A Maple Leaf worn with pride is a rare sight along Ste. Catherine Street, where gratuitous nudity promoting a strip bar is far more common than ostentatious displays of Canadian patriotism. But the flags were out by the thousands on Canada Day, hanging from pockets, used as hair pins, with none of the furtiveness or defiance that usually accompanies the red and white in Quebec.
Forget the sad, sparse gatherings of cranky anglos of years past: Visible minorities formed the vast majority in this downtown crowd. They also fuelled the procession, with marching bands (Jamaican), dance troupes (Indian, Iraqi, among many others) and a Chinese dragon.
Quebeckers don't get many chances to freely express love for Canada. Those who dare are often dismissed as cranks and extremists by the francophone nationalists who dominate Quebec's cultural and political life. Even this warm gathering would be dismissed in those quarters as a sign of the ghettoization and resistance to integration brought by "Canadian-style" multiculturalism.
But on this street on this day, Canadian patriots had their way.
"People can be unashamed, can be proud, of who they are today," said Lerona Lewis, a PhD student in education at McGill University. "In this province you don't often see this kind of expression of pride. You spend a lot of your life trying to blend in as best as you can. Today you can be free to be who you are."
Ms. Lewis dragged along her 10-year-old son, who was more interested in a nearby bookstore, to show the young Grenadian-Canadian that a hybrid identity is common in this country. "This is where you fit in Canada, and you are not alone," Ms. Lewis said, waving at Turkish dancers passing by.
This year's parade generated more enthusiasm and a bigger crowd than those of recent years, but this is still a low-key affair. It's much smaller than several of the immense Fête Nationale gatherings that took place across Quebec a week ago. Canada Day is dwarfed by the St. Patrick's parade, and is only competitive with Montreal's modest Santa Claus procession.
The start of this parade was viewed by only small clutches of patriots hiding from the scorching sun. But by the end, near Peel Street, they were bunched 10 deep, straining for a view. Even in the thicker crowd, it was no boisterous expression of love. This is no street party (there's no booze to be seen) and people mainly watch in respectful silence. Each float and dance troupe is greeted only with attention, and sent off with a short burst of appreciative applause for each passing entertainment.
Typical is Chao Chung, standing off to the side, struggling to explain his appreciation in English. "I don't come every year, but I try to come to say thanks for my life here," the 52-year-old said.
Montreal's parade may not have the flamboyance of Toronto's coincident Pride parade, the pomp of a military re-enactment in Ottawa, or the spectacle of a massive human flag in Winnipeg, but it is not some grim annual duty, either. Vijay Thangella recently moved to Boston from Montreal. He brought his wife and toddler and another Indian family back for Canada Day to show them what the national holiday and his favourite city are all about.
"I've lived in Toronto, Boston, other countries, and they all seem like a little step down from Montreal to me," he said.
The parade over, hundreds of people continued to brandish their flags into a nearby Indigo Books, a Simon's department store and the Libyan restaurant across the street. Even the bouncer outside a strip bar had kept his flag. The usual rhythm of the busy shopping and entertainment district resumed, but the Maple Leaf would wait a while yet to be stuffed away.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lerona Lewis as Grenada-born. She has lived in Grenada but was born in Canada.