During the February 16 event titled “Discourses of Race: The United States, Canada, and Transnational Anti-Blackness,” panelists sought to educate the audience on the history of slavery in Canada and Quebec, tackle misconceptions about the issue, and attempt to find solutions to present-day racism in Quebec. The Black Students’ Network (BSN), the McGill Debating Union, and other groups organized the event.
Moderated by Rachel Zellars and featuring McGill art history professor Charmaine Nelson, Saint Mary’s University sociology professor Darryl Leroux, and Montreal historian Frank Mackey, the event was attended by over 300 people. Mackey filled in for renowned scholar and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who could not attend due to an emergency.
Nelson explained that the erasure of Canada’s history of slavery is caused in part by the failure of early education.
“The education system here is broken, because all of [the students] come in knowing about the Underground Railroad […] but not that Quebec, or New France, practiced slavery since the 1600s for roughly two centuries,” she said.
For Nelson, a large obstacle to educational reform is the academic research that forms the basis of what is taught. Although historical records detail the enslavement of black Canadians, those specifics have been ignored in academia. “The early secondary sources are horrifically racist, because they are not at all interested in the lives of the African slaves suffering,” said Nelson. “The issue is not the archives in themselves, it’s what our approaches will be, and how can we ask new questions of those archives?”
“Defenders of blackface would have us believe that anti-black racism is an American affair, something that we simply cannot be guilty of.”
Mackey argued that Canadian black history should be studied independently from black history in the U.S.. “There is a big difference between Canada, Quebec, and the States,” he said. “We have to stop seeing it on American terms.”
Some of Mackey’s comments, however, angered audience members, and prompted Zellars to later write a response on her blog. According to the blog post, Zellars took issue with Mackey’s distinctions in kind between slavery in the U.S. and in Quebec – namely, his qualification of slavery in Quebec as temperate – as well as his view that “the failure of knowledge and historical accuracy about Black life in Montreal was attributable to Black people.”
“In stating that we are responsible for our own historical absence, you are overlooking the politics and histories of white domination and control of Canadian academic life and scholarly production,” wrote Zellars.
“We cannot be referred to as ‘problems,’ as you did Monday night when […] you uttered a sentence that began, ‘The problem with the Blacks…’” added Zellars, addressing Mackey’s comments during the panel. “It was degrading, and it must be named as such.”
Leroux linked Quebec’s unwillingness to own up to its history of slavery to the recent resurgence of blackface in Quebec, where a satirical play by the Théâtre du Rideau Vert featured a white male actor in blackface playing the part of Montreal Canadiens player P. K. Subban.
“Defenders of blackface would have us believe that anti-black racism is an American affair, something that we simply cannot be guilty of,” said Leroux. “They believe themselves to be victims of colonialism, themselves innocent in the contemporary racial role.”
Nelson added to this argument that Quebec francophones’ perception of themselves as victims contributes to the erasure of black history, and is a key reason for this incident.
“We have been trained that to talk about race is to be racist.”
“There is a way in which white francophones mobilize their marginalization and not their privilege in a way that shuts down conversation about race,” remarked Nelson. “That’s why you can have the director general of a legitimate theatre company coming out and saying that she feels humiliated, when she authorized performance of a white male actor in blackface to play a black male.”
Leroux agreed, and thought it “quite an impressive feat” that the beneficiaries of French slavery can now confidently assert in the public sphere that they have no history of anti-black racism because they were conquered by the British.
“Quebec’s racist discourse relies on a heavy dose of victimhood mixed with equally strong amounts of innocence,” said Leroux.
According to Nelson, racial reconciliation in Quebec is inhibited by social conventions. “We have been trained that to talk about race is to be racist,” said Nelson, “so you get shut down very quickly if you want to start that conversation.”
Leroux added that the language used in this conversation is laced with racism. “We must avoid engaging with the discursive frameworks that currently exist because not only do they normalize the erasure and the ways in which anti-blackness has been fundamental to the foundation of Quebec, but perhaps more seriously legitimize its denials today.”
Zellars later told The Daily, “I’m grateful for the way the conversation moved between all the panelists, and I knew in choosing them that they would each offer their perspectives to make the conversation complete.”
BSN Political Coordinator Isabelle Oke found the event eye-opening. “There is more than meets the eye in this whole narrative that we try to bring up on race,” she said.
U3 Arts student Alex Langer from the McGill Debating Union concurred. “Canada has its own history and its own ways of oppressing black people, and we should remember that and learn from that.”