With the air getting hot and crispy in Phoenix, I jumped at an opportunity to spend a long-overdue week with family members in their new home; Montreal, Canada. I hadn’t seen them in five years, since my year-long stay in Peru.
After my departure, they had begun the process of immigrating to Canada. They arrived in Montreal three years ago, after only one year of paperwork and money-hoarding. Canada seems to be an immigration antithesis to the United States’ faltering struggle for a way to ethically control the flow of immigrants, both legal and illegal.
Hoping to increase its workforce, Canada has made it increasingly easy for immigrants to join their population. Even as I write this, Canada is making moves to expand an internship program that offers refugees around the world even more opportunities to study and work within its borders.
Stepping out of the airport terminal on my first night in Montreal, I found a taxi and headed for the suburb of Longueuile, on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. The metropolis rolled past my back-seat window in a bustle of springtime energy. People rushed home from work. Couples began their night on the town.
Montreal makes Phoenix look incredibly … well … White. I saw faces of every possible color and culture. With French the chosen language of Montreal, it makes sense that so many foreigners had emigrated from Vietnam, Europe and several former French colonies of Africa, Haiti, etc. The city has also become home for many Middle Eastern, Chinese, East Asian and Jewish communities.
European settlement in the area began in 1611 as a French fur-trading post. The French ruled a century and a half before the British defeated them in the Seven Years’ War. Through this and the following 200 years of Canada’s slowly earned independence from England, Montreal has maintained its diverse identity. I smiled at such a success as the cab pulled up to my destination.
The next morning, I got a sense of Montreal’s historic lifeblood as a major port city in its historic district, Vieux Montréal. The family and I strolled along the promenade passing old quays, piers and a marina with boat tours of the St. Lawrence. We were at the eastern end of Montreal’s original “Lachine Canal,” dug to allow larger ships through to the Great Lakes region. By the mid-20th century, ships had become much larger and the growing city made expansion of the canal impossible. A new, larger passage, the St. Lawrence Seaway, opened in 1959 and made the canal obsolete. What we were exploring had become a tourist destination, with recreational boating, and industrial structures turned into lofts or commercial venues.
A soft rain began to fall as we peered over a fence at the tents hiding Cirque de Soleil’s latest extravaganza in development. Here they debut a new show every two years. We daydreamed about what might be inside, before a brisk wind forced us to find shelter among the narrow European-esque streets of Vieux Montréal. We passed museums, a science center, several restaurants, galleries and overpriced souvenir shops.
Tourism’s obligatory horse drawn carriage rolled past us as we marveled at the front of the Basilica de Notre Dame de Montreal, mid-restoration under a scaffold skeleton. Then the rain became persistent. I’d shown up sans umbrella like the true desert rat I am. We dragged a nearby bus stop bench under a tree and waited for our ride home.
The third day I was introduced to the Metro, Montreal’s subway system that reminds me Phoenix’s light rail is really just a quaint novelty. As the train approached I was amused to see it ran on rubber tires instead of the scream of metal wheels. Fifteen minutes later we stepped off at Saint Helen’s Island and walked to the huge metal dome framework that houses Montreal’s biosphere, left over from the 1967 World Exhibition. It is now used to showcase the ecosystem of the region. Bugs, fish and birds equally amused the 4–year-old and the two 30-somethings in our group.
After a stroll through the island’s Parc Jean-Drapeau, we looked out on the skyline of Montreal, while large, chubby woodchucks spied on us. I realized just how quiet the city seems, when a family of ducks was the only sound that came to me.
Returning to the subway station, we found a free bus waiting for us. (Read “sardine can on wheels.”) People were loaded on for an unexpected trip back to the mainland. We were the last to board. Apparently a bomb scare had shut down several lines of the subway system. As soon as we found a handhold, the bus crossed a bridge into a grinding halt as we sat through rush hour traffic, choked to a standstill by the unexpected transportation emergency.
More incredible than the diversity of people in Montreal is their apparent calm. I’m from a city where the heat bakes our brains into rush hour vitriol, cusswords and road rage.
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