All Roads Led to Montreal: Black Power, the Caribbean, and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada
Austin, David, The Journal of African American History
Canada is not the first place that comes to mind in association with Black Power. That honor is reserved for the United States, and most non-Canadians are usually surprised to discover the sizeable population of people of African and Caribbean descent in Canada; African Canadians still tend to be exoticized as a kind of quaint "lost tribe." But Canada has a long history of people of African descent struggling for their freedom and dignity, not simply as African American fugitives following the Underground Railroad, or African American draft-dodgers during the Vietnam War, but as black Canadians fighting the inhumanities of slavery and racial oppression. It should then come as no surprise that Canada, and the city of Montreal in particular, had its own expression of Black Power which, like so many movements around the world in the 1960s and 1970s, drew inspiration from African American struggles against economic and racial oppression, but was nonetheless native to Canada.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, African Canadians established numerous organizations such as the Negro Community Centre (organized by the community's oldest religious institution, the Union United Church), the Negro Citizenship Association, the Colored Women's Club, and a chapter of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), in which Louise Langdon, Malcolm X's mother, played an active role. African Canadians in Montreal created these institutions to accommodate their communal needs and to lighten the blow of racial discrimination. (1) Of an estimated national African Canadian population of 18,291 and 20,559 in 1921 and 1931 respectively, Montreal's black community was comprised of descendents of African Canadians who had lived in the city for several decades. Many had migrated from Ontario or the Maritime provinces in order to work on the railways. A handful of Caribbean students also came to study in Montreal, and some West Indian women worked as domestics in Canadian cities. U.S. African Americans from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and several southern states immigrated to Canada, joining and supporting the black institutions as a way of sustaining themselves socially and spiritually. (2)
In the mid-1950s the British government began to discourage Caribbean migration to the United Kingdom. Earlier in the century, West Indians had been encouraged to immigrate to England to assist in the country's recovery after the devastation of World War II. Having served their purpose, policies were enacted by British government officials to stem the flow of Caribbean migrants, and some officials went as far as to call for the "repatriation" of some of the resident black West Indian population. As Britain's doors closed, Caribbean governments successfully pressured the Canadian government to retract its "climate unsuitability" clause and other regulations that restricted immigration on the basis of "nationality, citizenship, ethnic group, occupation, class or geographical area of origin," and in 1960 many restrictions were lifted, permitting skilled black laborers to enter the country throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. (3) The result of these new policies was that thousands of Caribbean nationals settled in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and other Canadian cities.
The population estimates for Montreal vary between 7,000 black residents in 1961 and 50,000 blacks in 1968 (though the latter figure is believed to be a serious overestimation). (4) Many single Caribbean women came to Canada under the domestic workers' scheme, which permitted them to work in Canadian homes, after which they were eligible to remain as permanent or temporary residents. West Indians also came to Canada as students. For many of them, McGill University, with its reputation as a first-class tertiary institution, was the school of choice. But McGill was an elite institution with stringent admissions requirements. As late as the 1930s, McGill had a quota that restricted the number of Jewish students and discouraged the hiring of Jewish faculty. And while a few elite Caribbean and African students were accepted at the university, for most black Montrealers McGill was part of a separate world that was far removed from their daily realities. The newly established Sir George Williams University, on the other hand, had a more flexible academic program. It accepted students of all walks of life and accommodated people who worked during the day by offering evening courses. Sir George became very popular among black and immigrant students, and the less tradition-bound atmosphere initially proved to be a more welcoming environment for Caribbean students. (5)
CARIBBEAN CONFERENCE COMMITTEE
Many, if not most, of the West Indians who migrated to Canada in the 1950s and 1960s did not intend to make Canada a permanent home. The plan was to get an education, accumulate funds--or both--and then return to the West Indies. By 1966, only four of the former British territories in the Caribbean had gained independence--Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana. For the rest, independence was an aspiration and, while some were anxious to return home to secure a place among the Caribbean elite, many West Indians abroad were driven by the idea of going back home to "make a contribution" towards building post-colonial Caribbean societies. It was with this goal in mind that a small group of Caribbean women and men--among them Robert Hill, Anthony Hill, Alvin Johnson, Hugh O'Neile, Rosie Douglas, Anne Cools, Franklyn Harvey, and Alfie Roberts--came together in Montreal in 1965 to form the Conference Committee on West Indian Affairs, or the Caribbean Conference Committee (CCC) as it later came to be known. The CCC was not the only Montreal-based organization that was preoccupied with the Caribbean. The Caribbean-based New World group had an active membership in Montreal, with several of its members, including one of its founders, Lloyd Best, actually living in the city and working alongside fellow economist Kari Polanyi Levitt at one stage. The Montreal New World group paralleled shared membership and, in some cases complemented, the work of the CCC. (6) In 1966, New World called upon the celebrated Barbadian writer George Lamming to produce a special issue of its journal New World Quarterly on Guyana's independence, and Lamming called upon the CCC to assist in preparing the journal. (7)
To this day, New World Quarterly remains one of the finest social, economic, and cultural journals that has ever been produced in the Caribbean or Latin America. But whereas New World was comprised primarily of academics, most of whom were economists who prided themselves on their research on social and economic issues, the Caribbean Conference Committee was primarily a political organization made up of Caribbean students. A 1966 prospectus published in New World Quarterly perhaps best describes the mission of the CCC:
To discover in ourselves, in our societies, the roots of West Indian freedom. From being the historical agent of other interests and peoples, the West Indian has for over three centuries been seeking to make his own history. To know what that history has meant to our forebears and what it means to us today, what has been its defeats, triumphs, and manifestations-that is the responsibility of the present time. (8)
This was the spirit in which the CCC proceeded to organize a series of conferences that ignited the Montreal black community. Their activities involved the participation of several prominent Caribbean writers, artists, economists, and political figures, including Jan Carew, Norman Girvan, Austin Clarke, Lloyd Best, Richard B. Moore, and calypso singer, the Mighty Sparrow. Referring to the CCC during his keynote address at the inaugural conference, "The Shaping of the Future of the West Indies," George Lamming had the following remarks of praise for the Conference Committee: "I would like ... to let you know that what you are doing here tonight has many echoes in London and for many of your compatriots who work in various activities throughout Africa. You are in a sense operating on a world scale." (9) Lamming went on to congratulate them on "what he believed was "the first conference of this kind." (10) For Lamming, this was the first time he had been invited by a Caribbean group to share his perspective on the West Indies, and the event helped to situate the modern Caribbean and its people within the context of North American history, culture, and politics.
C.L.R. James, the noted Marxist political theorist and historian, was central to the work of CCC. Perhaps best known for his classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), the veteran Pan-Africanist and Caribbean man-of-letters was the main guest at the second annual conference of the CCC and was thereafter adopted as the CCC's political mentor. At the time of the conference, James was embroiled in a bitter political campaign as a candidate for Trinidad and Tobago's Workers and Farmers Party against his longtime friend, now foe, Prime Minister Eric Williams. But on his second visit, he conducted a series of classes with members of the CCC and its sister group, the C.L.R. James Study Circle, which was also founded by CCC co-founder Robert Hill. The classes covered Karl Marx's Capital and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, as well as the Russian Revolution, and the ideas of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau; each subject was used as a lens through which to analyze Caribbean politics. James also delivered a number of public lectures on a range of subjects, including Shakespeare's King Lear, Caribbean and African politics, Third World development, and Marxist theory. (11) In his recent biography of Tim Hector, who became a core member of the CCC after its first conference, historian Paul Buhle describes the symbiotic relationship between the CCC and James who, upon returning to Canada in the winter of 1966, found these young West Indians devouring some of his most obscure works. (12) According to Buhle,
These ardent young intellectuals and activists met formally and informally, naturally more often at close range as friends, to discuss and argue over texts, to become intimates that only fellow exile-revolutionaries are likely ever to be. They also hosted James in visits that would change their collective lives. First he came to see them before returning to Trinidad, where they raised money to support his efforts to build a political opposition, and on his return after an ignominious defeat. This time he remained fixed in Canada as an organizing base, until permitted reentry into the United States as college lecturer in 1970. (13)
Buhle also noted that these intellectuals would "engage [James] as he engaged them in an extended non-academic tutorial. They would present analyses; he would listen and then ask questions that prompted the speakers to see the error of their own thinking. He taught them Caribbean history as it had been written and then offered Marx's analysis against the grain of the accepted historical account." For Hector, Robert Hill, Anne Cools, Franklyn Harvey and Alfie Roberts--the group's political core--"the key questions were philosophical, complex issues of dialectics and their relationship …
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Publication information: Article title: All Roads Led to Montreal: Black Power, the Caribbean, and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada. Contributors: Austin, David - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Volume: 92. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: 516+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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