Racism in 1990s Montreal
Panel explores the “haunting” nature of slavery in a modern Quebec
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
Délice Mugabo at the panel discussion.