Guy Rex RodgersWhat We Choose to Remember

How many Montrealers had heard of Blanche Lemco van Ginkel before the flurry of memorials published after her death in October? It is not surprising we should forget a woman who lived for 98 years and made her greatest contributions to Montreal more than half a century ago. She is precisely the kind of person this column chooses to remember, and for a number of reasons.

Blanche van Ginkel and her husband Daniel (Sandy), both architects, played a major role in preventing the destruction of Old Montreal in the late ‘50s. In 1962, they provided Major Jean Drapeau with a winning proposal to host the next World Exhibition, which we remember as Expo ’67. The duo also helped prevent a large section of Mount Royal from being turned over to developers. Blanche van Ginkel was one of the rare people whose contribution to Quebec transcends the language divide. In the polarising wake of Bill 96 and immediately after the divisive provincial election, the tributes paid to her in English and French were particularly significant.

Last spring I interviewed journalist Lise Ravary for a documentary film I was making for CBC television. We talked about historical divisions between linguistic communities and Lise shared an anecdote about the demolition of the Redpath mansion in the Golden Square Mile. She asked a spokesperson from Quebec’s Ministry of Culture why they were allowing that important piece of history to be destroyed and was startled by the reply, ‘It’s not our history!’ The comment came back to me in stark contrast to the universal gratitude showered on Blanche van Ginkel for her role in saving Old Montreal.

Quebec’s history is complex. Different groups choose to remember–and celebrate–different things. The Golden Square Mile is the perfect example. For many Francophones it represents an oppressive foreign elite. For some Allophones it represents the eternal squabble between colonial empires. For some Anglos with working-class roots it represents the wicked 1%.  There are many reasons to shrug off the Redpath demolition muttering, ‘It’s not our history!’

Old Montreal is different. All Montrealers are proud of this historical treasure. But why? When Montreal was still 99.9% French it had a population of a few thousand. Only a few buildings from that early period still exist, notably Le Chateau de Ramezay and la Maison de Mère d’Youville. Almost all the beloved buildings in Old Montreal, including the imposing banks along St-James Street (aka rue St-Jacques), were constructed after 1760 when Montreal was a rapidly growing city of immigrants. By 1860 more than half of Montreal’s population was from the British Isles (hence Montreal’s flag displays a rose (Britain), thistle (Scotland) and shamrock (Ireland). Wave upon wave of newer immigrants have played a role in building our city.

The history of Montreal is complex. So was Blanche van Ginkel’s personal story. Born in England, she earned a degree in architecture at McGill University and a Masters at Harvard, worked in Manhattan and spent her final years in Ontario. She would not qualify as an ‘historic Anglo’. She was not, by most definitions, Québécoise although she taught at l’Université de Montréal, worked for Le Corbusier in France, and left an indelible mark on our city. The unwritten rules that define who belongs in Quebec can be baffling, and they shift over time. Montrealers owe Blanche van Ginkel a debt of gratitude. At least we all agreed on that.

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