Montreal was a slave center. So was Quebec City. And Three-Rivers. Black and Amerindian people were bought and sold as chattel for hundreds of years here in our young country.
Quebec slavery was different from what was going on south of our border, but it was no less onerous. People were torn away from their homelands, their families, their cultures, and involuntarily employed in situations outside of their choosing.
In the mid-1600s, a young black Quebec slave-boy named Olivier Le Jeune made it clear to his Catholic owner that they would never be equals, as was the wish of the older man. It would be impossible for them to be the same, young Olivier made it clear, unless he “took off his skin”. Even though Quebec slave-owners valued skills and education for their living possessions, the social order was not of equals working with peers. 1600 Blacks and 2600 Amerindians were property. Quebec, strong in its Catholic ethics, educated the enslaved workers to help them gain access to the glories of God, but it had no compunctions about using their strengths to leverage privileged living conditions for the rich upper class.
Slaves in Quebec were status symbols. As well as being skilled tradesmen and women, they signaled that their owners had the financial means to farm out their work and have time for other pursuits. Even after the British beat the French on the Plains Of Abraham, the Articles of Capitulation were written to safeguard slave ownership by the losing party.
On August the 1st, 1834, the British ended slavery in all of their colonies, including North America. Twenty years earlier, black Quebec slaves were running away into the northern United States. Northern states meant freedom for them. This trend turned tide years later and the Underground Railroad saw US slaves running away to freedom in Canada.
Dr Dorothy Williams spoke to us in the auditorium during the afternoon of Tuesday, the 21st of February. It’s Black History Month, and this is one of the events our school arranged for us. It was an interesting presentation. It was a little disjointed, perhaps, in that way that post-modern fiction is. Dr Williams presented us with information without framing it in any structure. Before the presentation was over we learned that in the early 1900s, many black men living in Montreal would be working as Pullman Porters on the trains. We also learned that black soldiers were disallowed the privilege of bearing arms in the First World War – they were relegated to digging latrines and building bridges.
Dr Williams kept personal opinion out of her delivery.
The talk ended as we took a look at Montreal in the 1920s. If you’re unaware, this city celebrated high times during that period. Burlesque and Jazz were vibrant and thriving here. The wealthy left Boston and New York to ride up here and amuse themselves while Prohibition clamped down their fun at home. It turns out there were two sets of music clubs in the city. The whites had their regimented evening shows on the Main at nine pm. If I understood correctly, there was no way a black person would’ve been allowed into the audience there. And then there were the black clubs down in Little Burgundy where the musicians spent the rest of their time here. Music was playing until the sun came up in the little bars down there.
I’ve been meaning to read a book about slavery in Quebec for a few years now. Perhaps it’s time I found a copy of Dr Williams’ “The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal”; it’s on the shelf here at the college library.
Written By: John Martzouco