The Road To Now:
History of Blacks in Montreal
- Dorothy W. Williams: a Book Review

Dorothy W. Williams, historian and doctoral candidate at McGill University, conceived The Road to Now as a follow-up to Blacks in Montreal 1628-1986: An Urban Demography and in response to the need for a history of Montreal blacks, a vital part of Canadian experience since the sixteenth century. Williams defines the term ‘black’ to mean people of African ancestry including "blacks from the Caribbean basin, North and South America, Europe and Africa, who came to Canada as slaves or as immigrants." However, she sometimes uses the terms ‘colored’ and ‘Negro’ when quoting earlier writers and as context requires.

Thanks to Williams' thematic chapters chronicling different immigration patterns in Montreal, the reader learns that Canada's reputation as a safe haven for American slaves is misleading since most of the elite in Montreal had slaves of their own. In fact, slavery was a de facto institution in Montreal till 1834 when it was legally abolished.

The author points out that blacks in the openly racist U.S. society enjoyed more opportunities than blacks in Canada, albeit in a segregated context. Williams deplores the fact that Canadian blacks were uniformly at the bottom of the ladder.

The single most astonishing discovery in this book is that the first underground railroad was created to free slaves held on Canadian territory! Later on the process was reversed and the underground railroad became better known for assisting American black slaves in fleeing to Canada.

The author contends that the existence of slavery was systematically denied and ignored in Quebec, perhaps as a result of the complexity of immigration patterns in Montreal which included the Loyalists, who fled to British North America from the US during the war of independence, the Refugees, who arrived around the War of 1812 and the Fugitives who came between 1815 and 1861. Moreover, New France and British Canada traditionally accused the other party of being guilty of slavery, when in fact both held slaves, albeit under different legal regimes and from different parts of the world.

Dorothy Williams' well-researched account takes us from slavery during colonial times to migration patterns in the St. Antoine District of Montreal, the original home of the American blacks who started getting hired in 1856 by the Grand Trunk Railway operating between Montreal and Toronto. Williams believes that blacks were preferred over whites because, besides being cheap labor, they were rendered invisible by the social distance created by race, thus making it possible for the railway’s white clientele to let their hair down during rail travel. Since the Canadian government discouraged the wives and families of migrant American porters from entering the country, a chasm was created between settled black Canadians and black American porters, who were considered transients.

"The period between 1897 and 1930 marked the beginning of a genuine black community in Montreal," states Williams, who also asserts that West Indians had been Canada's most skilled and educated immigrants in a black community represented by three distinct cultures: American, West Indian and Canadian.

Williams gives an account of serious unemployment amongst blacks during the depression, exacerbated by the Canadian Pacific Railway's insistence on hiring Americans instead of local labour. She also takes prestigious McGill University to task for its color bar, which drove many talented blacks to seek an education away from Montreal.

The war years, on the other hand, favoured Montreal's black communities. Blacks became servicemen and therefore enjoyed fringe benefits such as medical care, subsidized housing and veteran's pensions. Black women, who generally came in as domestics from the islands, were able to obtained jobs in war industries.

The well-educated French-speaking immigrants from Haiti who started arriving in Montreal between 1963 and 1972 radically changed the demographics of the black community. Unlike their English-speaking counterparts, they aligned themselves with the nationalist movement of Quebec. Later on, blacks from French and English-speaking Africa started arriving in Montreal, albeit in smaller numbers.

The sixties saw the birth of black student activism in Montreal. Black leaders like Stokely Carmichael from the US, Michael X from England and Walter Rodney from Jamaica, stoked student unrest. Their presence, as well as the events surrounding the destruction of Sir George Williams' computer room during an antiracist protest, set the stage for the establishment of the National Black Coalition of Canada.

Williams touches upon the subject of police brutality against blacks, discrimination in the taxi sector and the replication of class patterns from the home country. She also takes us through the gentrification or deterioration of neighborhoods in response to migratory patterns.

While The Road to Now is mainly of interest for Montrealers and students of black history in Canada, it is also an important book for readers south of the border. The links between both black communities are closely intertwined. Twelve percent of the forty-two thousand Loyalists who entered Canada and who received land grants in British North America, were of African descent.

Williams debunks the manner in which the Underground Railroad was "often portrayed as an antebellum network composed of sympathetic free blacks, Quakers, and other abolitionists who assisted Fugitive slaves as they escaped to Canada." She believes that these networks "were often haphazard, localized and semi-public in nature." Whilst she acknowledges the explosion of black immigration during this period, she also recognizes that it was "extremely difficult to establish the numbers of Fugitives who entered Canada via this system."

Americans also influenced the Canadian labor movement. In 1942, the porters of the Canadian Pacific Railways, most of whom were originally American blacks, were organized by the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labour.

The racial pride movement in Canada was affected by echoes of the struggle being waged in the United States between Jamaican Marcus Garvey's segregationism and the integrationism of Asa Philip Randolph, a prominent black American union organizer and civil rights activist.

. Even though the author states that "Canadians tuned in to the day-to-day struggle of black communities in the United States" in the sixties, she is careful to point out that "Montreal's expression of blackness was not an American derivative . . . but a home grown activism." She also stresses that Stokley Carmichael's visit to Sir George Williams University in 1968 was just one of many factors that galvanized black students in Montreal. The Black Action Party, originally a group of uncommitted black students, became more structured and was viewed by "many Montrealers, both black and white" as "a replication of the American Black Panthers."

In the preface to her book, Dorothy W. Williams offers the reader her "effort to describe the many facets of black presence in Montreal." She has achieved her aim admirably well. Williams study is a trip down “the road to now’” We hope she feels inspired to take us "into our proud future."

Dorothy W. Williams. The Road to Now. A History of Blacks in Montreal.
Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1997. Paperback, 235 pp.


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