The origins of Mile End

How did this area get the name Mile End? A simple question, not so simple to answer! The question has been asked for decades, not only by local residents but also by various authors. Here are three articles that gradually converge towards an explanation.

— The first was written in June 1951 by Jean de Laplante, journalist for Le Canada, a daily newspaper of the time. The newspaper had been the official publication of the Liberal Party from the turn of the century, but by then was experiencing financial problems. To reduce its costs, the daily had recently sold its property on prestigious Saint-James Street and rented space in a much more modest building in Mile End, at 5221 de Gaspé.

The City of Montréal had decided to spend $125,000 to renovate the former city hall of Saint-Louis, annexed by Montréal in 1910. The journalist described the building as “half-Renaissance, half-parvenu bourgeois.” This decision by municipal officials provided the newspaper with the pretext for a series of four articles titled “De la Molenne à Laurier” (From Mile End to Laurier). Laplante had the avowed purpose of saving from the forgotten past the “unremarkable Laurier district, which now encompasses the demarcation line between the French city of Montréal and the Jewish quarter.”1

Since, as he noted, use of the term “Molenne” [Mile End] had almost completely disappeared except among the oldest francophone residents, he tried to retrace the origin of the expression in his second article. An excerpt is reproduced here.

— The second was written in 1994 by Christopher Schoofs of the “Société Mile End pour l’histoire et la culture”. As will be seen, although the expression Mile End had returned to common usage, its boundaries and especially its identity remained blurry. The area was again in transition. At the time Laplante wrote his articles in the early 1950s, the Jewish community, which had made Mile End the heart of its social, cultural and economic life since the 1920s, had migrated massively to Snowdon and suburbs such as Côte-Saint-Luc. During the following decades, up till the mid-1980s, the neighbourhood was considered one of the poorest in Montreal, while continuing to welcome new generations of immigrants – Greek, Portuguese and Italian.

The “Société Mile End pour l’histoire et la culture”, a predecessor of Mile End Memories, had been created by a few members of the Mile End Citizens’ Committee. The neighbourhood was seeing its first wave of gentrification – transformation of a vacant building on Saint-Laurent Boulevard into LUX, a trendy 1980s bar and boutique, was probably the best known example. Several other buildings were in the sights of various developer–speculators. Residents mobilized to defend the unique character of the area, its cultural diversity and to preserve historic buildings, such as the Rialto theatre and the Church of the Ascension, which became the Mile End Library. Members of the Société Mile End began research to re-establish this heritage in its historic context.

— The third article is by Justin Bur, member of the board of directors of Mile End Memories and president of Les Amis du boulevard Saint-Laurent. Justin corrects certain commonly repeated errors, which stem from a description published circa 1949 by Conrad Archambault, then head archivist for the City of Montréal. (Click here to read that text (in French): Archambault Mile End)

This dossier marks the inauguration of our new web site: during the next months, Mile End Memories will post a series of articles and vignettes on the history of the neighbourhood, based on research by our members. Please return here regularly to consult these articles. To be advised of new material, follow us by joining our Facebook group or via Twitter (@MemoireMileEnd).

1. Jean de Laplante, ‘Un ancien hôtel de ville que va respecter le pic du démolisseur’, Le Canada, lundi 18 juin 1951, p. 16