Exploring Quebec’s Black and slave past with historian and rapper Aly Ndiaye

FEB. 3, 2021

Local historian, writer and rapper Aly Ndiaye has developed a walking tour of Old Quebec that highlights the history of slavery in Quebec City and the province of Quebec. On the tour, which Ndiaye calls Quebec History X, he takes people on a deep dive into the city’s Black history and the lives of several well-known historical figures who owned slaves.

By Peter Tardif
Photo: David Cannon; Design: Andrew McManus/CBC

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.

A view of the Porte Saint-Jean, or Saint-Jean Gate, on Saint-Jean Street in Old Quebec. Some of the city’s original fortifications were engineered by Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry in the 1700s. Aly Ndiaye says Chaussegros de Léry was a slave owner. (Peter Tardif/CBC)


Place D’Youville, Palais Montcalm and Saint-Jean Gate

Aly Ndiaye: So I always start my tours here in front of Saint-Jean Gate at the Place D’Youville, because to me, that’s a good metaphor to what’s going on about the history of slavery and the presence of people of African descent here, because we’re at the Place D’Youville, which is named after Marguerite D’Youville, who was the mother superior of the Grey Nuns in Montreal. Well, she had slaves. We stand in front of the Palais Montcalm. Montcalm was the French general that was beaten by Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and had slaves. We stand in front of the fortifications which were engineered by Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry who also had slaves. So see, [the tour hasn’t even begun yet and] you are surrounded by this history but we don’t know about it.

Read Transcript

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.

Editor’s Note
The assertion that General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm owned slaves is based on a finding by celebrated historian Marcel Trudel, who wrote the authoritative book on slavery in Quebec. After this story was published, Montcalm biographer Dave Noël reached out to Aly Ndiaye to share a discovery: Trudel’s interpretation of the source material appears to be incorrect. According to Noël, the records do not show Montcalm owned slaves, but that Pierre de Rigaud, the Marquis of Vaudreuil and governor of New France, likely did.
The Palais Montcalm is steps away from Place D’Youville. The concert hall was named after Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the French general who died during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Aly Ndiaye says Montcalm was also known to have owned slaves. (Peter Tardif/CBC)
Aly Ndiaye says much of the slave history behind iconic Quebec names like D’Youville and Montcalm is unknown. That’s why he starts his tours here, at the threshold of Old Quebec, so people can get a sense of the role slavery played in this province. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

”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.

“You are surrounded by this history, but we don’t know about it.”
Aly Ndiaye
(Philippe Ruel)


From Madagascar to New France

Aly Ndiaye: In 1629, the Kirke brothers took the city of Quebec and they brought with them a young African slave of about 10 years old from Madagascar, and they sold him to a trader. That guy was a French guy, but who worked for the British. His name was Le Baillif. When the French took the city back in 1632, the British went back to Europe, Le Baillif fled. He went back to Europe, too, because he was a traitor. He didn’t want for the people to come, come back and take care of him. So before he went away, he gave this young boy to Guillaume Couillard.

Read Transcript

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.

He was named Le Jeune after a Jesuit priest and Olivier because of Olivier Letardif*, who was Guillaume Couillard’s son-in-law.
Author’s Note
Over the course of researching and writing this story, journalist Peter Tardif made a startling discovery about his own family’s ties to slavery in Quebec. Olivier Letardif is a well-documented ancestor of his and is the first Tardif to arrive in New France. That means one of the first African slaves in Canada, Olivier Le Jeune, was named after someone in Peter’s family tree.
The yard of the Collège François-de-Laval private school in Old Quebec. Aly Ndiaye says the students and people who play and walk here have very little idea of the history beneath their feet. (Peter Tardif/CBC)


Collège François-de-Laval

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.

Aly Ndiaye says the grey brick outline on the ground marks where the house of one of New France’s first settlers, Guillaume Couillard, stood. Ndiaye says Couillard likely owned one of the first African slaves in Canada and he says that slave would have lived in Couillard’s house. Students play basketball here. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Aly Ndiaye: So, this rectangle marks the foundation of the house of Guillaume Couillard. But the thing that we don’t know, that we need to realize, is that if that was his house, well, this is where a slave used to live, too, and if you look around we don’t see anything that mentions it. So, there is a plaque to commemorate François de Laval. There are a lot of things written about the seminary, about this plot of land, about Guillaume Couillard, about Louis Hébert, about everything except Olivier Le Jeune.

Read Transcript

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.

Quebec City’s Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall, is in the heart of the Old Quebec neighbourhood. In front, there’s a plaque commemorating the Collège des Jésuites. (Peter Tardif/CBC)


Hôtel de Ville

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.

Aly Ndiaye: And if we look closer still, we see that he’s Black. Frank Mackey, who’s a historian who wrote extensively about the Black presence here, especially in Montreal … he was telling me that when Richard Short did those paintings — this is not the only one he did right after the British conquest — that was a bit of propaganda to show in Europe what was taken from the French. So there was an interest [in] showing this part of the world more glamorous and more wealthy than it was. So maybe that this picture here with this young boy, that wasn’t even … it didn’t happen. But [Short] wanted to show that the residents of Quebec City were wealthy, they had slaves, because this young boy is depicted as he would have been in Europe at that time.

Read Transcript
The Aux Anciens Canadiens restaurant on Saint-Louis Street in Old Quebec is located in the iconic Maison François-Jacquet-Dit-Langevin, one of the oldest buildings in the city. At one point in its history, the Maison Jacquet was a barbershop owned by the Williams brothers, who were of Jamaican and Irish descent. (Peter Tardif/CBC)


The Williams’ Brothers

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.

This image depicts the inside of the Williams’ brothers barbershop. John Williams is the character on the left. It was drawn by Sydney Prior Hall for The Graphic in the late 1800s. (Courtesy of Jean-François Caron/Sydney Prior Hall)

Aly Ndiaye: The main reason why this house is interesting is that between 1870 and 1920, for 50 years, it was a barbershop run by two brothers [who] were Jamaico-Irlandais … So they were from Irish and Jamaican heritage. Their mother was Irish, their father was Jamaican. They were named the Williamses, John and James David Williams. And that was a barbershop that was quite popular. So the high society of Quebec would come here to get their hair cut, you know, and when John Williams died in 1913, what is interesting, there was an article and in the journal [it] says, “An outstanding citizen of our city, the barber John Williams, died, this and that,” but they never spoke a word about his Blackness, which is impressive for the time.

Read Transcript
“We are not trying to define this society through racism, although it was constructed on racism.”
Aly Ndiaye
(Philippe Ruel)


François-Xavier Garneau

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.

Aly Ndiaye: And when François-Xavier Garneau started to write the history of Quebec and Canada in 1845, he said that our ancestors didn’t want slaves here as to keep our blood pure. That’s what he wrote. But even at that time, people said to him, “What are you talking about? There were slaves here. There are documents that prove there were slaves here.” So even at that time, people said that that wasn’t right of him to say it. In later versions, he wrote and said, “Oh, those slaves were not that much, so, you know, flip the page.” So since that was the great historian, he’s the one who kind of almost single-handedly built the history of Quebec. So this is how it was kind of erased from the official history.

Read Transcript

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.”

C’est formidable!

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.


Quebec History X


Written by Peter Tardif
Copy Edited by Nancy Wood

Photography by David Cannon, Philippe Ruel & Peter Tardif

Designed by Andrew McManus

Senior Producer
Andrew McManus

Kim Garritty

Lineup Editor
Nancy Wood

Sound Technician, Columnist, Researcher
Peter Tardif

Special Thanks
Aly Ndiaye