The history of Blacks in Montreal dates back over 360 years, to the beginnings of Ville-Marie. Blacks contributed to Montreal’s growth and vitality, adding to the city’s unique make-up. Blacks have helped to put Montreal on the map – from creating and sustaining Montreal’s crucial transportation infrastructure, to making Montreal a premiere North American jazz center, to the development of great and far-reaching medical and scientific discoveries. Yet it has only been in the past forty years that Blacks have taken hold across the entire landscape that is the island of Montreal.
Over the next several decades and into the 20th century, African-Canadians, African-Americans, and later Black West Indians followed the westward residential migration out of Old Montreal along rue St. Antoine. Blacks occupied the residential spaces along the East-West streets St. Antoine, St. James, and to a lesser degree, Notre-Dame. These axes were favoured, as the unwritten racial rules restricted access to the North-South streets in the St. Antoine district.
By the mid-1960s Little Burgundy was no longer the district of choice after undergoing massive urban renewal. Hundreds of families were evicted from their substandard accommodations. English-speaking Black immigrants took advantage of new housing opportunities in Notre-Dame-Grâce and Côte-des-Neiges, while others moved to Verdun and downtown Montreal. More affluent professionals followed the general suburban trend and purchased homes on the West Island.
Although Haitians were linguistically and culturally different than other Blacks in Montreal, a similar demographic pattern began to emerge in this growing francophone Black community. Initially they were of a much higher economic class than the majority of English-speaking Blacks. 93 percent of this first ‘wave’ of French-speaking Haitians in 1965 was white-collar and by 1972 this cadre consisted of 3 539 affluent professionals.
The second group of Haitian immigrants slowly began to enter the city in 1968. Over time, this educated working-class and blue-collar sector began to form the bulk of the Haitian community. Like the earlier group of Haitian immigrants, this second ‘wave’ of Haitians also lived outside the core areas of the English Black districts. They quickly established Black enclaves in non-immigrant areas, particularly in the working class areas of Montreal-North.
As of 1977, 17 000 Haitians were estimated to be living in the Montreal area. By 1981, there were 25 850 Haitian residents, and by 1986 their numbers jumped to 38 000. Despite the relatively high education of Haitian immigrants, 25 percent were unemployed. They were ghettoized in the manufacturing and services sector, and their average income was only half that of the average Quebec worker. Like English-speaking Blacks of earlier generations, this disconnection between education and employment opportunities translated into limited housing choices for Creole and French-speaking Haitians of all ages. The initial Haitian community settlement centered in the Central, North, and North-east districts of Montreal: Mile-End, Montreal North, St. Michel, Park Extension, Rivière-des-Prairies, Villeray, etc.
Between the 1970s and mid-1980s, African-born Blacks began to populate Montreal. They hailed from English-speaking countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Egypt. Francophone Africans came from Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Congo, and Zaire. By the 1990s, 23.8 percent of all Africans who entered Canada came to Quebec. Their presence was felt in diverse Quebec towns as they were encouraged to settle off the island of Montreal in cities like Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, and Gatineau.
The residential history of Montreal bespeaks of isolation and exclusion. Yet unlike other urban centers, Montreal’s Black community has never lived in a ‘ghetto’ or a restricted exclave. Rather, Blacks have always been a small, though visible, part of the communities in which they settled.
To underline the contribution made by Black communities in Quebec, the National Assembly of Quebec passed a law dedicating February as Black History Month, on November 23, 2006. The law was made official on February 1, 2007.