Montreal Rich and Poor
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Montreal Rich and Poor
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Montreal Rich and Poor
Industrialization creates worlds of extravagant wealth and wretched poverty
As Canadian industry flourished at the turn of the century, Montreal became a showcase of economic extremes: extravagant wealth and wretched poverty.
In the early 1900s, Montreal's poor lived in shanties or crowded apartments. Pictured here, a Montreal family in a one room tenement in 1912. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
In the early 1900s, Montreal's poor lived in shanties or crowded apartments. Pictured here, a Montreal family in a one room tenement in 1912. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Most of the countrys rich lived in lavish excess in an exclusive Montreal neighbourhood. A few miles down the road, the burgeoning working-class struggled to survive in miserable slums.

The poor could barely imagine the nearby world dominated by elaborate costume balls with champagne fountains and visiting royalty. One family, the Allans, had a domestic staff of 19 to care for six members of the family. Grand homes lined the enclave of the rich, the so-called "Square Mile," located in the centre of the city.

Homeowners included the Van Hornes, the Molsons and the Birks. Many of the wealthy were leaders in Canadas emerging industrialization. They were self-made men and many were from English-speaking origins.

With no income tax and few government regulations, the industrial pioneers became richer. In the early part of the century it was said 100 people controlled two-thirds of Canadas economy, and the most of the wealthy lived in the Square Mile.

Away from the Square Mile, life was very different for the working class. In 1900, the average pay was 13 cents an hour. A pound of butter cost 20 cents. People lived in shanties or crowded apartments. Among the working-class, the average life expectancy was 50 years and one child in four died before the age of one. Montreal had the highest infant mortality rate in North America along with New Orleans.

Toussaint Stephen Langevin was a Montreal doctor who set up a practice in the working-class neighbourhood of Montreals Plateau Mont-Royal. He described the living conditions among his patients:

"I visited some truly needy families. It was a tearful sight to see those six, seven or eight children, almost naked in a frigid home, heated by a stove filled with old papers, those beds without mattresses, a single flannel blanket on the springs. It is easy to understand why all of these children, born during this nefarious period, were influenced physically and morally by mothers who were exhausted, hungry and too often, demoralized."

Many of the new city residents were French Canadians. They had been farmers who left the Quebec countryside to find jobs in the burgeoning cities. New immigrants to Canada also crowded the city for work. Montreal became a patchwork of neighborhoods; the Italians of "Miles-End" the Irish of "Griffin town," the Jews of the Main.

Conditions became worse as more people flocked to the city. Between 1891 and 1911, Montreals population more than doubled from 216,000 to 528,000.

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