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Black History Month in Montreal

High school textbooks of Canadian history have told, generation after generation, the tale of a settler colony besieged by territorial struggles between French pioneers and British conquerors— with a brief mention in between of the Indigenous peoples who had inhabited the vast territory for millennia before them. Canada’s popular culture has a space reserved for proud leaders of the nation such as Wilfrid Laurier, John A. Mc- Donald, William Lyon Mackenzie King Jr., and Robert Borden, all of whom now grace the Canadian banknotes. Yet, little recognition has been given to the hundreds of thousands of people of African and Caribbean descent who have contributed to the wealth and progress of their country for centuries. This community has seldom been given due credit for their immeasurable contribution to Canada.

However, unlike other urban centres across the country, Montreal’s black community has always been, despite its small size, a visible part of the city’s cultural landscape. For more than 300 years, successive generations of black Quebeckers have enriched Montreal with their savoir-faire and talents in all sectors of society, contributing greatly to its development and vitality, and adding to its multiculturalism. Black-Canadians of varied descent have helped to make Montreal a world-class city—from being the driving force behind its vital transportation system, to making Montreal a worldrenowned jazz centre, to leading the development of crucial social and scientific breakthroughs.

For the past 19 years, Quebec’s Black History Month’s Round Table has organized activities enabling Quebeckers to discover the cultural richness of black communities in the province and honour those who have thrived in different domains. This tradition followed its American counterpart, which began in 1926 in the United States.

Negro History Week was celebrated by the country’s African- American community in honour of great slavery abolitionists Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The month of February was chosen, as it was these freedom fighters’ birth month. Negro History Week later gave way to Black History Month in 1976, during the United States’ bicentennial festivities.

While official recognition in Canada was slow to come, the National Assembly of Quebec passed a law in 2006 that dedicated February as Black History Month throughout the province, with the aim of recognizing the vital contribution of the black community in Quebec’s growth.

A Chance to Learn About Montreal’s Black Community

Now in its 22nd year, Black History Month maintains a tradition of celebrating the black community’s culture and achievements, through a series of events open to the public that range from workshops and conferences, to art exhibits, plays, storytelling, dance shows, and musical performances. Its program promises to present over 100 events for people of all tastes and interests.

The Espace Georges-Emile- Lapalme de la Place des Arts will host an emotive display of talent on Feb.6 with its I Have a Dream exhibit. Six artists will revisit and reinterpret Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech from the viewpoint of today’s issues, through various means of expression, including acting, sculpture, photography, and painting. On Feb. 9, SSMU will participate in this month-long celebration with its Black History Month Banquet, an event for students, professors, and other community members to spend an evening of dining with speakers, local performers, and a silent auction. And on Feb. 26, the school of Mapou Ginen invites the public to discover Haitian folkloric dance at the Place-des-Arts station.

For Angelo Cadet, spokesperson for Black History Month, the celebration is an opportunity for Montrealers of all cultural and social backgrounds to experience the richness and diversity of a community that is seldom recognized.

“So many black people in Montreal have talent in music, dancing, acting. [But] we don’t see them on TV. We don’t hear them on the radio. We don’t see them on stage. This is a way to discover them,” he said. “TV and [media] should reflect our society. If we don’t see each other, [how can we] be a part of this society? … That’s why I say ‘Thank God that Black History Month exists.’”

Cadet also sees this celebration as an opportunity to build bridges between Montrealers of diverse cultural backgrounds, and bring about a sense of wider community to the city.

“To me it’s like saying ‘Come home, come visit us. Spend some time with me and with my people and you will see.’ … It’s about getting to know more about each other. … You’re going to meet great people, and you’re going to learn about things that you don’t normally see.”

The month is also a way for Montreal’s black community to go back to its own origins, learn about them, and be proud.

“I grew up in Ontario in a white community. I went to school with white kids. We were the only black family, so I have not had the opportunity to connect as much with the black community in Quebec,” said Dawn Tyler Watson, also a spokesperson for Black History month. “[Black History Month] gives me the opportunity to reconnect with such a rich and multicultural community and educate myself about it.”

Cadet agrees. According to him, “the more you know about your history, the more you know about yourself. And so, you can look at your community in a different way. You can look at your mother in a different way. You can look back at the history that they teach us in high school and say, ‘Well, maybe I should learn more.’”

A Chance to Honour Great People

In addition to being an impressive display of talent and cultural richness, Black History Month is also a movement that calls for social change. As Michael P. Farkas, president of the Round Table on Black History Month declared during his speech, “We should take guidance from the ones that have walked through the valley of prejudice and discrimination, and have risen to take the opportunity to grow, and to show the world our better side.”

In the words of Farkas, “Now is the time … to rediscover Black History Month 2013, by celebrating the memory of Martin Luther King and of I Have a Dream. For any who are skeptical about the road we travel today, I can only say: ‘As long as you an I have a dream, our actions will set the scene.’”

That is why the celebration is also a recognition of illustrious members of the black community, who have made a difference. Among this year’s laureates is McGill alumnus Denburk Reid, who graduated with a major in economics and a minor in management. One of Reid’s most recent contributions has been the foundation of Montreal Community Cares Foundation, a non-profit with the aim of giving back to the community, by mentoring its youth and recognizing all the unsung heroes that must be looked up to by future generations.

Though Reid’s organization was recognized officially as a foundation less than a year ago, his community programs for youth have helped kids for over six years. His programs help bring together underprivileged children from various schools and communities through sports.

“We introduce basketball to the kids. But it’s not just about basketball. We teach them interpersonal skills. We teach them about communication. We teach them about accepting difference, accepting someone who’s not from the same culture. We use the basketball, but it’s really more about mentoring,” said Reid. His foundation is a reflection of his own experiences as a young man, and the support and mentoring that he received from people in his own community.

“My inspiration was the way I was brought up. I grew up in Little Burgundy, and basketball was somewhat of an escape from the madness of my community, my surroundings. It was not a safe place to grow up but it was all that I knew,” he said.

In the face of challenge, he turned to his mentor Trevor Williams. Also from Little Burgundy, Williams founded a community project to help the youth of this inner-city Montreal neighbourhood through basketball. His influence made a decisive impact on Reid’s life.

“[He] was someone who saw something in me … [who] really guided me. Because of him, I was really able to get out of high school, and get out of CEGEP, all though university. If it wasn’t for him, and an organization, a community-type entity to help me achieve those things, I’d probably end up like the rest of my friends, in jail, or dead, or something like that,” Reid said. Following William’s steps, Reid worked to give back to his community by helping and empowering its youth.

“Because of what he did, I thought it was a natural thing to continue, seeing that he told me to do it that way, I always thought that I could help someone …. The way Trevor helped me …. It was just a natural progression to go ahead and help in my way.”

It is now left to us as Montrealers to take advantage and experience Black History Month the way it is meant to be experienced. To discover and celebrate the unsung cultural wealth of Montreal’s black community, and to honour the leaders who have worked hard to help future generations rise above challenge, and create a better Montreal for all of us to live in. As Reid said, Black History Month, “is not ‘a black thing.’ It is not ‘an English thing,’ nor [is it] ‘a French thing.’ It is a community thing … to bring the [Montreal community] together.”

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