Fête or flop? Looking back on Montreal's year-long birthday party

Alain Gignac, the general manager of the non-profit organization tasked with throwing the parties for Montreal's big birthday, said the atmosphere in the city had become kind of grim in the last few years, and Montrealers were in need of a party.

$125M events budget was meant to lift Montrealers' spirits, and many were satisfied, says oragnizer

The Little Girl-Giant paraded through the streets of Montreal this spring, one of a number of events organized for the 375th anniversary. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Imagine celebrating your birthday for an entire calendar year. Think of all the parties you could throw.

Montreal turned 375 in May, and in honour of our fair city's anniversary, more than 200 events were held over the course of the year to mark the occasion.

For some, it was a year to celebrate. For others, it was a year to criticize the cost of those celebrations.

Alain Gignac, one of the organizers of those celebrations, said he felt the atmosphere in the city had become kind of grim over the last few years, and a big bash was in order.

"We were aiming to get Montrealers to unite to celebrate this great city, give it a little bit of momentum," said Gignac, general manager of the Society for the Celebrations of Montréal's 375th Anniversary, the non-profit organization tasked with organizing the festivities that unfolded over the course of the year.

His organization had a budget of $125 million. Some of the events went on over a number of days. Some were large in scale, others less so.

And with 6 million visitors to the events, of those, 1.8 million unique visitors, Gignac believes the birthday party was a success.

Can't please everyone

Accounting firm KPMG was hired to measure what's called the satisfaction index among those who attended the events, and found it to be 96 per cent, which Gignac takes as a sign that attendees enjoyed themselves.

Still, many questioned the large-scale festivities, wondering why we were celebrating a seemingly random milestone, chalking it up to a Denis Coderre vanity project in an election year.

But Gignac doesn't see it that way.

"We can't please everyone," he said in a recent phone interview.

He said that the organizers feel the "action was needed and extremely well-received."

Most people may remember the biggest events because they were the flashiest — the lighting of the Jacques Cartier Bridge and the giant marionettes that paraded through the city in May, for example — but mainly, Gignac believes Montrealers will remember that for a year, the city was abuzz.

Exactly 375 dancers took over Place des Festivals for Super Méga Continental, a show in honour of Montreal's anniversary in September. (Courtesy of Jean-Paul Acco)

A budget surplus? In Montreal?

To be clear, Gignac's organization wasn't in charge of all the projects for the 375th.

Infrastructure projects, such as covering the Ville-Marie Expressway and lowering the Bonaventure Expressway, were managed by the city and the province.

Radio-Canada estimated the entire price tag for the birthday bash at $1 billion.

The society's $125 million budget is mainly made up of public funds — only $12 million comes from private sponsors.

Alain Gignac was appointed as general manager of the Society for the Celebration of Montréal’s 375th Anniversary in 2015. (Monic Richard/CNW Group/Société des célébrations du 375e anniversaire de Montréal)
The final numbers aren't in yet, but Gignac said the organization is looking at roughly a $7-million surplus. The exact number will be available in January, he said.

He added that they were very judicious in the awarding of money to different projects, mindful of the fact that their budget is made primarily of taxpayer dollars.

Some events also didn't pan out, which helped them come in under budget.

In March, they will release a more fulsome financial picture of the festivities, he said, including the price tag of individual events which were closely guarded.

How to top this?

With all this hoopla for the 375th, it's only natural to wonder how the city will celebrate its 400th anniversary in 25 years.

After spending a little more than two years shepherding the events for the 375th, Gignac said the experience was exciting, but he has some advice for whoever will be organizing the next anniversary party: start preparing earlier.

Gignac said the festivities don't necessarily have to be bigger, they could just be different — more neighbourhood-centric celebrations, or events that spotlight the river, for example.

"There are so many ways you can slice this. Who knows what the future will bring? I think it will be very positive," he said.

"I'm sure it's going to be an outstanding event for the 400th."


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