Until the early 19th century, Montreal’s geographical area was relatively limited. Montreal was a city surrounded by fortifications—following the colonial wars—and, beyond the walls, there were a number of suburbs, where artisans lived, and activity was more agricultural.
But this picture changed rather quickly starting in the second half of the 19th century, during the industrialization period, with a real geographic boom taking place. In other words, the city expanded very rapidly. This expansion was also a demographic one.
The population grew extremely fast. People set off from here and there, in the surrounding countryside, to come settle in the city.
An event took place relatively early on… In 1809, there was a steamboat that went from Montreal all the way to Quebec City. It was built by the entrepreneur John Molson, who dreamed up the project. A steam-powered boat, for transportation, was an unprecedented technological feat at the time.
The St. Lawrence River had always been the important channel of communication, allowing for the development of Montreal. The port underwent an extremely important expansion, extremely quickly. Docks and facilities popped up all along the river in Montreal.
A railway network also developed. Montreal became the hub of a network that linked all of Canada. The Canadian project was also, to a certain extent, a project to link all British colonies in North America, as well as major North American cities, via the railway. Montreal was at the centre of all of this.
All along the river, warehouses and factories were built, growing larger and larger in size. And people came to work in them.
There were two industrial hubs that developed in a significant way in Montreal. One, on the east side, in what was called the Sainte-Marie district and into Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, and another on the west side, around the Lachine Canal, which was the most industrialized zone in Canada at a certain point in time. This all happened around the river.
So, factories were built, making a wide variety of products. These ranged from railway rolling stock… railcars, locomotives… to metal and technologies of the day—the first rubber factories in North America were in Montreal. These required a qualified workforce of specialized workers.
There was also what we refer to as light industry, which included textiles, shoes, anything relating to food… canneries, bakeries… tobacco too, of course. Everything needed for life in society was produced in these factories.
For more than a century, Montreal was Canada’s financial, commercial, and industrial metropolis. Montreal was really where things happened.
There was a big business bourgeoisie that benefited from this prosperity and the opportunities that economic development had to offer.
But prosperity wasn’t the same for everyone. For workers and their families, who left the countryside to settle in the city… and for a certain number of new arrivals—like the Irish and others—at various points in time… conditions were sometimes more difficult. These people settled into working-class neighbourhoods that developed very rapidly at the end of the 19th century.
Row housing was built. The typical workers’ homes were wooden cubes covered in red brick… built directly on the ground, with no deep foundation, no basement.
These homes were humid and weren’t always easy to heat. There wasn’t much insulation between the wood and the brick. The roofs were flat. There wasn’t much architectural ornamentation, sometimes just a little frieze along the roofline. They didn’t always have toilets, baths, or showers. In fact, the City of Montreal built public baths to make up for the lack of bathrooms in homes.
So, it wasn’t always easy to maintain proper hygiene. There were frequent epidemics. Large families lived in very small dwellings. Families of six, eight, or ten could be crammed into one home. And the rate of infant mortality was very high. Montreal was one of the cities with the highest infant mortality rates.
Given these difficult living and working conditions, workers slowly but surely began to organize and make certain demands.
The first workers’ associations were created in the early 1880s. One of the most well-known was The Knights of Labor. This association underwent a significant expansion and made a number of demands.
The industrial revolution was an important technological change… an important social change… and an important economic change.
So, the federal government established the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labor and Capital. There were people who testified on factory life, working class life, and the consequences of industrialization. They spoke about the deskilling of work, long hours, endless days.
Children of 12 or 13 years of age testified that they worked 60-hour weeks in factories, often for poor wages. Sometimes, their bosses would punish them. Work accidents were also discussed. Machines meant that accidents would happen. People got hurt and were no longer able to work. And again, there was no compensation for these people.
All manner of evidence was presented before this commission, with the working world making its demands.
However, it took some time and several struggles for work conditions to improve and the big wave of unionization to occur—this was around the time of the Second World War, at which point conditions began to get better.
But after the Second World War, an opposite phenomenon occurred: deindustrialization.
There are several explanations for this decrease in industrial production. On the one hand, the economy began to move from the east side of the continent to the centre and further west.
For instance, with the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Port of Montreal became somewhat less important, with a number of factories moving closer to the Great Lakes and eventually even to Western Canada.
Locational factors that had allowed factories to develop in central Montreal were also changing.
Even the Port of Montreal itself moved.
The former port became the Old Port, a heritage site, as the port moved further east.
This also drained more economic activity from that area.
The railway network, which had been essential in the 19th century, was replaced by the highway and airport networks.
Factories were now more frequently located in industrial parks, leaving the city centre.
The old buildings were demolished in certain cases, but many were also redeveloped.
Industry became heritage, and there are now many examples of conversions in these older areas: into community groups, cultural organizations, stores, and housing.
These buildings are being re-used in a variety of ways, bringing new life and vibrancy to Montreal’s old industrial and working-class areas, which were marked by this period… although traces of the era still remain in the landscape.
Skip social share links