Montreal, for boring old white people: a report on two walking tour experiences

The following is an essay I wrote for a graduate seminar I am currently taking called “Performative Dramaturgies”. I thought it would make for an interesting blog post, so I’m reposting it here.

This year is the 375th anniversary of Montreal — the number alone being an indicator of the centring of white European settler-colonialists rather than the First Nations people who lived on this land for considerably longer — and with it comes a great deal of funding for celebratory installations and performances around the city. Among these are guided walking tours taking place in particular neighbourhoods of Montreal, two of which I have experienced for myself. The first, “Paul à Montréal”, is set in the Plateau-Mont-Royal, and the second, “Cité Mémoire”, is located in Old Montreal.

I had no idea what to expect from “Paul à Montréal” except that it was a walking tour of the Plateau signposted by comic book panels. In spite of my lack of expectations, I was, unfortunately, thoroughly disappointed. While I did get enjoyment out of the idea of a guided tour around a neighbourhood with which I was familiar, but not overly so, I found that there was very little advantage being taken of the specificity of the locations through which I was being directed to walk. Furthermore, the story being told in the comic panels — a white man chasing a white woman through tableaus of historic Montreal scenes — was trite, predictable, and heteronormative, and in many ways, felt outright as though it was intruding into my experience.

I myself am not native to Montreal; I moved here in early 2016 after falling in love with the city during visits in 2014 and 2015. I was particularly struck by how many people I met who were born and raised in this city had such a sense of regional pride in it, something I found lacking in my experiences living on the west coast. In spite of my relative newcomer status, by the time I went on this walking tour, I had spent enough time in and around the Plateau to already have it be filled with memories: the tour started at Laurier metro, near the house of someone with whom I had a brief relationship in the spring that ended sadly, and finished at Parc Lafontaine, where I’ve gone on picnics with friends, solitary bike rides, first dates with random people I met on OKCupid, and a get-together of fellow tuba players.

Given that locations can be so directly tied to memories and experiences, I expected that the comic panels I encountered on my walking tour would in some way relate to the locations in which they were placed. Instead, they depicted iconic “touristy” Montreal destinations, such as the Old Port and the Gibeau Orange Julep, which are located nowhere near the Plateau. This contributed to the comic panels feeling like an intrusion rather than an augmentation of the walking tour. Additionally, the aesthetic style of the illustrations felt at odds with the character of the neighbourhood. While the Plateau is not exactly affordable (I myself live in a basement apartment in Côte-Des-Neiges) it does have somewhat of a “hipster” aesthetic, featuring elaborate graffiti murals and colourful spiral staircases. The “Paul” comics, on the other hand, are black and white with a splash of red, reading more “upper class political cartoon from the New Yorker” than anything else.

“Paul à Montréal” comic panel over a much more interesting-looking painted wall

The narrative being portrayed in the comic panels was a bog-standard “boy chases girl until she relents and falls in love with him” narrative, which, as someone who is queer and transgender, read to me as alienatingly sexist and heteronormative. It seemed to me like the comic was designed to appeal to a particular “romantic” sensibility to the city of Montreal; yet its reliance on tired stereotypes had the exact opposite effect on my experience. As it happened, I was texting selfies to my long-distance partner as I was taking this walking tour; had they been here in town with me, we would have gone on the walk together, enjoying a romantic afternoon stroll. Of course, I did send them pictures of the “Paul” comic panels, which they found as trite and terrible as I did. We then amused ourselves by engaging in a text message exchange of performative mockery.

Selfies taken for my partner during my walk
Excerpts from text messages sent between myself and my partner
(this probably goes without saying, but I did not actually vandalise any of the comic panels)

Reading about the tour afterwards, I learned that “Paul à Montréal” is adapted from Michel Rabagliati’s autobiographical comics based around “Paul”, a fictionalized version of himself. I have not read these comics, and had never heard of them prior to experiencing “Paul à Montréal”, but I feel that had the comics in the walking tour been a more explicitly autobiographical tour of the Plateau, perhaps a story about a particular person rather than a generic “everyman”, grounded in real-life locations and situations rather than the “universal” story we were given, I would have found it somewhat more enjoyable and much less intrusive.

“Cité Mémoire” was actually an experience I first encountered last summer, when a close friend of mine happened to be visiting Montreal and we decided to spend an evening visiting the touristy Old Port. Along the way, we just so happened to encounter a series of projections, without much in the way of context. As a new media artist myself, I was excited to discover these random bits of digital art, going so far as to post a picture of one of the projections on Instagram.

Projection of protesting beavers, posted to my Instagram account in July 2016

It was more than a year later before I finally got around to a “proper” Cité Mémoire experience. I downloaded the web app ahead of time, then wandered over to Place d’Armes to begin the “Old Montreal West” circuit tour. Unfortunately, it was then that the app decided to stop working and not load the required data — it took me deleting and redownloading the app to finally get it to work. It made me wonder how many other spectators ran into technical difficulties and simply gave up rather than persisted.

Compared to “Paul à Montréal”, “Cité Mémoire” is certainly more high-tech as an experience. I commented to my partner over text that it sure did look expensive. And, as my experience last year had showed, it is way more spontaneously discoverable, whereas the “Paul” comics just disappear into the background. “Cité Mémoire” also did a much better job at location-specificity, featuring augmented reality time-lapse animations of the Notre-Dame Basilica and the first Bank of Montreal.

The content of the tableaus was, once again, very white and heteronormative, as well as self-congratulatory settler-colonialist in its ideology. “Builders of the City” featured European male settlers who talk excitedly about building a city “to rival New York”. “The Jewish Children’s Transport Train” portrayed a white heterosexual Canadian couple waiting to adopt a young refugee from a Nazi concentration camp, while spending an inordinate amount of time fretting over the child’s gender — the woman brings clothing in hopes that it’s a girl, while the man fiddles with a pack of cigarettes he brought “in case it’s a boy”. “Babylon of the North” told a story of two white male soldiers being scolded for visiting sex workers in Montreal, in a scene that was ostensibly about the city’s nightlife — the proliferation of Black jazz musicians during this time period (including Montreal legend Oscar Peterson) was mentioned offhand, yet their experiences were in no way centred. “Joe Beef’s Funeral” featured punk kids followed by a police car, which to me suggested violent surveillance rather than what seemed to be the intended message of the tableau, which was to show how Joe Beef was a figure who bridged class divides. “Eva Circé-Côté” seemed to be included for a comparatively tame first-wave feminist perspective, as a pat on the back showing how progressive we supposedly now are.

The high-tech nature of “Cité Mémoire” made for a lot more emergent interactions with spectators. Several people saw me wearing my headphones and watching the tableaux and asked what was going on; I responded by telling them about the existence of the app. At one point, I clumsily got my headphone cord tangled in someone’s purse.

Yet, perhaps the most notable emergent interaction I had was when viewing “The First Executioner”. The tableau concerned two male soldiers having a forbidden love affair (the only instance of queer content I had seen in either walking tour) and one of them being punished by being forced to live the rest of his life as an executioner. As it happened, a tour bus had been parked right near this tableau, and outside of it were a group of mostly older white men. As a homoerotic love scene between the soldiers was projected, these men started to laugh and jeer, and I got scared and hid between nearby parked cars, emerging only after they re-entered the tour bus and drove away.

The overall experience I had of both walking tours was one of alienation: that this particular celebration of Montreal wasn’t for people like me, a queer person of colour whose parents immigrated to Canada in the 1980s. Nor was it for the numerous other minority groups with a significant presence in Montreal’s history, nor even for the First Nations people who were here first. While I can’t say I was at all surprised, I was most certainly exasperated.