Celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in its cultural capital – Montreal

Canada's second-largest city has double the reason to party because it has two birthdays in 2017

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Canada celebrates its official birthday with a special day on 1 July and this year it’s 150 years old. The party will soon be in full swing around the country, beginning with a sunrise ceremony on Newfoundland’s easternmost peninsula. Radio 3 has joined in the celebrations with a week of programmes (all now available on iPlayer) on Canadian classical, pop and jazz artists, indigenous music, poetry and the ingenious pianist Glenn Gould in the run-up to the anniversary.

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One of the best places to sample Canada’s cultural side is Montreal, the hometown of Leonard Cohen, Céline Dion, Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Arcade Fire. It’s a fascinating city (but no, it’s not the capital; that’s Ottawa). Montreal is a metropolis where everyone is bilingual and speaks Franglais; a cultural melting pot where French and British colonists learnt to live together and welcomed waves of immigrants from Europe, China and the Caribbean. It’s also the party animal of Canada, especially this year because it’s got a bigger birthday to celebrate. While the rest of the country enjoys turning 150, Montreal is 375.


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When I flew to Canada’s second-largest city (after Toronto) in mid-May, spring had already sprung into summer. Perhaps it’s the relief after Quebec’s long, cold winter, but Montreal’s cultural calendar goes into overdrive at this time of year when the city stages dozens of festivals, including its famous jazz festival, a fireworks competition and Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, which attracts French-language performers from around the world. Thanks to cutting-edge multimedia studios, Montrealers are also fond of sound and light spectaculars.

The centrepiece of the 375 celebrations is the illumination of the Jacques Cartier Bridge (pictured above), the majestic steel truss bridge over the St Lawrence river. Not many cities would spend £24 million fitting a bridge with 2,800 light fixtures. They’re perfectly synched to a downloadable soundtrack and will light up the lively Old Port every night for the next ten years. For that matter, there probably aren’t many cities that would make such a big deal of their 375th birthday. “It’s typical of Montreal,” a Toronto tourist remarked as we stood marvelling at the half-hour disco. “They like to do things in their own idiosyncratic way.” 

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Avudo, a few show in Montreal’s Old Port (photograph by Martine Doyon)

The following evening, I was entranced by another free multimedia show, a poetic tribute to the St Lawrence river that projected enormous images onto 30 fountains and towers of shipping containers. But most magical of all was a sound and light show called Aura, which illuminates the fabulously decorated interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica and is set to rousing orchestral music. It’s hard to imagine St Paul’s allowing such a thing.

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Aura, another light and sound spectacular at the Notre-Dame Basilica

Montreal also loves a circus. It’s the birthplace of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil, which ditched performing animals for theatrical acrobatics and in so doing reinvented the genre. Their latest show is the high-octane, technicolour Volta, which makes a big top in the Old Port pulsate with power ballads and eye-watering BMX manoeuvres. If that doesn’t appeal, they’ve spawned a raft of circus troupes pushing the envelope – like breakdancing Cirque Éloize or the raucous, cabaret-esque Barbu.

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One of the death-defying displays in Cirque du Soleil’s new show, Volta (photograph by Patrice Lamoureux)

The city’s appetite for innovation also extends to its food scene. It has more restaurants per capita than New York and San Francisco, including lots of brasseries with French-influenced menus: shellfish, tartare, hearty salads, steak. At Les Enfants Terribles, a chic restaurant at the top of Place Ville Marie skyscraper, Quebec classics are reinvented – my shepherd’s pie was a work of art: a tower of soft braised beef and truffle-spiked mash potatoes.

Quebec’s most famous dish (or perhaps infamous) is poutine: chips dripping with gravy and cheese curds. It looks revolting but is horribly moreish, especially in Montreal where every chef adds their own twist – mine came topped with tender roast duck. I washed it down with a hibiscus-infused craft beer from one of the city’s mushrooming microbreweries.

For more information on Montreal’s 375th birthday celebrations, go to 375mtl.com

What is Canada Day?

Canada Day marks the union of the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada into a self-governing dominion on 1 July 1867 (the province of Canada was later split into Ontario and Quebec). It was the birth of the modern state of Canada, although Britain still had the power to legislate until 1931. 

Birth of Montreal

In 1641, a plucky group of French missionaries set up camp on an island at the confluence of two rivers and Montreal was born. In 1760, the colony surrendered to Britain and the city was split down the middle: the French lived east of Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the Brits west.


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