Beyond Oppression

Where They Stood

A review of Where They Stood by The Black Community Resource Centre

Published on March 16, 2023

When it comes to detailed accounts of Black history in Canada, the pickings are slim, and most are centred around violence and oppression. Montreal in particular has one of the richest Black histories in Canada, some of which can be found in publications by Black writers like Dorothy Williams and Mairuth Sarsfield, yet many ask: where is the rest?

Where They Stood

Where They Stood
The Evolution of the Black Anglo Community in Montreal

The Black Community Resource Centre

Linda Leith Publishing
$21.95
paper
220pp
9781773901343

This spring, the Black Community Resource Centre offers us Where They Stood: The Evolution of the Black Anglo Community in Montreal, an overview of the history of Black Canadians in Montreal, as well as in Canada more broadly. This project, with the primary intent to engage youth and to bring into public view some of Montreal’s obscured Black history, is an accessible collection of non-fiction essays authored by various writers – all of whom are Black youth from Montreal. Spanning from the early 1890s to the present, it covers Garveyism, the experiences of English and French-speaking Black people immigrating from Africa and the Caribbean, the plight of Black Canadian soldiers to have their contributions acknowledged, and the influence of Canada and the United States on each other’s cultures of racism.Provocatively, it offers a critical analysis of Canada’s false sense of exceptionalism, as well as the Quebec government’s refusal to acknowledge systemic racism despite performative acts of so-called “solidarity.” There are also chapters detailing the creation of numerous community and activist organizations and social groups, some of which still exist today. While they are covered in different capacities and from different perspectives, the collection has repeating themes in some essays that might seem a bit tedious to read through after a few, but this gives the reader plenty of opportunity to revisit and reflect on what has been previously addressed.

As a genre with deep roots in Montreal, it comes to no surprise that discussions of jazz function as a through line in a book about Black resistance. Music has always been a vehicle for survival in the Black community. A convergence of love, joy, and grief, of life and death, it is, at its heart, the manifestation of Black resistance and community.

Perhaps the most remarkable essay that touches on the subject is “Growth and Innovation: Building a Black Cultural Mosaic in 1980s–90s Montreal” by Donna Fabiola Ingabire. While there are frequent mentions of prominent names like Rufus Rockhead and Oscar Peterson throughout the book, this is the only essay that mentions the lesser-known Rouè-Doudou Boicel, a Guyanese migrant who arrived in Montreal during the 1950s and opened multiple venues where jazz was the main attraction, hosting internationally known artists and organizing the first ever jazz festival in the city. This is a perfect example of how Black historical figures are omitted from history. As Amanda Asamani-Nyarko writes powerfully in her essay, “They Came, They Saw, They Wanted Change,” “whenever you walk the streets of Montreal, Black figures are hidden in the shadows.”

In what will surely be recognized as an indispensable educational tool and essential reading, Where They Stood illuminates the stories, roles, and efforts of generations of Black Canadians who thrived in a place where for decades, they were more than unwelcome. Reaching beyond histories of racism and enslavement, it emphasizes the importance of investing in Black joy and wellness, and of giving support not only during times of hardship. It asks us to visualize life outside of struggle, and preserves and inspires hope for current and future generations.mRb

Val Rwigema (they/he) is a Rwandan-Filipino writer and vocalist who grew up in the Alberta prairies, currently based in Montreal.

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