Racism in 1990s Mon­treal

Panel ex­plores the “haunt­ing” na­ture of slav­ery in a modern Que­bec

The McGill Daily - - News - Nora Mccready The Mcgill Daily

Con­tent warn­ing: racism, vi­o­lence, slurs

On Mon­day Fe­bru­ary 13, a group of stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers gath­ered for a pre­sen­ta­tion by Délice Mu­gabo. Mu­gabo pre­sented part of her re­search: “On Haunted Places: En­coun­ter­ing Slav­ery in 1990s Mon­treal.” The pre­sen­ta­tion was fol­lowed by an ex­tended dis­cus­sion fo­cus­ing on the in­ter­sect­ing themes of Mu­gabo’s re­search.

Mu­gabo opened the panel by de­tail­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of three Black peo­ple liv­ing in Mon­treal in the 1990s: Mireille Ro­mu­lus, Pierre Mon­cius Éti­enne, and Wil­liam Kafe. All three had faced some sort of vi­o­lence while liv­ing in the city.

Be­ing Black in Mon­treal

Ro­mu­lus, a Haitian-born mother of two, was in her Longueuil apart­ment when two white male po­lice of­fi­cers busted in “on the pre­text that her sis­ter had an un­paid bill for $425 at the Simp­son’s depart­ment store.” Af­ter hand­cuff­ing her, one of the of­fi­cers choked her on the kitchen floor, then kicked and slapped her.

“[Ro­mu­lus’] chil­dren re­ported be­ing trau­ma­tized by the or­deal and re­mem­bered hear­ing the male of­fi­cer call­ing their mother a dirty n****r and telling her to ‘go back to Africa’.”

Mu­gabo com­mented on the event, say­ing, “Africa, and not Longueil, is where Mireille Ro­mu­lus was told she be­longed. Africa is not only an else­where, but also an out of sight. This process of care­fully plac­ing Black peo­ple out of sight is a way of land­scap­ing Black­ness out of the na­tion.”

“It is rather un­fath­omable that they wouldn’t have known of her Haitian ori­gin,” they added, “for not only are the vast ma­jor­ity of fran­co­phone Black peo­ple in Mon­treal de­scended from Haiti, the Que­bec state had re­cruited many of them [...] to help build a num­ber of in­sti­tu­tions.”

“Had the po­lice of­fi­cers wanted to em­pha­size her as­sumed im­mi­gra­tion tra­jec­tory, they would have told her to go back to Haiti,” Mu­gabo con­tin­ued “but I would ar­gue that ‘go back to Africa,’ refers to the mid­dle pas­sage from Africa to the Caribbean and North America.”

Mu­gabo con­tin­ued the dis­cus­sion by re­count­ing the vi­o­lence per­pe­trated against Éti­enne, a 47 year­sold Haitian father of two, when he was wait­ing for the bus in­side the Pie IX sub­way sta­tion.

“A gang of fif­teen skin­heads ran into the sta­tion on the heels of a young Black man who had been try­ing to make a phone call,” said Muga- bo. “The young Black man man­aged to get away, but the skin­heads spot­ted Éti­enne and started yelling at him past the ticket booth at­ten­dant who did not in­ter­vene. The skin­heads caught up to Éti­enne and beat him into un­con­scious­ness. As they beat him they re­peated ‘we don’t want n****rs here, go back to where you came from’.”

As a re­sult of his se­vere in­juries, Éti­enne spent sev­eral weeks re­cov­er­ing in the hospi­tal and was fired from his job as a re­sult.

“A year later, he said he still suf­fered from back pain, feared trav­el­ling at night, and had re­cur­rent night­mares about the skin­heads. Only four of his as­sailants were charged.”

Mu­gabo fi­nally then went on to present the ex­pe­ri­ences of Kafe, an East Mon­treal teacher who im­mi­grated to Que­bec from Guinea.

“Hav­ing en­dured fif­teen years of racial at­tacks from stu­dents at the Deux Mon­tagne school board, the 54-year-old teacher sub­mit­ted a com­plaint to the Que­bec Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion in 1992,” Mu­gabo ex­plained.

“He tes­ti­fied that over the years stu­dents brought their ex­cre­ment to throw at him and kicked him around in the class­room shout­ing ‘if the n****r dies what does it mat­ter,’ and also ‘n****r cri­sis – the n****rs are every­where’.”

The chil­dren also re­peat­edly told Kafe that he was sup­posed to be their slave, not their teacher.

“The stu­dents’ claims to this Black man’s en­slave­abil­ity are not due to their ig­no­rance,” Mu­gabo made clear. “They seemed in­tent to make it clear to him ei­ther that slav­ery was as much a real­ity in Que­bec as it had been in the states, or that if slav­ery hadn’t ex­isted in Que­bec that it should have.”

Mu­gabo called at­ten­tion to the fact that this event was an in­stance of chil­dren ex­press­ing so­ci­ety’s thinly veiled prej­u­dice: “Dis­rup­tive ado­les­cents un­con­cerned with po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness [...] could shout ‘burn the n****r,’ voic­ing the feel­ings of an adult world which dared not to.”

The “haunt­ing” na­ture of slav­ery in Que­bec

Mu­gabo ar­gued that these events il­lus­trate how Black peo­ple to­day are haunted by slav­ery, even 184 years af­ter its abol­ish­ment in Que­bec. She also called at­ten­tion to the lack of ac­knowl­edge­ment of the ex­is­tence of slav­ery in Que­bec and how that de­nial seeks to erad­i­cate the ex­pe­ri­ence of Black Que­be­cers.

“This prov­ince con­tin­u­ously de­nied or min­i­mized its his­tory of slav­ery,” she said, em­pha­siz­ing that many in Que­bec priv­i­lege Cana­dian slav­ery by claim­ing it was bet­ter than in the United States.

“Slav­ery in Que­bec is said to be nicer be­cause they were given Chris­tian names, they were bap­tized,” Mu­gabo said.

Mu­gabo even­tu­ally re­turned to the theme of haunt­ing, this time as proof of his­tory’s ex­is­tence. “What we learn from Beloved [by Toni Mor­ri­son] is that haunt­ing is one way in which abu­sive sys­tems of power make them­selves known [...] es­pe­cially when they are sup­pos­edly over and done with or when their op­pres­sive na­ture is de­nied.”

Dur­ing the dis­cus­sion, Rachel Zel­lars, a pro­fes­sor at Mcgill, raised a com­mon is­sue in ar­tic­u­lat­ing racism. “One of the things that we’re al­ways push­ing against is scale. So the case of Wil­liam Kafe can be per­ceived as ex­cep­tional and de­viant from the norm. In Que­bec in par­tic­u­lar that nar­ra­tive is some­thing [...] I’m al­ways work­ing against.”

Mu­gabo re­sponded: “No vi­o­lence is ever spec­tac­u­lar enough or bad enough for it to mat­ter or reg­is­ter as vi­o­lent.” She con­tin­ued, “It ob­vi­ously isn’t spec­tac­u­lar enough be­cause the school board didn’t do any­thing about it.”

“When we talk about sys­temic racism we talk about it as if it’s some­thing [and we] don’t know how it hap­pens. No one’s racist but you have sys­temic racism. So for me, [through] these cases, we can re­ally see that this is some­thing that peo­ple do, it’s not some­thing that’s in the air.”

Racism in Canada vs. Que­bec

When asked about the dif­fer­ence in racism in Que­bec and the rest of Canada, Mu­gabo re­sponded, “Que­bec wants [Black Que­be­cers] to con­tin­u­ously say ‘you’re not racist, you’re not racist,’ ask­ing us to speak our his­tory in re­la­tion to their own po­lit­i­cal [...] as­pi­ra­tions be­cause [...] peo­ple will al­ways claim Que­becbash­ing from the rest of Canada and from the rest of the world.”

“The fact that Que­bec has wider is­sues with Canada does negate the fact that I have is­sues with Que­bec,” she con­tin­ued. “Que­bec’s as­pi­ra­tions are not mine, so I have no in­ter­est in de­fend­ing it or pro­mot­ing it in any way.”

Elab­o­rat­ing on the theme of Que­bec’s de­nial of slav­ery and racism, Zel­lars said, “So we only had two cases of re­ported lynch­ings in com­par­i­son to 4,000. So we only had 4,000 slaves in com­par­i­son to 4 mil­lion.”

“What­ever num­bers we have, we did the same ex­act things that the United States did [...] you still en­slaved the first Black peo­ple who came here. Your frame­work for un­der­stand­ing Black­ness was iden­ti­cal to the United States,” Zel­lars con­cluded.

“The stu­dents’ claims to this Black man’s en­slave­abil­ity are not due to their ig­no­rance. They seemed in­tent to make it clear to him ei­ther that slav­ery was as much a real­ity in Que­bec as it had been in the states, or that if slav­ery hadn’t ex­isted in Que­bec that it should have.” —Délice Mu­gabo Re­searcher and Pan­elist “One of the things that we’re al­ways push­ing against is scale. So the case of Wil­liam Kafe can be per­ceived as ex­cep­tional and de­viant from the norm. In Que­bec in par­tic­u­lar that nar­ra­tive is some­thing [..] I’m al­ways work­ing against.” —Rachel Zel­lars Mcgill pro­fes­sor

Nora Mccready | The Mcgill Daily

Délice Mu­gabo at the panel dis­cus­sion.

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