Published in The Link 37.20, Feb. 7 2017
The cover of this week’s Link is a portrait of the past.
Taken in the basement of the long-abandoned and now-demolished Negro Community Centre in Little Burgundy, the derelict piano’s dusty keys once made history.
Oscar Peterson, a world-renowned jazz pianist born in Little Burgundy in 1925, likely played that piano.
At his death in 2007, Peterson was a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest award bestowed on canadian civilians. He was a Chevalier of the National Order of Quebec. He won eight Grammy awards. He did as much as anyone in the city’s history to put Montreal on the map, culturally.
Why, then, is he absent from Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebrations?
Why too is Oliver Jones, another jazz titan with a more than 70-year career, another Little Burgundian who walked in the footsteps of Peterson, another patron of the NCC, not honoured alongside the paler figures of Montreal’s past?
And it’s not like their omission was an unconscious mistake.
According to reporting by the Montreal Gazette in 2016, during the planning of Montreal’s $329 million blowout, proposals for a parade and a mural—honouring Little Burgundy and jazz and Black Montreal—were brought forward and then dismissed.
Now, in all of the events planned for the 375th celebrations, the only one directly honouring Black histories in the city is a one-day art exhibition in St-Michel highlighting the history of the borough’s Haitian community.
Organized by Maison D’Haiti, the event description on the 375th website promises to cover, essentially, the whole story.
How is it fair to the Haitian community of Montreal to have their entire history summarized in a one-day art exhibition? How is it fair to the other Black communities of Montreal to have their histories ignored completely, or conflated with Haitian history—contributing to the racist construction of a monolithic Black culture.
How is it fair to have the only mention of Black slavery’s role in the history of Montreal—on the website about the history of Montreal—be a passing word in the last sentence of an event description?
As for representing other Black communities—or communities of colour in general—the website’s content says it all. Of 120 blog posts about Montreal’s history, seven are about or include people of colour—and one is about peanut butter, another is about the Harlem Globetrotters, two things 100 per cent absolutely always associated with Montreal, obviously.
But no Oliver Jones. No Oscar Peterson. No jazz. No Senegal. No Cameroon. No Trinidad. No Michaëlle Jean. No Kaytranada. No P.K. Subban.
There is a story on the website about Jackie Robinson, though, a “Two Minutes of History” blog post. Robinson, an American baseball player drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers and sent to the Montreal Royals, was the first Black athlete in professional baseball out of the segregated Negro League. He deserves more than two minutes of history.
In any case, his story closes with: “Here in Quebec, Black History Month encourages citizens to learn about the impact the Black community has had on their province, and the integral role the community plays in making La Belle Province such a special place to live.”
Odd, then, that Montreal’s planned 375th celebrations largely omit the impact of the Black community.
The year is young. There might still be events planned that the city hasn’t publicized for some reason. There might be blog posts in the works to meaningfully share the full stories of Black Montrealers, and to do right by their 375 years of dismissal. But it seems unlikely up to now.
Whether co-signed by the city or not, Black Montrealers deserve recognition. Leaving behind the 375th, there are institutions in this city to look to as models of preserving and honouring Black history. There’s Montreal’s Black History Month, of course—but that history shouldn’t be relegated to just one month during the year, especially during the 375th celebrations.
For a more continuous and communal model of Montreal’s Black history, one might look to the home of that old piano: The Negro Community Centre.
The NCC’s extensive archives are currently housed in the Concordia University Vanier Library at Loyola Campus. They’re a unique, detailed, decades-long account of life in Montreal for the Black community in Little Burgundy. Read our cover story for why.
For an honest account of Montreal’s Black history, sharing those records is a good place to start. And, of course, listening to what they tell us.