Quebec’s Toponymy Commission announced on Sep. 25 that the English term “nigger” and French term “nègre,” used in 11 natural place names in the province, are pejorative and must be changed. Although this is correct and important, conspicuously missing from the statement is information about the steps the commission will take moving forward.
Also absent is direct language about the primary role that Black Quebec scholars, researchers, and community organizers will have in the renaming process. At the end of its statement, the commission suggests that the designation of the new names “mette en valeur l’importance du rôle joué par l’ensemble de la communauté québécoise,” meaning it will highlight the important role played by the entire Quebec community.
This is both dangerous and inappropriate given the longstanding and steadfast invisibility of Black Quebecker history and curricula in schools and universities. This history of absence means that that only a handful of community members and university scholars in the province have a strong grasp of the history and culture of Black Quebec.
Quebec lags by decades
In April 1969, guns appeared on the campus of an Ivy League campus in upstate New York. The arms were borne not by security or campus police, but rather by a few Black students at Cornell who staged a takeover of Willard Straight Hall. The stand-off between the students and police, the first armed occupation on a U.S. campus, was the apex of a year-long campus struggle.
Black students wanted curriculum visibility, investment in a Black Studies major, and independent control of a degree-bearing Black Studies department with a director who served as more than just a token of diversity for the university. The Africana Studies and Research Center under the directorship of Dr. James Turner was born in 1970 with an annual operating budget provided by the university.
Dr. Turner was still head of the successful department when I arrived on campus for graduate work decades later, and tales of the 1969 takeover were traded between incoming Africana Studies and Research Center students and upperclassmen as boasts of badness.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the center at Cornell, and since 1970, dozens of other universities in the United States, including every Ivy League institution, have founded similar African-American Studies or Black Studies departments. Fourteen U.S. universities also hold PhD degree-granting programs in African-American Studies, including Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2015, not a single university in Quebec boasts a Black Quebec or Black Canadian Studies course, major, or degree-bearing program, despite the province containing the second-largest and most diverse African-descended population in Canada.
McGill resists Black Studies
In Montreal, formal study and curricula of the histories of the Black enslaved, Black fugitives from the United States in the 19th century, Haitian Canadians, francophone Africans, and Black peoples from the Anglophone Caribbean — groups who all made invaluable historical contributions to the social, intellectual, and cultural fabric of modern Quebec — are absent in our public schools and university classrooms.
In fact, not a single university in Canada boasts a program at the master’s or PhD level in Black Canadian studies.
Historically, McGill University has thwarted student-led attempts over the years to propose and institutionalize Black Canadian and Africana studies. In 2000, a group of students, led by Black Quebeckers Peter Flegel and Hirut Eyob, drafted a 33-page proposal for an Africana Studies Program at McGill — the result of three years of research, work, and continued engagement with the university.
The detailed program, inspired by Cornell, proposed an Africana degree-bearing program and an Africana Studies Research Centre on campus. Perhaps most impressively, the proposal included an itemized financial attachment, replete with detailed financial projections for a sustainable 10-year plan.
The effort was shelved after core members of the African Studies organizing committee graduated. In the end, McGill made clear it had no intention of institutionalizing the program.
Not all Quebeckers need acknowledgment
Last Monday, Mr. Pierre LeBlanc, official spokesperson for the Quebec’s Toponymy Commission, appeared on CBC’s Daybreak to discuss the place name changes in Quebec.
He deflected host Mike Finnerty’s inquiry about the commission’s decision to rename sites containing “nigger”or “nègre” by invoking a comparison between Quebec and the United States. Attempting to soften the long history of the words in Quebec’s place names, LeBlanc noted that the United States still maintains a number of natural sites that bear the word “negro,” a passé term that is incomparable, in all respects, to the word “nigger.”
A more apt comparison between the United States and this province pertains to Quebec’s failure — individual, systemic, and gross — to invest in the study of Black Quebecker history and institutionalize the continued study of this rich history in our schools and universities. By all accounts, Quebec is 45 years behind the United States in this regard.
The commission’s statement that Quebeckers, widely, must somehow be acknowledged in the renaming process of 11 natural sites throughout Quebec that contain Black history, tradition, and lore is incorrect. It is wrong-headed because the gaping absence of studied Black life in this province presents a crucial historical moment for those who have invested their life’s work in the study of Black peoples in Canada and Quebec — namely, local Black historians, researchers, scholars, and community activists.
A chance to shift the relationship
The central role of Black scholars, both independent and institutional, in the renaming process matters because the entire membership of the Toponymy Commission is white, and the singular historian among their listed membership has no training and no scholarly output in the history of Black Quebec.
It also matters because this province has a cadre of exceptional Black scholars who are the experts needed to oversee the proper renaming and preservation of Quebec’s 11 sites where Black history and lore exists. It would be a cutting offence, in this important historical moment, to now ignore these knowledge producers.
The Toponymy Commission must place Black Quebecker historians, researchers, and community scholars at the centre — fully at the centre — of this renaming process.
Specifically, the commission must first invite local Black historians in Quebec for a consultative roundtable and gather their professional recommendations in the renaming process. Then it must swing wider and let these experts guide a public consultation for local Black community members who desire to preserve or signify Black historical memory and lore. The renaming guidelines chosen in this process by Black community members must be those ultimately instituted by the commission.
Finally, it is time for all Quebeckers to call for an institutional investment in the study of Black history and culture in Quebec schools. Famed historian and scholar Ira Berlin has long argued that history is not about the past. Instead, it “is about arguments we have about the past. Because it is about arguments we have about the past, it is really about us, and our times, and our problems.”
The cavernous lack of provincial institutional investment in the study of Black life in Quebec signifies this province’s relationship with its Black population historically and currently. The historical moment to shift this relationship, finally, has never been so acute.
Rachel Zellars is an attorney and PhD candidate at McGill University, whose research focuses on the history of slavery in Canada, the history of public schooling, and critical race theory. She initiated a petition in favour of the place renaming, which has been credited with pushing the Toponymy Commission toward its decision.