375th : From Mathieu Da Costa to Today

Ici pour rester, Ici pour durer/                                                                                

Here We Stand, Here We Stay/                                                                               

From Mathieu Da Costa to Today

375 years in Montreal

In Solidarity with Our City”           “En solidarité avec notre ville”

From the beginnings of the colony of Lower Canada, Black slaves were transported to Montreal. This period in our shared history illustrates that the steps needed to reach Black enfranchisement were marked by unfathomable suffering, as well as physical, psychological, and mental violence. Up until this day, we still feel the repercussions of the long march toward progress and success—both individual and collective—that Black people walked, all while they took on overwhelming fights to surmount racism.

Making a link between the arrival of Black people in Quebec and the fight for Black enfranchisement—specifically in Montreal, but also all over the Western world—is a particularly arduous task, given that history often lacks the necessary documentation to establish the real facts of a given period. It’s obvious that Black people were a part of this colony during the difficult periods of this country’s creation. Nonetheless, the fact that Black people, who were brought here by their masters, had been sold in smaller numbers than in other places made slavery here seem less flagrant, thus relegating it to a second-rate issue in the development of this city and its surrounding area. Because of this inaction, we can make the claim that true Black emancipation was slow to come about and slow to get organized.

The years between 1834 and today held the same pitfalls here as elsewhere in the Americas, where Black people—whether they had been reduced to abject servitude or had managed to enfranchise themselves—generally lived short, poor and taxing lives. It’s clear that our path was too long determined by laws on property, in which Black people were considered material goods and were subject to extremely discriminatory standards and barbarous punishments, where torture was even employed. We can say that Black lives were intimately linked with those of rich slave owners, on the one hand, and with the lawyers and politicians of that era, on the other—and that abolitionists saw this practice as something inhumane. Moral conscience would recognize Black people as everyone else’s equals, even if the Catholic clergy abstained from taking part in the debate.

Among the Black men and women that would leave a mark on this country’s history, many names come to mind: Mathieu Da Costa, the Black interpreter and explorer, who travelled with Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua de Mons. For his part, Olivier Le Jeune was the first Black person to have been recorded as a slave. For her part, in 1734, Marie-Josèphe Angélique was accused of setting fire to a third of Montreal, including the Hôtel-Dieu and 46 homes. She was tortured and sentenced to death, hung at the site of the fire. Loyalists arrived with their Black slaves, and free Black people moved around our territory beginning in the mid-18th century.

That said, it wasn’t until around 1897, when railroad companies began hiring Canadian and American Blacks, that our community really grew. Given the location of these newcomers’ place of work, near Peel, the neighbourhood would develop around Saint Antoine Street (in what is today Little Burgundy). This, in turn, led to the creation of the Coloured Women’s Club in 1902, and the establishment of the Union United Church in 1907. In 1917, the Universal Negro Improvement Association was created, and in 1927, it would be the turn of the Negro Community Centre (Charles H. Este Cultural Centre), whose first registration drive, in 1927, was supported by then-Mayor Médéric Martin. It’s easier to understand the influence that Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones had on jazz in the context of this period, between 1920 and 1950, when Montreal was considered an essential stop on the North American jazz circuit. Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many other great names would play Montreal’s most famous clubs, such as the Rockhead’s Paradise or Café Saint-Michel. Beginning with the Quiet Revolution, the location and make-up of the community shifted, in part because of a work program that was opened, between 1955 and 1965, to Black Caribbean women.

In the spring of 1968, six Black students of Caribbean origin at Montreal’s Concordia University accused a biology instructor of racism. According to the complaint that they filed, the professor would fail Black students, without any regard for the actual quality of their work. What would follow would become known as the “Sir George Williams Riot”. Later on, the arrival of Haitian immigrants as well as of Black people from a variety of African countries contributed to a universal window into the range of viewpoints on Montreal life over the course of the city’s 375 years of existence. Montreal’s Black community is made up of more than 200,000 members, who are active in a number of spheres of activity within the city.

Because of our sacrifice, our resilience, our vitality, and our energy, we stand by this one-of-a-kind city. We raise our glasses to Montreal, the city of “living together”.