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The Lachine Canal in 1948.
For some students, venturing beyond the McGill bubble means going bar-hopping on Saint-Laurent or adventurously moving to the Plateau after moving out of residence. But truly understanding the city—especially without being a native citizen—is hard to do on one's own. There's usually a specific identity and character behind each region, and Montreal is a city that resounds in its uniqueness.
  • Heritage Montreal is founded
  • Designation of Mont Royal as a municipal heritage site
  • Creation of a coalition for public consultation
  • Heritage Montreal's 25th anniversary
  • Canadian Women's Intercollegiate Athletic Union is formed
  • Consultation with McGill University on the McGill University Health Centre on the mountain
  • 35th anniversary of Heritage Montreal. First rount of tours of Pointe du Moulin and Silo No. 5
  • Launch of Heritage Montreal's List of 10 Threatened Sites
Moments in Heritage Montreal's history.
Hover over the dates to read more.

Sharing an unexplored side of Montreal with the public is one of the goals of Heritage Montreal, an independent non-governmental organization. The institute's main mission is to advocate for sustainable urban development by balancing environmental, historical, geographical, architectural, and cultural considerations within the Greater Montreal Area.

With the development and growth of new architecture and landscape, Heritage Montreal focuses mainly on mappable geography. These landscapes might include fixed properties or be covered by urban planning instruments. The organization aims to raise awareness and awaken the curiosity of Montrealers about both the visible aspects of their city's heritage and the hidden contexts behind it.

According to Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal, many Montrealers are curious about the history behind the city's landscape. To cater to this demand, Heritage Montreal created Architectours, a program that offers walking tours around the city to the public. The tours are offered as part of the organization's efforts to inform citizens about the neighbourhoods they live in, and experience their historical and cultural significance through understanding the landscape's origins.

Besides offering walking tours, Heritage Montreal advocates for the preservation of heritage cities and consults with the city on urban affairs. According to Bumbaru, the concern is not just with individual sites, but generally with the way the city handles its urban development.

"You could let it go—and we could burn Montreal in a couple of years—and ruin everything, without a Montreal spirit behind it," he said. "For instance, we push for public hearings [with] l'Office du consultation publique. [We] push for a Heritage Council to be established in the city. The city is such a complex machine. It gives a chance to have a heritage clock inside that can give some hope for consistency."

To contribute to the organization's knowledge of preservation and to educate them, Heritage Montreal takes on summer interns. Catherine Lennartz, a World Heritage Studies master's student at the Brandenburg University of Technology, said that the Architectours help the organization's mission by including more Montrealers in the process of preservation and education. It's essential to honour the historical figures whose stories took place within this culturally-rich landscape. For example, if you're observing a building, it is not just about who built it, and what the architecture is, but also who has used it, and who it remains important for.

"For me, [the Architectours] are a question of getting Montrealers to know their city better," said Lennartz. "Not everyone has the opportunity to learn that much about the history and the architecture of the city; and because the tours are so specific, I find it's great for people who have maybe lived here their whole lives but never really looked at the heritage around them."

Montreal's abandoned Silo no. 5

Bumbaru himself has worked at Heritage Montreal for over 30 years, and occasionally leads tours in addition to executing the organization's other endeavours. Born in Vancouver, Bumbaru graduated in Architecture from the Université de Montréal, and moved on to study Architectural Conservation at the University of York in the U.K. and at the International Center for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome.

 “I started in 1982 […] I was hired here as part of a job creation program for graduates,” Bumbaru said. “The Quebec government had this program to support 20 weeks of work for new graduates, so they could start gaining work experience.”

After working for a few years in the organization, he took a break fin 1988 to study in Rome. Bumbaru subsequently returned to Heritage Montreal, eventually becoming executive director. But suddenly, in 1992, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recruited him overnight to assess the urgent condition of the war-torn area in the besieged city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Bumbaru was replaced as executive director during his time in Croatia, but upon returning safely, he was re-hired as policy director, his position ever since. As policy director, Bumbaru focuses the action of Heritage Montreal towards his passions: Education and advocacy.

    For Bumbaru, the landscape of a city defines its heritage. It’s something each citizen must protect by being aware of the landmarks which they’re meant to preserve. Although the tours are usually accompanied by historical lessons, Bumbaru started an August tour of the Lachine Canal and surrounding areas by emphasizing that he wasn’t a historian, and that the tours naturally integrate several facets of urban landscapes. 
    Bumbaru highlighted the importance of allowing individuals to truly experience the tangible reality of the geography upon which they embarked.

    “We’re not visiting history, we’re strolling through geography,” he said.

The Heritage Montreal building on Sherbrooke street.

While leading a small group of participants, Bumbaru touched on architecture, urban planning, and geography. He also discussed the often contentious integration of industrial, recreational, and residential development alongside the many heritage locations that line historic sites like the Lachine Canal. As opposed to a lecture hall, where textbook history is inceptive, walking tours use a physical location as the literal point of departure.

“In the past, we used to say ‘The parentage of heritage was history,’” said Bumbaru. “When thinking about it a bit further, there are three dimensions to this: First, geography; second, society; and third, history.”

The tours also help to advocate for an accessible, human-friendly Montreal. While regional planners talk of “walkable cities,” Heritage Montreal has different ambitions—tours that transcend walking as a simple mode of transportation and cross over into exploring. 

The Architectours are celebrating Heritage Montreal’s 40th anniversary this year by presenting “Greatest Hits,” retrospective of their most popular walking tours. Over August and September, these have included the dynamic neighbourhoods of Griffintown, Mile End, Golden Square Mile, and Côte-des-Neiges.

Despite conducting a survey of ‘greatest hits,’ this year’s Architectours failed to include perhaps one of Heritage Montreal’s most popular excursions: A tour of the infamous Silo No. 5, an abandoned grain elevator dating back to 1903, at the base of Old Port. The original idea of visiting Silo No. 5, the largest abandoned building in the city, came about during Heritage Montreal’s 35th anniversary in 2010, as a gift to the Montrealers who supported them.

Incidentally, 15 years prior, Heritage Montreal fought with the port authority over the proposed demolition of Silo No. 5.

“For [the port authority], Silo No. 5 is the equivalent of a redundant filing cabinet [...] the equivalent of an office desk that is unused,” Bumbaru said. “They just want to throw it away—it’s just that it’s 800 metres long.”

Thus, bringing individuals to Silo No.5—a location with a history intertwined with that of Heritage Montreal’s—had a special significance in line with the organization’s mission.

To Bumbaru’s pleasant surprise, the tour was a massive hit with Montrealers.

“We just thought, well, this is going to interest only a few people because we were told nobody likes the Silos you know?” he said. “Nobody cares. And it took us three years to go through the waiting list [for the tour]. There was a clear demonstration that people were curious about it.”

Nonetheless, whether intentional or simply symptomatic of Montreal’s contemporary urban landscape, many of the tours are of neighbourhoods “in transformation,” including the aforementioned Lachine Canal.

In essence, Duncan doesn't believe that the divide happens at the level of institutions—it happens much earlier than that.

“Transformation doesn’t need to be banal,” Bumbaru said. “There can be a lot of invention in that. Perhaps, in Montreal, we’ve done it in a less spectacular [way] than others. In Montreal over time, we don’t have time to do things à la Dubai, but we try to consider ourselves more avant garde. Looking at the city more in a new way, one of our slogans is 'élever le regard'—to raise the eye.”