Over the past year, Quebec has witnessed a vigorous political argument over the definition of the word “systemic” and when or even if it should be attached to “racism.”
While Premier François Legault has acknowledged racism occurs in Quebec, he and members of his government have repeatedly and categorically denied there is systemic discrimination in La Belle Province.
In the summer of 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, when protests were happening south of the border, many Black people in this province used those events as a backdrop to voice their own concerns about racial problems and tension in Quebec.
Premier Legault, however, refused to accept any comparison between injustices in Quebec and those occurring in the U.S.
For one thing, the premier said, Quebec doesn’t have the same history of slavery as the U.S.
That narrative has frustrated many people in Quebec’s Black community who have said the premier is denying history, as well their lived experiences of racism.
They argue Quebec does have a Black history and it does indeed include slavery, dating back hundreds of years.
One of those people is Aly Ndiaye.
He’s a local Quebec City historian, writer and rapper known by his stage name, Webster.
He’s developed a tour of Old Quebec that dives into the city’s Black history.
It’s called Quebec History X.
Ndiaye starts his tours in front Saint-Jean Gate in Old Quebec because the area was named after Marguerite D’Youville, an iconic figure in Quebec’s history and also a slave owner.
As much as characters like D’Youville and General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm are celebrated and studied in this province, Ndiaye wants people to know the full story about them and about Quebec — one that isn’t told in the province’s history books. That story starts with understanding slaves were present in the early days of the colony and that iconic figures such as D’Youville and Montcalm were slave owners.
”Often, people think about slavery, like, in the Caribbean and the United States and Brazil, which was slaves on plantations, you know, the economic slavery. But here, we didn’t have plantations, so most of the slaves were in households,” Ndiaye said.
In fact, Ndiaye says historians have recorded more than 4,000 slaves who lived in Quebec, during a period of about 200 years, from early in the 17th century until the start of the 19th century. Most of them were Indigenous people from the American Midwest. Meanwhile, he says, Black slaves originally came from Africa and many arrived from the Thirteen Colonies or after transitioning through ports in the Caribbean.
Guillaume Couillard is another well-known historical figure in New France and was one of the colony’s first settlers. He was the son-in-law of Louis Hébert, another famous settler and farmer, after whom federal and provincial ridings are named in Quebec City.
Ndiaye says Couillard was one of the first people to own an African slave in Canada. The slave’s real name is unknown but the name his master gave him is well-documented: Olivier Le Jeune.
Ndiaye says in addition to knowing his name, we also have a pretty good idea where Olivier Le Jeune lived. The answer lies in the schoolyard of what is now the Collège François-de-Laval private high school in Old Quebec. That’s where Le Jeune’s master, Guillaume Couillard, lived. There’s actually a grey brick outline of Couillard’s house on the ground, showing where it once stood.
Ndiaye says Le Jeune was most likely the first African slave in Canada and yet his story is practically unknown. He wants the students who go to the school at the site to learn about the history that is underneath their feet when they play basketball.
Ndiaye says he has managed to get approval from the school to put up a plaque commemorating Olivier Le Jeune and he has been working with the city and the Ministry of Culture to have it installed.
The next part of Ndiaye’s Quebec History X tour takes us across from the Collège François-de-Laval to City Hall, where a plaque honours the Collège des Jésuites, demolished in the late 1800s. The plaque depicts an image of a painting by Richard Short, which dates back to 1760, called A View of the Jesuit College and Church in Quebec City.
What’s striking about that image, Ndiaye points out, is one of the characters in the bottom right-hand corner, a young Black slave.
Part of Ndiaye’s tour highlights Quebec’s slave past, but he also touches on Black history and people who were celebrated in the city — for example, the Williams brothers.
Of Irish-Jamaican descent, John and James David Williams set up a barbershop from the late 1800s to early 20th century, in what is now the Aux Anciens Canadiens restaurant near the Château Frontenac.
Even though the shop was Black-owned, white aristocrats patronized it and support in the community ran deep. Ndiaye says when John Williams died, his death was announced in the paper and the article didn’t even mention he was Black, something he says shows how much Williams was respected.
Ultimately, Ndiaye explains, recounting Quebec’s slave past and Black history through his tour is a way to set the record straight and tell this province’s real history. He says the story that’s being taught in classrooms downplays slavery to fit a certain narrative, one that pits a French struggle against English oppression.
As the province vows to fight contemporary racism, Ndiaye says Quebec can only be successful if Black history is taught and remembered.
“Racism and systemic racism started somewhere and we need history to understand how it came about and that it has been here for a long time,” he said. “We are not trying to define this society through racism, although it was constructed on racism.”
“If you look at our history, it’s a racist history. We need to come to terms with that,” he added. “But we gotta move forward by understanding that history.”
To hear Webster and other Francophone artists from Canada and around the world, listen to the CBC Music Playlist C’est formidable! on CBC Listen.
Written by Peter Tardif
Copy Edited by Nancy Wood
Photography by David Cannon, Philippe Ruel & Peter Tardif
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