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October 24, 2002 Sociologist Anouk Bélanger documents Montreal taverns



Anouk Bélanger and Lisa Sumner at work in a Montreal tavern.

Photo by Christian Fleury


by James Martin

Fortunately, Dr. Anouk Bélanger likes beer.

“You just can’t do a project like this without liking beer!” said the assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, referring to her in-progress cultural history of alcohol in Montreal.

Bélanger just wrapped the study’s first stage, an examination of Montreal’s fading tavern tradition, and is preparing to move onto the city’s cabaret history, including its storied past of jazz and burlesque.

At the heart of the tavern project is a documentary film which Bélanger collaborated on with Lisa Sumner, an MA student currently completing her sociology studies at Concordia. The Long and Enduring Tradition of Taverns in Montreal looks at what remains of the city’s once booming tavern culture.

Unlike bars or brasseries, taverns were only licensed to sell beer (no food or other alcohol), and closed early in the evening. Taverns catered almost exclusively to blue-collar men looking for beer-fueled camaraderie over their lunch hour or after work. Women weren’t allowed inside until 1979 — although Magnan’s somehow bucked the law until 1989.

Taverns therefore prospered in close proximity to the city’s industrial districts, such as Pointe Ste. Charles, St. Henri and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. In fact, it is estimated that by the mid-1970s, the zenith of tavern popularity, there were 700 such establishments in Montreal.

However, the times have changed. “You could say there are none left,” Bélanger said.
When they first started working on the film, Bélanger and Sumner approached the City of Montreal for a list of businesses operating under a tavern license.

Of the 68 watering-holes on the list, many had burned down unbeknownst to the City. Others were now doing double duty, assuming their traditional tavern role during the day, then transforming into bars for the evening and wee hours.

About the closest one can get to an unadulterated tavern these days, Bélanger says, is Taverne VV on the east end of Ste. Catherine, which still honours old-school operating hours.

Although the reality of a shrinking clientele has forced tavern owners into attracting new, younger patrons, they still have a soft spot for holdovers from the golden years.

“Taverns are commercial establishments, but they’re not there only for profit. Their main priority is still to provide a comfortable place for the few loyal clients who come every day. Many of the regulars are these same factory workers who are now retired but still going to the same tavern they’ve gone to for 20, 30, 40 years. The businesses themselves are family owned, and the relationship between the patrons and owners also feels like a family.”

Bélanger and Sumner interviewed dozens of people, asking about such things as what they talk about in the tavern, the impact of lottery machines, issues of masculinity and the future of taverns.

“Most of the men I interviewed are very nostalgic about how it used to be back in the ’70s,” Bélanger said. “Many of their friends have either died or quit drinking. One or two of their buddies still go to the tavern, but it’s not the same. Many of them say, ‘I still come here every day and do the same thing, but the space and the dynamics around me have changed.’ There’s a lot of that feeling.”

Despite the fact that neither researcher is male, nor 70 years old, Bélanger had little difficulty infiltrating the tight-knit subculture.

“There were a few taverns where we walked in and there were only a dozen retired men watching porn on a giant screen,” she recalled.

“They looked us up and down as if to say, What are you doing here?, but they were never verbally rude to us. They just stopped talking and watching the TV until we finished our beer and left. We didn’t feel welcome, so we didn’t do interviews in those places.

“But there were other places, on the contrary, where the people were happy to see new faces. They were interested in what we were doing, and they’d buy us beer and start chatting with us. That was interesting. When you engage in conversation with a regular, there is never the feeling of people trying to cruise us — taverns were never about being ‘pick-up’ places. There was a warm and sociable ambience.”

Which leaves the big question: just how much beer did Bélanger drink over the course of her study?

“At first, Lisa and I went to 50 or so taverns and had at least one beer while making observations and trying to make contacts for interviews,” she said. “Then we went back to five or six a few times each. Let’s just say too many!”