Real Talk on Race: Blackface performances a hit in bygone Montreal
O Canada composer Calixa Lavallée among Quebecers who performed in blackface shows
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?'
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."
"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.
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.)
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'
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.
"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'
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'
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.