Blacks in Quebec History: A Forgotten Legacy

Oscar Peterson

School history books have long glossed over the record of visible minorities in the Canadian province of Quebec. It’s as if Quebec, if not all of Canada, has always been some sort of paradise of racial tolerance. It’s as if Black people never existed in Quebec. But in fact Quebec has had an African presence from its inception as a French colony in the early 1600s.

Normand Charest      Files History, Culture

An interpreter of African descent, Mathieu da Costa, accompanied French explorer Samuel de Champlain on his cross-Atlantic voyage of 1606-07. On this occasion, Champlain was poking around what is today New England and Eastern Canada. He had not yet founded Quebec City. Mathieu da Costa was brought to the strange and dangerous shores of the New World because he understood the native Micmac language – handy when you’re trading furs.

Did you know that slavery existed for over a century in Quebec? In 1709, slavery was legalized in the French colony of Quebec. The first recorded case of Black slavery in this province was a young man “owned” by the English and “bought” by one Guillame Couillard. Two thirds of all slaves in the colony were Natives; one third were of African descent. In all, 1400 Black slaves toiled in Quebec during the 1700s, mostly as domestic help. They acted as servants in the employ of individual households. The sort of mass slavery found in the southern United States wasn’t necessary in colder northern climates: not because Quebecers and Canadians were nicer people, but because the northern economy did not require massive numbers of slave laborers to work on plantations.

Slaves had no rights. One unlucky slave was even blamed for a fire that burned down half of Montreal and hung. Marie-Joseph-Angelique allegedly set that fire after having been forbidden to marry the man she loved.

Britain’s Slave Trade

When in 1763 control of Quebec passed from French hands to the British in the wake of the Seven Years War, slavery continued. Slaves were sold in the market squares of downtown Montreal and Quebec City on Saturdays. Auctions were advertised in local newspapers. But a growing anti-slavery movement within the British Empire spread across the Atlantic. In 1793 a march protesting slavery was held in Montreal. The last Black sold at Montreal’s slave market was sold to the highest bidder in 1800; by 1833 complete abolition was decreed. Quebec’s Black domestics became full citizens. Many married within the Native and the French community.

But employment opportunities were few and far between for these liberated ex-slaves. Most lived in the lower part of the Island of Montreal, around present-day Saint Henri, in the district now known as Little Burgundy. Their proximity to the city’s train stations meant that they were hired on to build railways, and the bridges linking these new train stations to the world outside the island. Once construction was completed, Blacks were hired on as railway porters – a tradition passed on from American train companies. As late as the 1960s it was not uncommon for all porters on a Montreal-bound train to be of African descent.

Oscar Peterson, Superstar

Montreal’s Black community made its real mark in other ways. In 1928, a jazz club opened in Montreal that would attract jazz greats like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong – Rockhead’s Paradise. World-renowned pianist Oscar Peterson attended the High School of Montreal in the 1940s, monopolizing the piano in the school gym during recess and lunch periods – to the delight of his fellow students, including actor Christopher Plummer of The Sound of Music fame. Oliver Jones is another Little Burgundy resident whose jazz talents have taken him to the heights of world stardom.

Despite their marginalized status, Blacks fought valiantly for Canada in wars. When the U.S. and Canada went to war in 1812, The Company of Colored Men fought for British North America in the Great Lakes region. The First World War (1914-1918) saw a Black Battalion fighting for Canada in France.

Between 1900 and 1930, American Blacks migrated to Montreal via the railways. Caribbean people also migrated to Quebec, recruited as maids and servants. By 1930, the composition of Quebec’s Black population changed greatly: only 1 in 10 hailed from old established Montreal Black families.

Brave combat records did nothing to stem racist in Montreal. “Negroes Need Not Apply” was a common storefront window during the Great Depression of the 1930s and long afterward. Black people were refused service in many establishments – not that racism in Montreal was reserved for Blacks, as French restaurant and store customers were often told to “speak white” (speak English) or go home.

For decades, Black immigration to Quebec was greatly discouraged by governments. All this changed in 1967. Quebec petitioned the government of Canada to admit more French speakers. Many Caribbean island nations are former French colonies whose people speak French. So are many former African colonies. The face of Quebec quickly changed, thanks in part to 3,000 visiting students from the Third World.

Haiti’s Exiles

From 1963 to 1972, 3,539 Haitian political exiles, all professionals of one sort, streamed into Montreal fleeing the troubled, violent Caribbean dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier. Doctors, nurses, and teachers came to live and work here. Other Black immigrants to Quebec were American political refugees – most notably, draft dodgers avoiding military service in Viet Nam. Afterward, a second wave of immigration, composed mostly of unskilled workers, came to Quebec from the French Caribbean.

Montreal’s Black community is divided into a French community and an English community. Half of these English speaking Blacks hail from the Caribbean – including Jamaica. The editor of The Social Eyes, Colin McGregor, boasts a grandfather born in the inland market town of May Pen, Jamaica. There is no longer a Black quarter restricted to Black people in Montreal. They proudly live everywhere.

Positive Role Models

The Café Grafitti’s own Johnny Walker Bien-Aimé is another proud member of this community. He has worked with us since 1997. A hip-hop dance teacher, he has also taken several training courses enabling him to become a valued and a valuable social worker.

A warm, kind man, he is reluctant to talk about the racism he experiences. He asks: “Is it really useful to dwell on the bad times, the massacres? Shouldn’t we look forward instead? True, we shouldn’t forget these things happened, so history doesn’t repeat itself… but let’s not focus on the negative. I respect everyone who fought for our rights. The situation isn’t the same for today’s generation, which creates a certain uneasiness,” he observes.

Johnny asks: “If February is Black History Month, shouldn’t there be a history month for other ethnicities? Why isn’t there a Chinese History Month, or a Jewish History Month?” He feels there should be no distinction made between races, as this creates first-class and second-class citizens. So he refuses to apply for dance school grants reserved for visible minorities. He prefers the big picture, the one that sees all humanity as one big family.

Races and Places

Johnny says the history of segregation is different all over the world – the experience in America or in France is not the Montreal experience. Black culture has to be celebrated differently depending on where you are. In Florida, for example, the Black, Latino and White communities live very separate lives. He says mixed couples face enormous discrimination in Florida. Blacks do not stroll through wealthy White neighborhoods unless they want trouble.

And in France, many suburbs of large cities are exclusively Black or North African (from the former French Arab colonies of North Africa, called the Maghreb,). Walking in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement, a wealthy district, Johnny was made to feel like an intruder and a thug. And he was made to feel that way by a Maghreban woman: “It’s terrible for Blacks and Maghrebins to put each other down…This sort of attitude pushes people to become criminals,” Johnny reflects. “If all doors are closed to a young man, he’ll join a gang.”

Johnny is a firm believer in role models. Black kids may not be able to identify with a culture’s role models. Youth need role models that they resemble. Black kids shouldn’t just worship rappers and athletes: “Blacks can be present at every level of society,” Johnny believes. “There’s a lot of educating to be done. In antiquity there were Black philosophers. There have been many Black scientists, artists, writers and poets. The French soccer star Lilian Thuram wrote a wonderful book entitled: Mes étoiles noires (My Black Stars). I recommend it to everyone.”

Lilian Thuram’s Black Stars

Born in 1972, Lilian Thuram had a highly successful career as an international soccer star. In 2008 he set up the foundation Éducation contre le racisme (Education Against Racism Foundation). In his book My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barak Obama, he traces his life story, as well as the story of the human race.

As a child Lilian was the only Black kid in his class.  He noticed that the history of his own ancestors didn’t appear in the history books he was made to read, except for references to slavery. Lilian felt “Branded, and alone. From then on I looked at the class differently, and maybe others saw me differently too.”

We are made to see Lilian’s world through his eyes. “It’s wrong that kids don’t learn that there is only one species of human being, Homo Sapiens,” he writes. “The day that schools teach about the great civilizations of Asia, Africa and Native America, like those of Mali or India or Mexico, then and only then will attitudes evolve… If we really want to change our society and stamp out racism, we can’t count on affirmative action… We have to look at the entire history of the world to better understand ourselves and prepare a brighter future for our children. By writing this book, I hope to make my own contribution.”

World History

The following 40 chapters of Lilian’s book contain an overview of world history. We meet Egypt’s dynasty of Black Pharaohs. We meet Aesop of Ancient Greece, a black slave from Nubia (southern Egypt) whose fables are still read by schoolchildren who have no idea of the author’s racial origins: “Telling children that intelligence has no color is a way to educate them against racism using sensitivity, intelligence and humor.”

Lilian Thuram cites the entire text of the Oath of the Manden Hunters. Composed in the powerful Sahara Desert kingdom of Mali in the year 1222, it speaks of respect to all life and abolishes slavery. It reads, in part:

“From now on, everyone controls their own life;

Everyone enjoys freedom of action;

Everyone from now on owns the fruits of their own labor

This is the Oath of Manden, spoken to the ears of the world.”

During the 1600s, the Queen of the African kingdom of Angola established equality of the sexes in the administration of her realm’s affairs. And according to German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, writing in 1911, when the Portuguese arrived in the Kongo in 1482, they found a great kingdom in which citizens were “civilized down to their bones! The notion of barbarian Negroes is a European invention.”

In the 1700s, the General in charge of Russia’s Imperial Armies was a black man who had been adopted by Peter the Great as a son. One of the general’s descendants was Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). “I’m not the only Russian literary figure who counts Negroes among their ancestors,” boasted Pushkin. In his writings, he defended his enslaved “American brothers.”

The author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, one of France’s most famous novels ever, was Alexandre Dumas, was of Haitian origin.

Great Inventions

One chapter is devoted to scientific accomplishments: “Before you go to work, Martin Luther King would say, don’t forget that half of all the tools and appliances you used at home were invented by Black people.” Lilian lists among these inventions the electric lamp; the parabolic antenna; the couch-in-bed; the garden sprinkler; the cellular telephone; the computer diskette; the player piano; the pencil sharpener; the fountain pen; traffic lights; the gas mask… Medical advances include the first open heart surgery and the first heart transplant, as well as the blood transfusion, laser cataract surgery and the cardiac stimulator.

The book achieves its goal: reading it convinces you that we’re all part of one big human family. That race is no barrier to excelling in any field of endeavor. Published by Phillipe Rey in 2010, this is an inspiring and enlightening book. Lilian Thuram’s website, including info on his anti-racism foundation, is at

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