by James Martin
Fortunately, Dr. Anouk Bélanger likes beer.
You just cant 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 studys first stage, an examination
of Montreals fading tavern tradition, and is preparing to move onto
the citys cabaret history, including its storied past of jazz and
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 citys once booming tavern
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 werent allowed inside
until 1979 although Magnans somehow bucked the law until
Taverns therefore prospered in close proximity to the citys 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,
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 theyre 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 theyve 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 its 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. Theres a lot of that
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 didnt feel
welcome, so we didnt 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
theyd 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. Lets
just say too many!