Black History Month Montreal 2021

Fabrice Vil, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Oscar Peterson

Black History Month is an opportunity to educate and to celebrate

February offers a promotional window into Black culture.

And just like that, it’s been 30 years since Black History Month (BHM) has been celebrated in Quebec. But what do these events and celebrations even mean at a time when the COVID pandemic has monopolized most headlines and prevents people from gathering? And what does BHM signify and represent in a province where the premier still denies the existence of systemic racism? I spoke with some of the key people involved.

BHM president, the ever-energetic Michaël P. Farkas immediately emphasizes the importance of this milestone.

“Reaching 30 years is a remarkable feat,” he says. “No matter the circumstances or the struggles, it’s always a pleasure to celebrate our contributions, our history and who we are.”

First designated as a month dedicated to Black history by Carter G. Woodson back in 1926 in the U.S., and officially recognized at the Quebec National Assembly in 2007, Black History Month remains an opportunity to both educate and celebrate.

Do you know your Black history?

Michaël P. Farkas

“We still have a lot of work to do to teach people who are oblivious to Black history, which is also Quebec and Canadian history, too,” says Farkas. “How many people still don’t know anything about Matthew da Costa, who arrived here with Champlain, or Olivier Lejeune, the first slave to be brought here, or the introduction of the ‘Code Noir,’ the Underground Railroad, Little Burgundy’s vibrant Black community? Some folks don’t even know about Oscar Peterson!”

Farkas sees BHM as a vitrine, a promotional window into Black culture. “Our history has often been badly documented and not taught in schools,” he says, “but it doesn’t only consist of the racism we endured and the struggles we faced. It’s also about the good stuff… our contributions, our inventions, our entrepreneurial endeavours.”

Fabrice Vil, who is BHM’s spokesperson this year, agrees. “Yes, it’s important to continue the conversation and support all social movements for progress, but it’s equally important to highlight the positive and all our successes,” he says.

The needle moves forward

As a lawyer, the founder of Pour 3 Points, an organization that gives athletic coaches training to provide life-coaching to young athletes in disadvantaged areas, and one of the driving forces behind documentary Briser le code, which deals with the impact of the racism experienced by racialized and Indigenous people in Quebec, Vil is aware that mobilization goes way beyond the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It’s amazing that the BLM movement, which was once labeled a terrorist organization by some, has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize,” he says. “The conversation is moving forward, even though our public institutions – and I include the Quebec government in that — have a lot more to do to address systemic racism and honour Black lives. But, this month, I want people to focus on what Black communities have contributed to Quebec society and all societies.”

Black History Month Montreal
Nelson Mandela mural Montreal

As president of the Round Table on Black History Month, one of the highlights for Farkas last year was the unveiling of the Nelson Mandela mural (a collaboration, involving a lot of younger members, between the organization and the Union United Church) in tribute to the world leader for peace, social justice, human rights and equality for all. Created in collaboration with organization MU, the colourful mural aims to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s famous visit to Montreal 30 years ago.

Activism isn’t always loud

As someone who also works with young people, Vil sees a younger generation that is very engaged and very aware of the issues.

“Technology and social media have made it a lot easier for people to express themselves and have a voice,” he says. But, while he considers that a positive development, he warns not to rely solely on denouncements as the only form of activism.

“It’s not enough just to talk about the issues or denounce people or situations, it’s important to equally value and recognize those silently doing the work to move the needle,” Vil explains. “This is why knowing your history is so important. There are a people who came before us who quietly advanced the cause of equality.” Vil cites people like Régine Laurent (the first Black woman to head the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la Santé, currently appointed as the head of Quebec’s Special Commission on the Rights of the Child and Youth Protection) and Ulrick Chérubin, who served as mayor of Amos, Quebec from 2002 until his death in 2014.

“My parents faced racism, too,” he adds. “They weren’t very vocal about it, but they worked hard and raised children who would contribute and move things forward.”

A virtual celebration is still a celebration

As the director of Youth in Motion, a community organization in Little Burgundy, the pandemic has been rough for Farkas. “It’s awful for me as an event organizer and as someone working with young people. I am so tired of Zoom meetings and this inability to gather together and feed off each other’s energy, but we’re resilient and we need to obey the public health guidelines.”

After a quick perusal of the BHM site, it’s easy to see that its virtual nature hasn’t stopped the organizers from putting together a variety of informative and entertaining events. From the history of slavery in Quebec (you know… the kind that some people insist never existed here) to a financial literacy class, to a virtual book launch of Can You Hear Me Now? by politician Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who served as a Liberal MP until she resigned in 2019, there is something here for everyone of all ages and for all interests.

Events include workshops for kids, makeup and photography tips for diverse beauty, an evening with writer and activist Desmond Cole, a conference on how the pandemic has affected Black Canadians, Black women in STEM, Boucar Diouf interviewed by Fabienne Colas, Self-Care Sundays, a poetry jam and even a fun trivia night testing participants’ knowledge of Black history, where prizes can be won. And the list goes on and on.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t all gather together to celebrate this year,” says Vil, “but in a way these digital events will reach far more people than ever. People who, perhaps, wouldn’t be inclined to come out and attend, can now simply join us from the comfort of their homes.”

As far as Farkas is concerned, February only has 28 days and members of the Black community should use every single one of them to promote what they’re all about.

“‘Grab the opportunity,’ I tell people. ‘Use Black History Month to show us what you’re doing and what you’re proud of.’ There’s so much creativity and skill around us,” he tells me, “it’s hard not to be optimistic. The promise of a better tomorrow continues to motivate me.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the exquisite poster for this year’s edition created by Leona Carthy, a Jamaican-born digital artist and graphic designer. It’s a stunning example of local talent.For a complete list of Black History Month events, please click here.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.