More than a century before Quebec's recent blackface controversies, Montrealers were filling local theatres to take in performances by blackface minstrels.

They were filling up theatres. They were filling up His Majesty's Theatre, they were filling up Monument National.  - Shannon Hodge, director of archives for the Jewish Public Library

Though many see minstrel shows —musical comedy performances where white actors painted their faces black to caricature black people — as strictly an American tradition, researchers say they were popular in Quebec and the rest of Canada from the late 19th century into the 1950s.

"It might have started there, but we made it our own," said Cheryl Thompson, a lecturer in Canadian studies at the University of Toronto.

'Why don't I know this?'

La Rue's Minstrels and Hamall's Serenaders

Hamall's Serenaders were a blackface minstrel troupe founded by Hugh Hamall in Montreal in 1867, according to the book, Burnt Cork and Tambourines: A Source Book of Negro Ministrelsy. (McCord Museum)

While a PhD student at McGill, Thompson scoured photo and print collections of Montreal's McCord Museum and found dozens of images of blackface performers and advertisements for minstrel shows in Montreal.

"I thought, why don't I know this? I feel angry that I don't know this," said Thompson. "If I am a person of colour, and I don't know this, then the people who are actually doing [blackface] clearly don't know this."

Cheryl Thompson

Cheryl Thompson, lecturer in Canadian studies at the University of Toronto, says Montreal's minstrel-show history is relevant to current debates about blackface. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

 Her research revealed two waves of blackface minstrel shows in Montreal, one of professional troupes, both American and local, performing in Montreal theatres in the late 1800s. A second wave saw community groups pick up the practice, mostly from the 1920s through to the 1950s.

"In Canada, we don't like to talk about these icky things," said Thompson. "It makes us uncomfortable. We have to get over that discomfort."

Montreal is far from unique in its blackface history.

Thompson recently began a cross-Canada research project, uncovering photos and advertisements for minstrel shows from Toronto and southern Ontario all the way to Drumheller, Alberta.

Oh, Canada!

Blackface Minstrels Royal-Côté Theatre

Members of The Burnt Cork Fraternity - Hogan & Mudge's Minstrels in their comicalities wash up after performing at the Théâtre Royal-Côté in Montreal. The image was published in the Canadian Illustrated News in 1872. (Library and Archives Canada)

Perhaps an indication of just how intertwined blackface is with Canadian history: the composer of Canada's national anthem, Calixa Lavallée, was himself a member of a blackface troupe.

Years before Lavallée composed O Canada, he toured North America, including Montreal and Quebec City, with American troupes, according to Brian C. Thompson, the author of the recently published Anthems and Minstrel Shows: The Life and Times of Calixa Lavallée, 1842-1891. (He is no relation to Cheryl Thompson.) 

Calixa Lavallée

Calixa Lavallée, composer of O Canada, spent years touring with American blackface minstrel troupes and performed in both Quebec City and Montreal. (Library and Archives Canada)

While many troupes were founded by Americans or English-speaking Canadians, Thompson said it was not uncommon for francophones to join touring groups.

"The company [New Orleans Minstrels] included a number of francophone performers, although they were mostly musicians," he said.

According to Quebec's Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales (BAnQ), the Théâtre Royal, Montreal's oldest permanent theatre, built by wealthy merchant John Molson in 1825, staged wildly successful minstrel shows, also known as "soirées éthiopiennes." 

And there are indications that minstrel shows were popular with audiences of all linguistic backgrounds.

"In the 19th century, middle-class francophones went to English-language theatre," said Thompson, "because there was very little happening in French."

'They were selling out theatres'

YMCA Hayseed Carnival Blackface

This is a cast photo for the Hayseed Carnival at the YMCA on Drummond Street in Montreal, circa 1925. Many community groups revived minstrel shows, decades after they had fallen out of fashion in professional theatre. (McCord Museum)

 Even after minstrel shows fell out of fashion among professional theatre troupes, they experienced a revival with Montreal community groups around the 1920s.

Cheryl Thompson found photos of blackface performances put on by the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association and the YMCA.

The archives of Montreal's Jewish Public Library also has an extensive collection of photos and playbills from blackface minstrel shows put on by the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA). The huge casts and elaborate costumes and sets show just how serious these productions were.

Shannon Hodge Jewish Public Library Archives

'It's important that we keep the good, the bad and the debatable,' said Shannon Hodge, director of archives for Montreal's Jewish Public Library. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

 "They were selling out theatres," said Shannon Hodge, the library's archives director.

"They were filling up His Majesty's Theatre, they were filling up Monument National. These were well-attended, and they were cultural evenings out for people."

During World War II, the YMHA minstrels took their show on the road, performing for soldiers stationed in Quebec. They even translated one of their shows into French, to entertain francophone soldiers.

'Not all about parody of black people'

YMHA Minstrels Raizin a Racket

The Montreal YMHA Minstrel show 'Razin a Racket' was performed in February 1934. Archive interviews suggest YMHA minstrels eventually stopped doing blackface because of objections from the black community. (Jewish Public Library Archives)

 While minstrel shows appear shockingly racist to a modern audience, Brian Thompson said this was not always the intent.

Like Renaissance jesters, who were given licence to poke fun at high-ranking figures, minstrels would perform in blackface so they could get away with more political material. 

"Blackface was a device performers used to distance themselves from what they were saying – so that they could criticize those in positions of wealth and power," Brian Thompson said.

"Minstrelsy was not all about parody of black people," he said.

Some political cartoonists, such as Henri Julien of the Montreal Daily Star, took the same approach. Julien illustrated an 1899 series called Songs of the By-Town Coons, using blackface imagery to critique Wilfrid Laurier's government.

The YMHA productions also used to poke fun at key figures in the Jewish community. 

But whatever the intent, some minstrel-show performers eventually understood that their caricaturish depictions of black characters were offensive to actual black people. 

An interview in the Jewish Public Library archives with former YMHA minstrels revealed they stopped doing blackface in the 1940s, because, in their words, "the black community objected."

"As it should have been, the community adapted what was appropriate for entertainment, because blackface was not appropriate," said Hodge.

'You have to know the roots'

Blackface performer in Jonquière

This blackface performer was recorded for a variety show at Radio-Canada affiliate CKRS-TV in Jonquière, Que. in 1963. (Radio-Canada )

 But blackface continued in later decades — CBC/Radio-Canada's own archives include televised blackface performances from the 1950s and 60s. 

For Cheryl Thompson, that local history is relevant, because some of the recent debate about blackface in Quebec seems to take for granted that minstrel shows were an American-only phenomenon which never influenced culture north of the border.

"I'm a firm believer that you have to know the roots of something, before you address the fruits that are growing off the branches," she said.