by Jason Freure
A track of boot prints in the snow leads into the middle of the little field behind the statue of James McGill. They stop all of a sudden and don’t lead anywhere, as though their owner paused to stare at the bright red lights on the Fujitsu building and dissolved into the snowflakes blowing away in the wind.
It’s impossible to cross the McGill campus late, on a week night, in the middle of winter, and not feel something unworldly. At least, not if you’re from somewhere else. There’s a feeling of wonder that you hear people talk about when they move somewhere bigger, stranger, and more exciting. People who, like me, moved from someplace boring to somewhere full of landmarks – places others have bothered to write about in novels and travelogues, or even put on film. Usually it’s a particular symbol (the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, Prague Castle) that inspires these sappy confessions from writers who feel they have wandered into enchanted territory. In Montreal, that symbol would have to be the illuminated cross on top of Mount Royal. It’s a constant presence in the lives of downtown Montrealers. It is a beacon, a compass, and an emotional thermostat. It’s always lurking in the corner of your eye. In novels, it appears whenever a character glances upward and out their windows, in moments of distraction, silence, and desire.
When 2013’s Parti Québécois government proposed its Charter of Values, a bill that would have outlawed religious symbols within public institutions, critics questioned whether the crucifix hanging in the National Assembly (the Quebec provincial legislature) would also be removed. MNA Bernard Drainville argued that the crucifix, along with the illuminated cross, had lost its religious meaning and become ‘part of Quebec culture’. The statement was panned as hypocritical, but I could never glance up and see it as something that belonged in a church. It meant too much more.
Montreal is chock-full of churches, seminaries, bell towers, cathedrals, and basilicas. To top it off it’s crowned with an almost garish, Hollywood-sign-style cross. But I am an outsider – someone who, despite being old enough to, does not share in a Montrealer’s collective experience of the ’95 Referendum, the ice storm, or the Parc Avenue overpass. As an outsider, it’s easy to forget that the steeples, spires, and crosses flowering out of the city’s low-rise skyline are a constant reminder of a religious regime that helped keep Catholic Québécois impoverished and undereducated while the rest of North America experienced unprecedented prosperity. I am also not the kind of outsider who would look up at the sky above the city and every time be reminded that, despite the rhetoric of multiculturalism, they have not come to neutral territory. They’ve come to a place that, at best, does not care what they think or believe, and, at worst, anxiously seeks to regulate their foreign thoughts and practices. When I look up at the cross on Mount Royal, I think of a city where every night someone with an accordion passes a hat around a shadowy bar on St-Laurent Boulevard. I think of my first apartment, from which I only had to turn a corner to see the cross shining in the fog or the snow, my eyes tricking me into thinking it had changed colour for a second.
The illuminated cross on Montreal’s Mountain has become a civic marker. It is a visual shorthand for the city. Like the CN Tower or the Transamerica Pyramid, the illuminated cross can be clichéd sometimes, and full of magic at others.
Glowing over the Ghetto
The cross turns up in A.M. Klein’s poems about Mount Royal in The Rocking Chair, bathing the city in a blood-glow: ‘Who knows it by the famous cross which bleeds | into the fifty miles of night its light’. Klein uses plenty of Catholic imagery in his poetry, adopting the iconography of saints, nuns, and crosses. Churches and crucifixes are familiar, part of his own sense of citizenship. The monuments are safely mundane, and he writes about using them for target practice as a boy. Children are far less impressed upon than adults by state monuments, using them as places to hang out and skip school. Klein grew up in the cross’s glow, in the Jewish ghetto directly underneath the Mountain, and he was already keen to the secularization of this symbol.
Dany Laferrière has a harder time erasing the religious overtones. He gives us a reminder that this cross could only have become a civic symbol in a society that has secularized out of Judeo-Christianity. The narrator of How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired shares an apartment with Bouba, who reads Suras constantly. From the back window of their shared 1½-room apartment, he has a view of Carré St-Louis and the illuminated cross. He provides updates on it like the weather. He watches it as the moon rises, the rain falls, and the traffic passes by on the street below. It is as much a part of the city’s emotional rhythm as rain and traffic.
When the cross was turned off for Earth Hour in 2009, it felt to me as though someone had put the moon into storage. Its illumination is such a constant that any time the cross changes colour, or there is any potential for it to change colour, it is an instant point of discussion. The best-known occasion for a transition is an interregnum at the Vatican, after the Pope has died. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, the cross remained white, but since no one had resigned from the post since long before the first Christian stepped foot in Quebec, it was hotly discussed and, more than a little, hoped for.
In its history, the cross has been turned both blue for St-Jean-Baptiste Day in 1975 and red during an AIDS march in the ’80s. The city has proven reluctant to change the lighting frequently. It’s treated with a kind of reverence that might be the biggest difference between this civic symbol and buildings like the CN Tower. At least among non-religious Montrealers, the prospect of seeing a purple cross has led to a tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm for papal funerals.
But in Laferrière’s world, it’s not just an emotional weathervane, but an ever-present intruder in his apartment, a third roommate emanating a reminder of his exclusion from his new country. The colonial politics of sex is front and centre. In one lengthy passage, the narrator lives out a fantasy of conquest on a white woman’s body, comparing her to a Christian saint and his own personal Africa, but not without the cross intruding:
The Koran says, “Is it the truth that you are preaching, or is this but a jest?” (Sura XXI, 56.) I carry her to bed with no let-up in the rhythm, holding her at the end of my cock. Like a flower blossoming at the end of my black rod. The window still open on the Cross of Mount Royal. Miz Sophisticated Lady lying on her back.
The cross has turned into a religious voyeur peering in through the window. It may be a reminder that outside of his apartment, outside of this sex scene, he remains no conqueror at all.
The trace of religion can’t be erased from the cross, not even in 2012’s Griffintown, a spaghetti western by Marie-Hélène Poitras. After La Mère, the boss of Griffintown’s cowboy-calèche drivers, shoots down a man in a parking lot, the cross has the last word: ‘La croix du mont Royal, brille au loin, éternelle, mais ce n’est pas pour le salut des âmes.’ It does not shine above the city for the salvation of its down-and-outs. Christ’s lingering presence on the Mountain is a false promise. The cross here is an indifferent symbol: mystic in a way, but, at the very end, nothing more than light bulbs on a steel frame.
The Covenant of Ville-Marie
The first cross to mark Mount Royal was raised the same year that the fort of Ville-Marie was founded as an evangelical mission. On Christmas Eve in 1642, floodwaters from the St. Lawrence lapped at the fort’s gates. The mission’s founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, promised the Virgin Mary that he would carry a wooden cross to the Mountain’s highest summit if the settlement was spared from an early destruction. The cross on Mount Royal is a covenant—a promise of the city’s faith in exchange for divine protection. But the nature of the covenant already contains the seed for the cross’s secularization. It was a marker of Montreal’s civic origins and an early crisis. The name Place d’Armes memorializes victory over the Iroquois, the place where de Maisonneuve turned a group of Iroquois back by shooting down their chief. Likewise, the cross is a monument to victory over the elements.
Robert Majzels’ City of Forgetting recounts Paul de Chomedey’s journey to the summit but sets his passage in the modern city, through underground malls and metro stations. The crucifix he carries through Bonaventure is a collage of junkyard scrap.
Majzels’ version of the city’s founding myths recalls the cross’s missionary and colonial purpose. From the start, though, he undermines the possibility that de Chomedey’s cross expresses any coherence. It’s made up of conflicting symbols: shards of recycling bins with Montreal’s clover-like floret, stop signs that display a politically charged, unilingual ‘Ârret’, and branches bearing desiccated maple leaves. In a city of forgetting, founding myths disintegrate. Montreal is a city of forgetting because there are too many dissonant memories to fit together.
De Maisonneuve is faced with an epiphany of his guilt in the colonization of Canada. When he finds himself, cumbersome cross on his shoulders, trapped by the revolving doors of Place Montréal-Trust, an earthquake shatters the glass around him and thrusts the Mountain further above the city:
two crossed sticks mark the summit above Tiontiakwe, the place the white men call Montreal. This cross, this sign, with which the white man marks the places where he buries his dead. Signs of vengeance and murder. The mountainside covered with these signs of the dead. The black stink of death covering the city. Blood flows down the mountainside from the sign of the double cross and washes over the land.
Mount Royal becomes a terrible Boot Hill, gorged with the dead, lined with funeral markings: a necropolis. Its emblem is a sign of death. De Maisonneuve’s covenant celebrates the extermination of the Iroquois.
I have never been able to see the cross except with a sense of wonder, like Alice in Nellcott Is My Darling, by Golda Fried. Like me, Alice is from a suburb of Toronto. She is living in a McGill dormitory. Her friend Allegra has a view of the Mountain in her dorm room, and Allegra is better at being a Montrealer. She dates francophones. She wears combat boots and kimonos. She lights red votive candles on her windowsill to frame the cross. Alice has become obsessed with a dream of Montreal that Allegra shows off: a bohemian escape from the stuffy Rest of Canada. It’s why thousands of young people and students move here, but it’s also why the city can inspire its transplants to feel like imposters. Alice is completely enamoured with her new home. She suffers from Montreal Syndrome: a feeling that magic is afoot somewhere around the corner and that leaving the island is equal to stepping into purgatory. Sufferers simultaneously devote themselves to belonging while suspecting that they never quite will. As soon as I could after I arrived here, I found a job working in a kitchen that made it just inconvenient enough to take the time off to go back to Ontario for Thanksgiving and Easter. This essay itself is a symptom of my own fanatic need to prove I know my way around a city that some days seems impossible to navigate.
At Christmas vacation, Alice can’t fathom returning to her Toronto suburb. Everything on the other side of the river is one dull subdivision, endlessly repeated. She says, ‘“I could never leave this town. Not even to go to Toronto. It’s like when I’m here, I really want to conquer the town. I want to be a Montrealer.”’ Her friend delivers the most crushing line in the novel: ‘“But you’re not.”’
The cross presides over those parts of the city where this illness is contagious. Those are also the neighbourhoods where most of these stories take place: The Plateau, Milton-Parc, downtown, Griffintown. The cross is the source of a spell that descends on dreamers and clowns and snares them with lovesickness for a place that is so layered in stories and imagery that it sometimes seems only half-real.
The cross on Mount Royal as it exists today was originally erected in 1924 by the Société St-Jean-Baptiste, the nationalist organization that was also responsible for resurrecting St-Jean Parades. Despite its overt religious imagery, this ‘Tatlin-esque sculpture’ was erected with patriotism more than papacy in mind. The Société lists the cross as one of its accomplishments alongside the creation of Quebec’s Fête nationale and its adoption of the fleurdelisé as the province’s flag. Its modern history has always been as a civic symbol, and one that inspires topophilia, a love of place – though what that means is less up to the Société or Bernard Drainville than the beholder.
The cross is a marker of a city infested with artists, students, high school drop-outs, and scholars. It is both a refuge and an adventure for people like myself from less noisy places. It is a refuge and a much tougher adventure for people who came from more dangerous places. It is a contact zone with things that matter. It is a city where political parties are made and broken. It is a city where hundreds of thousands of people marched down the street to protest rising tuition; it is a city where people march down the street for many reasons, and often. It is a city of alarming poverty, but one where you know the names of the same few panhandlers who cruise Ste-Catherine every night. It’s a city that’s been working overtime to fill in the holes left by decades of neglect and demolition – holes that sat between buildings collecting stories with every new layer of graffiti.
I could never pin down the true story of the cross on Mount Royal. There are plenty more books where the cross appears and its symbolism disputed. But they are like the calèche drivers in Griffintown who tell the tourists so many different stories of the cross’s origin that no one knows how it got to be there in the first place. Is it a covenant with the Virgin Mary for saving a small missionary on the St. Lawrence? Is it a grave marker for victims of genocide, a symbol of colonial triumph, or a cruel joke on the city’s destitute? Or is it the source of a contagious romance that seems to infect every new transplant looking for a way out of the suburbs? The truth about Montreal’s most visible landmark has been drowned out in the dissonance of all these competing claims.
Jason Freure is the editor of The Town Crier, the literary blog of The Puritan. He writes about cities and has published work in Carte Blanche, Maisonneuve, Spacing, and Vallum. You can find him on Twitter @JasonFreure.
Image credit: The West End