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Canada was heralded as the 'promised land' for Black people, but this is a myth

Many generations later, Black Canadians still await the opportunity for success

Many generations later, Black Canadians still await the opportunity for success

Black man walking down a street in Montreal over a Black Lives Matter mural painted on the road
Black man walking down a street in Montreal over a Black Lives Matter mural painted on the road (Catbird Films)

Even before the American Civil War, Canada was a refuge for people escaping slavery from the United States.  Canada was whispered as the 'promised land'; tens of thousands travelled a dangerous underground railway, a clandestine network of people who helped them reach freedom in the north.

Canada's history with Black people is a myth

As Canadians, we created and embellished this image of ourselves; a polite nation without slavery, resolving differences without guns, violence, or racial prejudice. It was a myth that drew a stark distinction between Canada and the U.S. and spoke to the inherent "goodness" of white Canada. 

But today historians ask, "Was that tale even real?" Although Black people were free to cross the border and found relative safety here, Canadians struggled to keep their hearts open to the poor, dispossessed Black souls who immigrated to their towns and villages. These freedom seekers discovered that racial discrimination and oppression persisted north of the border too.  It's no surprise that throngs of fugitives eventually returned to the United States as the promise of real freedom was never realized. 

Myths like this one are hard to break because they create a shared psyche that plays a role in forging our identity.  But in not telling the whole truth, the myth distorts the reality of Black Canadians' arduous experiences over the centuries.

The Jackie Robinson myth

The myth about the real experiences of Black people in Canada persisted well into the twentieth century.  In the 1940's, Jackie Robinson was a phenomenal baseball player in the Negro leagues when professional baseball was segregated.  He played one season for the Montreal Royals, a minor league team that was the first to break the colour barrier. It wasn't easy, but Montreal was Robinson's ticket into the big leagues where he changed the aspirations of Black athletes everywhere. 

Jackie Robinson signing autographs for a group of young children.
Jackie Robinson signing autographs for a group of young children. (Catbird Films)

Robinson was always the gentleman athlete, despite the spit and racial slurs hurled his way. He was a sports hero, more popular than the average Black movie star and his rise epitomized the aura of Black success. With all eyes on Montreal, his story grew with each win. Jackie was loved there and his glowing descriptions of Montreal in 1946, perpetuated the myth that the Black community there had already achieved social acceptance and economic opportunity. 

In Montreal, Blacks had the right to live, to shop, or to go anywhere. Although, Black Montrealers did not have segregated schools, back-of-the-bus enforcement or counters for drink and food, they still felt the occasional sting as establishments were legally permitted to racially discriminate. But the real truth was that Black families struggled with under employment, high unemployment, barriers to access healthcare, poor housing and limited educational opportunities, all which cut life expectancy short and crushed dreams.

Montreal, that jewel on the St. Lawrence River may have been the best place to integrate major league sports but the flipside is that Jackie's success there, was his alone.  The Jackie Robinson myth is a charming one, but it is just a myth. 

Documentary reveals the real life experiences of Black Montrealers

In the documentary Dear Jackie, painful and raw stories reveal the lives of Black residents living in Montreal's southwest borough, Little Burgundy.

Stories of Montreal’s Black community dispel the myth of a post-racial society in a cinematic letter to Jackie Robinson:Dear Jackie

2 months ago
Duration 2:01
Dear Jackie paints a portrait of racism and racial inequality in Montreal and Quebec as a whole and is a tribute to the enduring perseverance of one Canada’s most important Black communities.

Although the Black community was long a part of Montreal's social environment, racial discrimination in the Robinson era had established two worlds: one of opportunity and entitlement, the other a second class that was deprived and worse, ignored. In the documentary, Dear Jackie, elder Ivan Livingstone recalls "You can tell we were sometimes ostracized by the other community, but happily we had a number of people that were stalwarts..that gave us hope there was a future for us in Montreal." In Dear Jackie, we are reminded that seven decades after Robinson arrived, our generation still awaits the opportunity for success. 

Dorothy W. Williams is a historian that specializes in Black Canadian history. She has authored three books and grew up in Montreal's Little Burgundy neighbourhood.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.