History of Montreal



Like much of North America, native people lived in the area known as Canada for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived. Now known as First Nations and the Inuit people, the Vikings arrival in about 1000 AD forever altered their people's future, as well as that of the land. The Métis are descendants of the union of the First Nations and European immigrants. Led by Viking explorer Leif Erikson, the Europeans first landed in today's Newfoundland. True to Vikings nature, they may have been the first to arrive, but did not permanently settle here.

It wasn't until the beginning of the late 15th century that British and French colonial expeditions arrived and settled on the Atlantic coast. However, by 1763 France had ceded nearly all of its colonies in North America to Britain after the Seven Years' War. These colonies unified in 1867 as a federal dominion of four provinces. Meanwhile, the American Revolutionary War raged below, with many people in the new United States wanted to stay loyal to Britain. Thousands came north to Canada and settled in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, and Ontario. They were called United Empire Loyalists. During the War of 1812, the United States tried to conquer Canada but were defeated.

On July 1, 1867, Canada was united under a federal government. Provinces and territories were further developed and began the process for increasing autonomy. Sir John A. Macdonald became the first prime minister. Manitoba, the Yukon territory, and the Northwest Territories became part of Canada in 1870. The Canadian Pacific Railway, finished in 1885, allowed for Canadians to travel across the nation and Western expansion increased. As the prairies populated, Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905. British Columbia joined in 1871, and Prince Edward Island in 1873.

Canada maintained close ties to Britain and fought for the British Empire in World War I. More Canadians died in this war than any other war. Its soldiers garnered pride for the new nation after its success in capturing Vimy Ridge from the Germans in France in 1917. Women were given the right to vote by the end of the war, partly because of the help they gave making weapons while the men fought in Europe. Striving for greater independence, Canada became it's own nation in 1931 and the Government of Canada was granted the rights to make all decisions about Canada.

During World War II, Canada also became involved. This time, however, they experienced far less success and the Dieppe Raid in 1942 where most of the soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner was a particularly sour note. The Canadian forces were important in 1944 at Normandy, and they liberated the Netherlands.

In 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador became the 10th province of Canada. Lester Pearson earned distinction for being instrumental in ending the Suez Crisis in 1956, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and alter the seat for prime minister. He was also noted for helping the design the distinctive Canadian flag with Maple Leaf in 1965. In 1982, the Canada Act formally ended the "request and consent" provisions of the Statute of Westminster 1931 in relation to Canada, meaning the British parliament no longer had a general power to pass laws extending to Canada at its own request.

For as far as Canada has come, the country is still developing. It is a vast nation, with many different people and issues. Today, many French Canadians wish to form their own country and separate from the rest of Canada. The province of Québec held a referendum (vote) in 1980 to separate, but it only earned 40% support. Another referendum in 1995 garnered almost 50% in favor - but still not enough.

In 1999, Nunavut was created as Canada's third territory. This was part of an agreement with the Inuit people. The people also continue to change with a large number of immigrants arriving everyday. Canada has a greater mix of people with different backgrounds than almost anywhere on Earth (after Australia).


The area now known as Montréal was first inhabited by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. These indigenous people spoke Laurentian and studies have shown they were a culture distinct from those the French later called the Huron to the west, and the Iroquois nations to the south.

Jacques Cartier is believed to be the first European to reach the area in 1535. He entered the village of Hochelega on the Island of Montréal while in search of a passage to Asia during the Age of Exploration. He recorded about 200 words of the Laurentian language.

The city, first also called Ville Marie, was founded by the French in 1642, making Montréal one of the oldest cities in North America. It was founded as a missionary colony by the city's founder and first governor, Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve. The city slowly grew, and eventually prospered as the fur-trading center of the French colony of New France and became the gateway to the western interior. By 1760 the city's population of French origin had reached about 4,000.

It was at that time that Montréal surrendered to British forces that were completing their conquest of Canada during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Montréal had developed a role as a commercial centre for the provinces of Lower Canada (now Québec) and Upper Canada (now Ontario). The port of Montréal became a major entrance point on the naval route between Britain and the Great Lakes. The cemented its fate as a leading Canadian city by becoming the capitol in 1844, but it lost its position in 1849 after riotous crowds burned the buildings of Parliament, Canada's legislature.

Despite this political loss, the city continued to gain prominence. By the mid-19th century, Montréal was Canada's leading manufacturing centre. It also became the national railway hub and center of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (1852) and the Canadian Pacific (1881). Montréal was now the commercial, industrial, and financial metropolis of the country. The population grew accordingly, reaching 216,650 in 1891 and double by 1911.

Job prospects drew in rural French Canadians and by 1911 Francophones were 63.5 percent of the city's population. This is where Montréal truly found it's footing. Cities like Toronto benefited from the growing integration of Canada into the North American economy, but Montréal was unique in it's dual French and English character and cultural prominence. This transformation was known as the "Quiet Revolution" where Francophones improved their economic and political power in Québec. In 1969 the provincial government adopted a law requiring French instruction for most children, and later legislation required all public signs to be primarily in French. This has led to Montréal technically becoming a bilingual city, but with the primary language being French.

It was also during this time that the city experienced rapid modernized. From 1962 to 1964, four of Montréal's ten tallest buildings were completed: Tour de la Bourse, Place Ville-Marie, the CIBC Building and CIL House. Montréal also gained increased interest by hosting the 1967 World's Fair, known as Expo 67.

At the end of the 1960s, many people in Québec were pushing for independence. They felt underrepresented by Canada as a whole and sought to become their own nation. A constitutional debate between the Ottawa and Québec governments led to radical groups like the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). In October 1970, members of the FLQ's "Liberation Cell" kidnapped and murdered Pierre Laporte, a minister in the National Assembly. They also kidnapped James Cross, a British diplomat, who was later released. In response to this violent act, the Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, ordered the military occupation of Montréal and invoked the War Measures Act. This gave unprecedented peacetime powers to police. The social unrest and related events became known as the October Crisis of 1970.

The question of secession formally addressed by the Parti Québécois holding two referendums in 1980 and in 1995. This uncertainty caused social and economic insecurity. Though both measures failed, it is estimated that about 300,000 English-speaking Québecers left Québec. Some middle ground was reached by the passage of Bill 101 in 1977 which gave primacy to French as the only official language for all levels of government in Québec, the main language of business and culture, and the exclusive language for public signage and business communication. In the rest of Canada, the government adopted a bilingual policy, producing all government materials in both French and English.

The city celebrated its 350th anniversary in 1992 and marked improving economic conditions with the construction of 1000 de La Gauchetière and 1250 René-Lévesque. Improvements have been made to the city's infrastructure, including the expansion of the metro system, construction of new skyscrapers, and the development of new highways, including the start of a ring road around the island. Over all of these years, Montréal still holds its title as a world-class city.

Update 21/05/2013

Related articles:


Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest Addthis

Recommended Partners

When you move internationally you are taking a big step. Lots of things are changing and you have a million things to think about and take care of. If you are able to select a top of the line moving company that moves for a modest price, it can take a big weight of your shoulders in busy times.

Our network of international removal companies can move your furniture & possessions to Canada and anywhere overseas.

Filling in the form at the bottom will allow you to request up to 5 quotes from various moving companies. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.

Do you have comments or personal information to communicate about this article? Add your comment.

Find more definitions and general answers on expatriation issues in the Expat FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).

Go to the Forum to talk more about history of Montreal, overview.

Download the full digital PDF expat guide in Montreal

Download the guide: Montreal, Canada
  • See in one single booklet all the articles for a city guide for expatriates.
  • Enjoy full colour photos to illustrate each section.
  • Additionnal maps: Region, City view, Neighborhood, Street view.

  • - My Life Abroad -
    A selection of expat stories

    "A fun compulsive read!"
    J. Matcham, Amazon

    "I strongly advise people ready to live abroad to read this book!"
    Patrice, Amazon