Addressing Quebec’s black history

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Photo: Scott French

Montreal author Dorothy Williams giving a talk at the Morrin Centre.

It’s time to look more closely at Canada’s past ties to slavery, argued Montreal writer Dorothy Williams during her talk at the Morrin Centre last Friday. Canada’s progressive role in the abolition of the American slave trade is touted in history classes, but, as Williams reminded attendees, Canada and Quebec have slavery in their past as well.

In explaining what motivates her to write, Williams said, “There exists a distortion of Canadian history by being negligent about recording that history.”

She cited a line from the famed French-Canadian historian François-Xavier Garneau’s Histoire du Canada to demonstrate this tendency toward revisionist history of Canada’s relationship to the slave trade. Garneau described the purchase and ownership of humans as “that great and terrible plague which paralyses the energies of so considerable a part of the American Union, Slavery, that plague unknown under our northern sky.”

In fact, New France’s first registered African slave was brought to Quebec by the English invader David Kirke in 1629. He was baptized as Olivier Le Jeune, possibly named after his first master, Olivier Le Tardiff, clerk of the colony.

The Native slave trade was also already established during this era. Native Americans traded captured panis – Native slaves – from rival tribes, both amongst themselves and with French colonialists.

Later, the city of Montreal was burned to the ground by a resistant slave hand in 1734. Consequently, the majority of the 1,200 slaves in the province of Quebec resided in Quebec City during this time.

A significant wave of English-speaking black slaves would be introduced to Canada during the Loyalist migrations from 1783 onward. About 2,000 black slaves would come to Canada.

So why has, in Williams’s words, “the conqueror’s story” not included a significant chapter on slavery in Canadian history? Williams explains, “There’s no desire to change the story, it’s not in the best interest of Quebec ... changing the story means engendering a debate that the political elites are not in control of.”

She pointed out there are currently only two universities in Canada with African Canadian Studies programs, University of Windsor and Dalhousie University, although nearly 800,000 blacks live in Canada, almost 200,000 in Quebec alone.

The required History of Quebec and Canada course offered to Secondary IV students in Quebec offers little light on the subject. In the section on New France and Lower Canada under British rule, slaves are not mentioned as a distinct social class. The course was developed in 1982 and will be redesigned for next year.

François Turgeon, a history teacher at St. Patrick’s High School for ten years, said that he always used an excerpt from a book by famed Canadian historian Marcel Trudel to highlight the existence of slavery in New France.

“As far as the old program is concerned, it was up to the teacher’s discretion,” Turgeon admitted.

Turgeon is hopeful the new history program for Secondary IV students, which is organized thematically, will lend itself to talking about slavery. He mentioned the newly approved French textbook, Presence, directly addresses the subject of slavery. Slavery is not explicitly dealt with in the new curriculum, however.

“My impression is that teachers who teach this course will address it, though I may be naïve about it,” Turgeon said.

In the meantime, Williams continues to raise awareness. “The front door [for blacks into Canada] was the Underground Railroad, the back door was slavery for 200 years,” she said.

Dorothy Williams has written two books on black history, an urban demography called Blacks in Montreal and The Road to Now: a history of blacks in Montreal. She currently works as the Program Director at the Black Community Resource Centre.