Do Black Lives Matter in Montreal?

Michelle Lalonde  •  Montreal Gazette
While the Black Lives Matter movement commands attention in the U.S. and in Toronto, Montreal’s black communities seem to have fallen silent, at least as far as traditional activism goes.

Whenever an incident involving anti-black discrimination occurred in Montreal a couple of decades ago, a reporter had at least a dozen active black community organizations to call upon for comment. In fact, before the reporter had time to flip through her Rolodex — we are talking about the ’90s — several of the leaders of those organizations would have already called the newsroom to offer a comment, or announced a press conference or a rally.
There was the Black Coalition of Quebec, the Black Community Council of Quebec, the Jamaica Association, La Maison d’Haiti, Also Known As X (AKAX), the Federation of Organizations of Trinidad and Tobago of Quebec, the Congress of Black Women, Montreal Association of Black Business Persons and Professionals, the Quebec Board of Black Educators, and many more.
And though most of those organizations still exist, at least on paper, they are less vocal, less active and, one could argue, less relevant to young black Montrealers than they were a decade or three ago. Some groups, like the Montreal chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada, have simply disappeared, although that organization still has eight functioning chapters in Ontario, for example. Others limp along, underfunded and unnoticed, still run by the same people who founded them decades ago.
While the Black Lives Matter movement expands and commands attention south of the border and even in Toronto, Montreal’s black communities seem to have fallen almost silent, at least as far as traditional activism goes.
“The advocacy we see now is not activism,” says Egbert Gaye, managing editor of Montreal Community Contact, a 22-year-old newspaper serving Montreal’s black anglophone communities. “They (black community groups) are not really challenging the government or institutions or the system. We are not active right now. I’m looking at the community every day in the news, and I’m worried. My son is 30 years old and I ask him, ‘When are you guys going to get angry?’ Police are still roughing up black people, there are still issues in education … But I have no answers, sadly.”
Many of Montreal’s black community organizations were founded in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when civil-rights movements were gaining ground worldwide. Two incidents in the late ’60s seem to have prompted a surge of black community activism in Montreal: the Montreal Congress of Black Writers held at McGill University in 1968 and the Sir George Williams riot in 1969. The former brought together black scholars, artists and activists from across Canada, the U.S., Africa and the Caribbean and fostered new networks for organizing.
The latter was a reaction to the handling of a complaint of racial discrimination by six students against a professor at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia). Students walked out of a meeting called by the administration to try to resolve the issue, and a sit-in ensued, with about 200 students occupying the Computer Centre in the Henry F. Hall Building for almost two weeks.
Social pressure mounted and police moved in. Fires were set, computers were thrown out of windows, and 97 people were arrested. The events exposed racist attitudes in Montreal society and inspired some participants to careers of activism and politics. (Roosevelt “Rosie” Douglas served 18 months in prison for his role in the events, and was deported to Dominica, where he later became prime minister. Anne Cools, sentenced to four months in prison for her part and later pardoned, became Canada’s first black senator.)
Dr. Clarence Bayne remembers those incidents as matches to a bonfire of black community activism that burned for the next three decades. Bayne, now a faculty member at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, co-founded Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop in 1972 and the Black Studies Centre in 1973. He remains a director of both organizations.
“We were a network of organizations working together. In the ’60s and ’70s … they were heady times, new-thinking times. But like other North American movements in those times, we just levelled off.”
“A lot of it was driven by kids in university, too, so it was fuelled by that idealism and energy they had coming out of university. It was important and it made things happen. Sadly, we don’t have that now. Kids in university don’t seem to have that same kind of energy.”
But there were gains made thanks to that wave of activism. Groups like the Quebec Board of Black Educators were able to get some black teachers hired in Quebec schools, for example. Longtime black community leaders like Noel Alexander and Dan Philip managed to draw attention to problems with policing and the glaring lack of representation of black community members in politics.
“The organizing that took place from the late ’60s to the ’90s … was effective in setting a tone for Montreal,” says Gaye.
“We were (still) on the streets in the ’90s. We got the attention of the mayor and the premier, we got the police chief to take a look at policing. We got the attention of society … Montreal is a nicer place (for visible minorities) because of guys like Noel Alexander and Dan Philip.”
Language is another issue that has worked against black activism, Gaye says. Young black anglos, facing a double dose of discrimination, tended to leave for greener pastures, he recalls.
“We have lost a lot of key leadership to Toronto,” he said. But he thinks a new wave of activism is around the corner.
“We are in transition right now,” Gaye says. “I hope at some point there will be an upsurge of youth coming out and taking their place on the front lines.”
Bill 101 may have chased some away, but it also made a new generation became more bilingual and therefore better integrated than their parents. That generation may feel no great need for activism, Bayne suggests.
He tells a story of his son going out drinking recently with white friends, who ended up defending him against a racist drunk.
“When I came here, I didn’t have white friends with whom I could go out for a drink and who had my back,” Bayne said.
“They have a different approach,” Bayne says of his son’s generation. “When we came here(in the 1960s) I needed a battering ram to get in the door. They are in the door and are now looking to see which room they want to be in. This is a totally different picture.”
Montreal saw another surge of black community activism in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this one sparked by a string of fatal police shootings of young black men: Anthony Griffin in 1987, Presley Leslie in 1990, Marcellus François in 1991, and Trevor Kelly in 1993.
The outrage over those killings did lead to action, although it is debatable whether real change ensued. Coroner’s inquests, commissions of inquiry and task forces examined police procedures and prescribed ways to improve relations between police and black communities.
Black community leaders at the time demanded meetings with then-mayor Jean Doré and insisted the city do something to inspire and embrace black youth. That led to, among other initiatives, the celebration of an annual Black History Month in Montreal. Earlier this month, to mark the 25th anniversary of Black History Month celebrations, organizers paid tribute to 12 organizations that have made a difference. The dominance of grey heads at that gathering served to illustrate the lack of renewal in many of those organizations.
“I’m 83 years old. What am I doing running an organization?” jokes Noel Alexander, who was president of the Jamaica Association of Montreal for 35 years and still sits on its board of directors.
Alexander has repeatedly called for more young people to take the reins of his and other black community organizations. Alexander suggests one of the reasons more young people don’t get involved is the erosion of funding of community groups under the Harper government.
He also notes that there is no “black ghetto” in Montreal, and he suggests the geographic fracturing of Montreal’s black population makes it difficult to come together and speak with one voice on common issues. The island of Montreal, population 1.84 million, is home to an estimated 155,810 black people, according to Statistics Canada’s last National Household Survey in 2011. But, obviously, they do not all live in the same area or share the same culture or history. Little Burgundy, Côte-des-Neiges, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, LaSalle, Pierrefonds-Roxboro and Montreal North all have higher-than-average black populations, but they are not by any means homogeneous. They really don’t have much more than skin colour in common.
Quebec City rapper Aly Ndiaye, also known as Webster, says young blacks in Quebec today seem to lack the sense of empowerment their parents and grandparents had.  
“All those older people, they come from a background, musically and spiritually, where there was a lot of black empowerment, you know, like soul music, jazz, all those ’60s and ’70s activists,” says Webster, 36. “So, that culture of activism, they were bred in it. I think young people now, culturally, are less drawn to the fight.
“Look at the hip-hop movement. There used to be a lot of activism. I grew up listening to hip hop, and that’s what drew me to be an activist, a raptivist. But rap music nowadays is less about fighting and political stance, and more about capitalism. That is the stereotype of hip hop, but there is some truth to it. I think people (now) are more about making it themselves as opposed to making it for society or community.”
Another issue, according to Michael Farkas, director of the Youth in Motion community centre in Little Burgundy, is the virtual world of phones and screens that today’s youth inhabit.
“What we are seeing in the black community among the youth is a lack of interest and concern. They are not motivated toward activism. It is a major problem. But I see it as a bigger problem than just black youth. It is a lack of engagement of youth in general. I think this generation, like every generation before them, has their subculture, but for this one it is (web) sites that their parents don’t even know exist. There is gangster rap, but also all kinds of other influences that affect them way more than their parents or the (mainstream) media … Their world is virtual, so that has changed the whole thing.”
But some argue a new activism is at work in Montreal, an activism that is not about marching or sit-ins or meetings with politicians.
“I really feel a wind of renewal coming through,” says Nedgy Augustin, president of the Jeune Chambre de Commerce Haitienne (JCCH). The organization recently launched a mentorship program that connects young entrepreneurs of Haitian origin with successful members of the business community.
While she acknowledges activism is not a priority for the JCCH, helping young people with Haitian roots integrate and find economic success in Quebec can achieve some of the goals previous generations of activists strove to attain.
“There is an enormous need (for young black Montrealers) to become integrated in the business world. We are not there at a level that represents our numbers (in the general population) … Building a network makes all the difference.”
There are occasional flashes of old-style activism in Montreal. Hundreds of McGill students gathered for a candlelight vigil organized in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in November 2014, for example, after a grand jury chose not to indict a police officer in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Samanthea Samuels, one of the organizers of that event, says she asks herself regularly why there isn’t more such activism in Montreal. Originally from Toronto, Samuels is a candidate in McGill’s Faculty of Law, past president of the Black Students Network of McGill, an executive member of the Black Law Students Association of McGill, and the Black Law Students Association of Canada’s vice-president for Quebec.
She suggests part of the answer lies in class issues and cultural backgrounds.
For example, she says, “I notice there is more insistence on obeying laws and fitting in and not rocking the boat among some African and Haitian immigrants. If you don’t have a strong connection to the place and a sense of belonging, if you are a new immigrant, you don’t want to stir the pot.”
Also, a number of the young black students studying at McGill are foreign students from wealthier backgrounds, so they may have been sheltered from flagrant discrimination, she suggests. This means that even in anti-racism organizations like the BSN, time and energy is sometimes wasted debating whether racism is really an issue in Montreal, she says.
“I feel this is absurd, but some do feel this way, that there is no need (for activism) anymore because there is no comparison between what is happening south of the border and what is happening here. So, the many incidents that do happen here get swept under the rug.”
Joel DeBellefeuille is one activist who is trying to draw attention to the fact that discrimination is indeed happening here. He recently founded the group Citizens Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) in a bid to battle racial profiling by police, which he believes is rampant. DeBellefeuille is black, but was adopted by a white family in the West Island, and grew up in Dollard and Pierrefonds.
“I moved to the South Shore in 2008, and I get stopped by police about five times a year, for nothing,” says DeBellefeuille, who believes the officers simply can’t believe a black man would drive a new BMW or have a Québécois sounding name.
He has made several complaints to the Police Ethics Commission and hopes his new group will help other black people who experience discrimination come forward.
“I want people to contact us and tell their stories so we can help. Some people don’t know where to go so they go silent, and the problems don’t get solved,” he says.
Rachel Zellars, a PhD student at McGill who made headlines recently when she challenged Quebec’s Toponymy Commission to rethink the use of the word “Nigger” or “Nègre” in about a dozen place names around the province, acknowledges that Quebec is a challenging environment in which to organize anti-racism movements.
“It is unfair to think of there being a black community here. It is so diverse. I wouldn’t even call it fractured. It is just a lot of very different people.”
She notes that many of the black people who have immigrated to Quebec recently are from Haiti and francophone countries in Africa, where the majority of the population is black.
“These are people who grew up in blackness, and they may not in any capacity refer to themselves as black until their son is assaulted by a police officer or discriminated against at school.”
“If you don’t come from a place where there was clear systemic, anti-black racism, then your relationship to blackness is very different, and your understanding of community service and philanthropy is different than for people like me who grew up in North America and only knew encounters with white supremacy.
Zellars, who is from upstate New York but has made Montreal her home for the past decade and intends to stay, says black people who grew up in North America are more accustomed to fighting anti-black racism through community activism.
“I do think of myself as black, and I see white supremacy all around me. But many first-generation Haitian immigrants (for example) may not see themselves as black. If organizing is a response to racism, poverty, prostitution, sexual violence, only certain groups of people understand that and rally around that in the context of community organizing.”
“So we need to think of black communities in a broad sense and have an understanding and a respect for the distinct histories and organizing traditions that each group of black people brings to an issue.”
But Zellars says she detects a certain fear about organizing in Montreal’s black communities.
“There is a fear here that I’ve never witnessed anywhere else. It is a fear of losing something, a position of power that may have been hard won.”
She thinks the history of informal segregation in Ontario and Quebec public schools, and the legacy of racism that segregation nurtured, may be behind the fear. It is as if true acceptance of black people by the majority in Quebec society is so recent and so fragile that many would rather keep gently pushing to integrate rather than agitate.
“The fear I find here is because the history (of black people) is not taught, spoken or acknowledged in Quebec. We find ourselves talking about blackface, for example, as if there is no historical context to blackface.”
But Zellars does not buy the argument that the current generation of young blacks somehow lack the energy, passion, or dedication to the cause that their parents and grandparents had.
At McGill, she has founded an organization that brings together black women who have experienced violence. It’s called the Third Eye Collective. She also teaches courses on critical race theory, feminism and multicultural education.
“The overwhelming majority of my time is spent with people under 30, and they are the most brilliant black kids I have ever met in my life, the students I work with at McGill … They are the Black Lives Matter generation, so they are willing to challenge their families and think about what it means to be free in the context of culture and class tradition. If I see one thing missing, it’s not young people who care or are willing to pick up a banner and walk in the streets, it’s the fact that there are not enough mentors … What’s needed is more folks who are a bit older, professionals and community leaders, willing to say to these young people, ‘You have incredible strength. Go to it.'”





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