First are important. Especially firsts on the part of underrepresented communities. I was pulled towards watching this 90-minute documentary by Henri Pardo (first feature film) for several reasons. One, because I am a sports fan. Two, because I am a Montrealer. three, because I actually live in the Little Burgundy area and four, because as a white woman I think any chance I get to educate myself about what it means to be a person of colour in Montreal or the world at large is a necessary thing.
The backbone of this billingual is the fact that Jackie Robinson played professional baseball in Montreal before he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers becoming the first black baseball player in Major League Baseball. These parts of the film, narration in French and mostly using black and white archival footage of Robinson, are used as launching pads for the true story – a look at the Black community living in the Little Burgundy area of Montreal.
In 1946, Jackie Robinson began playing baseball for the Montreal Royals. The royals were a farm team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. After having played some in Florida, where he faced much racial discrimination and downright abuse, when Jackie Robinson came to Montreal to play it was a welcome relief as fans welcomed the talented player. He and his wife, who was expecting a child, moved into an apartment in De Gaspé and soon became a fan favourite. His legend grew as he was a big part of the team winning the championship that year.
All this makes Montreal sound like a blissful place, doesn’t it? But it is quite misleading and the other part of this film makes sure that this is understood. Montreal is a city in which Blacks do face racial discrimination. On a daily basis. Here Pardo uses the history of Little Burgundy to illustrate that point.
The Montreal area of Little Burgundy (in the Sud Ouest district of the city situated a little east of the Atwater Market) was a district in which blacks settled. It was an area known for its music, dancing and clubs. Little Burgundy became known as the Harlem of the North. A community sprung up out of it. That community was black and largely poor. We run through the history of area from around the turn of the century (how Blacks were brought over on the same boats as the Irish) to the present time.
Stories of then and now are constructed via interviews (also done in black and white) and testimonies of people who live in the area. They tell of how the community there is tight, but that did not protect them from abuse from the hands of whites or the Montreal Police.
In order to lend a helping hand to residents living there today (though the area has been gentrified with much of the Black community which lived there in lower cost housing has been forced out by the rising condos and prices) several members of the present community there are fighting for the rebuilding of a community centre which started in the area. That community centre was torn down not that long ago leaving a void in the Black community of the area. More than a building, it was something which housed the history of the people living in the area.
The more the story unfolds the more it becomes apparent that Little Burgundy is in no way a post racist oasis. It is filled with as much systemic racism and racial profiling as other parts of the city and province of Quebec. Some of the stories revealed during the interviews are quite painful to listen to. They make you realize that racism is still very much around and Blacks have to deal with it every day. Many have been subject to repeated stoppings by the police and even some physical abuse or even deaths.
A social and historic presentation of a population which dispels any notion that equality has been achieved.