The Changing Social Structures

Ecological structure of urban communities

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Ecological structure of urban communities

The church building marked the center of the territorial pattern of the former French-Canadian rural community or small « provincial » town. Around the church clustered other ecclesiastical, educational and public buildings, while the general stores and the offices of the few local professional men extended from there along one main artery. In medium-sized towns, these features were magnified into more complex combinations which often involved [105] some territorial distribution of the local population into areas differentiated by occupational and social status.

In the more recent communities of the frontier areas or of the older regions which have been created by industry, this pattern has been drastically altered. It is now with reference to the factory, the plant or the mining pit that the workers' houses, the service establishments and other community institutions have successively located themselves. The beverage or the gambling house, the grab-bag drug-store and the department store often chronologically preceded the parochial churches or at least competed with them as interest centers. In communities invaded by industry, either the factories were established at the periphery or outside the existing settlement and acted as new poles of human concentration, or they were located within the boundaries and determined a geographical re-distribution of the residential districts and of their service institutions.

The rural community of former days had not been planned in the modern sense of the word but it had an organic unity of its own. It had esthetic as well as functional interest. Our new urban communities have grown without much planning. Many of them look as though the slum districts of metropolitan cities had been superimposed overnight over large villages. The workers' areas of most of these communities have been built like temporary settlements. Here is, for example, the description which a recent observer gives of them : « One needs only walk through these districts to realize that they look improvised. Dwellings look like camping houses. One would guess that they are provisional, only built to shelter seasonal workers : no planning, no architectural preoccupation... only sad streets edged by ugly-looking houses. » 6 The saddest part of the story is that this type of cheap, distressing architecture has now spread from the periphery of our mushrooming urban communities into the countryside, along the formerly picturesque roads of even the most secluded rural areas of the province. A motor-car trip between Montreal and Quebec, or down the south shore of the Saint Lawrence from Levis, gives one the impression of driving through a perpetual extension of the worst-looking areas of Valleyfield or Drummondville.


From such districts, generally well marked-off from the rest of the community, one passes on to the residential areas of the well-to-do French-speaking middle or bourgeois classes, generally still in the shadow of the mother-church of the community. Then, somewhere beyond, segregated either by parks, by a river or by the company golf course, one discovers the residential area of the English-speaking managers, technicians and often foremen of the industries. Very frequently, the spatial distribution of the French and of the English in our urban communities reproduces their respective position in the industrial hierarchical order. There is, within each city, an English community with its two or three protestant churches, its school, its community center and the like, and a French community subdivided into characteristic areas. On this basic theme, there are indeed many variations. Whatever the variation, the overall impression is that most of our urban communities are beginning to look more and more like any urban community on this continent. As a correspondent from the London Times recently remarked : « The west End of Montreal might be in an American metropolis, the main shopping street of Quebec city in a middle-sized American town… » 7


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It is within the matrix of such changing communities that French-Canadian society has been gradually transformed, at times with sudden outbreaks, at times at a slow, often unnoticeable tempo. The complete story of this transformation cannot be known before we are in possession of intensive monographs that will fully report what has actually happened in some crucial areas of our social life. The most fundamental of these is the occupational structure. The embedding of industry in any society immediately brings about new life activities for all those whom it calls to its service in one way or another. Changes at the level of occupations are thus the origin of a chain reaction of changes throughout the social order : in the organization of the family ; in the relationships between society and the Church ; in the lively [107] area of contact, communication and cooperation between French and English.

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