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The University has to be pressured

Community organizer and McGill alum speaks on equity, education, and the need to mobilize

David Austin is a founder and trustee of the Alfie Roberts Institute, an independent community organization devoted to advocating for positive social change from within Montreal’s black community. He is involved in community education initiatives throughout Montreal and a teacher at a CEGEP. He recently edited a volume of C. L. R. James’s unpublished speeches, entitled You Don’t Play With the Revolution. Austin was also a member of Black Students’ Network and a Daily editor during his time at McGill in the early nineties.

The McGill Daily: What kind of work do you do with the Alfie Roberts Institute?
David Austin: Most of our work has been around community and political public education – organizing forums, guest speakers, book launches for books that we think are important to be out there in the public for members of the black community. We’re invited at times to do workshops, individual classes in CEGEPs and universities – this month is generally kind of busy for that reason.

Part of our mission is to provide and promote a sense of historical continuities.… Much of what we do represents the kind of activities that have been done in this city by…black people for a long time, going back to the twenties.

MD: Why is this kind of work important?
DA: The sixties were considered a turning point for the black community in Montreal…. That was considered a kind of heyday where there were all kinds of possibilities. Today you have high drop-out rates in the schools, and when it comes to employment, education, all-around general life chances, the chance to live and exist in another place in society – all these things come into question in this society for black folks in general.… These are contemporary questions that have social roots.

When we organize forums – around the Sir George Williams affair, for instance – it’s a reflection on where we’ve come from, it’s an intergenerational event. We’re looking at how this community has evolved, and it’s an opportunity for raising questions…and not giving the sense that we just arrived here yesterday – the sense that the black community is new and has no roots in this society. There’s a lot of mythology around that that comes from the dominant narratives of what it means to be Canadian in the broad national sense….

In addition to ignoring the history of indigenous people in this society, it also excludes the fact that this society had slaves in the 18th and 17th century. If you’re talking about the presence of people of African descent in this country, there’s politicians becoming accustomed to talking about Mathieu de Costa, a black explorer who accompanied Samuel de Champlain. He spoke Micmac, and could translate for Champlain. Black History Month is a City-sponsored event, and most local politicians can say they know about Mathieu de Costa, but it doesn’t change our narrative in terms of understanding black people here. If he could translate for Champlain, it’s strongly suggested he was here before Champlain. But that’s never asked as a question. It has a real bearing on the dominant narrative in this country. Everyone else is reduced to visitors.

Just look at the black population in Nova Scotia, for example, the first-wave descendents of loyalists stemming from the American war for independence over 200 years ago. How is it that this narrative still persists, and what bearing does this narrative have on the present? If we’re all perceived as immigrants it has implications for citizenship – who is entitled to live and exist in a society among equals. So I’m making that a long way of saying that history’s important – it has bearing on how people perceive us in the present.

MD: What kind of courses do you offer for young people?
DA: We recently started offering two sessions – one is an art and identity course. It’s geared towards black youth, kids of African and Caribbean descent, to provide them an opportunity to explore their own identity through art, to develop a sense of self and who they are and their place in the world through art. It’s a creative process.

We also do things like workshops in schools…around the same kinds of themes: art identity, popular culture, how people of African descent are depicted in the media, in and through popular culture, and what that means for how they’re perceived in real life. These are questions that are not just about identity but about how people are perceived, understood, and related to in society
MD: How is the institute funded?
DA: We’re not funded, is the short answer. We have several trustees that contribute to our expenses including our rent every month; we have some dedicated donors who give to the institution relatively often…. It’s grown at its own pace, and it’s been very deliberate that we’re not running around chasing funds or tailoring our programming.

MD: Would you say that minorities are under-represented at McGill?
DA: Statistics would probably bear that out – if you look at the composition of society and representation of the schools, for sure. Most black people who attend an institution like McGill – in the past it was always the case that a vast majority were not actually from Montreal. McGill has never lived up to its responsibility to the community – look at the institution and how many professors of colour there are. Even the University of Toronto has a transition year program where they reach out to the community, and kids who have dropped out can enter the institution….

Basically, McGill gets away with murder. Any sense of employment equity – I’m not just talking about seeing black faces or Asian faces. There are lots of qualified people around the world, and they’re not at McGill. Which would be part of what attracts students, right – an openness to other ways of teaching and learning, in terms of who teaches, that attracts other students…. But that pressure has to come from the outside. It has to come from an organized community, from students. The University has to be pressured. Basically there’s no will to bring about change. The canon holds. The past holds, in terms of what’s traditionally been taught. That change comes with pressure and mobilization. That hasn’t been sustained over the years.

In a society as multicultural and interesting as Montreal, there’s no real courses on the Caribbean. There’s nothing on African-Canadian history, [which is a shame] given the long history. It basically reinforces the thought that the histories and cultures of those people don’t really count.

—compiled by Braden Goyette