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Montreal revolutionaries, Canadian security and race: An interview with author David Austin

Recently, Montreal writer David Austin published Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, a groundbreaking work that details the significant breadth and scope of Black Power activism in Montreal in the 1960s and 1970s.

The book particularly highlights two important events, the Congress of Black Writers that took place at McGill University in 1968 and the Sir George Williams Affair student action in 1969 at the campus that is now Concordia University.

The book also deeply explores the relationship between Black Power movements and Québécois revolutionary movements during the period, illuminating a very different tone to Québec political discourse then what is common today.

I sent David Austin a series of questions on his recent book, and the ways that the ideas outlined in the book are critically important for progressives in Québéc and Canada today to learn about.

In your recent book Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal you highlight ways that Black Power activism in Montreal was inspired by Black liberation struggles, both in the U.S., but also internationally. Can you highlight a sense of Black Power activism in Montreal during this period, and ways it echoed beyond the city limits?

Sixties Montreal was Canada’s cosmopolitan centre that attracted people from all over the world. During this period, thousands of people from the Caribbean migrated to the city and joined the pre­-existing Black population that included individuals whose roots in Canada went back to the days of slavery.

This was a time in which the Civil Rights and Black Power movements not only challenged the political establishment in the U.S., but galvanized people all over the world.

It was also a period of anti­-colonial struggle, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the Vietnam War and the anti­-war movement and a time in which music assumed a political tenor and tone that was explicitly political and explicitly about change in a manner that was in keeping with times.

The events in Montreal during this period were a local response to Canadian racial oppression and part of the global spirit of the time. Given Canada’s close proximity to the U.S. and its historical ties to the Caribbean, the Black population was able to draw on its ties to both the U.S. and the Caribbean and make Montreal an important centre of local and international Black political activity well out of proportion to the size of this population.

 

One group you highlight in the book is the Caribbean Conference Committee, what significance did that group have for Black Power struggles not only in Montreal but also in the Caribbean?

The Caribbean Conference Committee (CCC) and particularly the C.L.R. James Study Circle (CLRJSC) was comprised of a small number of Caribbean women and men who were concerned primarily with Caribbean liberation and used their time in Canada (the group was based in Montreal but had members in Toronto, Ottawa, Wolfville Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada, the U.S. and of course the Caribbean) to prepare themselves politically-­intellectually for the concrete struggles and movements they intended to be a part of in the Caribbean.

Between 1965 and 1967 the CCC organized a series of conferences and events on the Caribbean that brought to the city many of the Anglophone Caribbean’s leading thinkers and writers, including the Trinidadian political thinker C.L.R. James, Trinidadian economist Lloyd Best, the Jamaican writer and sociologist Orlando Patterson, the Grenadian-­Trinidadian calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow and the Barbadian writer George Lamming.

The CCC’s conferences, and the CLRJSC political work that laid the groundwork for the Congress of Black Writers to take place in Montreal in 1968 and helped to create a left political consciousness among Blacks in the city that translated into the Congress of Black Writers and influenced the events at Sir George Williams University (present ­day Concordia University).

In many ways, members of the CCC­-CLRJSC played an important, at times central role, in the renewal of the Caribbean left, or at least a particular understanding of it, beginning with founding of Abeng in Jamaica in 1968 after Walter Rodney was expelled from Jamaica, and culminating with the Grenada Revolution.

 

Thanks. Two key events that are addressed in your book, and also in your organizing work over the past decade, are the Congress of Black Writers and the Sir GeorgeWilliams Affair. Can you describe those events briefly and their importance for Black political consciousness in Quebec and beyond?

The Congress of Black Writers was held at McGill University between October 11 and 14, 1968. It brought together many of the leading Black Power figures of the time -- Stokely Carmichael, Harry Edwards, James Forman, Walter Rodney -- as well as elder pan­-Africanists and socialists such as C.L.R. James and Richard B. Moore. The legendary South African singer Mariam Makeba was also present, although she did not speak during the event (all of the speakers were men).

For that weekend, the city was transformed into the Black Power centre and the speakers were widely covered in the French and English media. What the event did in Canada was to raise the specter of race and publicly announce that race and racism were a component part of Canadian society in a way that could not be ignored.

The so-­called Sir George Williams Affair was a Black-­led student protest that erupted when a complaint of racism by several students, the majority from the Caribbean, arguing that they were being systematically awarded low or failing grades in a biology class was mishandled by the university’s administration.

In the end, this was, in many ways, the most significant student protest in Canada during the 1960s, not only in term of its scope and the way in which it raised the issue of racism and other forms of injustice in Canada, but also in terms of its over two million­ dollar cost to the university. It also sparked protests in support of the students and those who were arrested at the end of the occupation and created a stir within the government and among federal politicians.

In the case of Trinidad, the protests almost resulted in the overthrow of the government and the entire incident became a diplomatic mess for Canada. And yet, with few exceptions (Sean Mill’s work on the 1960s among them) both the Congress of Black Writers and the Sir George Williams Affair, as well as Black politics in Montreal during this period in general, are reduced to footnotes in Canadian and 1960s history.

 

The question of repression is a running theme throughout the book. Can you explain the role that RCMP repression of Black political organizing played, and what this suggests to us about how race, sex and security function in our daily lives?

The RCMP was profoundly concerned with the public Black political organizing in Montreal in the 1960s. Not only were they concerned with the local Black political organizing, which included ties between the growing Haitian community and Anglophone Blacks, but also the international connections that Blacks were making in the U.S., working in connection with figures like Stokely Carmichael who was seen as the voice of Black Power, and members of the Black Panther Party; and in connection with the Caribbean left and Black Power advocates there and in Britain. The RCMP was also concerned with Black-­White solidarity, including Black and French Quebecois solidarity, which they observed with alarm and a sense of dread.

There was an opening to genuine solidarity at that moment -- which is evident in the sympathetic coverage in the French Quebec press at the time -- that has since narrowed considerably. Beneath these fears, however, was a more primordial fear, what I refer to as bio-sexual politics, or biosexuality --primeval fear of Black-­White sexual encounters, and especially between Black men and White women, which appears in the RCMP files of that time.

As I argue, this fear is rooted in slavery in which the fear of Black rebellion was related to a fear of presumed stereotypical Black male sexual prowess; and in the idea that, if left to their own devices, Black men would wantonly consort with White women and contaminate the purity and sanctity of these women whose status was psychologically tied up with the notion of White racial pride superiority, White male supremacy and a male-­centred nationalism that was nonetheless invested by men in the bodies of White women.

As during the period of slavery in Canada and other parts of the Americas, Black men were -- as they are today in ways that are somewhat different from the fear of Black women -- seen as a grave security risk to be controlled and contained for fear that their politics and genes would contaminate the mythological pure nation-­state. This experience tells us that we have yet to fully appreciate the extent to which race permeates our society and has breached our consciousness, and hinders our inability to simply get beyond it. Race and racism are deeply embedded in the consciousness and persists in slavery’s afterlife in psychosocial ways that shape our daily human encounters and prevent genuine human solidarity across ethno-­racial lines.

 

Your book also includes significant reflections on Québécois revolutionarymovements and specifically on Pierre Vallières's book Nègres blancs d'Amérique, its title that remains with us in Québec until today in a broad cultural sense. Wondering if you could highlight a couple points as to why the book and its context are significant in relation to your research?

Up until the 1960s, race in Canada was understood in terms of the English and French, not simply as the two founding nations but as the two founding "races." This is evident in Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes, a defining Canadian national narrative text. Of course, McLennan, like the official Canadian national narrative, omits the presence and plight of indigenous peoples and contains two very unflattering descriptions of Blacks.

Vallières’s book Nègres blancs d'Amérique was part of the shift in French Québécois consciousness in which he, as other French Quebeckers did, drew on the language of U.S. Black Power and, drawing on the writing of figures such Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant of Martinique, declared himself a white nègres which he translated as "nigger" as opposed to "Negro."

While this move was designed to, justifiably, highlight the plight of French Quebeckers in an English dominated Quebec and Canada, it ultimately served, and continues to serve, to obscure the presence of real nègres in Montreal. This occurred at the very time when the RCMP was taking notice of the Blacks in Montreal and across Canada as a result of their more organized public presence, essentially making Blacks invisible within the Quebec national narrative of loss and the road redemption.

The character Marion, a Black mother and domestic worker in Mairuth Sarsfield’s novel, No Crystal Stair, perhaps best captures Black responses to this sentiment. She responded with sarcasm and resentment to a comment from her fictional French Canadian employer who compared the plight of French Quebecers to Black Americans -- "Les nègres blancs, indeed!"

 

Also your book outlines a certain blindness from Québec social movements, both in past generations and today, to the struggles of Black Canadians or new immigrants, or indigenous people, could you expand your thoughts on this point?

As I have mentioned, the 1960s represented a moment during which French Quebeckers took note of the province's growing independent Black population and reached out to it, as did members of the Black community reach out to French Quebeckers.

Figures like singer Pauline Julien and poet and eventual Quebec politician Gérald Godin, who attended the Congress of Black Writers and was sufficiently moved by speaker Rocky Jones of Nova Scotia to write in the margins of his conference program that Jones discussion on the plight of Blacks in Canada spoke directly to how he felt as a French Quebecker.

Julien, Godin and others took note of and made alliances with Blacks in Montreal and there was, at that moment, a sense of comradeship and growing understanding and a more open nationalism in Quebec that, however, failed to materialize in the long­-term and has become increasingly foreclosed in the present.

Having drawn on the experience of people of African descent in the cause of Quebec liberation, the leadership of this province and, sadly, most of the Quebec left, has embraced a brand of nationalism that reduces the province’s Black population to that of an undesirable guest in their home -- a manner that would have been very unsettling for Vallières who later developed a far more expansive definition of what it meant to be a Quebecker, one that recovered the memory of indigenous peoples and understood that the rest of us, having come here by various means, are all immigrants of one kind or another. I’m perhaps stretching his perspective a little, but this was certainly the road that he was travelling.

David Austin is the author of Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security and Sixties Montreal and the forthcoming The Unfinished Revolution: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Poetry, and the New Society. He is also the editor of You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James. For many years he worked as a community and youth worker in Montreal and has produced radio documentaries for CBC’s Ideas on C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal artist and community activist who contributes to rabble.ca. You can find Stefan tweeting here.

Image provided by Stefan Christoff.

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