Montreal toponymy is once again at the heart of a heated debate after two city councillors launched an online petition on Nov. 1 to commemorate prominent literary figure Mordecai Richler by renaming a public place after him.
Marvin Rotrand and Michael Applebaum’s effort to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the writer’s passing has earned as much praise and scorching critique as his work, in part due to his controversial stance on Quebec nationalism.
The issue of naming public space remains a contentious one for Montrealers, and public opinion often plays a role in determining changes. In 2006, an attempt by the City of Montreal to rename Parc Avenue after former premier Robert Bourassa was eventually defeated after a vocal portion of the merchants who own businesses along the artery expressed their opposition to the change.
Along with the ComitÃ© de toponymie de la Ville de MontrÃ©al, which serves as an advisory committee, city council governs the naming of public places. According to the city’s website, the concept of patrimoine, or heritage, is one of the criterion considered for renaming a public place.
According to Sonia Hamel, a Concordia anthropology professor, “[it’s important] for communities who have been here for a long time to be able to recognize their patrimoine, the important figures in their culture […] in our public space, to see important symbolic representations of how they have also contributed to the whole cultural scene in Montreal.”
“I think it goes a long way in concretely showing civic inclusion,” she added.
While francophones are a majority in Quebec, they are a minority in North America, which makes the group wary of protecting their cultural heritage, Hamel added. In cases such as these, “what you don’t want to do is erase the memory of any group, including the majority group,” she said.
Caroline Lang, a law student at UniversitÃ© de MontrÃ©al, believes that Richler deserves to be commemorated, as long as no pre-existing symbols of heritage are erased in doing so. She is unenthusiastic about the idea of renaming St. Urbain Street, where Richler grew up.
“‘Urbain was an important figure in the history of Montreal,” she said. If they choose to rename a street after Richler, “‘there are plenty of streets named after flowers” that would do the trick.
Lang doesn’t condone any defamatory comments made by Richler, stating that “[city council] should weigh the importance of his work with the remarks he made” when making their decision.
Hamel said that a group’s collective memory is often afflicted by “blind spots,” whereby in retrospect some events are given precedence over others. She gave the example of priest and historian Lionel Groulx, who is the namesake for a street and metro station. Groulx had faced accusations of anti-Semitism (some of which came from Richler himself.)
“[Groulx] doesn’t create consensus even within the Quebec community,” Hamel pointed out, “[but] he is still a prominent historical figure,” one who made significant contributions to Quebec society.
“No one historical figure can be reduced to one thing,” but by nature, toponymy does just that: it reduces a person to a name on a street sign, plaque or building. Richler was an “an insightful social commentator”, as well as an “equal opportunity critic,” something Hamel thinks Quebecers should remember.
Rotrand and Applebaum intend to present the petition to city council in December, according to La Presse. As of Nov. 15, it had garnered 711 signatures.