All Roads Led to Montreal: Black Power, the Caribbean, and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada

By Austin, David | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

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. …

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