Where is the West Island?

bensoo-westisland.jpg

The railyard, gateway to the West Island. Photo by Ben Soo

Every Montrealer knows that the West Island is not, in fact, an island unto itself: it is simply the westernmost part of Montreal Island, a collection of towns and boroughs home to about 250,000 people. To many anglophones, it is synonymous with “suburbia”; to many francophones, it is synonymous with “anglophones.” Although often portrayed as a sprawling wasteland, the West Island actually has a number of village-like town centres and historic suburban neighbourhoods in its southern half, known to most simply as the Lakeshore.

Still, anyone who visits the West Island may detect a distinct lack of place. Where, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is there?

In many ways, the West Island is more a political construct than an actual place. Sure, its geographic boundaries are very clearly delineated, being surrounded by water on three sides and a vast airport, railyard and industrial area on the other. But, like Mississauga or Laval, it remains fundamentally a collection of old towns and villages knit together by a loose fabric of suburban sprawl. Unlike those two other places, the West Island was never merged into a single municipality, so it lacks their earnest efforts at building a civic identity. Politically, it remains split between nine independent towns and two Montreal boroughs, a legacy of the botched attempt to merge all of Montreal’s municipalities into one.

The Gazette stumbled across this troublesome reality when it asked the readers of its West Island edition what they thought was the defining symbol of the area. The results, which were published this week, give Old Pointe Claire the top spot with 25 percent of votes. It’s a nice place, and it’s home to a well-known 18th century windmill, so fair enough. But the the next most popular icons aren’t even on the West Island: 24 percent of respondents chose Hudson Village and 12 percent chose the Lachine Canal. Some other popular icons include the Fairview Mall, Trudeau Airport, the town of Sainte Anne de Bellevue, the commuter train and — wait for it — the Pointe Claire Aquatic Centre.

Kate McDonnell wrote last week that the Gazette survey “is proof that the area is not, notionally, a single place, except as concerns the Gazette’s marketing policies.” Perhaps she’s right: if nearly half of West Islanders consider an off-island town and a canal most would consider to end on the easternmost fringes of the West Island, what, beyond geography, binds the whole place together?

I asked my friend Cedric Sam, who runs Métro Boulot Resto and Smurfmatic, and who was born and raised in Kirkland, a collection of sprawling subdivisions located in the West Island’s geographic centre. “I’ve always thought it lacked cultural life,” he told me. “It’s a place for SUV drivers, but I guess that’s like any other suburb. But it is really anglo. There aren’t really any other big anglophone suburbs.”

So is the English language the defining characteristic of the West Island? Although seventy-five percent of Montreal’s anglophones live elsewhere in the city, the West Island is where they are found in their single greatest concentration. Most of its towns are majority-anglophone and officially bilingual. Many of the immigrants who settle there do so in order to raise their kids in an English-speaking environment. Cedric, who is francophone but fluently bilingual, told me that his parents moved to the West Island so he and his brother would have a chance to learn English.

Even then, though, the West Island isn’t entirely anglo: a number of municipalities, including Sainte Anne de Bellevue, Senneville L’Île Bizard, are majority French-speaking. Others, such as Pierrefonds, are divided evenly between anglophones, francophones and allophones. In even the most anglophone of West Island towns, like Dollard-des-Ormeaux, the proportion of people who speak English at home is about the same as in some parts of Montreal and its inner suburbs, including downtown, Westmount, Notre Dame de Grâce and the Town of Mount Royal.

Of course, you can’t forget the elephant in the room, what might be termed the West Island’s ethnic divide. The southern half of the area, along Lake St. Louis, is one of the whitest parts of Montreal, populated disproportionately by old-stock Montrealers of British or Irish descent. The northern half, meanwhile, is one of the most diverse parts of the city, more recently-established and home in large part to immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean.

Last month, Steve Faguy, a freelance journalist and Pierrefonds native who writes regularly for the Gazette, pointed out that all of the possible West Island icons were concentrated on the Lakeshore. “Three are in Pointe-Claire, two in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, two span the southern towns, and one isn’t even on the island at all,” he wrote on his blog, Fagstein. “Why is it [Pierrefonds], along with its northern West Island neighbours Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Roxboro, Sainte-Geneviève, Ile Bizard and Kirkland, always get treated like they don’t exist when it comes to the anglophone media talking about the West Island? Does the northern West Island offer nothing of cultural significance?”

So really, then, is it even fair to say that there is a West Island, especially when whatever “West Island identity” does exist has been cultivated by only a narrow segment of the West Island’s population? One solution might be to unify the remaining independent towns into a single West Island municipality. It has worked, to a degree, for Laval and Mississauga, both of which have become more cohesive civic spaces since they were created in the 1970s.

Then again, some would argue that, for all their efforts, both of these mega-suburbs remain as lost as ever: the civic centres of both places revolve around giant malls. Both have been governed by the same strong-willed mayors for more than thirty years, creating a political culture that is moribund and complacent. Maybe the West Island’s problem isn’t unique to the West Island at all: maybe it is endemic to suburbia in general.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday August 02 2007at 06:08 am , filed under Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “Where is the West Island?”

  • aj says:

    Now that I think about it, maybe the dominant symbol for the West Island is children. Certainly during the 1970s and through the leaner years of the 80s and early 90s, downtown Montreal didn’t seem “fit for children,” or at least in my overprotective parents’ views… the West Island (and to some degree, bedroom suburbs in Sud-Ouest like Lasalle) were perceived as ‘safe places to bring up your kids’. I think that view is still dominant today, and of course the West Island suburbs do their best to woo families with lots of discounts on sporting and leisure facilities, etc — something I think was noted in the article.

    That said, despite a small literary-academic cluster around John Abbott College, and bands that emerge from parents’ garages, I’d be hard pressed to say there’s any intrinsic culture to the West Island. It’s still a place where you can live somewhere for 20 years and not really know your neighbors, and the physical layout of the place is just antithetical towards common place-making — the quaint ‘old town’ segmetns notwithstanding.

  • Fagstein says:

    The West Island is the place where people live for the first 20 years of their life, in their parents’ basements. Then they move into the city, find a cheap apartment in the Plateau or Verdun or NDG. They get a good job, get married, and start looking for a place to live, which inevitably sends them back to the West Island, where buying a house is cheaper and you don’t have to take any clogged bridges to get into town during rush-hour. Then they have kids, and the cycle repeats itself.

    The “villages” in Old Pointe Claire and Ste. Anne’s are more quaint than anything else, especially when you consider how the biggest issue in those places is parking.

    The rest of the area is designed specifically for cars, with their vast parking lots and pedestrian-unfriendly traffic lights. Governments are trying to reverse the problem, but it may be too little, too late.

    The problem isn’t entirely restricted to the suburbs, either. Strip malls on Angrignon Blvd. and at Marché Central are downright hostile to pedestrians, doing their best to encourage this car culture and discourage community-building, public transit and other forms of human-to-human contact that creates culture.

  • […] DeWolf is thinking about what makes the West Island, in light of recent discussions over whether it includes off-island municipalities or the Lachine […]

  • Andre says:

    Forgotten in all of these discussions is the fact that the northwestern quadrant of the island is blessed by four nature parks.

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    To many Anglophones outside the Montreal area, the West Island is that place where “the Anglos who give the rest of us a bad name” live. By this I mean English-speakers with a chip on their shoulder who all vote for the same political party, read The Gazette, and are generally indifferent/annoyed at all things French. Yes, this is a crass generalization and certainly doesn’t reflect the changes that have occurred in the past few decades. But the W.I. still remains the birthplace of some weird creatures: Alliance Quebec, the Equality Party, and the partitionist movement.

  • Neath says:

    Tradition can play a big role in defining local culture and I cant think of too much for the West Island.- In the inner city just the buildings evoke different eras, different ways of being, etc. Suburbia tends to only denote itself.

    Great photograph!

  • Kristian says:

    As JD says: Ontario starts at Cavendish.

    In regards to Patrick’s comments that the West Island gave birth to the Equality Party, I don’t think that’s right, I think they were more West End, CSL. Libman, Atkinson, Holden and Cameron, we’re talking NDG, Westmount, CSL and Cameron was West Island but lived on Claremont. There’s certainly nothing weird about the Equality Party or the partitionist movement.

  • Speaking of the West End, didn’t Bernard Landry and other nationalist leaders take a tour of the “West Island” only to find out later that they had actually been in Hampstead and CSL?

  • Justin Bur says:

    Laval was created in 1965; Mississauga in 1968 (apart from two holdouts, Streetsville and Port Credit, absorbed in 1974).

    The West Island has always had a separate identity for Bell Canada. For a long time it was in a separate directory, and even now it is not served by the Montreal rate centre/exchange, but has its own (Lachine, Pointe-Claire, Sainte-Geneviève, Roxboro).

    Most of the northern West Island is pretty recent suburbs, excusably forgettable (the Lakeshore is much longer established). But there’s also the village of Sainte-Geneviève, home to cégep Gerald-Godin; the beautiful nature parks that a previous commenter mentioned; the last remnants of agricultural land on the island; and Roxboro. I don’t know much about Roxboro except that it doesn’t look like much else on the West Island; developed like the Lakeshore along a railway line, but with quite a different demographic.

    Sometimes I wonder why the West Island needed to be part of the CUM or the 2002 Montreal merger. Mightn’t it make things administratively simpler if it became a municipality with the same status as Longueuil or Laval within the Montreal Metropolitan Community?