Fear of a Black Nation
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Fear of a Black Nation


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En savoir plus
205 pages

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In the 1960s, for at least a brief moment, Montreal became what seemed an unlikely centre of Black Power and the Caribbean left. In October 1968 the Congress of Black Writers at McGill University brought together well-known Black thinkers and activists from Canada, the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean—people like C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba, Rocky Jones, and Walter Rodney. Within months of the Congress, a Black-led protest at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) exploded on the front pages of newspapers across the country—raising state security fears about Montreal as the new hotbed of international Black radical politics.



Publié par
Date de parution 27 mai 2013
Nombre de lectures 6
EAN13 9781771130110
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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“An extremely important and timely book – exhaustively researched, expertly executed, and beautifully written. Fear of a Black Nation solidifies David Austin’s place as one of the most important Black writers and intellectuals in North America.”
– Barrington Walker, Associate Professor of History, Queen’s University, and author of Race on Trial
“David Austin thoroughly analyzes the issues of power, gender, race, and politics that were at play at the time of, and after, the 1968 Congress of Black Writers. The radical left narrative of the Caribbean intersected with Black radical politics in Montreal, and life was forever changed by the rhetoric, the call for sweeping change, and a Pan-African sensibility. Such were the teachings at the Congress…from the likes of Rocky Jones of Nova Scotia, Stokely Carmichael of Trinidad and the Black Power Movement in the United States, C.L.R. James of Trinidad, Walter Rodney of Guyana, and others who would be on a list of who’s who of the Caribbean left. Fear of a Black Nation is a mustread for anyone interested in closing gaps in modern Canadian history.”
– Althea Prince, Professor of Sociology, Ryerson University, and author of Being Black
“A brilliant analysis of the Black Canadian experience, David Austin’s Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal challenges everything we think we know about Black Canada and the police state. Drawing on intensive and extensive research that spans several continents, and using RCMP dossiers, Austin tells the story of Black activism in Montreal, and shows us how this activism changed history for Black Canadians, Caribbeans, and Black people worldwide. Without a doubt, it is ground-breaking work.”
– Afua Cooper, James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, Dalhousie University
“In this superb book, Austin shows us how ‘the past reverberates in the present.’ From the historical fact of slavery in Canada to national security state paranoia towards Black dissent in the 1970s, Fear of a Black Nation artfully weaves a rich tapestry connecting Black struggles for freedom and dignity, the geohistorical significance of Montreal and Black/Caribbean left thought, and the politics of race, gender, class, and nation. Canada, and, indeed, the world, is not yet free from ‘the burden of race’ – this work offers important insights for struggles against the dehumanizing effects of racism and colonialism, and points toward new horizons of possibility for human emancipation.”
– Aziz Choudry, Assistant Professor of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University
“At the heart of this big-hearted book is Austin’s insistence on history, or as he puts it, the ‘lived experience of Blacks,’ against silence and the abstractions or chimeras of ideology. Readers will learn much about Canada’s black history here, but they will also learn about why it matters to everyone.”
– Karen Dubinsky, Professor of Global Development Studies/History, Queen’s University
“In this path-breaking work, Austin takes us deep into the fascinating world of race, security, and Montreal’s 1960s. When we emerge, it is no longer possible to talk about Canada or Quebec in the same way as before. Fear of a Black Nation is a crucially important book.”
– Sean Mills, Assistant Professor of History, University of Toronto, and author of The Empire Within
Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal
© 2013 David Austin
First published in 2013 by Between the Lines 401 Richmond Street West Studio 277 Toronto, Ontario M5V 3A8 Canada 1-800-718-7201 www.btlbooks.com
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be photocopied, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of Between the Lines, or (for photocopying in Canada only) Access Copyright, 1 Yonge Street, Suite 1900, Toronto, Ontario, M5E 1E5.
Every reasonable effort has been made to identify copyright holders. Between the Lines would be pleased to have any errors or omissions brought to its attention.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Austin, David
Fear of a black nation [electronic resource] : race, sex and security in sixties
Montreal / David Austin.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Electronic monograph.
Issued also in print format.
ISBN 978-1-77113-011-0 (EPUB).
1. Montréal (Québec)—History—20th century. 2. Montréal (Québec)—Race relations—History—20th century. 3. Black power—Québec (Province)—Montréal—History—20th century. I. Title.
FC2947.4.A88 2013 971.4' 2804 C2012-903716-8
Cover and text design by David Vereschagin/Quadrat Communications
As winner of the 2012 Wilson Prize for Publishing in Canadian History, Between the Lines thanks the Wilson Institute for Canadian History for its recognition of our contribution to Canadian history and its generous support of this book.
Between the Lines gratefully acknowledges assistance for its publishing activities from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishers Tax Credit program and through the Ontario Book Initiative, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.
In memory of my grandfather, Cecil Austin, and Jan Carew, Bridget Joseph, and Irene Kon
For my children, Méshama and Alama
1 A New Beginning, and the Afterlife
2 Still Searching for the Black Atlantic
3 Old Ghosts and the Myth of Two Solitudes
4 Nègres Blancs, Nègres Noirs
5 Kindred Souls and Duppy States
6 Être et Noir – Being and Blackness: Memory and the Congress
7 Days to Remember: The Sir George Williams Narratives
8 Fear of a Black Planet
9 Still a Problem
Race is a burden, a fetter, an albatross… a noose.
We should be well beyond the problem of the colour line. But we cannot simply transcend race without first confronting it. We still live with the virulent haunting presence of the afterlife of both slavery and colonialism.
Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal is the product of a long journey. It began its existence as an extended introduction to what would have been a book containing the proceedings of the 1968 Congress of Black Writers in Montreal. After Between the Lines expressed enthusiasm for the initial book idea, that introductory essay took on a life of its own, and Amanda Crocker and BTL supported its transformation into Fear of a Black Nation . Along the way the book benefited from Robert Clarke’s skill and careful attention to detail as an editor, and I am grateful to him, Amanda, and BTL for seeing my work through to publication.
My first sense of Montreal’s historical importance within the Black diaspora came in the 1980s when I was a high-school student in Toronto. My older brother, Andrew, introduced me to a book that critically assessed the significance of a Black-led protest at what is today Concordia University. Around the same time I read Walter Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers , a book that I had discovered at the famous Third World Books and Crafts, which no longer exists. The book included three presentations that Rodney had delivered in Montreal in 1968. Clearly, Montreal had been home to major developments in the Black diaspora, and yet oddly very little had been written about it.
After completing high school I worked and travelled for eighteen months, spending time in London, England, where I was born and lived until the age of ten, and in Kingston, Jamaica, the original home of my parents. I contemplated studying in both London and Kingston, but in 1990 I moved to Montreal to attend university. I had previously lived there between 1980 and 1982, and in hindsight, in addition to returning to a city that was already familiar to me, this move was partly motivated by my desire to explore how and why Montreal had been an important, though almost forgotten, home to members of the Black left.
As fate would have it, one of the first people I met in Montreal was Alfie Roberts. Alfie had been an integral part of the history that this book explores. In the early 1990s Roberts mentioned that he had in his possession recordings of the proceedings of the Congress of Black Writers and lectures delivered by C.L.R. James in Montreal, which he later handed to me with the goal of us jointly editing them for publication. Sadly, Alfie died in 1996. While the Congress proceedings remain to be published, the C.L.R. James lectures were published in 2009 under the title You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James . I am indebted to Alfie for his intellect and friendship, and it was largely through him that I was introduced to a number of people who had been active in Montreal’s burgeoning Black community in the sixties.
Many people have been very generous to me with their time, and I want first of all to acknowledge Viola Daniel, Celia Daniel, Gene Depradine, Bukka Rennie, Raymond Watts, Lynette Edwards, Laurette Solomon, Leroy Butcher, Yvonne Greer, Dolores Cheeks, Jean Walrond, Marguerite Alfred, Norman Cook, Margot Blackman, the late Bridget Joseph, the late Tim Hector, and the late Rosie Douglas.
Since the early 1990s, conversations with Robert Hill and Franklyn Harvey, two key figures within the Caribbean left in sixties Canada, have enriched my understanding of this historical period. I am grateful to both of them for the many discussions we have had and their willingness to share with me their understanding of the Caribbean, and particularly the Caribbean left and Canada’s relationship to it.
I want to thank Kari Polanyi Levitt for our many conversations and for sharing my enthusiasm about the importance of the period addressed in this book. During a gathering in Levitt’s Montreal home in September 2011 the question of why Montreal was such an important site of Caribbean and Black politics was posed by University of Toronto professor Alissa Trotz and Cuban philosopher Félix Valdés Garcia, who was visiting Montreal from Havana. A discussion ensued with others who were present, including Queen’s University geographer Beverley Mullings and Anthony Morgan, then a law student at McGill University. I am thankful to all who were present that day as the various discussions encouraged me to refine my thoughts on the question while I was in the last stages of writing the book.
I also want to thank Rosalind Boyd, who shared her reflections on sixties Montreal, and the late Martin Glaberman, who had attended the Congress of Black Writers in 1968 and possessed recordings of several of the speeches delivered at the historic meeting. Knowing my interest, he openly shared them with me.
I also want to acknowledge the late Irene Kon, a dear friend who committed most of her ninety-four years to human freedom and became an important ally to members of Montreal’s Black community.
A number of friends and colleagues listened to me speak about this book at various stages of its production or were supportive in other ways (and if I have inadvertently left anyone out, I hope you will forgive me): Peter Hudson, Alissa Trotz, Amarkai Laryea, Délice Igicari M. Mugabo, Verda Cook, Hilinna Seife, Wayne Motayne, Aziz Choudry, Kagiso Molope, Lillian Boctor, Ahmer Qadeer, Bathsheba Belai, Patricia Harewood, Sobukwe Odinga, Ismail Rashid, Carolyn Fick, Paul Di Stefano, Peter Flegel, d’bi young, Femi Austin, Nantali Indongo, Dana Salter, Astrid Jacques, Melanie Newton, François Furstenberg, Aaron Kamugisha, Debbie Lunny, Ceta Gabriel, Mario Bellemare, Anthony Morgan, Sujata Ghosh, Hajra Waheed, Désirée Rochat, Fanon Che Wilkins, Nydia Dauphin, Tunji Osinubi, Beverley Mullings, Felix Valdés Garcia, Samuel Furé, and Ameth Lo. I especially want to thank Ameth for his critical reflections on C.L.R. James’s analysis of African politics, which I often recall when thinking about the African diaspora’s relationship to the African continent.
Discussions with Sarwat Viqar, particularly about the work of Saba Mahmood, were very helpful as I thought through chapter 6 of this book. Barrington Walker and Afua Cooper read an early draft of the book. Walker and Cooper are two of Canada’s and the Black diaspora’s prized historians, and their input was much appreciated.
Sometime in the early 1990s, when I expressed my concern about the apparent pessimism of a distinguished African-American author, a friend simply suggested that maybe I should write down my own thoughts instead of complaining about someone else’s. I continue to appreciate that sincere piece of advice from Kamala Kempadoo.
Discussions with Scott Rutherford and Sean Mills as they researched and wrote about Red Power in Canada and the Quebec left respectively have enriched my understanding of Indigenous struggles and the French Quebec left. Some of the ideas in this book were tested or published in various places: the Race, Roots, and Resistance: Revisiting the Legacies of Black Power conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006; the Association for the Study of African American Life and History conference in North Carolina in 2007; the Black Canadian Studies Association workshop at the University of Alberta in 2010; at various presentations and as a visiting scholar at Queen’s University in 2007 and 2011 (and thanks go especially to Karen Dubinsky); a panel organized by Laurie Lambert at the 2011 Northeast Modern Language Association’s annual meeting at Rutgers University; in The Journal of African American History , 2007; Race and Class , 2010; Charmaine Nelson’s Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada , 2010; during a tribute conference in honour of Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré organized by Adelle Blackett and the Labour, Law and Development Research Laboratory (LLDRL) at McGill University in 2012; and at the annual meetings of the Cátedra de Estudios del Caribe, University of Havana between 2009 and 2011 (thanks go especially to Milagros Martinez and Digna Castañeda Fuertes).
Burnley “Rocky” Jones and Joan Jones kindly consented to the use of pictures from their personal archive. Both were connected to the events discussed in this book and their pictures capture those times in ways that words cannot express, and I grateful to them for permitting us to include them here. Special thanks to Simon Moll for scanning the photos in the eleventh hour.
Richard Iton provided critical comments on the book and has, for more than sixteen years, politely cajoled me to write it. His recent book In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era not only “made the cut,” but is a true intellectual achievement. Adrian Harewood also provided feedback on the entire manuscript. More than anyone else, he has patiently listened to me speak about the contents of this book over the years, and our discussions are very much reflected in these pages. I am also grateful to Rosalind Hampton for enthusiastically reading parts of this book and sharing her critical comments. Samah Affan was a true fellow traveller during the gestation of this book, and her unique insights on Black politics in sixties Montreal enhanced my appreciation of that historical moment.
The late Guyanese writer Jan Carew was a dear friend whose political history was tied to Canada’s Black and Indigenous population. I first met Jan in Montreal when I was an undergraduate student in the early 1990s, and will always appreciate his encouraging words and profound sense of optimism.
Mariame Kaba has heard me discuss some of the ideas in this book since the early 1990s. Not only is she a true and dear friend, but her thoughts, convictions, and actions have been a source of inspiration for me for more than twenty years.
I also want to thank my parents, Sonia Jackson and Lloyd Austin. In their own ways they have shown me the meaning and importance of an education, and although I do not always show it, I am very grateful. The life of my late grandfather Cecil Austin embodied a blend of left-wing politics with Marcus Garvey’s nationalist aspirations. I often thought of him as I wrote this book, as I thought too of my grandmothers, Ms. James, or Ninny, and Rose Denahy, known to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as Nan or Nanny Rose. Both of my grandmothers have lived for almost a century, bearing witness to all of the dramatic turns of history that unfolded during their lifetimes.
Laneydi Martinez has been a source of strength and inspiration for me. She may never know how much I have appreciated her support. Not only has she been a true partner, but our conversations have challenged me to reconsider, or at least temper, some of my initial assumptions in this book.
First and foremost, this book is written for my daughter and son, Méshama and Alama, the joys of my life. I hope the book partially responds to your question, “What are you thinking about, Daddy?” I dedicate this to you both with love and admiration and with hope that the issues raised in these pages will be less relevant to your generation than they have been to mine.

This is the afterlife of slavery – skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.
– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route , 2007
Sometime in 1997 I encountered a person who helped to crystallize for me the significance of an event that had happened decades earlier in Montreal, and especially of what that event meant for Black politics in the city.
I was working as a youth worker in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district of Montreal. One afternoon, when I was foraging for lunch in a local grocery store, an older woman I had never seen before approached me. With a look of dismay on her face she unexpectedly asked me, “Did you hear what happened to Stokely?” I was perplexed – I had no idea that she was referring to the Stokely. Sensing my confusion, she continued: “You know, Stokely Carmichael.” She told me she had just learned he had been diagnosed with cancer.
The woman’s name, I soon found out, was Josie Wallen. In our brief conversation she spoke of Stokely’s impact on her when she was a young Black woman trying to make sense of her place in the world in the 1960s. She described his presence and importance in almost spiritual terms. That she referred to him not only by his first name but also by his older name (he had long since become Kwame Ture) was a sign of endearment for a man whose words and deeds had captured the imagination of people around the world.
Stokely Carmichael was a symbol of Black defiance, militancy, humanity, and freedom at a time when Blacks in Canada and the rest of the Black diaspora were redefining themselves and renegotiating the terms of their racialized existence. The iconic figure of Stokely was central to a moment that dramatically changed many lives. Josie Wallen’s sadness and sense of imminent loss were obvious.
Later, moved by our brief conversation, I inquired among my older friends about Wallen and discovered that she was one of the organizers of the October 1968 Congress of Black Writers, held at McGill University in Montreal. She was among the hundreds who had crowded into a packed university ballroom and classrooms over a period of four days to hear an array of prominent Black figures speak. Then, a few months after the Congress, another momentous event occurred: a Black-led student protest based on an accusation of institutional racism erupted into chaos at another English-language university in Montreal, Sir George Williams (now known as Concordia University). Given that I had already done research and writing about the Congress and Sir George, I was very curious about Josie Wallen.
In 1997 many members of Montreal’s Black community had not seen her in years, decades even, and they were surprised when they heard about my chance encounter with her. But for a brief moment between 1968 and 1969, the event that she was part of, and the city of Montreal itself, had become a centre of Black Power. Josie Wallen was part of a network of individuals and groups in the city’s small Black community, people who were fighting to define their place in Montreal and Canada. Like members of other communities in the Black diaspora, Montreal’s Blacks dreamed, fought, protested, and organized. They acted autonomously and yet were also an active part of a wider movement for change that touched the lives of others around the globe. That moment in Montreal was neither fleeting nor by chance. Rather, it was part of a larger complex of events and developments that sent ripples across Canada and through the United States, Britain, and the Caribbean.
Globally, by the mid-1960s the tumult and protest of the era had gripped peoples and nations, and Canadian cities were not immune to this. Feminists, workers, students, anti-war protesters, gay and lesbian rights activists – virtually every group and sector of society – were exercising their collective dissenting voices in ways that were demonstratively public. In the case of Blacks in Montreal, this movement took different forms in different contexts, but a more militant and publicly vocal Black community had begun to take shape.
Today the Black population of Montreal is very different from what it was in the 1960s, when the dominant Black community consisted, for the most part, of a range of people of African descent whose primary European language of communication was English. In the 1960s the city’s Blacks consisted of people of diverse backgrounds and experiences: multigenerational Blacks whose ancestors were former slaves, descendants of Black Empire Loyalists of the American War of Independence, including Blacks who had migrated to Montreal from Nova Scotia; African Americans, some of whom had settled in the city to work as train porters; Canadian-born descendants of West Indians; Caribbean migrants from Haiti, the French Caribbean, and the anglophone Caribbean; and continental Africans, largely from former French and British colonies. 1
Since then shifting politics, policies, and immigration patterns have changed the composition of the population considerably, and French-speaking people of Haitian descent now form by far the largest Black group in the province of Quebec. But the story of Black anglophones and Black politics of 1960s Montreal has major implications for our understanding of the present. In some ways the ferment of the period was embodied in those two significant events: the Congress of Black Writers, one of the most important gatherings of international Black radical and nationalist figures of the time; and what became known as the Sir George Williams Affair, a protest and occupation that quickly assumed implications well beyond the university environment. The events mark a historical turning point that highlights many of the pressing issues of today – issues of race, gender, and security, among others. The events were also intricately connected, and while one organizer of the historic conference argued that the city of Montreal was incidental to the occasion and that the meeting could have been held elsewhere, 2 careful consideration suggests that the site was neither accidental nor incidental. Both events captured national and international headlines as acts of Black militancy that underscored racial oppression in Canada.
In the 1960s Black struggles became a universal symbol of a humanity locked in a struggle to emancipate itself, from itself. The rise of Black Power gave expression to the conflict between masters and slaves, colonizers and colonized, oppressors and the oppressed, youth and tradition, and the struggle against dehumanization. The international Black Power movement of the 1960s was part of a continuous thread – part of what might be described as the long Black Power period. It was a process that began, at least, with the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, but had firm roots in slave resistance, Garveyism and pan-Africanism, the Harlem Renaissance, Rastafari, and Negritude, among other cultural and political movements. For Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in the United States, in their co-authored 1967 book Black Power , the movement called for Black unity, a recognition of Black heritage, including African roots, and the need to build a sense of community in which Blacks define their own goals and aspirations, lead their own institutions, and fully participate in the decisions that have an impact on their lives. Black Power was not simply about Black visibility or having more Blacks in political office. It rejected institutional racial oppression and demanded “an effective share in the total power of the society.” 3 African-American struggles were a galvanizing force, and the movement represented by Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and George Jackson, among many others, became symbols of both the limits and possibilities of human freedom.
In a direct sense, this struggle was acutely experienced in Canada, a country whose history, from its inception as a settler colony, has been intricately tied to its powerful neighbour to the south. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border. They are the world’s largest trading partners, the implications of which were brought to the attention of Canadians in Silent Surrender: The Multinational Corporation in Canada , Kari Polanyi Levitt’s classic 1970 study of Canada’s economic capitulation to the United States. Historically, though, more than goods have circulated between Canada and its southern neighbour. People, and ideas, have also traversed the continent’s relatively porous borders. Dating back to the days of slavery, the Underground Railroad, Black railway porters, and the civil rights movement, the transnational character of North America’s Black population is long-standing. But the Black Power movement had a strong presence in Canada and found a particular embodiment in the Montreal of the 1960s. The city became a “Mecca” for Black and Caribbean students and a centre for revolutionary thought. 4 The movement was an attempt by Blacks to exercise an internally generated vision of themselves and their place in the world. Black Power ushered in an era of heightened political consciousness in which Blacks asserted their right to live a life of freedom; in response to this assertion of Black humanity and the call for real power “of the people,” Canadian and U.S. state security took quasi-legal steps to eliminate this expression.
While Fear of a Black Nation is not a history, its approach is largely historical in so far as it focuses on Black politics in Montreal during a particular moment in time, beginning with the story of the 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Sir George Williams Affair – and situating these events within the framework of global and North American history and evolving conceptions of race. The wider Black and anti-colonial struggles – and the role of the diaspora in shaping politics and history – form an integral part of this story. Ultimately, Fear of a Black Nation is a reflection on the politics of race as a central part of the prevailing social, economic, and political hierarchy that shapes our daily lives.
In the 1960s Montreal was a hotbed of radical ideas, a place where intellectuals such as C.L.R. James, Albert Memmi, Immanuel Wallerstein, Walter Rodney, Lloyd Best, Andre Gunder Frank, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Salvador Allende, and, of course, Stokely Carmichael, among other theorists and politicos, lived, sojourned, or at the very least made significant visits and had a large impact through their writings. French philosophers and writers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had a special intellectual and political resonance in Quebec, and the ideas of Marx and Marxism and anti-colonial thought found fertile ground in Montreal cafés, meeting rooms, and university hallways. 5 The writings of Martiniquans Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Édouard Glissant played a particularly strong role in the growth of Quebec’s political and intellectual milieu. Pierre Vallières’s classic Nègres blancs d’Amérique: Autobiographie précoce d’un “terroriste” québécois (1968) was arguably the most influential book written by a French Quebecer in this period, but at the same time during which the author claimed that French Quebecers were the “White niggers of the Americas,” Blacks in Montreal were deeply engaged in organizing themselves to confront the colour line. 6
It was during this period that a little-known group named the Caribbean Conference Committee (CCC), along with its left political core, the C.L.R. James Study Circle (CLRJSC), became active. Influenced by the ideas of the revolutionary thinker and historian James, originally from Trinidad, the CCC established itself in 1965 not just to organize meetings but to theorize change in the Caribbean and delve into a range of current political issues. 7 Between 1965 and 1967 the CCC organized a series of conferences and activities that brought many of the Caribbean’s leading thinkers and artists to the city. 8 The meetings were attended by West Indians living in Canada, the United States, Britain, and the West Indies and raised awareness about social, cultural, and political developments in the Caribbean. The CCC essentially disbanded after its third conference in 1967, but both the Committee and the CLRJSC would prove to be profoundly important to the emergence of Montreal as an important site of Black politics and the resurgence of a wave of left political movements that emerged in the anglophone Caribbean in the late sixties.
In interviews that I carried out over the years, many of the Black political actors I spoke to seemed to be representing the present in the past. Their responses to my questions were clearly influenced by contemporary history and the prevailing social and economic circumstances under which Blacks live. As such, their reflections lead to a complicated question: how would contemporary perspectives of the sixties by Black actors change if their aims had been realized – if we lived in a more egalitarian society and if the euphoria that characterized independence in the Caribbean and Africa had translated into fulfilled hopes and dreams for the vast majority of their populations? Of course, this is an impossible question to answer accurately, but it is perhaps fair to say that, following the logic of how memories of the past are shaped by the present, our understanding of the past would be somewhat different. Not surprisingly, the reflections of many of those I have interviewed were often sensitive and nuanced, even when, and perhaps sometimes as a result of, being framed by persistent ideological beliefs that stem back to the 1960s.
Voices of dissent and the left – that broad political category that includes a range of ideas, groups, and movements – have historically played central roles in shaping public consciousness, despite, and in many ways as a result of, being largely excluded from power. In the 1960s the left momentarily shifted political momentum in its favour in ways that continue to reverberate today. Black-led social movements and the Black left played a critical role in this historic moment, although they are largely portrayed as being detached from the dominant narratives that shape our understanding of who makes and has made history. Montreal was an important part of this historical moment, and Black politics helped to define it.
In part, this book probes the significance and implications of competing perspectives on the presence of Blacks in Montreal in the 1960s. By this I mean the literal presence of Blacks in Montreal as well as their social status from both their own vantage point and that of the Canadian state and its security arm. When Blacks began to publicly occupy space in Montreal and exercise their political will, state security personnel took notice. The state was determined to defend itself from both a perceived threat from within and the potential for this threat to spread beyond Canada’s borders. One perspective on these issues saw the potential, the sense of possibility, the “freedom dreams” that a transcendent Black political presence might engender; the other recognized these same possibilities, but rendered them a nightmare, a genuine threat to be monitored and contained. A glimpse of the dynamic between these poles provides important insights into the practice of state security – with its apparent and hidden motives – and the inner workings of racial exclusion.
Slavery in the Americas, including Quebec and English Canada, had its unavoidable “afterlife,” to use a term introduced by Saidiya Hartman. 9 In this afterlife, racial codes implanted in the regime of slavery operate in ways that contort our daily human encounters and distort our sense of humanity and of who is entitled to be considered fully human. In Hartman’s compelling words: “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black Americans, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.” 10 This, she says, “is the afterlife of slavery.”
Hartman’s notion of the afterlife draws on the history of slavery in the United States. In Canada the standard histories rarely mention the historical fact of slavery in this country; and, when they do, they tend to dismiss slavery as having played a minor part in the social life of the nation. Slavery undoubtedly occupies a limited space in the everyday consciousness of Canadians. At the Congress of Black Writers, for example, when the issue of the racial legacy of slavery in the Americas came up, it was obvious that organizers and participants were not overly occupied with slavery’s history in Canada. 11 Yet while slavery’s economic contribution to Canada was negligible compared to the use of Black slave labour in other parts of the Americas, contemporary Canada has inherited the racial codes and attitudes that slavery engendered, and certainly the fact of slavery in Canada cannot be taken for granted.
Published in 1960, Marcel Trudel’s Deux siècles d’esclavage au Québec was the first major popular study of slavery in New France. Another, more recent, study, Frank Mackey’s Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal (2010), also provides insight into the history of slavery in Montreal. Published almost fifty years apart, these books shed light on a long history of racial exclusion rooted in slavery’s Canadian past, and on how this history has been documented.
The first recorded Black slave arrived in New France from Madagascar or, it has also been suggested, Guinea in 1628. Baptized Olivier Le Jeune (Le Jeune was the surname of his Jesuit spiritual teacher), the young slave was responsible for what is perhaps the first instance of Black consciousness in Canada. Asked by his maîtresse whether he wanted to be baptized so that he could become like his masters, Le Jeune responded: “You say that when baptized I will become like you. I am Black and you are White. I would have to remove my skin to become like you.” 12
Between 1632 and 1834, when the British abolished slavery in its colonies, Black slaves trickled into Quebec. As few as five arrived between 1691 and 1700, 121 came between 1741 and 1750, and the number peaked at 337 between 1781 and 1790. Slaves – most of whom lived in Quebec City and Montreal – were never more than a tiny minority of the population. 13 But size is one thing, and social significance is another. Most of the Black slaves worked as farm hands or domestics, and they took their place alongside panis or Indigenous slaves. Trudel’s book, for example, has a 1745 reference to men, women, children, nègres , and “sauvages.” 14 The pecking order was clear. White men, as customary, came first, followed by White women and their children, all of them considered full human beings. Blacks were thought of as being outside the boundaries of humanity, and Indigenous peoples were, simply, savages.
The non-humanity of slaves made them the absolute property of their masters. At best they were treated with paternalism; at worst they were exploited, disciplined, and punished with the support of the judicial system. Trudel acknowledges that slaves were possessions in much the same way that animals were. They were often traded for animals or used as security for unpaid debts. Offers for sale were announced in the Gazette de Québec . Slaves were beaten by their masters and treated with a paternalism commensurate with their perceived naïveté. Yet, in an apparent apologia, Trudel goes to great lengths to demonstrate the mild nature of slavery in Quebec. We learn, for example, that Quebec slave masters did not practise Louis XIV’s Code Noir , a series of rigorous and severe rules that codified and regimented slave life – health, food and provisions, clothing, sex – in French territories. 15 According to historian Afua Cooper, the Code was applied, “when they thought it necessary,” by New France’s slaveholders “to give legal foundation to slavery.” 16
Yet Trudel argues that slaves in New France, despite being dominated and controlled by their masters, were often affectionate towards their owners. At times slaves risked their own lives in their masters’ defence, perhaps, according to Trudel, because some of these slave-owners were kind to them. Human relations are complicated, and perhaps more so under circumstances of domination, but simply to speak of affection between masters and slaves outside of the repressive context of the master-slave relationship lends credence to the myth of the happy-go-lucky, passive slave, the “adopted children,” as Trudel refers to them, who were content with their state of submission. 17
Trudel’s narrative implies that, although Quebec does have a slave past, the severity of that condition was limited. In this sense, it reads like a Quebec version of the moral superiority from which Canadians often draw comfort through believing that racism in Canada is not, and has never been, as severe as it is and was in the United States. For example, Trudel tells how, between 1632 and 1834, Blacks represented only 20.9 per cent of francophone-owned slaves (the rest of the slaves were Indigenous peoples), compared to 69.5 per cent for anglophones. Despite acknowledging in considerable detail that slaves were beaten, tortured, and even executed for transgressions such as attempting to escape or, more commonly, theft, he makes a point of remarking that, unlike New Orleans or the French Caribbean, Quebec had not a single instance of armed slave insurrection. While documenting the fear that the state’s neglect of slaves would cause them to become a criminal menace to society, he emphasizes that, despite their conditions, slaves had the same recourse to the law as non-slaves; at times they were punished less severely than free citizens were, and, on occasion, they were freed for good behaviour. 18
Frank Mackey’s Done with Slavery examines master-slave relations in Montreal under slavery. Some slave-owners, he argues – people like James McGill (after whom McGill University is named) – were basically good people providing that we do not judge them by today’s standards, if we keep in mind that slavery was generally accepted as a fact of life at the time. Mackey does acknowledge that slavery functioned on the assumption of White superiority and the “natural right” to enslave Blacks, and that Blacks “had their fill of condescension, mistreatment, slights.” Nonetheless, he contends that Black slaves “were treated much the same way as white servants,” and that “Physical brutality was not a hallmark of their treatment, it seems.” 19
According to Mackey, of the roughly 1,000 Blacks living in Montreal between 1760 and 1840, only 390 of them had been enslaved in Canada at one point or another. Comparing slavery to a form of cancer that did not metastasize in Quebec, he offers an account that reduces slavery to numbers in a way that serves to downplay the lived experiences of the slaves themselves and to undermine, like Trudel, any possible understanding of how slavery’s past contributed to the limited life chances of Blacks in Canada in the present. 20
Drawing on the work of Hartman, Jared Sexton calls for a closer inspection of the system and practice of slavery. The effect of the slaves’ state of bondage was not restricted to those who lived under the whims of their masters, but extended to the entire non-Black population, for whom blackness was, and remains, indelibly linked with the institution of slavery. Black slave women were not only property that toiled for their masters; they also reproduced their masters’ wealth in the form of slave children. 21 Today’s enduring stereotype of the sexually licentious Black woman is rooted in a time when Black women were at the mercy of their masters. 22 So too is Black criminalization. The idea that slaves would attempt to be free was unthinkable; and the criminalization of attempts to exercise freedom, 23 to simply act “normal” (here we must include rebellion within the realm of normalcy too), was, at its extreme, punishable by death, with the convicted serving as an example for other would-be rebels. Under slavery, simple assertions of freedom, everyday human existence, and the exercise of human intelligence were criminalized. The legacy of this absolute power over Black lives is what Sexton describes as a process of permanent destabilization in which Black bodies remain indelibly linked with slavery, with the sins of former masters revisiting former slaves in the present. 24 Reflecting on this experience in relation to Canada, theorist Rinaldo Walcott writes, “From plantation to ghetto to prison is the trajectory of poor and working poor blacks.” He adds: “Such a trajectory cannot be divorced from the history of transatlantic slavery and what can only be described as its lingering techniques.” 25
The concept of the afterlife permits us, then, to recognize how the past infuses the present, profoundly, and negatively, shaping the lives of Blacks in the diaspora and in Africa. Slavery and colonialism ultimately left Africa lagging behind Europe economically, and the West continues to reap the rewards of slavery in the present. The concept also helps to explain why acts of Black dissent and the prospect of interracial solidarity in sixties Canada were met with extreme anxiety, extra-judicial measures, and repression by state authorities.
This book’s title recalls the name of the classic Public Enemy album, Fear of a Black Planet . My slightly altered title hinges on the competing nationalisms that emerged in Canada in the 1960s, and the fear that nations are “blackened” by the increased and public presence of Blacks. Still, I do retain “Fear of a Black Planet” as the title of chapter 8 , not just because of my appreciation for Public Enemy, but largely because the phrase best captures the worldliness of what I describe as biosexuality. That term – biosexuality, or biosexual politics – refers to a primeval fear of Blacks that is based in slavery and colonialism and the recurring need to discipline and control Black bodies – to force Blacks in particular to conform to the racial codes that govern their relations with other groups. It is a phenomenon intimately connected to both a fear of Black rebellion and self-activity, or self-organization, and an intense anxiety about the biological and political spread of blackness through Black-White solidarity and sexual encounters. It is about the perceived or potential threat that Blacks represent to the state. Far too often race is seen as a “Black problem” or an issue that can be separated from politics in general. The fear that the political presence of Blacks in Montreal engendered in 1968–69 and beyond reminds us of the prominent place that race continues to occupy in our consciousness and the role that racial oppression plays in our daily lives.
Biosexuality has deep roots in English-Canadian and French-Canadian history and is reflected in official and popular attitudes towards people of African descent. It is a phenomenon that plagues the Americas and the global North. It functions in primordial ways that are deeply embedded in the subconscious, haunting intimate relationships in a manner that is tantamount to having George Orwell’s Big Brother in the bedroom. As state security files documenting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s surveillance of Black political groups and individuals in Montreal in the 1960s reveal – alongside the panic that governed the police analysis – this sheer sense of dread is hardly new; and the persistence of racial exclusion is an indication that we have collectively failed to understand the history of “race” and its deep-seated psychology; how race permeates all sectors of society in ways that limit the life chances of Blacks and serve as an obstacle to human freedom in general.
Black politics in the 1960s represented a struggle by Blacks to realize their full humanity, to validate themselves through their own action. Not only was the quest self-reflective, but it also sought recognition from old masters in their new guises, abandoning while at times reinvesting in the perennial master-slave dynamic. It was an exercise in exorcism in which Blacks unleashed centuries of pent-up anger, anxiety, and frustration and attempted to abandon the demons that slavery and colonization had invested in their minds and bodies. One theorist argues that, under the present crisisridden system of global capitalism, human life is being increasingly reduced to naked or bare life in which states exert increasing control over human bodies. 26 Blacks have been familiar with this form of regime under slavery, colonialism, and institutional and systemic forms of anti-Black racism. At a crucial moment in the history of pre-capitalist production, the forced, free labour of Blacks under the slave regime was crucial to the global economy. This process had a further implication: the negation of Blacks as intellectual beings and creators of culture. It should, then, come as no surprise that Black art forms are also frequently reduced to an essential essence, a kind of physicality that ignores the work and dedication, intellectual or otherwise, that their creation involves. Of course, the irony here is that Black-derived culture and creativity – the blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, reggae, hip hop, dance, and sport (including its aesthetics) – have been a defining part of global popular culture and, in the U.S. and Caribbean contexts, are component parts of the national political fabric. 27
Not too long ago a wise friend argued that the left’s inability to come to terms with race has historically been an impediment to building a sustainable left movement. Canada suffers from the same “solidarity blues.” A primary measure of a social movement’s validity, after all, is the degree to which society’s most marginalized and dispossessed are part of and genuinely reflected in the social vision proposed by the movement. It is my hope that this book will play a part in removing the obstacles that limit not only our creative potential but also our capacity to build the new society that continues to elude us.

This mental mobilization process here in Canada is in part facilitated by the ongoing race war in the United States which is so close by. But in more specific ways, a series of events in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada … mobilized Blacks towards a sensitive and acute awareness of the problems of Blacks.
– Dennis Forsythe, Let the Niggers Burn! The Sir George Williams Affair and Its Caribbean Aftermath , 1971
The sixties: speaking of the time as a period of tremendous tumult and upheaval has become something of a cliché. Popular memory of the time tends to reduce the sixties to neat vignettes about youth rebellion and the changing of the old guard, with the discussion more or less ending at that point. But if the characterization of the sixties as a moment of youthful rebellion has any merit, the inverse is also true: the decade was also a time of intense reaction, of conservatism and state repression of dissidents. It was a time when old guards of many kinds attempted to retain established orders and resist the momentum of change.
To speak of the sixties as a radical moment of global upsurge, then, is also to imply the presence of its opposite: that the revolutionary fervour of the sixties emerged in opposition to colonialism, imperial designs, and the stifling sense of alienation experienced by so many people across the globe. In the United States this clash in turn led to a right-wing reaction in the form of Ronald Reagan, elected as governor in California in 1966; to the repression and campaign of liquidation of the Black Panther Party (BPP); to Richard Nixon’s escalation of the war in Vietnam and attacks on both the Black Power movement and other dissident groups at home; and a political climate that led to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, followed by that of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. In Canada, state security not only stepped up its surveillance of dissident groups across the country, but actively took steps to disrupt them, including Black groups. The 1969 Sir George Williams Affair resulted in the arrest and detention of nearly one hundred protesters. In October 1970, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the War Measures Act was invoked following the kidnappings of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec provincial minister Pierre Laporte – with Laporte being eventually executed by members of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). The War Measures Act and the declaration of a state of emergency led to the suspension of civil liberties and the military occupation of the streets of Montreal. By the 1980s Canada, the United States, and Britain would have all elected conservative governments that systematically worked towards destroying social gains achieved in the sixties.
Despite the backlash, what makes the 1960s such a remarkable, unique historical moment is that so many people from so many different parts of the world exercised their right to express public dissent and opposition to the existing order – often putting their lives at stake. And within the full scope of the 1960s, 1968 in particular stands out. The year began with the launching of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, which symbolically marked the beginning of the military and moral defeat of the U.S. armed forces. In May a political upheaval in France came close to overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle, and, as Kristin Ross points out in her analysis of that time, many of the activists came from a generation that drew inspiration from the Vietnamese struggle against French and then U.S. imperialism. They were also profoundly influenced by the Algerian liberation struggle, which underlined the brutal reality of French colonialism. 1 In 1968 popular uprisings erupted and were suppressed in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other parts of Europe. In Pakistan a popular movement attempted to topple the military government of Ayub Khan, who finally had to relinquish power in 1969. Resistance to the Vietnam War grew not just in the United States but around the world.
At the same time Cuban revolutionary internationalism continued to inspire hope that a new world was possible in the midst of the old, while the small island just south of the state of Florida also had to contend with the internal and external challenges of building socialism in a hostile geopolitical environment. In January 1968 Cuba hosted a major cultural congress that brought together writers, artists, and political thinkers from all over the world. The Congreso Cultural de la Habana included a number of Caribbean writers – among them, Andrew Salkey, C.L.R. James, and Aimé Césaire.
For their part, African Americans, including Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael, were among the earliest or most outspoken voices raised in opposition to the Vietnam War. But in parts of the African continent the moment of political exuberance had already passed. Frantz Fanon was among the first to recognize the challenges that confronted nationalist movements after they won independence. He argued that national independence was merely the first phase in the arduous task of gaining a genuine freedom grounded in the realities and aspirations of Africa’s majority. Fanon’s spectre loomed large less than seven years after his death from cancer in 1961. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister, had already been deposed by a military coup d’état in 1966, and by 1968 the Biafra civil war was tearing Nigeria apart. Still, two other events – the remarkable anti-colonial struggle to free Guinea-Bissau from the brutalities of Portuguese colonialism, and the revolt against White supremacist rule in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa – proffered hope of a new day on the continent.
In general, as Mark Kurlansky, another analyst of the year 1968, suggests, the global upsurge of the time came about as a result of a confluence of factors: the example of the relentless campaign for civil rights; a generation of alienated youth who were vehemently opposed to authority; outrage against the Vietnam War; and the development of communications technology that made local events global via the mass media. 2 It proved impossible to escape the stories and images of the Vietnam War (and the massive, largely youth-led, protests against it) and of the mobilization of Blacks around the issue of civil rights in the United States. But by 1968, on the heels of the April 4 assassination of King, many Black activists had made a transition from the civil rights struggle to the Black Power movement. Black Power perhaps best captured the militant mood of that year as the old faith in the civil rights movement and integration began to give way to the reality that those who hold power rarely relinquish it willingly or for moral reasons, or, as so many events around the world demonstrated, without a militant protracted struggle.
Kurlansky’s analysis captures some of 1968’s key determinants, but there were doubtless others. He accounts for but underestimates anti-colonial and anti-imperial sentiment around the world, African and Caribbean liberation struggles, and the significance of the Cuban Revolution. Despite calls to rethink the stark demarcations that have conventionally separated immigrant, civil rights, and Black groups and movements from the new left, both global and Canadian studies of the sixties have routinely excluded the role played by Caribbean and Black Canadian leftists. In the global North, the Caribbean remains synonymous with hedonistic tourist resorts and smiling, happy-go-lucky “locals” bent on attracting coveted tourist dollars by catering to the often fanciful whims of foreigners. The Caribbean is not seen as a place where people actually live and struggle to humanize their existence. Yet the independent Caribbean new left and Canada’s autonomous Black left were integral parts of the political wave that engulfed the globe. 3
People did not simply imitate or react to international struggles that they witnessed via the media. For many, events around the world highlighted their own local injustices. Inspired by what they witnessed, they experienced a kind of kinetic connection and a common sense of purpose, or what George Katsiaficas refers to as the eros effect – “the massive awakening of the instinctual human need for justice and for freedom” 4 – which could otherwise be described as an almost spiritual sensation that connected dissidents across the globe.
In sixties Montreal, French Quebec was grappling with two hundred years of British and anglophone domination. It was struggling, in the words of Pierre Vallières, for “true self-determination … by the recovery of its economic, political, and social rights.” 5 Revolutionary ideas circulated through the classrooms and corridors of high schools, colleges, and universities and in the city’s cafés and factories. As in many other places in the world, in Quebec the independence movement and radical left were influenced by the Black struggle in the United States, and so too was Black politics in Montreal. 6
The Congress of Black Writers (October 11–14, 1968) was organized at McGill University by West Indian students of McGill and Sir George Williams universities and members of the city’s Black community. The four-day gathering at McGill attempted to address issues of colonization and slavery’s contemporary effects, on people of African descent, of rupture, fragmentation, dislocation, racialization, and criminalization – the experiences that Saidiya Hartman describes as slavery’s “afterlife.” 7 For participant Burnley “Rocky” Jones, then a prominent political figure from Nova Scotia – he had become active in Black politics while living in Toronto in the 1960s – the period marked “the most exciting time for Black people in Canada,” a time of intense and endless discussion about Black emancipation and the liberation of the African continent. According to Jones, the wider society was shocked at the presence of Black political-intellectuals in Canada and the expression of an internationalism that connected Blacks from around the world. 8
Much of the success of the Congress was rooted in its weaknesses. As a unifying call, blackness became an absolute experience that cloaked differences, a factor that became particularly evident during the meeting’s discussions about Africa. The continent was largely romanticized at the expense of recognizing significant class and cultural differences – which, as the revolutionary leader and theorist of Guinea-Bissau Amilcar Cabral and Guyanese revolutionary and historian Walter Rodney were pointing out, had facilitated, with the assistance of African elites, colonialism and the European-dominated slave trade of Africans. 9 The Congress had a noticeable lack of speakers from the African continent, Latin America, and the non-anglophone Caribbean. Most glaring was the absence of women speakers. Still, despite its shortcomings, the meeting as a whole signalled a turning point in the political consciousness of the spectrum of Blacks who attended and of those who followed the meeting from a distance through continuing discussions and media coverage.
For many, Stokely Carmichael’s speech on the Black Power movement in the United States was the highlight of the Congress. At the time, he was at the height of his popularity and already considered one of the great orators of his day. As British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1967, “The voice of Stokely Carmichael echoes that of Fidel Castro, Nguyen Huu Tho of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, or Hugo Blanco of the oppressed peasantry of Peru, or Amilcar Cabral of the revolutionary Guinean nation. His voice is of a people no longer prepared to accept oppression and brutality as a normal part of their everyday lives.” 10 The Trinidadian-born African American was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet during a time when the example of the U.S. Black Power movement was serving as an inspiration for movements all over the world. Carmichael had recently left the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party and heir apparent to Malcolm X, the former Nation of Islam leader who was assassinated in 1965 but whose example continued to inspire young Blacks. Writer and former SNCC member Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, who was in the audience when Carmichael spoke, later said he was “curious” about the presentation because he had not been involved in SNCC in recent years and had “never heard the public Carmichael in action.”

Stokely Carmichael and Leon Jacobs, Montreal, October 1968.
I expected no surprises in the political message, and there were none. What I had not anticipated, however, was the effect of his passion and eloquence. Consequently, I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed to find myself suddenly on my feet among the much younger students, close to tears and shouting with an intensity of feeling every bit the equal of theirs. Not my usual style. I’ve often wished to be able to review a tape of that speech to see whether the effect would be repeated and to analyze just how it was achieved. Later I would discover an admission from the great C.L.R. James that he’d had a similar reaction to mine upon hearing Carmichael speak publicly. 11

Rocky Jones and Walter Rodney, Montreal, October 1968.
An audience of some two thousand people was packed into McGill’s Student Union Ballroom. 12 Gripped with anticipation, the crowd rose to a fever pitch as the articulate and charismatic Carmichael demonstrated the versatility of his thinking, shifting his thoughts from Africa and China to Cuba and the United States. Carmichael spoke of the importance of culture in the struggle for liberation, declaring, “It is necessary for Africans (and I make no distinctions between Africans living on the continent or Africans living abroad) … to begin to understand the culture which has been plundered, purposely and maliciously, by White Western society.” He went on: “It is a necessity for us to pick up that culture and begin to use it as a unifying tool because a culture is a cohesive force for a people. … It is a cohesive force for a people (applause).” 13 Carmichael might well have caught his audience off guard when, as they sat on the edge of their seats, he spoke of the “undying love” that Black people need to have for one another. According to Carmichael, this love
is not in fact contradictory to revolution because it’s the same type of love that Che Guevara speaks about – the love the revolutionary has – but for the colonized it must be concrete; it must be the love of ourselves that we have to get … and the love of our people, especially for the African because, geographically, we have been scattered all over the world … all over the world (applause).

Leon Jacobs and Stokely Carmichael, Montreal, October 1968.
Echoing the remarks of another speaker, the African-American sociologist Harry Edwards, on the pitfalls of focusing on individual Whites as opposed to the system of institutional racial oppression, Carmichael proclaimed that “revolution is the total destruction of the old system – total destruction – the re-emplacement of a new system which speaks for the masses of the people of a given country.” It was only then, he said, that “you have revolution.” Revolution begins when you take power, and to “talk about revolution before you take power is to be, at best, politically naïve, at worst, stupid (applause and laughter).”
And how is power attained? Carmichael’s response was simple and very much in concert with the heightened political context in which Black Power emerged in the United States.
I don’t think that White Canadians would say that they stole Canada from the Indians (laughter). They said they took it – and they did (applause and laughter). Well then, it’s clear that we can’t work for these lands, we can’t beg for ’em, so we must take them. Then it’s clear that we must take them through revolutionary violence.
Long before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and given the brutal force used against participants in the civil rights movement, political debate in the United States in the period was often framed in terms of a choice between non-violence and violence. King was often counterposed to the more militant Malcolm X and other voices that challenged King’s approach. The Black Panther Party defended the right to use arms to protect Black neighbourhoods from brutal police. Rebellions were gripping U.S. cities in which Blacks lashed out against the existence of the segregated urban ghettoes to which they had been consigned and the systemic racism that limited their life possibilities. In this context, even after accounting for the performative nature of his presentation, in which he masterfully toyed with the emotions of his audience, Carmichael’s remarks reflected the political temper of the time.
As reflected in Josie Wallen’s anxiety upon discovering in the 1990s that Carmichael had contracted cancer, Carmichael’s speech, and perhaps more importantly his very presence in Montreal, left an indelible imprint on the minds of everyone who sat in the ballroom of McGill University’s Student Union Building that day. But it was the range of Black political figures – despite obvious limitations of representation – that made the event memorable and rich with meaning. For example, the Trinidadianborn revolutionary C.L.R. James was an active force in Caribbean, socialist, and pan-African politics from the 1930s and one of the twentieth century’s true polymaths. 14 As the author of a novel, short stories, books on Marxism and international socialism, and two classics – one on cricket and the aesthetics of sport and the other on the history of the Haitian Revolution – James was a genuine legend by the time that he attended the Congress. He had left Trinidad for London, and there, in the 1930s, he had worked alongside his boyhood friend, the legendary pan-Africanist from Trinidad, George Padmore, and a number of Africans: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, among others. As a prominent socialist in Europe he collaborated with Leon Trotsky when the former leader of the Russian Revolution was exiled in Mexico; and in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States he made important theoretical contributions to Marxist theory as a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, an organization he co-founded and that was alternately a faction within the Workers Party and Socialist Workers Party. James made three presentations at the Congress: two on slavery, including a discussion of the Haitian Revolution, and one on Negritude, which he presented in French. In his sweeping account of the Haitian Revolution, he situated the slave uprising within the context of the American, French, and Cuban revolutions. He pointed out that in the case of the French Revolution a symbiotic relationship existed between it and its Haitian counterpart, with each of them feeding into the revolutionary fervour of the other. He also argued that the Haitian Revolution was the precursor of the Cuban. 15
The Congress of Black Writers represented the passing of the torch from one generation of pan-African and Black radicals – James and his Barbadian-born counterpart Richard B. Moore, formerly of the African Blood Brotherhood and the U.S. Communist Party, who was also at the Congress – to another, which included Carmichael and Walter Rodney. 16 Indeed, James later became a kind of iconic mentoring figure to some of the proponents of Black Power and Black studies, as well as to members of the broad new left in the United States. This influence came about not only because of the flexibility of his thought and the allure of his ideas, but also in large part because of the activities of the Caribbean Conference Committee, which in previous years had organized the meetings that reintroduced James to a North American audience in the lead-up to the Congress.
One of the founding members of the CCC was a protegé of James’s, Robert A. Hill, a young Jamaican studying at the University of Toronto. He too presented a talk at the Congress, and although his presentation was not one of the most anticipated sessions, at the end of it he received extended applause – evidence of the resounding appeal of his ideas. Hill’s talk was a phenomenological reflection on Black Power from the Haitian Revolution to the Marcus Garvey movement. In what he referred to as the metaphysics of Black liberation, he counterposed what he described as moments of silence with the conscious actions of Blacks to shatter that silence and assert their humanity. In this sense, although the title of his talk was listed in the Congress program as “The Fathers of Modern Revolt: Garvey, etc.,” it could have been more appropriately titled “Beyond the Mournful Silence,” which was the name he had given to a presentation two years before in Detroit. 17
After returning to Jamaica upon completing his studies in Toronto in 1967, Hill became a founder of the political organization Abeng and editor of its weekly newspaper by the same name. 18 He worked closely with Rodney, collaborating with him in the “groundings” sessions that would afterwards become famous as a result of the book The Groundings with My Brothers . 19 Prior to the Congress of Black Writers, Rodney was a precocious young historian from Guyana who was quietly making waves in England. He was among a number of young West Indians who were part of a study circle in the London home of C.L.R. and Selma James. Rodney’s presence at the Congress of Black Writers would change all of that, ushering him onto the world stage as a historian of African history and an emerging political voice. It was at the Congress that Rodney came into contact with some of the key figures of the Black Power and Black studies movement in the United States and with members of the Caribbean left with whom he would later collaborate. 20
Best known today as the author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and The Groundings with My Brothers , Rodney made three important statements in Montreal in October 1968. “Statement of the Jamaica Situation” was co-authored with Hill, and “Groundings with My Brothers” appeared in the book of that same name in 1969. But his main presentation at the Congress was on the topic of “African History in the Service of Black Liberation.” Rodney avoided what can be called the “great kings and queens syndrome,” which measured a society’s worth based on such things as the existence and power of its royalty, the size of its army, its political structure, and its literature. He rejected this notion of civilization in favour of concepts that reflected how people related with one another in a given society. Hence, Rodney’s presentation featured a discussion on the practice of hospitality, the principle of gerontocracy, and law in Africa. Significantly, after presenting his notion of African history to a primarily North American and Caribbean audience, Rodney went on to suggest that this history, beyond its cathartic value, was particularly relevant to the current social development of Africa, and that the history of Blacks in the New World would equally serve as a useful tool in working out a “revolutionary strategy” for the Americas. 21
The present that we inhabit is cloaked in the shadow of this past, and events in Black Montreal in the sixties represented an attempt to confront, come to terms with, and move beyond the constraints of history, but without leaving the past behind. The Congress was not a literary event. In keeping with the many pan-African meetings that had been held in Europe since the turn of the twentieth century, the conference was very much a political gathering that was deeply rooted in Montreal’s Black community. But it also influenced events that would unfold throughout the Caribbean. After the Congress Rodney was banned from Jamaica, where he had been teaching at the University of the West Indies. Despite his popularity on the university campus, Rodney was labelled an undesirable by Jamaica’s government because, as a Guyanese expatriate, he had engaged in alleged subversive political discussions, “groundings,” with Jamaica’s condemned and downtrodden. 22
In his novel Joey Tyson the Jamaican-British author Andrew Salkey captured the scene of Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica through the fictional character Dr. Paul Bogle Buxton. The name Bogle refers to Paul Bogle, who led the famous Morant Bay Rebellion, a revolt of peasants against the planter class in Jamaica in 1865. Buxton is a village on Guyana’s coast that is largely populated by people of African descent. Salkey writes: “They were all waiting for the arrival of Dr. Paul Bogle Buxton, the radical lecturer in African History at the university, who was returning from a Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal.” Upon his arrival Dr. Buxton is informed “that the government had issued an Exclusion Order, banning him from re-entering the country to continue his teaching.” Hearing the news, “Dr. Buxton, a slight soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties, asked, ‘So, in Jamaica, to be Black is to be dangerous, eh?’ His arms were folded across the upper part of his short-sleeved Nyerere shirt. He held his passport in his right hand.” 23
After the expulsion Rodney returned to Montreal and, following a brief sojourn there, according to Congress organizer Raymond Watts, left for Cuba via France after Cuban intelligence, communicating with the Montreal-based Haitian exile and socialist Dr. Max Chancy, informed Watts of an imminent threat to Rodney’s life. 24 Rodney eventually returned to Tanzania, where he had taught prior to lecturing in Jamaica.
News of Rodney’s expulsion sparked protest in Jamaica and protest in North America and England. 25 The formation of the Jamaican-based Abeng, which came about largely in response to Rodney’s expulsion and the ensuing “Rodney Riots,” also marked the beginning of a new era for the Caribbean left, and many of the other Caribbean groups and movements that emerged in this period had a Montreal or Canadian connection, or were connected to former members of the CCC and its kindred group and left political core, the C.L.R. James Study Circle. The CLRJSC, which, like the CCC, was co-founded by Hill, was dedicated to the study of James’s work as well as Marxism, philosophy, politics, and any other discipline that contributed to an understanding of revolutionary politics. The group also played an important role in promoting and distributing James’s published work.
The news media in Canada, including the French-language press in Montreal – Le Devoir , La Presse , and the Université de Montréal’s Quartier Latin – gave extensive coverage to the Congress. But an October 23 special issue of Le Devoir went beyond coverage and featured interviews with James and Rodney, an analysis of the work of the African-American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, and features on the plight of African Americans. The Montreal Star , Gazette , McGill Daily , and McGill Reporter also covered the Congress extensively, and many of the articles were sympathetic to the meeting’s goals. But for the most part the English-Canadian media appeared to be stunned, if not stung, by the tone of the Congress of Black Writers. As Rodney lamented shortly after the Congress, aside from the McGill Daily , the press – and based on its coverage of the Congress we can assume he was referring to the English-language press – was primarily concerned with reporting on “nice little juicy bits about violence” and failed to recognize the historic significance of this international gathering. 26
Reporting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, journalist Marion McCormick expressed her dismay and befuddlement that Whites in attendance “clapped with insane enthusiasm as speaker after speaker abused them. … Perhaps they were working off their guilt by submitting to this kind of flagellation.” McCormick found some consolation, however, in how “there were few Canadian Blacks at the meeting and just about no Montrealers.” She added, “The Congress was put on by the West Indian students at McGill and it was very much a gathering of foreigners.” 27 Exactly how McCormick distinguished the Montrealers and the “real” Black Canadians from the “foreigners” is open to speculation, especially considering that several members of the Congress organizing committee were born and raised in Canada.
But even McCormick was forced to admit that the Congress lifted the fog that obscured Canadian racism. It served as a wake-up call for Whites in Canada who had become comfortably self-satisfied as they read and watched accounts of racial discrimination in the United States, secure in their belief that those problems did not exist in Canada. Despite his criticism of “propagandistic” presentations and of how the conference never seemed able to decide whether it was a public event or private Black affair, Boyce Richardson of the Montreal Star , at the time one of the city’s two major English daily newspapers, acknowledged that the Congress and the Black Power movement in general had the “entirely laudable purpose of building a solidarity, sense of unity, and self-respect among black people everywhere.” Richardson also praised the contributions of “the big guns” present, as he described them – James Forman, Harry Edwards, and Stokely Carmichael – on questions of national independence and the dehumanizing effects of racism and colonialism. 28
The militant atmosphere of the Congress helped to set the tone for the subsequent events at Sir George Williams, which involved a number of individuals who had either attended the Congress or helped to organize it. The Sir George Williams Affair began in the spring of 1968 when several Caribbean students filed a complaint to the university administration charging that a science professor was either deliberately failing them or awarding them low grades. When the administration failed to take action, the complainants, partly spurred by the Congress, rallied other students on campus as well as members of the Black community; and a group of protesters eventually occupied the university’s nerve centre, the computer room. By the time the two-week occupation ended, on February 11, 1969, the news media had saturated the general public with the idea that the protesters were rabble-rousers, violent communists, or Maoist agents. 29 In the end, as onlookers gathered outside the Henry F. Hall Building, site of the occupation, to witness the final confrontation, 30 many of their worst impressions were confirmed. For reasons that have never been officially established, the computer centre somehow caught fire, with many of the protesters who had occupied it still inside. While onlookers on the street below watched with alarm as smoke emerged from the building, less sympathetic members of the crowd began to chant “Let the niggers burn!” Meanwhile, stunned supporters of the protesters were parading placards inscribed “Montreal, Alabama,” and with other references that highlighted Canadian racism and equated it with Southern segregation. 31
In the aftermath of Sir George, the Montreal Central Council of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), one of Quebec’s major union federations, came out in support of the protest and called for the release of those who were arrested. The CSN also questioned the significance attached to the damaged property – computers – over the issue of racism that had spurred the protest in the first place. Similar sentiments were printed in Quartier Latin and the McGill Daily . 32 During the trial of the arrested protesters a leaflet was passed around which declared: “NOUS LES NÈGRES BLANCS D’AMÉRIQUE SOUTENONS NOS FRÈRES” (We the white niggers of America support our [Black] brothers). 33
In October 1969 several students and members of Montreal’s Black community also occupied the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where a joint African Studies Association (ASA)/Canadian African Studies Association conference was in session. Many of them had been involved in both the Congress of Black Writers and the Sir George Williams Affair. 34 They, along with members of the African Heritage Studies Association led by African-American historian John Henrik Clarke, former editor of Freedomways , demanded the inclusion and greater participation of Africans and people of African descent within the ASA. In disrupting the meeting and raising the question of academic inclusion, their actions helped put the question of academic racism in African studies on the agenda in North America. 35 In a brief admonishment printed on page three of the October 14, 1969, edition of Uhuru , the occupation of that meeting was presaged: “Although the word ‘African’ occurs throughout this announcement, these two associations are not composed of people who relate to Africans wherever they may be or to the study of them. … It is high time that black people stop these ‘black experts’ from setting up forums from which they try to be authorities on black people. These ‘black experts’ live in their white suburbs on grants given them for black studies.” The occupation of that meeting by Black students, the disaffection of a number of Black scholars, and their eventual departure from the U.S. African Studies Association proved to be a defining moment in the history of African and Africana studies in North America.
Much like the Congress of Black Writers, the Sir George Williams Affair sparked protest in the Caribbean. Canada’s Governor General Roland Michener was confronted by hostile students during his “goodwill” visit to Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados in February 1969. In Trinidad he had to be removed from the campus for his own security. 36 In the following year, mass protest gripped Trinidad, sparked by the trial of ten Trinidadians in Montreal for their involvement in the Sir George incident. 37 These protests spiralled into weeks of demonstrations against the government of Eric Williams in Trinidad, breathed life into what evolved into Trinidad’s Black Power movement, and – within a larger, more complicated set of events – contributed to the near overthrow of Williams’s government by the local military. 38
In many ways the Congress of Black Writers was itself about memory. One of its expressed goals was to retrieve “histories we have been taught to forget,” to recall a near-lost past in order to chart a course into the present. For Blacks of the diaspora, the tension between memory and the loss of memory has been a defining feature. Forced migration from Africa to the Americas and the persistent negation of Black humanity ensured that the ghosts of the past would haunt the present. Blacks have constantly sought both to hold on to and to retrieve faded memories of the past, to grasp a sense of an at-times illusory Africa and to seize genuine moments of resistance and revolt against White domination. Black or diasporic memory is about survival.
But can we genuinely speak of authentic Black or diasporic memory, a coherent experience drawn from disparate histories? Political scientist Michael Hanchard encourages us to think about “black memory as horizontally constituted, with its archaeological deposits strewn across several time zones and territories,” while state memory “is vertically constituted.” 39 Vertical state memory mirrors the society’s social and economic hierarchy in which women, “races,” and classes are, more or less, confined to allotted places determined by the codes and symbols of inequality embedded in national narratives. In hindsight, we might also think about what transpired in 1960s Montreal as being part of a collision between vertical and horizontal memories. This struggle between the state and Black popular narratives, identities, and experiences was local, international, and transnational, with repercussions not just in Canada but in the United States, Britain, and the Caribbean. Blacks challenged Canada’s official notion of itself as a singular nation-state founded by two nations – the English and the French.
The struggle mirrored and shielded historical power dynamics rooted in slavery and colonial domination, both of which echo into the present day. The tension between the need to meet society’s demands for labour and the desire to protect Canada and its narrative of itself as a pure, innocent, unsullied, and unified nation brought Blacks, along with other dissenting groups, into conflict with the Canadian state. This conflict continues to resound today in society at large, in academia, and behind prison walls.
In the words of historian Mary Chamberlain:
Memories are a key route into revealing and understanding the processes, adjustments and negotiations of migrants, of the mobile liminal worlds they inhabit, of the connections with and longings for home. But they also contain those all-important traces from an older past, those deeper levels of values, attitudes, and behaviors, clues to a collective memory. Diasporic memory is a necessarily layered one which links the black experience and provides a cultural continuity with those back home and overseas. For a community with a tenuous hold on the white narrative of modernity, this is an important asset. 40
Chamberlain’s words underline the characteristic Caribbean sense of double-displacement. As forced migrants to the Caribbean, Blacks faced sparse opportunities there, and many of them migrated to North American or European cities out of economic necessity. Thousands of Caribbean women and men journeyed to Montreal and other Canadian cities in the 1960s and 1970s. West Indians had long been present in Montreal, but at that time the increase in sheer numbers was adding to their visibility, both in the quantitative and qualitative sense. Afro-Caribbean and African immigrants were immediately identifiable in ways that European, and even Asian, immigrants were not, and in the hierarchy of racial codes this identity qualified them as being less desirable than other migrants. They brought with them recollections of home, which included memories of resistance and the burgeoning nationalist and anti-colonial movements in the region. In Montreal they encountered a long-standing Black Canadian community that, despite the palpable sense of alienation that it experienced, had a long history of struggle and had built institutions of various kinds – the Negro Community Centre (NCC), Association of Universal Loyal Negroes, Coloured Women’s Club, a branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Negro Citizenship Association, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, jazz clubs, and Union United Church – in order to humanize their existence in the city. These institutions cushioned the blow of systemic racial discrimination and exclusion in the city, and when the civil rights and Black Power movements erupted in the United States they were not simply seen as a distant outbreak to be admired from afar. Blacks in Canada drew inspiration from those movements because they embodied or symbolized existing conditions in Canada against which Blacks had long been struggling. By the 1960s Montreal had become a quintessential diasporic meeting ground comprising Black Canadians, West Indians and Antilleans, African Americans, and increasing numbers of continental Africans. All of these people bore a collective identity, both constructed and malleable – as “Negro” until the transition was made to the signifier “Black” – but in reality they were the product of both diverse and shared experiences.
The Congress of Black Writers and Sir George Williams Affair were part of a web of concentrated activity that preceded, existed alongside, and endured in the aftermath of these events. The congealed politics of that time was built on the backs of antecedents, both local and international. But why Canada? It is not the first place that comes to mind in association with Black folks, let alone Black politics. Most non-Canadians are still surprised to discover the sizeable existence of people of African descent in Canada. African Canadians still tend to be made into somewhat exotic creatures, almost as if they were a kind of quaint “lost tribe.” Even Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness makes only passing references to Canada. The first comes in relation to jazz musician Donald Byrd, who grew up in Detroit and for whom Windsor, just across the border, symbolized a kind of unusual haven, the antithesis of the oppressive Black-American experience. 41 The second comes in references to the sojourn in Canada of abolitionist and Black nationalist Martin Delaney. 42 And yet Blacks in Canada have long been a part of the Black Atlantic, and in many respects they represent the quintessential Black diasporic population.
Not only have American Blacks historically migrated across the Canadian-U.S. border since the days of slavery, but Black slaves in Canada also escaped to free states south of the border. In the eighteenth century, Black Loyalists, some of them born in Africa, settled in Canada following the American Revolutionary War. In the case of Nova Scotia, some of them lived alongside rebel Maroons who had come north from Jamaica. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes captures this history and experience through the fictional life of Aminata Diallo of the village of Bayo in present-day Mali. As a young girl Aminata is captured and enslaved in South Carolina and then New York. After losing her second child to abductors she joins other African Americans who settled in Nova Scotia in 1783. Aminata is a migrating soul who yearns to return to Africa. Canada becomes home for her, although the miserable conditions under which she and many other Blacks live encourage her migration, along with 1,200 other Blacks, to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1792. She eventually finds her way to England to serve the abolitionist cause and is reunited with her abducted daughter. 43
Blacks in Canada have a long history of struggling for freedom and dignity and against the inhumanity of slavery and racial oppression. But why Montreal? What made the city unique in this historical moment? Not only was Montreal Canada’s industrial capital, but it was also Canada’s cultural capital in terms of fashion, music, and the arts in general. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Britain began to exercise a more restrictive immigration policy, thousands of West Indians flocked to Canada, and particularly to Montreal. By 1968 the city had become home to a small but significant Black population – with about 20 to 30 per cent of the Caribbean immigrants settling there, adding to a long-standing Black Canadian community that during the period amounted to somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people, the majority of them from the Caribbean. 44 In a sense, Montreal became a kind of composite transnational Caribbean island in which West Indians from a range of nations and territories encountered one another while adding to the existing Black population.
The Black presence in Montreal dates back to slavery, and the city has had a Caribbean presence since at least the late nineteenth century. The Caribbean newcomers of the 1960s found a small but active Black community with its well-established institutions. West Indians were not starting from scratch when they arrived there in the sixties, although real differences emerged between the new arrivants and members of the older generation as well as long-standing members of the Black community. Racial barriers in Montreal meant that it was rare for Montreal-born Blacks to attend university. Caribbean Blacks, on the other hand, had grown accustomed to seeing West Indians attend the University of the West Indies or knew of relatives and family friends who had attended universities in North America or Europe, even if they represented a small minority. In other words, university was not outside of the realm of possibility for Caribbean women and men in the same way that it was for so many Black Canadians, and the Caribbean’s young intelligentsia often set their sights on McGill University as the major intellectual centre in the country during this period. At the same time the more open admissions policy at Sir George Williams University also became an entry point for Caribbean women and men to gain access to a post-secondary education, in much the same way that McGill attracted the Caribbean’s intellectual elite.
Montreal was also, in many ways, Canada’s political capital in so far as the “Quebec problem” was seen as central to the fate of the entire country. French Quebec political organizations radicalized the entire society and fostered an atmosphere for left politics of all kinds. Given that Caribbean migrants were leaving behind societies that were political in their own right and, in some instances, had already gone through their “nationalist phase” and were entering the realm of realpolitik , Quebec, and Montreal in particular, proved to be a fertile ground for Black nationalist and Caribbean left politics. The Caribbean-based New World Group, one of the most important pan-Caribbean (largely anglophone) intellectual organizations of the post–Second World War period, found a home in Montreal alongside Black nationalist groups and figures, as did the Caribbean Conference Committee, or at least the C.L.R. James Study Circle, with its renewed sense of pan-Caribbean nationalism combined with Marxism.
The “individual factor” was also a key to Montreal becoming an important site of Black and Caribbean left politics. The CLRJSC was the brainchild of Robert Hill, who was studying law in London when he first encountered James in the early 1960s after being invited by fellow Jamaican Norman Girvan to hear James speak. Hill subsequently participated in a Marxist study group in James’s London home with a number of young Caribbean intellectuals, including Girvan, Joan French, Orlando Patterson, and Richard Small of Jamaica; Walter Rodney; and Walton Look Lai and Raymond Watts of Trinidad. Notably, Watts and Look Lai would also later move to Canada and become members of the CCC, and it was Watts who initiated the planning of the Congress of Black Writers. After a brief return to Jamaica, Hill moved to Canada in 1964 to study political science at the University of Toronto (after spending a year at Carleton University in Ottawa) and became involved in the CCC and CLRJSC as a frequent visitor to Montreal. Although Hill played a prominent role in initiating both groups, there was no shortage of young and active political minds, including, among others, Anne Cools, originally from Barbados, Franklyn Harvey of Grenada, Leonard “Tim” Hector of Antigua, Roosevelt (Rosie) Douglas of Dominica, and Alfonso (Alfie) Roberts of St. Vincent, all of whom became key members of the CCC-CLRJSC. While many of the group’s members returned to the Caribbean or migrated elsewhere, Roberts remained in Montreal as an important figure within Montreal’s Black community and a central link connecting former CCC-CLRJSC members in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Other figures, such as Brenda Dash, Norman Cook, and Yvonne Greer – all of them African Canadians born or raised in Canada – along with West Indians Leroy Butcher, 45 Viola Daniel, and A. Bukka Rennie – were instrumental parts of Black political life in Montreal and played important roles in the Sir George Williams Affair.
The Austrian-born McGill economist Kari Polanyi Levitt was also crucial to Caribbean intellectuals being drawn to Montreal via McGill and especially the university’s Centre for Developing-Area Studies. Levitt, the author of Silent Surrender and the daughter of the Hungarian socialeconomist and theorist Karl Polanyi, had once been a member of Canada’s Communist Party and was active in the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). In Montreal she was a central figure in the local chapter of the New World Group and an adopted member of the city’s Caribbean community. Through Levitt, important Caribbean economists and young intellectuals such as Lloyd Best, Edwin Carrington, William Demas, Alister McIntyre, Alvin Johnson, Hugh O’Neile, Adlith Brown, and Norman Girvan lived, worked, studied, or made significant visits to Montreal. 46
Best in particular was important to Caribbean intellectual life in Canada. As the founder of the New World Group, the Trinidadian economist’s presence in the city between 1966 and 1967, and sporadically after that, was key to bringing Caribbean political, cultural, and economic debates to life in Montreal, as was his collaboration with Levitt on what would eventually be published as Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy: A Historical and Institutional Approach to Caribbean Economic Development . 47 The history of Caribbean intellectual life, and particularly that of economists, in Montreal would have been very different without the presence of Levitt and Best in the city.
Geography also had a hand in these developments. Montreal is largely divided by east and west. French Quebecers have historically lived in the eastern part of the city and the English in the western part. For Blacks the city was largely divided between north and south, literally and symbolically separated by train tracks. Until the 1960s, Blacks largely lived below the tracks in the relatively poor southwest region. This de facto segregation served as an invisible barrier to social mobility and to the city’s more public places. Although these divisions were not absolute, they served to remind people of their place in society, particularly given that English Canadians largely controlled business in Montreal and their office buildings dominated the downtown landscape.
The core of Montreal is centred around a mountain that serves as a kind of centrifugal force drawing the community together in ways that are different than in other major cities – Toronto, for example. People often describe Montreal as having a village-like feel to it. It is a walkable city, and outlying areas such as the West Island and the South Shore are relatively short drives away. Politics can spread through this seeming village like a contagion, and as Black and Caribbean political consciousness heightened in the sixties, it was easy for it to take hold in the streets and on university campuses, three of which are in walking distance from one another. From the southwest, including the neighbourhoods of St. Henri and what is now known as Little Burgundy – both of them historically home to relatively large numbers of Blacks – it is a short walk northwards to Concordia University – what was once Sir George Williams. Situated in the downtown core, Concordia is a short walk west of McGill, and the Université du Québec à Montréal is slightly further east of McGill. The Université de Montréal is further off, but only a short ride away in the district of Côte-des-Neiges, where growing numbers of people of African descent, including West Indians, began to settle in the sixties.
Significantly, too, the Congress and Sir George occurred in the aftermath of Expo 67, the world’s fair that brought people to Montreal from across the country and around the globe. Caribbean pavilions at the fair displayed Caribbean art and culture to the world at a time when Canada’s Caribbean population was growing significantly. Despite the absence of any formal Caribbean-wide political structure with the collapse of the West Indian Federation in 1962, there remained a strong sense of Caribbean nationhood; and West Indians rallied in support of the region’s participation in the fair, which also played a part in the heightened sense of Caribbean and Black consciousness in the city.
Where does Canada fit within debates about the Black diaspora? In the anthology From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution , Michael O. West and William G. Martin invoke the term “Black international.” They describe this concept as “a product of consciousness, that is, the conscious interconnection and interlocution of Black struggles across man-made and natural boundaries – including boundaries of nations, empires, continents, oceans, and seas. From the outset,” they continue, “black internationalism envisioned a circle of universal emancipation, unbroken in space and time.” For West and Martin, “It is a vision personified, respectively, by the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and the U.S. rap legend Tupac Shakur, the one illustrating the struggle against slavery and the other signifying contemporary cultural insurgencies.” 48
Black internationalism implies nationhood – a kind of international nationalism or a vision of Black nationality that imagines Blacks as part of a global population of citizens, a scattered nation that is embedded in but transcends geographic boundaries. Internationalism, like diaspora, is the product of both disruptions and continuities. In other words, successive waves of forced migration – the result of slavery, colonialism, and the economic and political instability wrought by global capitalism – and persistent Black opposition to these processes have produced a sense of national identity, an imagined nation. This identity is rooted in a sense of the shared experience that is a product of racialization and racism in the Americas and Europe; it is entrenched, too, in the global social and economic phenomena that divide Africa and the Caribbean – and other parts of the global South – from the global North. Indeed, it is often mistakenly asserted that African and Caribbean people only identify themselves or become identified as Black when they arrive in Western cities, where their physical appearance becomes a marker of difference. But manifestations of Black Power have a long history in both Africa and the Caribbean, and the migration of cultural and political movements such as Garveyism, the Harlem Renaissance, pan-Africanism, Negritude, and the global reach of Rastafari, reggae music, R B, and hip hop has been an integral part of this tradition.
Black internationalism, then, also implies a transcendence of strict notions of nationality. Blacks have often imagined themselves to be part of a stateless nation comprising both continental Africa and its diaspora. This imagining largely emerged outside Africa, a form of nation born out of a yearning for a place to call home. It has often led to romanticized visions of the African continent that, with notable exceptions – Rastafarian repatriation to Ethiopia and Marcus Garvey’s Liberian plans among them – were not always directly tied to actual geographic locations. But the imaginary is real in so far as it reflects lived experiences – and Blacks, in general, unable ever to hide from the politics of skin colour, often come to acknowledge (both consciously and unconsciously) their shared experiences of the past and present and find a common sense of belonging. That sense of statelessness and an international sense of belonging have inspired outward-looking movements, particularly at times when the weight of oppression and unfreedom has become too much to bear.
In one of the most important books written on the Black diaspora, internationalism, and transnational Black identities since Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic , theorist Richard Iton describes the political potential of the diaspora. The presence of Blacks in the United States, he argues, is rife with political possibilities that unsettle the idea of a cohesive nation-state, a phenomenon that he refers to as the Black diaspora’s “geo-heterodoxy” – its “capacity to imagine and operate simultaneously within, against, and outside the nation-state.” He describes as well the diaspora’s “anarchistinflected imagination … that enables subaltern subjects to push for inclusion among those protected by the prophylactic state while at the same time recognizing the limitations of recognition.” 49
Prevailing notions of diaspora are not as fluid as the term suggests in relation to the Caribbean. Despite the political possibilities that its porous nature suggests, use of the term often implies a kind of geographic stasis and fixity of its own that does not capture the cultural and political to and fro between the Caribbean and its “citizens” abroad. Iton’s work refers instead to the latent potential inherent in the Black diasporic populations’ existence across national boundaries – as in the Garvey movement and other forms of “sepia nationalism” that transcend national and even transnational affiliations and that, notwithstanding the real differences among these groupings, work “across, within, and against states.” 50
Iton’s analysis of the diaspora takes us beyond the strictures of national configurations and into the more genuine lived experiences both within and without porous boundaries. It was precisely the disruptive presence of Blacks, whose sense of geography possessed multiple points of entry and departure, that unsettled Canadian national security and caused it to resort to state-sponsored acts of subversion. In 1968 and 1969 the disruptive and transnational political possibilities of the time would capture the attention of Canadian and U.S. intelligence officials – who, in response to their fear of a Black or blackened nation, would resort to extraordinary measures to contain the perceived threat.

In all his life, he had never seen an English-Canadian and a French-Canadian hostile to each other face to face. When they disliked, they disliked entirely in the group. And the result of these two group-legends was a Canada oddly naive, so far without any real villains, without overt cruelty or criminal memories, a country strangely innocent in its groping individual common sense, intent on doing the right thing in the way some children are, tongue-tied because it felt others would not be interested in what it had to say; loyal, skilled and proud, racememories lonely in great spaces.
– Hugh MacLennan, Two Solitudes , 1945
The militant political tone among Blacks in 1960s Montreal had its origins in the social and political context of earlier years. Despite a history that goes back at least to the seventeenth century, the presence of a Black population was largely disavowed. Until the 1960s, the dominant narrative of race in Canada focused on the English and the French. Seen as distinct races, both were, and continue to be, framed as the country’s two founding nationalities. While other European ethnicities have, to an extent, been able to integrate into the “Canadian mosaic” over time, Blacks have for the most part been left on the sidelines of the nation’s narrative, sitting outside the boundaries of the nation and its entitlements.
Perhaps nowhere is the ubiquity of this narrative more evident than in the fiction of Hugh MacLennan, who, more than two decades after his death, remains one of Canada’s most celebrated authors. Published in 1945, his novel Two Solitudes was written at a time, between the First and Second World Wars, when Canadians, like so many other people around the world, were searching for a national identity. 1 Much of this quest or struggle for a national identity was framed in terms of the difficult relationship between French and English Canada and the cultural, linguistic, and economic divide that separated anglophones and francophones in Quebec.
In exploring the French-English divide, Two Solitudes recycles the romantic mytho-historical narrative of Canada – not as a settler state with a history of conquest of Indigenous peoples and a society that practised slavery – but as a place characterized by the kind of peaceful co-existence that had eluded its neighbour to the south. Described as the War and Peace of Canadian literature, Two Solitudes recalls a historical moment in which skin colour and presumed biological differences were not the sole determinant of racial classification in Canada. The book, set in Montreal, invokes the legend of two “races,” or what we might more appropriately describe as tribes – one English and Protestant, the other French and Catholic. He revisits some of the great Canadian myths – Canada the naive, the innocent, the good; a country of two nations “without any real villains, without overt cruelty or criminal memories.” 2
Indeed, if the French and the English are Canada’s founding “races,” the members of those groups essentially become the only bona fide citizens of the country, effectively negating the humanity of others. Conveniently, the novelist’s tidy formula avoids the systematic use of state-sponsored and church-condoned violence against Indigenous groups. 3 These fallacies and omissions form the thread that binds the entire book. But if the ghosts of the Indigenous peoples of this land were to speak in his novel, what sordid tales would they tell? Sadly, Indigenous people are ominously absent in the novel, and not even their memories haunt the book.
Although MacLennan’s novel makes no mention of Black Canadians, it does provide a passing reference to a faceless and nameless Black shipmate on a journey abroad, a man who is not simply described as a nigger, but “the blackest nigger thet ever came out of Barbados – and thet’s an awful black man.” 4 The novel also refers to the “rude torso of a negro girl” in a picture. The mere presence of that Black girl – even if in a picture – is an affront to Janet Methuen, an English Canadian who is thoroughly preoccupied with her public appearance and sense of respectability and the attendant insecurities of Canada’s nouveaux riches who found themselves squeezed between the old empire of Britain and the imperial designs of the United States.
MacLennan himself appears to have been preoccupied with the physical appearances of Blacks. In a passage in Return of the Sphinx , a novel about the revolutionary Quebec of the 1960s – published in 1967, just a year or so before the Congress of Black Writers – the novelist not only repeats the myth of the two founding nations or “races” but rehashes a number of the same stereotypical images of Blacks. In one instance his character Gabriel Fleury recalls that his aunt described a mountainous peak in Dauphiné in southeastern France as a “huge Negro Warrior,” in an apparent reference to the peak’s fortitude and longevity. 5 In another passage, character Chantal Ainslie refers to an “obscenely huge,” glistening, tattooed, near-naked Negro whom she witnessed standing on Sherbrooke Street and who “had a funny jungle smell about him too.” 6 In both instances, Blacks serve no pertinent artistic purpose; they are reduced to purely physical attributes or a natural and crude state.
Indeed, as a reminder of how the racialization of citizenship operates, Two Solitudes seamlessly integrates the Scots and the Irish – the McQueens and O’Connors of Canada, people reviled by the English gentry in Britain – as English Canadians in much the same way that the nineteenth-century Irish, once known as an oppressed race, as “niggers inside out,” became White within the United States’ racial hierarchy, effectively ending Black-Irish solidarity. Blacks, meanwhile, remained embalmed within their skins. 7 Again, MacLennan makes little or no mention of First Nations, Chinese Canadians, African Canadians, and other groups, and the derogatory references to Blacks, including a passing reference to “voodoo,” are never qualified or placed in social or historical context. The references simply appear as a kind of special effect or like set props on a theatre stage, but with no clear purpose.
As a sharp contrast to MacLennan’s fictional narrative, in her celebrated 1997 novel No Crystal Stair Mairuth Sarsfield offers a vivid sense of the place of Montreal’s Black population within the larger Black diaspora. 8 Sarsfield captures the lived experiences of Black Montrealers, and particularly Black women, in the 1940s, as the Second World War was gripping Europe. In that historical moment Montreal was an important stop on the jazz circuit, and Sarsfield’s novel is rich with references to jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Montreal’s own Oscar Peterson. These musicians appear in the novel as an extension of the city’s small Black community, and they are joined in this by other notable figures such as Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Langston Hughes, Red Foxx, Lena Horne, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frantz Fanon. Sarsfield acknowledges institutions such as Montreal’s famous Black-owned jazz club and “den of iniquity,” Rockhead’s Paradise, and institutions such as the Colored Ladies Club (actually known as the Coloured Women’s Club), the Marcus Garvey Debating Society – perhaps alluding to Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association – and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
These institutions, which reflect both local and transnational aspirations, were a central part of the social lives of many Blacks in Montreal, providing something of a shield against the hostility that confronted them in the wider society while tending to their cultural and even economic needs. In this sense, the organizations were civil rights groups and their leaders civil rights figures. These institutions and individuals laid the foundation and shaped the atmosphere in which Black politics emerged in the 1960s.
No Crystal Stair lucidly depicts, as only fiction can at times, the woes, struggles, and aspirations of Blacks in Montreal who were, as MacLennan’s novel also reveals indirectly, largely un-visible – that is to say, visible but not acknowledged and not recognized by either the dominant English minority or the French majority in Montreal. 9
Amidst the long-standing presence of Blacks in the country as a whole, Black leadership has historically emerged wherever Blacks found themselves. Figures such as civil rights leader and union organizer Bromely Armstrong in Ontario and Viola Desmond, who refused to adhere to segregation in a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, movie theatre, played important roles in challenging the assumptions of race and anti-Black racism in the post–Second World War period.
The experiences of Blacks in Canada have at times paralleled those of Indigenous peoples 10 – although the encounters with racial exploitation have certainly been different and Black Nova Scotian claims to indigeneity based on their long presence in Canada have come under scrutiny. 11 Nova Scotia’s Black population has its roots in the settlement of Black United Empire Loyalists, African-American refugees of the American War of Independence, and many Afro-Scotians share Mi’kmaq ancestry, 12 further complicating the tendency to funnel various groups into discrete ethnoracial categories. In 1796 Jamaican Maroons – former African slaves who had engaged in a series of wars with the British and established independent settlements – were exiled to Nova Scotia before migrating to Sierra Leone in 1800. Curiously, despite their enduring presence in the country, Canadian Blacks, who are scattered across the country, but have their largest populations in Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax, are consistently relegated to the category of immigrant newcomers or permanent outsiders.
Within Canada’s estimated African-Canadian population of 18,291 and 20,559 in 1921 and 1931 respectively, Montreal’s 862 Blacks (of an estimated 618,506 Montrealers in 1921) consisted primarily of descendants of African Canadians who had lived in Montreal for several decades. 13 Many of them had migrated from Ontario or the Maritime provinces to work on the railways; others were of West Indian origin – primarily women, who worked as domestics, and a handful of students; some had migrated from cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and several Southern states. All of them gravitated towards Black institutions as a way of accommodating their communal needs and sustaining themselves socially and spiritually. 14 Still, race discourse in Canada would assume various forms that both converged and diverged from its counterpart in the United States. Whereas the depth and breadth of the legacy of chattel slavery ensured the primacy of the Black/White divide in the United States, notions of race and anti-Black racism in Canada travelled a different, perhaps more circuitous, route.
Black oppositional politics in Montreal in the 1960s was integrally linked to the emergence of Caribbean anti-colonial and independence movements in the English-speaking Caribbean and was often transnational in nature. Drawing largely on the experience of Los Angeles native Norman “Otis” Richmond, Chris Harris argues that Canada’s Black Power movement was largely the result of the presence of African Americans who migrated to Canada in the 1960s. 15 Over the years in Canada Richmond became a prominent journalist and radio personality, but in the 1960s, in the United States, he had studied Maoism with Black Panther Party figures Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and Raymond “Masai” Hewitt. 16 As a member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), he had lived in a house in Detroit with Harry Haywood, an African American who had been an active member of the U.S. Communist Party and who at the time was writing his political memoir, Black Bolshevik . 17 Shortly after arriving in Toronto in protest against being drafted into the Vietnam War, Richmond co-founded, with the Aruban Marxist Jose Garcia, what was arguably Canada’s first Black Power organization, the Afro-American Progressive Association (AAPA). The Toronto-based AAPA, which later split into the Black Youth Organization and Black Liberation Front of Canada, organized rallies and international solidarity events with the American Black Panthers and LRBW. 18
Although in his account Harris emphasizes the African-American influence in the AAPA, the Caribbean’s influence in the group is notable for the presence not just of Garcia but also of Jan Carew, the Guyanese polymath who had travelled to Russia and wrote, among other books, the novel Moscow Is Not My Mecca . Carew was already forty-three years of age – Richmond was in his early twenties – and a seasoned political figure who had been active in Guyana, Ghana, and England. Also active in the AAPA was Leonard Johnston, a railway union organizer who was born and raised in Toronto to Caribbean parents and who, according to Harris, was the first Black member of the Communist Party of Canada. The presence of these three individuals within the AAPA suggests that, as in Montreal, both local and cosmopolitan factors were involved in the formation of Toronto’s Black Power circles.
In the case of Montreal, although the city’s Black left was also inspired by the political activity of West Indians and African Americans, a number of other forces were also at play. As Sarsfield’s novel suggests, Black Montrealers had a long history of struggle against racial exclusion prior to the emergence of the U.S. civil rights and Black Power movements. During the first quarter of the twentieth century alone they established numerous organizations, among them the Negro Community Centre and the Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal (CWCM).