Montreal’s secret history of black radicalism

Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, who came to the Montreal Congress of Black Writers in 1968. File photo from AFP. 

Oakland, Chicago and New York City all have reputations as hotbeds of black radicalism in the 1960s and ’70s. Montreal? Not so much. But, as David Austin lays out in his new book Fear of a Black Nation, there is a long history of radical race politics in the city. As one panicky 1969 RCMP memo put it, the “extreme threat to national security” of Black Power activists gathering in Montreal meant that “the Nation’s government could be destroyed.”

Austin, a long-time community activist and teacher at John Abbott College, recounts the history of the Montreal Congress of Black Writers in 1968 and the Sir George Williams (now Concordia) computer lab occupation that followed it a few months later. Austin describes how the 1969 occupation, “riot” and fire that took place in the computer centre at the top of the Hall building on de Maisonneuve began, after several West Indian students filed a complaint against a white biology professor who consistently failed the students of colour who took his classes.

During a tepid, no-fault-finding show consultation by the university administration, hundreds of students, led by the West Indians, walked out and occupied the university’s nervous centre for almost two weeks. The occupation ended in a brutal police raid, complete with a suspicious (possibly police-set) fire, and 97 people were arrested, jailed and faced rioting charges.

Less well-known but equally central to the history, Austin reveals, was the Congress of Black Writers, held for four days in 1968, which brought together a who’s-who of radical black thinkers as speakers and as organizers. Well-known radicals like Black Power militant Stokely Carmichael, Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James and Guyanese Pan-Africanist Walter Rodney joined Montreal-based organizers in theorizing revolutionary violence, decolonization, working with white allies, the expropriation of Caribbean resources by Canadian mining and the specific nature of oppression faced by people of colour in Canada.

In fact, many “rioters,” who were also involved in the Congress, went on to lead resistance movements in their home countries in the Caribbean. Rosie Douglas, who faced 18 months in prison and was later deported from Canada as a national security threat in 1975, went on to become one of Dominica’s post-independence Prime Ministers. In Trinidad, masses of people erupted into protests upon hearing news of the trials and convictions of several West Indian protesters arrested in the Montreal action. In one of those uncanny echoes in history, these demonstrations contributed to the wave of Black Power protests in the country that led to the declaration of a state of emergency and an attempt to strictly limit demonstrations in Trinidad.

But Austin doesn’t merely show how people in Canada imitated their American, African and Caribbean counterparts — he insists that much of this agitation grew directly out of the racism people of colour in Montreal experienced on a daily basis. Austin’s analysis strips away the “north to freedom” story Canada tells about itself, where the work of people on the underground railroad with U.S. slaves eclipses the fact that slavery of black and indigenous people was a standard — if less industrialized — practice even here in Montreal.

His excoriation of the endemic racism of the Canadian government takes you to some of the wallpapered-over portions of your Canadian History textbook. You weren’t just skipping class when they covered the part about John A. Macdonald’s distinguished defence of the death penalty for rape, given that “negroes, of whom we have too many in Upper Canada … are very prone to felonious assaults on white women.”

Little wonder that the police force Macdonald helped set up in its early days, the RCMP, placed both of the book’s central events under heavy surveillance come the 1960s. Austin delves into the RCMP’s repressive programs, as well as describing the overtly racist debates in Parliament and the National Assembly, where lawmakers wet their pants and expressed their fervent desire to kick out and keep out as many scary migrants they could. It would be funny if it wasn’t so familiar.

Austin also carefully parses the strange solidarities Québécois radicals sought to create with the black and indigenous populations they imagined sharing a common cause. When the anti-colonial theories of Antillean writers like Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon swept Quebec and fuelled the imaginations of francophones struggling against anglo domination, many took up their call — a bit too literally — and imagined French-Canadian settlers as a colonized population. The book is critical of the solidarity the sloppy metaphor of nègres blancs d’Amérique offered to the blacks who have shared the city since the 1600s, let alone to the original inhabitants of this land.

Austin’s book offers an in-depth, trans-historical theorization of race and racism, one that’s well situated in current academic debates (necropower, biosexuality and bare life all make appearances), but written in an accessible style. It’s rigorously researched and sourced, but you won’t need a specialist degree in Critical Race Theory to make your way through it.

Fear of a Black Nation might change the way you perceive the streets and people of Montreal, as the rich history of organizing Austin draws on can help us better understand Montreal racism in the present tense as well.

Just this year, a student at McGill complained of racist, homophobic and Islamophobic harassment and death threats from a professor. He received so little response from the administration that he fled to his home in Egypt without finishing his degree. Angry antiracist students and professors tried to hold the prof accountable by protesting outside of his class, but the professor is still at work. Meanwhile, Immigration ministers spread fear about foreign brown infiltrators and make migration even more difficult, and the Parti Québécois gets ready to table its racist Charter of Quebec Values in the name of secularism. Austin’s book leaves us asking, what can Montreal do to fight back now? ■

Fear of a Black Nation by David Austin 2013 (Between the Lines), 256 pp., $34.95 hardcover

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