Sharing stories of Old Montreal's Black History

·4 min read
Sharing stories of Old Montreal's Black History
Sharing stories of Old Montreal's Black History

Rito Joseph's passion for history was sparked by conversations with his father, on the way to school, when he was growing up in the Saint-Michel neighbourhood of Montreal.

"He taught me so much about Haitian history and the Haitian Revolution," Joseph said.

But learning about Black Canadian history only happened as an adult.

Joseph is self-taught, having studied the works of Canadian historians, authors, and educators, including David Austin, Dorothy Williams, Charmaine Nelson and Afua Cooper.

Those studies are the basis for "Tourist In My City" — the walking tours he leads through Old Montreal and Little Burgundy, teaching Montrealers about the Black history in those neighbourhoods.

The tour in Old Montreal begins just outside the Champs-de-Mars metro station, where he asks participants if they know where they're standing.

Place Marie-Joseph Angélique

Few people realize the spot is named Place Marie-Joseph Angélique, in memory of an enslaved woman who was accused of arson and executed in Old Montreal in 1734.

There's no signage, no plaque, nothing to indicate the area has a name.

"I studied Quebec history from the early age and I don't recall having any mention of Black history...or anyone who is a person of colour in my history class," said Sarah Ouellet, who is originally from Quebec City and has lived in Montreal for 10 years.

"I'm just eager to learn more," said Ouellet.

The tour visits various locations central to Marie-Joseph Angélique's experiences in Montreal.

Joseph credits Canadian scholar Afua Cooper for much of the information he shares on the Old Montreal tour. The Dalhousie University professor is author of The Hanging of Angélique, one of several books Joseph recommends to participants.

Blackface in Old Montreal

Joseph also discusses the Royal Theatre, which was built in Old Montreal by John Molson and staged minstrel shows, also known as "soirées éthiopiennes."

He explains Calixa Lavallée, composer of O Canada, performed in blackface shows there and audiences included Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States and John Wilkes Booth, an American actor who killed Abraham Lincoln.

That information is eye-opening for many in the crowd, including Simon Hudson, a Montrealer originally from Seattle.

Shari Okeke/CBC
Shari Okeke/CBC

It's "surprising to hear that kind of concentration [of those Americans] in a place like this," Hudson said.

"[Montreal], has the connotation, as an American, for being you could say, just not as bad as the US," he said.

Joseph communicates all this information with enthusiasm and a touch of humour, when possible, always keeping the crowd engaged.

But there's no escaping the pain in many of these stories.

Sarah Desrosiers was particularly affected by stories about enslaved people who, after trying to escape, were caught and then branded with the fleur-de-lis symbol.

"The fleur-de-lis, it's emblematic, it has a sense of pride but then slaves were burnt with it so that's a bit shocking to me," she said.

"I'm Black so I don't really take any joy or pleasure in learning about any of this but it makes me even more mad that I've never known about it. My story has been hidden from me," she said.

Shari Okeke/CBC
Shari Okeke/CBC

Joseph shares that frustration. It's a motivation to keep telling stories he too wishes he'd learned in school.

"It says something ... when they don't want to teach you about yourself," he said.

"That has to do with oppression too because education, we know, opens a lot of doors."

School field trips

So Joseph is educating Montrealers through these tours, which started in June and are booked solid until November 1st.

Demand is still strong, so he's considering adding extra dates in November, depending on the weather.

He also wants to offer the tours to schools as field trips.

Currently his "Tourist In My City" walking tours include outings in Old Montreal and Little Burgundy, and he is working on a virtual version in order to continue throughout the winter.

Joseph is planning to offer tours in more neighbourhoods next spring.

Shari Okeke/CBC
Shari Okeke/CBC

The goal is to spread as much knowledge as possible about Montreal's history.

"It's not so much about being French or being British or being Indigenous or being Black," Joseph says.

"It's about understanding that certain laws or certain beliefs we have nowadays come from the 19th, 18th, 17th centuries,"

"And if we don't take the time to deconstruct [that history] we're not going to be able to move forward."