles, such as the Spectrum, Le Medley, and Saints. Ironically, as these historic theatres were being bulldozed, new banal and characterless theatres were built, and are now named after corporations.

Overall, the relentless advance of Dinseyfication suffocates real Montreal culture, then tries to replace it with a manipulative corporate model. It displaces artists, threatens public space, and co-opts the culture, transforming the area into the equivalent of a giant outdoor shopping mall. If the Dinseyfication trend is allowed to continue, it will eventually transform the public space into the equivalent of a theme park: squeaky clean and safe, but also expensive, corporate and devoid of authentic culture.

Montreal’s artists are not known for tolerating these types of attacks on their workplaces and culture, so it didn’t take long for the grassroots to mobilize under the Save The Main coalition. Artists joined citizens, business owners, and academics, who collectively joined the Montreal residents who have been complaining for years that The Main National Historic Site lacks protection and is being inundated with exploitative “intrusive elements”: abusive corporate advertising, demolition of historic buildings, and ongoing attempts to eradicate living culture.

One might assume that the federal government, in creating the designation, would assume some responsibility towards protecting the historic site and its stakeholders, ensuring its guidelines are adhered, and monitoring any development within it. However, to date no federal party has shown any leadership on this file.

Historic sites are regulated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, a branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage.  After numerous complaints about “intrusive elements” in the historic site, Executive Secretary Michel Audy wrote (on December 11th 2006): “It is the responsibility of site owners to ensure that the national historic site they own is operated to a standard that meets the principles for which the site was designated…The Main is the responsibility of the City of Montréal, and if you have not already done so, I encourage you to contact the Conseil du patrimoine de Montréal.

The problem lies in the fact that the City of Montreal has disregarded the historic site’s guidelines and hence failed in their responsibility. A block of heritage buildings on the west side of the Lower Main is crumbling now that most of the immigrant businesses have been evicted, awaiting the Disneyfication process. Meanwhile, the federal government has shown no leadership in demanding better protections for the endangered National Historic Site, which they are mandated to do.

According to the System Plan for National Historic Sites, the federal government’s mandate includes “protecting the health and wholeness, or commemorative integrity, of the national historic sites… This means preserving the site’s cultural resources, communicating its heritage values and national significance, and kindling the respect of people whose decisions and actions affect the site.” The National Historic Sites Policy mandates the government:

• To foster knowledge and appreciation of Canada’s past through a national program of historical commemoration

• To ensure the commemorative integrity of national historic sites administered by Parks Canada by protecting and presenting them for the benefit, education and enjoyment of future generations in a manner that respects the irreplaceable legacy represented by these places and their associated resources

• To encourage and support the protection and presentation by others of places of national historic significance that are not administered by Parks Canada.

Indeed, to support National Historic Sites such as The Main, which are not owned by the federal government, there is even a National Historic Sites Cost-Sharing Program which can provide funds to encourage protection, maintenance, animation and commemorative integrity. The question arises as to why the federal government has turned its back on The Main National Historic Site, allowing the victimization of immigrant businesses and Montreal artists, not to mention the destruction of living culture and historic architecture? Indeed, why did the federal government create the historic site if there is no will to protect it? Currently there are no politicians or parties on federal, provincial, or municipal levels offering to protect the historic site or the rights of the local citizens, so the artists of the Save The Main coalition must operate in a political vacuum, battling the culture-destroying forces of Disneyfication without official political representation. They continue raising awareness, lobbying politicians on all levels, and presenting a more logical vision for the The Main National Historic Site that respects its important guidelines.

Will Garneau or Duceppe finally step up to the bat for Montreal culture and heritage, offering protections to Québecois culture, artists and The Main National Historic Site? Will the NDP, Greens, or Conservatives come forward and offer any sort of vision or cultural leadership on the file? Or will federal politicians continue ignoring their own policies on culture and heritage, allowing corporations to continue destroying The Main National Historic Site, devastating its commemorative integrity, and attacking its living culture? The cultural war being waged by artists against corporations on The Main is symbolic of the cultural war being fought across Canada. As Big Business tries to gouge the average Canadian in every way possible, artists are taking a stand at ground zero in the cultural war, by defending The Main National Historic Site and demanding serious cultural protections for all Canadians.

Save The Main is asking voters to say NO to Disneyfication, the abuse of artists and immigrants, and corporate takeover of culture. They plan to lobby politicians from all federal parties to commit to protecting and enhancing The Main National Historic Site. In fact, the artists even created their own Urban Plan to show the politicians how to do it.

Save The Main encourages voters to reject laissez-faire politicians and vote for parties that offer real support for real culture. Until such a time, the diligent Québecois artists will continue their work, unpaid and without ally, to protect the Main National Historic Site.


Please email these politicians ASAP and demand to know why they aren’t protecting us from attacks on our culture in The Main National Historic Site. The vote is May 2, 2011, so time is of the essence!


Dear […],

I am writing you today to express alarm about a cultural war in the riding you are running for. Corporations are attacking immigrant businesses and artists in The Main National Historic Site, a site dedicated to the theme of Immigration. I am worried, because if the federal government cannot protect authentic culture within a National Historic Site, how will they be able to protect Canadian culture across the land? I am against corporations taking over our culture, replacing local Main Street stores across Canada with Wal-Marts, gouging Canadians in every way possible through excessive charges, and even Disneyfying National Historic Sites now! I want to live in a real city, not a theme park.

The Main National Historic Site represents any Main Street in any Canadian town or city – it symbolizes local culture and small business. I am asking you and your party to pledge to protect The Main National Historic Site, its living culture and the stakeholders who use the site, such as artists and immigrant business owners who were recently attacked there by corporations. By extension, I ask you to protect Canadians from the corporate takeover of our culture and the commercial gouging of every day Canadians. I am demanding Real Support for Real Culture!


[your name]

List of Candidates:

* incumbent

Laurier-Sainte-Marie (Eastern Quartier des Spectacles)

BLOC: * Gilles Duceppe       514-373-3148             laurierstemarie@bloc.org

GREEN: Olivier Adam         (514) 990-2326           olivier.adam@greenparty.ca

NDP: Hélène Laverdière       helenelaverdiere@npd.ca

LIBS: Philippe Allard            Lauriersaintemarie.liberal@gmail.com

CON: Charles Langford         http://media.conservative.ca/candidates/charles-langford.html

COM: Sylvain Archambault  http://www.votonscommuniste.ca/2011/04/07/sylvian-archambault/

ML: Serge Lachapelle            [no contact info]

Westmount-Ville-Marie (Western Quartier des Spectacles)

LIB: * Marc Garneau             514-447-3642              rgamache@plcq.ca, reception@lpcq.ca

BLOC: Véronique Roy          514-373-3157              westmountvillemarie@bloc.org

GREEN: Andrew Carkner    (514) 500-3531           andrew.carkner@greenparty.ca

CON: Neil Drabkin                514-282-4108              info@neildrabkin.ca

NDP: Joanne Corbeil           joannecorbeil@npd.ca

COM: Bill Sloan                    http://www.votonscommuniste.ca/2011/04/07/bill-sloan/

One Response to “ELECTION: Artists demand leadership in protecting The Main National Historic Site”

  1. OTL Blog » Blog Archive » Culture a hot topic in Montreal election Says:

    […] the rebranded “Quartier des Spectacles” , while staying loyal to Parks Canada’s policies on commemorative integrity. They also created a popular walking tour of the district to highlight its fascinating […]

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