Is Black Activism Dead in Montreal?
So the month of February is coming to a close and with that, another Black History Month will soon be gone. Black History Month in Montreal… one of the many legacies of our once prominent activists! Because yes, Black History Month is celebrated in Montreal as a direct result of our then activists wanting to inspire our youth and give them a sense of belonging in the wake of a despondent climate marked by, among other things, an economic crisis and the police shootings of Anthony Griffin, Presley Leslie and Marcellus François. Most of the black community organizations in Montreal were founded in the ’60s and ’70s, building on the momentum of the civil-rights movements, with the ‘90s arguably being their apex. But haven’t you heard? Black activism is dead in Quebec’s Metropolis! Or so they keep telling me…
Articles are being written about the absence of black activism in Montreal compared to the U.S. or even Toronto. The activists of the old generation are coming down on us for dropping the baton. All those sacrifices made… For what? So that today’s generation doesn’t even know its history? So that black-on-black crime can be on the rise? So that we can perpetuate the stereotype of absentee fathers? Seemingly we are a disappointment to our then torchbearers and to our parents who have tried so hard to hammer into our heads the “twice as good” mantra. According to almost everything reflected to us by society, including by the criticism we receive from our own community, we are walking clichés, reinforcing the labels that have been stuck to us for so long. I mean, before the Black Lives Matter movement, where were our activists? And what is the agenda of the Montreal Black Lives Matter movement exactly, what are the concrete demands?
Fair enough. But since when is the end goal of activism to create activists? As the organization Permanent Culture Now explains so well in its article What is activism: “Activism is quite simply taking action to effect social change; this can occur in a myriad of ways and in a variety of forms.” They go on to quote Andrew X :
“To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change… Defining ourselves as activists means defining our actions as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists. Activism is based upon this misconception that it is only activists that do social change.”
So our generation doesn’t have its Martin Luther King, its Angela Davis, its Anne C. Cools… True, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Our history is filled with great heroes we can all look up to and aspire to emulate. So many have fought so that we can enjoy the rights we have today. In some bizarre twist of faith, the oblivion the new generation lives in now is a testament to the triumph of our then activists. Not being able to enjoy our civil rights is simply unfathomable to a great number of us today, as it should be… If we lived in never-never land that is. In actuality, the precarity of it all is so palpable these days, like a constant Damocles sword hanging over our heads. The issue then becomes not so much how we are living – defiantly, fully, boldly, making no apologies for who we are, but that we don’t know the high price that was paid to afford us this luxury, thinking that because it should be our God-given right, it actually is and being genuinely shocked and appalled when we are daily smacked back to reality.
But hold up! Virtually my entire generation is living incognizant of its history, yet it’s somehow our fault? It’s not partly also the responsibility of the ones that came before us to prepare us and for that matter, to prepare their posterity because can you truly have success without a successor? In fighting so hard for what we didn’t have, was building on what we do have forgotten? Clearly the knowledge and collective memory has not been transmitted to the new generation, not so much by omission but rather by insisting that the way it’s been done is the way it should always be done. Or are we not supposed to say it as to not tarnish the image of our revered heroes, our men and women of exception, making the activist more important than the activism? Oops!
Why can’t our activism stand on its own, why do we constantly have to be compared to the U.S. or to T.O., as if we didn’t have our own history? Newsflash, we do! And it’s about time we start standing in our own truth, breaking down the myth of Canada as this safe haven for slaves. Don’t just tell me about the Underground Railroad. Slavery was all too real in Canada until 1834 and it is still felt today. How about we start teaching the reality of Quebec slavery where an economy mainly based on trapping and agriculture made owning Black slaves as opposed to Indigenous slaves a sign of wealth and distinction? How about McGill himself being a slave owner? Yes Montreal, that is your legacy!
How about we start looking at the fact that in the U.S., regardless of the color of their skin, people long for patriotism. They all proudly want to be called American. Here, within 5 minutes of meeting anyone, I am inevitably asked “where are you from?”. Uh… Montreal! Yeah but… But what? Am I not fully Canadian? Why do I have to add anything after that? Why am I made to feel like a second class Canadian by White people and a sell out by Black people if I say I’m a proud Montrealer born and raised? The Montreal Black Community is so diverse, Bajans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Cubans, Congolese, etc. and the housing segregation laws not being so flagrant here in Canada as it was in the U.S. means that there aren’t these ghettos of Black people in Montreal (having a higher black population does not a ghetto make). And let’s not even get started on the language conflict in Quebec… So being that we are so fragmented and that we ourselves don’t feel like we are truly Canadians, how are we then expected to go out there and shout that we should be treated as such? Maybe it’s time we stop teaching this dichotomy of identity to the new generation. Being fully Canadian does not mean that you negate the fact that you are also fully (insert whatever you want here).
Guess what? We don’t live in a vacuum. It’s not possible to analyze the decrease of activists in the Montreal Black Community outside of the bigger reality of alienation or estrangement from self of today’s society where activism as a whole has purposely decreased. Oh but I forgot! We’re supposed to be twice as good! Because the Black community will be saved by its exceptional men. No! Obama is just that, an exception. We no longer want to work twice as hard to get half as far when all this fighting has led to us being equal on paper but no better off in real life. But Oprah did it, Michelle did it, in the States, no less and I’m in Canada where things are so much easier, right? Stop victimizing me, stop telling me to work harder. I don’t want to be the next hero, let alone a superhero. I want to be equal and only in the right to mediocrity is there true equality.
History is bound to repeat itself and there will inevitably eventually be another Malcolm X. And with today’s new tactics they will quickly be discredited by a bunch of scandals, most probably sexual allegations. In the meantime, we don’t need another martyr. And we can do without the slew of people with a messiah complex trying to be the next Rosie Douglas or the myriad of organizations now part of the establishment fighting amongst themselves for funding. Activism 101: you cannot kill an idea. So why are we putting so much focus on the activists rather than the activism?
I choose to remain optimistic. First, why are we discrediting all this new type of activism through the medium of technology? Second, maybe we are witnessing this shift in consciousness where the next step is not more reforms but rather replacing a broken system altogether. Why should a select few speak for all? And why should there be a specific agenda? Didn’t you get the memo? Another world is not possible, but other worlds are possible! So why are we late in the game? Maybe some reject your system altogether and refusing to participate in it is a form of activism. Smart move or not, it is activism. Maybe fighting these constant microaggressions every day is activism and we don’t need to be fighting with our elders as well telling us how it should be done, as if today’s climate was the same as back then. Maybe we’re tired of being shown these exceptions as something to aspire to; we don’t want to be an exception or a pale comparison of the white man, nor do we want to be told what Black is. Black is what I am, not what I’m trying to be, regardless of my hair, my clothes, my taste in music, my accent or my level of education. I choose to no longer carry the burden of making White people feel comfortable around me or Black people not be ashamed of me. I choose to unapologetically be me, and that is activism.
Perhaps the new generation of black people in Montreal hasn’t stopped taking action to effect social change, there’s simply less activists, less not being synonymous with none by the way. So I will not be putting on my black garb to attend activism’s funeral just yet. Activism is not dead, it’s just simply no longer mainly carried out by activists.
And to all the old activists deploring the state of activism today, don’t forget the Moyer MAP… After perception of failure come majority public opinion, success and continuation. So rejoice in what’s to come and let us continue your work.
We don’t want to live in the shadow of the greats, we want to stand on the shoulders of giants!