Canada’s second-largest city – and some say, its most exhilarating to explore – has Uwern Jong fall in love with its many charms.
About a decade ago, a friend handed me a DVD of a Canadian gay movie, ‘Mambo Italiano’, charting the adventures of a young gay Italian man trying to break tradition in his stereotypical first-generation dysfunctional family and migrant community in Montreal, Quebec. I have to admit that before watching this movie, Canada’s second-largest city wasn’t ever really on my radar.
My perception of Montreal was quite well summed up in the opening scenes of the film, where the hero’s parents told their story of how they came to the city. “Nobody told us there were two Americas, the real one, United States and the fake one, Canada. Then to make matters even worse, there are two Canadas, the real one, Ontario and the fake one, Quebec.”
In my mind before watching the movie, there wasn’t really much of a reason to visit Montreal; it was a city that I only knew as it once hosted the Olympics and because the British media so vehemently and negatively portrayed it as the Queen-bashing, Frenchy part of North America. And then there was of course Celine Dion. Take from this what you must.
But the movie did succeed, beneath its gay storyline, to paint a charming impression of Montreal for me. Set in the romantic ‘Petite Italie’ district, the movie gave some great snapshots of the city: a place where despite being urban, neighbours still smiled and greeted each other, families hung-out in the summer sun on their verandahs or tended their garden allotments, and kids skipped through the streets, whilst teenagers played hockey in its back-alleys. Montreal seemed like a laid-back, village-like, cycle-friendly, coffee-cultured, foodie-frenzied, cultural melting pot. And what more, the city had an “Omosessuale Village”. (Mamma: “An Omosessuale village?” / Papa: “On Sainte-Catherine Street between Beaudry and Papineau.” / M: “How come you know so much about this village?” / P: “I know a lot more than you think. But what, you gonna call me a homosexual now?” / M: “He’s got to get it from somebody!). LOL.
So fast forward ten years (yes, it took me that long) and I found myself in the aforementioned village, for the very first time, stood beneath a sea of pink balls, an installation spanning across the street for the entire length of Montreal’s “Le Village”; all 2km of it, apparently the largest dedicated gay village in North America, possibly the world.
The main drag, Rue Saint Catherine, is completely pedestrianised between May and September. A few years back, in an effort to create much more of an event and a centre for tourism in the warm summer days, they closed off the streets to traffic. Traders were up in arms, militantly protesting the City council at how this would kill their trade – but what they actually noticed was in fact the very opposite and their revenues skyrocketed as the village became much more of a destination. Now, these very businesses spill onto the streets themselves, with terraces and outdoor seating to people watch. It’s as if it’s gay Pride all summer long, with a really intimate, community vibe to it all.
At one end is the Place Emile-Gamelin, the site of the Fierte! Montreal LGBTQI celebrations, the usual park-party setup of stage and tents. And the Village is lively and buzzing, people from all over Canada and the world have descended on this strip and its restaurants, bars and shops are heaving. As dusk breaks, it becomes the playground to the city’s diverse gay population and its throngs of visitors. Montreal’s gay institutions are all here, you know them, the ones littered in every gay guide you can find on the city: Stock, Campus, Le Stud, Sky, Unity and Stereo among many others. Between them, I found fantastic restaurants and shops to graze and browse till my heart’s content.
Sadly, there’s not much uniquely special about the gay scene in Montreal. To be honest, I was expecting a little bit more of a romanticised Parisian Marais type feel, or even (cringe) some Euro-disco-pop to give it that somewhat French accent. But alas, the Montreal gay scene is quite distinctively North American. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a blast. I also know that I can’t be expecting the edge and variety of say London or New York, but perhaps it could’ve been more like San Francisco or Melbourne, but I think it’s a shame that there is a ubiquitous, ‘lowest-common-denominator’, gay party formula in place. And where some have tried to push the boundaries, it lacks in confidence. The “Folsom Cocktail” tent at Fierte! was a little tame, less leather, more plastic-bag; and even the Bear party (you’d think if there is anywhere in the world that can do Bear, it’ll be Canada) was like just another night at the bear-bar.
But what it lacked in edge, it definitely made up for in charm. Montreal Quebecois are charming, no doubt about it. You could be in a dance club packed to the rafters and the drag-queen bar-whore will buy you a shot. Locals will turn to you and strike up a conversation, albeit initially in French. They’d tell you about their distant relative in England and give you insiders’ tips on where to hang out. There is definitely a sense of pride for their city, and it’s delivered with a non-stuck-up, laid-back and genuinely interested, “laissez-faire” attitude. Fierte, for real.