Black History Month: From island to island

Did you know that the majority of Black Canadians are Caribbean?

Between the slave trade and French and English colonization, our island of Montreal shares many links with the islands of the Caribbean,  as far back as 1608. Starting in the 1920s, waves of immigration saw more Black people from the Caribbean settling in Canada. First came mostly English-speaking and Protestant immigrants, followed by later waves including  predominantly Catholic Haitians.

Although Montreal was never formally segregated, the city's historically Black neighbourhoods  - both English and French - provided spiritual, cultural, social, and economic supports to Caribbean Montrealers struggling with discrimination and all of its side effects.

Excluded from many roles and establishments because of race, Black Montrealers  needed to create their own institutions. One of the first things many Black communities did was build a religious centre.  Church life has long been  an outlet for unique social projects  undertaken by Black Montrealers, but these important contributions often go unrecorded.

A second look at church history reveals how these innovative and skilled citizens used churches for far more than just religious purposes, passing on their culture and values through educational, recreational and philanthropic endeavours.

Even during the hardest years of the Depression, churches hosted drama and literary clubs to nurture youth and maintain a sense of belonging, of challenge, and self-discipline. For example, the  Union United Church  gave elocution, public speaking, recitation and drama courses, with a focus on training youth for future leadership roles.

While Black Montrealers have also formed many secular organizations in the city, faith communities were often the first place where young Blacks could exercise leadership and drive positive change for their own communities, our city, and Canada. It took a long time, but in 2005  Michaëlle Jean  became Canada's first governor general of Caribbean origin. Jean was born in Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince, and came to Quebec as a child as part of the 1960s wave of Caribbean immigration.

Although Caribbean Montrealers may come from distinct islands, cultures and religious traditions, and be split into English and French communities, they share strong bonds that transcend differences. One example is  Carifiesta, which is a Caribbean Carnival held in Montreal every year to this day. It began in 1974 and incorporates the culture of Canadians who come from both African and Caribbean descent. If you're in Montreal in July, you can catch a taste of the islands in the annual parade along Ste-Catherine street. But while you're dancing to soca and calypso beats, remember that these are only a few of the many gifts our city has been given by Montrealers of Caribbean descent.

Above mural is from the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 

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