Griffintown is making history again

One of the oldest parts of the city has revitalized itself and become one of the most vibrant and exciting neighbourhoods in Montréal. Griffintown, or “The Griff” as it is affectionately referred to, was originally populated by Irish immigrants who contributed enormously to the construction of the Lachine Canal. Over the years, it has spawned figures of importance on the Canadian and international landscape, including Thomas D’Arcy McGee, William Dow, brewer of one of Canada’s most iconic brands of beer, and Oscar Peterson, the world-renowned jazz pianist.

Recently, the area has witnessed an influx of artists, musicians, film production houses, hi-tech enterprises and educational institutions. In their wake, a host of restaurants, cafés, tea houses, galleries, antique shops have sprung up. Not to mention an abundance of real estate development projects and condos.

“The Griff” is back and bustling.


In early colonial days, native people used the Lachine Canal as a fur trading corridor (they would arrive from the southern tip of the city and head to the Mount Royal trading post). In 1792, Thomas McCord obtained a 99-year lease on the Nazareth Fief from the nuns of Hotel-Dieu


In 1804, the Nazareth Fief was sold to a Mrs. Mary Griffin by an unscrupulous associate of McCord’s while the latter was away in Great Britain attending to business. The Griffins built the first streets on the land, which was reclaimed by McCord in 1814 after a long legal battle. The area kept the name of its former owners, Griffintown, but also became known as St-Ann’s ward.


Work began on the Lachine Canal on July 17, 1821 and it was opened for navigation in 1825. Griffintown took on a distinctly Irish character in the 1840s as floods of immigrants arrived, to escape starvation in their homeland and to work on the construction of the Victoria Bridge. By mid-century, Montreal had become a thriving metropolis, with Griffintown as its industrial heart. In 1870, 4,089 people worked in the area. Unfortunately, due to poor working conditions, Griffintown’s inhabitants were plagued by poverty, malnutrition, and a high infant mortality rate.


After WWI, jazz swept the southwestern part of Montreal and many African Americans moved to Little Burgundy, next to Griffintown, finding work as bellboys at the train station. World renowned jazz pianist Oscar Peterson grew up in Little Burgundy. Sadly, the good times would soon come to an end as the Great Depression hit, causing businesses to close and people to lose their jobs. Buildings became dilapidated and life, hard. The use of coal for energy also caused extensive pollution and health problems for area residents.


The industrial revolution sweeping the Lachine Canal didn’t necessarily lead to social justice. In 1900, a family of five needed $9.64 per week to meet its most basic needs and $13.77 for all others. Yet men only earned an average of $7.78 per week and women, $3.65 per week. Many women and children had to work simply to make ends meet. When associations promoting workers’ rights were created at the turn of the century, working conditions and the lives of Griffintown residents improved slightly but remained precarious.


From bad, to better, to worse. Griffintown eventually emerged from the Great Depression to enjoy a somewhat better economy during and after World War II, in large part due to arms production for the war. However, with the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the Lachine Canal lost much of its usefulness, and factories left, along with many residents.


In 1965, Griffintown was dealt another harsh blow with the construction of the Bonaventure Expressway, which cut it off from the rest of the city. When the Lachine Canal closed in 1970, most businesses left and 20,000 workers lost their jobs. The Irish regretfully left the area and many buildings were demolished.


Griffintown was all but abandoned for 20 years, until the 1990s, when it slowly became a haven for artists. Yesteryear’s rundown neighbourhood is gone. Today, Griffintown is synonymous with an eclectic mix of residents, a sparkling sense of community, and a taste for the good things in life.