In search of a more female streetscape: Montreal moves to put more women on its map

— As approaches its 375th anniversary, municipal leaders have identified a glaring problem with the city map. Of the 6,000 names given to streets, parks and municipal buildings, just six per cent recognize the achievements of women.

Postmedia NewsPostmedia NewsAlice Parizeau, who died in 1990, was a journalist, novelist, essayist and criminologist. She was the first wife of former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau.
Paul Taillefer/Montreal StarPaul Taillefer/Montreal StarThe late , Montreal Gazette fashion writer and editor.
Blue MetropolisBlue MetropolisNovelist Nelly Arcan was only 36 when she took her own life.

Men, on the other hand, are honoured at seemingly every turn. From the corner of René-Lévesque and Robert-Bourassa boulevards in the heart of downtown (named after two late premiers), a stroll west crosses in quick succession Mansfield, Metcalfe, Peel and Stanley streets, named respectively for William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield; governor general Charles Metcalfe; British prime minister Robert Peel; and Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby. Further east, the story is much the same, but the names are French.

The administration of Mayor Denis Coderre has launched an initiative to correct the imbalance and last week invited the public to submit names of women deserving of recognition on the city’s street signs. The goal is to create a bank of a 375 potential names in time for the anniversary next year.

“Montreal society is one of the most egalitarian in the world,” Coderre said. “We want this to be better reflected in our toponymy.”

An analysis of existing place names in the city found that more than 50 per cent commemorate men, while the rest honour families or are gender-neutral (named after flowers or trees, for example.)

Manon Gauthier, whose responsibilities on the city’s executive committee include the status of women, said there are plenty of local females who deserve a spot alongside Peel and Papineau.

“How can we celebrate our history if the community we live in does not represent that history,” she asked. “We know that women were a great part of building Montreal, but too often their work was in the shadows.”

Gauthier recognized that people grow very attached to existing place names and often resist change. The previous administration of Gérald Tremblay was forced to backtrack after proposing to rename Park Avenue after Robert Bourassa. There are still some Montrealers bitter over the 1988 renaming of Dorchester Boulevard to honour René Lévesque.

“Even in a borough, where you have a 55th Ave., for people born on that street, there is a personal close attachment,” Gauthier said. A good starting place for female names will be parks and municipal buildings that do not have names. And the recent fall from grace of filmmaker Claude Jutra has opened a park and a street in need of new names, she noted.

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Valérie Plante, a councillor with the opposition Projet Montréal party, said there should be a 10-year moratorium on naming any new streets or parks for men. “There are always going to be reasons why men come first,” she said. “History has been written by men, so it makes sense, but we need to change that.”

The city has already received hundreds of suggestions of women to be included in the bank of names. The list includes Mohawk activist Mary Two-Axe Early, burlesque dancer , writers and Nelly Arcan, black activist Viola Desmond, Montreal Gazette fashion editor Iona Monahan and the victims of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, known collectively as Les Polytechniciennes.

Postmedia NewsPostmedia NewsMohawk activist Mary Two-Axe Early was a champion of native women's rights.

Other nominees have a less obvious connection to the city, including Audrey
Hepburn, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

Writing in La Presse on Saturday, columnist François Cardinal called the absence of women on the Montreal map “shameful.” His La Presse colleague Nathalie Petrowski said it is not easy coming up with names because historians have ignored women’s stories. “How do you remember something you have never heard about?” she wrote.

Gauthier said she would like to see other Canadian cities follow Montreal’s lead. “Things are not that different across , for historical reasons,” she said. “We will be reaching out to other cities across the country, hoping that maybe we can inspire them.”

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About Graeme Hamilton