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Study of urban winterity, analysis of Montreal’s narrative identity

Myriam Guillemette
Cet article est une traduction de :
Étude de l’hivernité urbaine, analyse d’un récit de construction identitaire montréalais [fr]

Texte intégral

1The scientific relationship between the city and winter remains a relatively little studied subject, particularly in a North American context. This is an unexpected finding considering the various repercussions of winter on the configuration of the city, on the way of life of its residents and on its tourism. Winter is defined (De la Soudière, 1993; Hamelin, 2002a) as more than a simple climatic fact. It is described as a social and cultural fact, especially because of its multiple repercussions on a set of factors. This can be translated by the term of winter, one of the various neologisms relating to the North created by the geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin (2002b).

2Winter is characterized by a dual role, it results from a diversity of representations and in return generates representations. By representations we mean the idea that we "represent" a considered object and, by extension, the whole imaginary universe associated with in (Orillard, 2003). It is therefore what can be qualified as an object of representation (Arcand, 1999; De la Soudière, 1993; Hamelin, 1993; Walter, 2014). A second object defined by this same principle of dual role is the city (Morisset et al., 1999). The city can also be considered a complex phenomenon because of, among other things, the diversity of the actors it mobilizes and the divergent interests that may oppose them (Morisset, 2015). The relationship between these two objects leads us to consider representations linked to the winter tourist experience in an urban context, thus asking us about the touristic adaptability of winter.

3The socio-historical context of our research reveals the leading role of the winter season in Quebec society. We note a transformation in representations of winter from the end of the 19th century which corresponds to the amplification of a provincial urbanization movement. This movement is part of the final stages of Quebecers' journey of adaptation to winter. We recognize the existence of three main phases between the 16th century and the 19th century (Lamontagne, 1983; Provencher, 1986). The first of these phases is apprehension, engendered by an ignorance of the climate of the territory of New France among the first European pioneers. The gradual acclimatization to winter life leads to a phase of adaptation in which the relationship between the inhabitants and winter is perfected and where new subsistence techniques are developed. We finally identify the phase of domestication characterized by a full integration of the winter season into society and whose decline corresponds to the growing rural exodus from the provinces at the end of the 19th century. The main hypothesis found in the literature regarding the transformation that took place from the end of the 19th century suggests an incompatibility between these two objects. The thesis aims to deepen this relationship by characterizing the city and winter as objects of representation.

4The constructed element constitutes the first anchorage point of the thesis, documented by the study of the construction of the city. Our research consists more precisely of an inductive study which analyzes the construction of representations of winter by the residents of the city. Montreal is the focal point in this case, because of its role as an archetype of an urban environment strongly characterized by a winter season. We analyze the influence of the urban environment on the Montrealers’ construction of winter representations through the study of winter representations by residents of Montreal since the end of the 19th century (1883-2019). The research focuses more particularly on three distinct elements, namely the modulation of winter representations through constructed spaces, identities, as well as imaginaries of Montreal, in order to answer our main research question: “In the Montreal urban context, what are the winter representations and how are they constructed?

5These constructed elements constitute the first anchorage points of the thesis, documented by the study of the construction of the underground city located in downtown Montreal. The underground city refers to a protected pedestrian network of approximately 35 km in length, located in downtown Montreal, which connects nearly 2000 businesses as well as various metro stations, universities and buildings of interest (Hustak, 2018; Office de consultation publique de Montréal, 2017). This first study allowed us to reveal the ambivalence of Montrealers in the face of the winter season by analyzing representations of the various periods of construction of this development since the 1960s.

6We then began documenting the element of identity in which two opposing topics were studied. Let us first mention the appropriation of the status of winter city-Nordic city in the press, mainly aimed at tourist. Since the 1990s, several promotional documents and newspaper articles have revealed the use of the terms Winter city and Nordic city to characterize the identity of Montreal. The use of these terms can indeed be seen as an effort started at the provincial level to promote winter tourism. This is also part of a marketing strategy to fight against the seasonality of tourism, that is to say the variation in tourism demand according to the seasons, which thus leads to "low" and “high” seasons (Chair of Tourism, University of Quebec in Montreal, 1998). In the 1990s, proposals were made to redefine the image of winter tourism. This strategy also corresponds to a transformation of the tourist offer of Montreal initiated during the previous decade. In fact, the 1980s marked the beginnings of the events era, the main feature of which was the use of festivals with the perspective of "reconstructing the image of Montreal" (Pilette and Kadri, 2005).

7We have studied the phenomenon of snowbirds in the same context. This term refers, generally, to a group of individuals who relocate during the winter season to a more temperate region (Blondeau, 2017). Since the 1970s this phrase has come to refer more specifically to a community of retirees who spend the winter in southern regions (Sullivan and Stevens, 1982). We can summarize the analysis carried out within the framework of this factor by mentioning the presence of a dominant identity discourse and that of a counter-discourse represented by snowbirds, figures of negation of societal unity and representation of mass tourism. The capacity for winter resistance and the pride associated with it become, in this case, identity markers. In contrast to this movement, we have observed how the desire to flee winter can ultimately be seen as an identity trait. One of the constants in the study of this element is the idealization of winter, which reveals the ambivalence that characterizes Montrealers' relationship with winter. There are some negative aspects of the winter season that need to be omitted when attempting to unify the population around this common element and create a potentially marketable collective identity.

8The imaginary factor is the last element of the thesis. We must underline its importance, considering its essentially touristic vocation. In this case, we examined the institution of Montreal's winter carnivals inspired, at least partially, by rural Quebec vigils. When we took stock of the situation, we observed how these vigils were one of the integral elements in the adaptation of the first arrivals to winter in the Quebec context. These events, which took place in rural Quebec from the second half of the 18th century, favor dancing and gatherings of friends and families inside the home. The isolation of the village caused by winter also corresponds to the community withdrawing into itself. Carnival, as we understand it in this study of the imaginary element, corresponds to an urban transfer of these traditions and to the creation of a tourist identity for the municipality.

9As part of our analysis, we have defined what we have called the winter imaginary. We have defined this term according to the collective identity, the imaginary of the city (Morisset, 2011), the imaginary of the North (Chartier, 2018) and the collective imaginary (L’Italien-Savard, 2012). The winter imaginary also took into account the competition between cities, which plays a decisive role in the process of differentiating a city and in the definition of the touristic identity mentioned above (Bautès and Guiu, 2010). From these different conceptual fragments, we arrived at the formulation of our own operational definition: “Inspired by the idea of ​​the city's imaginary, qualified by its double meaning as well as of the collective identity, the winter imaginary of the city transmits myths as to the way in which this last “lives” its winter and how it transforms itself according to the winter season, and this, with a tourist aim”.

10By formulating this idea, we wanted to give meaning to the winter season in a context of promoting the city. Our analysis testified that the goal of popularizing winter carnivals and combating the seasonality of tourism required creating an image of the city based on winter adaptation. An important feature of the creation of this image was the mobilization of so-called “authentic” winter symbols. Our analysis allowed us to identify three categories among these symbols that can be used in the touristic development of the city. We are referring here to natural elements, sports elements as well as social or event elements. Here we emphasize the role of monuments such as the Ice Palace, as well as that of all winter sports as well as symbols that are an integral part of winter folklore, such as dog sleds, snowshoes and woven sashes. The idea was to "sell" a certain image with the ultimate intention of attracting foreign visitors.

Document 1: “Authetic“ symbols of winter

Document 1: “Authetic“ symbols of winter

Guillemette, 2019

11The study of the different carnivals allowed us to observe how this movement, initiated by private and public entities, was motivated by its economic potential from its first versions. If the mobilization of winter traditions has remained constant in all versions of the carnival since the end of the 19th century, we have nevertheless noted, in the case of the most recent versions, an attempt to modernize the symbolism of winter. The most important factors that emerge from the analysis of the winter imaginary are the direct transposition of collective identity as a main component of this imaginary and the considerable role of winter idealization in the dissemination of this imaginary. The analysis carried out to document this element finally allowed us to report on the role of personal experience in the appropriation of this imaginary by the user. Our study finally enabled us to see in this sense that, despite the creation of a winter imaginary, this imaginary is not necessarily integrated by the user of winter, whether resident or tourist, because of the considerable role played by personal experience in defining each person's winter representations. Our research thus calls into question the appropriation of tourist images by the visitor when they are based on this notion of winter.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Document 1: “Authetic“ symbols of winter
Crédits Guillemette, 2019
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Myriam Guillemette, « Study of urban winterity, analysis of Montreal’s narrative identity », Via [En ligne], 18 | 2020, mis en ligne le 27 décembre 2020, consulté le 14 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Myriam Guillemette

Chaire de recherche du Canada en patrimoine urbain, Université du Québec à Montréal

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