“Gwen, you know we don’t hire coloured,” her friend’s father said. Seeing her dejection, he backtracked and told her she couldn’t be hired without a teaching certificate. She knew this to be a lie — they were hiring teachers out of high school back then. But she played along.
“I went to Macdonald College (and) took this little Mickey Mouse course. Got this piece of paper only to find that the PSBGM came to our campus and hired everyone! … People who couldn’t teach worth a damn.”
Everyone but her, that is, and the two other Black students in her class. Until the class protested and forced the board to hire her.
Lord went on to become a star math and science teacher, and in 1977, the first Black principal in the PSBGM (now the English Montreal School Board) at Northmount High School. She stayed 11 years before becoming a senior board administrator.
Lord is one of four pioneers of Montreal’s Black community the Montreal Gazette is profiling as the city celebrates its 28th edition of Black History Month. A teacher, a police officer, a hairdressing entrepreneur, and a city council speaker. Those who overcame the unspoken but pervasive institutional racism of their day and weathered the pain of intolerance and injustice. All of whom paved the way for others.
“Gwen was a role model and a trailblazer in the education field,” wrote Montreal historian Dorothy Williams. “She was amongst a small group of Blacks who moved into restricted job areas and pushed open many doors. … Their trailblazing achievements served as inspirations to a generation of Black Montrealers.”
Shouldering the burden of being first often came with a heavy cost.
Decades later, Lord wrote that the taste of being passed over, of being beholden to others less qualified to attain a job she deserved, was still bitter.
“I mean, I was good,” she wrote. “I got the Dean’s Award and the Science Prize and I still had to have this little class go to bat for me. So these are the things that are sort of discouraging.”
“I’ve gone through so much prejudice,” she told the Gazette in 2002. “It’s just incredible.”
Williams calls Montreal’s often rose-coloured view of its social tolerance “the Jackie Robinson Myth.”
Author of two books on the history of the city’s Black community, she is president of Blacbiblio.com, which supplies educational materials to teach Black history at school and in homes. Williams’s deeply researched master’s thesis for Concordia University, which focused on the social mobility of Montreal’s Black community in the mid-20th century largely through the experiences of Lord’s family, revealed that while the city may have been welcoming to baseball stars, the reality was far different for Blacks living here.
Robinson came to Montreal in 1946, the first Black man to play for a major league baseball team — the Montreal Royals, the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Montreal was seen as a more welcoming environment than American cities. And it was, for Robinson and his wife, Rachel, who recounted being invited into a landlady’s apartment for tea, “an unusual experience in the ’40s for a Black person.” Neighbours were kind, and “gave the Robinsons the impression, widely shared, that the city was free of racism,” Williams wrote.
In reality, the Montreal of Lord’s youth and early adulthood, before and after the Second World War, maintained an unspoken but cruelly effective socio-economic shackling of the Black population. Most lived in the St-Antoine-St-Henri district, often in dilapidated tenement housing. Other regions were off-limits because landlords wouldn’t rent to them. There were no signs barring them from restaurants, but in most, waiters would not serve them.
Many emigrated from the West Indies, trained as engineers or nurses, teachers and secretaries, only to find the roads to higher education or better jobs blocked for them and their children. Women were relegated to working as maids or in the garment industry. Men worked for the railway companies as low-paid porters, or industrial labourers, or shoe shiners, doormen or waiters. Those who made it into higher professions were passed over for promotions.
While poorer whites from other immigrant groups moved on from the St-Antoine district as they found better-paying jobs, generations of Black families were forced to stay.
Lord’s father was a porter on the Canadian Pacific railway run from Montreal to Winnipeg. He worked away from home 22 days a month. Her mother put in long hours as a domestic working in Westmount homes. The six Lord children were expected to pull their own weight, complete chores and do well in school. Their parents’ sacrifices were influential.
“Father and mother were both working very, very hard … So the object was not to mess up, not to make things difficult; to be important and to be part of that (family) team,” Lord recalled in interviews recorded in Williams’s thesis. The neighbourhood kept a close eye on the children, reporting to parents on those misbehaving. Church and community organizations ensured close ties with and support from the Black community.
Lord’s mother, a strong-willed woman who witnessed the upward mobility of her clients’ children, had the foresight to rent an apartment on St-Antoine St. near Greene Ave. that was just within Westmount, giving Gwen and her siblings the ability to attend better schools. In the 1940s and ‘50s, they were the only Black children in their elementary and high school classes.
Her brother Richard’s path to higher education was temporarily halted when McGill granted him a full athletic scholarship (he couldn’t afford university without one) then withdrew it, giving it to a white student instead.
On the advice of a Jewish friend, Richard got a sports scholarship to Michigan State University in chemical engineering (he didn’t mention he was Black on the application form), becoming one of the first Blacks to play varsity hockey in the United States. He would become a leader of the Montreal Black community and president of the Quebec Liberal Party.
When he came home in the summer of 1952 and discovered his 16-year-old sister Gwen had graduated high school and was working in a garment factory until she was old enough to attend nursing school, he was displeased. He enrolled her in first-year science classes at Sir George Williams University the next day.
“After that, everyone — my nieces, my nephews, everyone — they’ve all gone to college,” Gwen Lord told the Globe and Mail. She discovered later others in their neighbourhood starting doing the same because of her.
Despite being a chemical engineer, it took Richard some time to find work in Montreal. He remembers his American friends being amazed they could go into taverns and restaurants and streetcars in the city. But Richard envied the fact that in America, Blacks had their own institutions, their own colleges and hospitals and trade unions, and could find higher employment within that system, while Blacks in Montreal withered on the vine.
“To them, Montreal was fabulous,” he said. “But they had economic freedom. We had social freedom but not freedom to go into the institutions.”
“The systemic racism was the dangerous thing,” Gwen Lord said. “Because it was so undercover that you didn’t even really know that it existed.”
Gwen Lord was active in the community, serving as president of the Black Community Resource Centre and with numerous other groups. As a senior official with the PSBGM she championed the cause of “grey-area” youth, students of all colours from the low-income neighbourhoods, whom the school system had neglected.
Other siblings were not as fortunate.
“Louise got a job at Bell Canada … as an engineering assistant. … and if it wasn’t for prejudice and discrimination she would have done very well in the Bell,” Gwen wrote. “But like my brother and myself, she was exposed to a lot of discrimination and it destroyed her. Really it did destroy her. It was very sad. People beneath her would be promoted and she wasn’t and she would ask and they would say: ‘Well you are Black and no one would work for you.’”
Gwen and Richard were able to rise above the adversity thanks to natural ability, strong family and community ties, higher education and a good degree of luck. Sadly, the barriers remain.
“Just recently they revealed that less than 3 percent of English-speaking Blacks in Quebec earn more than $50,00 a year,” Williams told the Montreal Gazette. “Do you think we can build wealth in the community with a stat like that?”
Institutional racism results in a disproportionately high level of incarceration for Blacks, low hiring rates in the civil service, and racial profiling by police, she said.
“We had for generations been the most educated immigrants coming into Canada and yet we had always been second to last on the labour market ladder. … Racism, in its systemic forms, is quite alive in the province and across the country.”
Now in her early 80s, Gwen Lord lists her occupation on Facebook as “happily retired.”
Reached earlier this month, she politely said she preferred not to talk about the entrenched racism she experienced, calling it wearying.
In an interview with the Gazette in 2002, she said having people always aware of her colour was a “constant struggle.” She compared the racism she faced to anti-Semitism — it may go up or down, but it never goes away.
Spurred by the will to travel, Thelma Johnson applied for Canada’s domestic worker recruitment program in 1956, at the age of 27, and promptly failed the application test.
“I flopped,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about housekeeping.”
One of 10 siblings, she worked in an orphanage in Kingston, Jamaica, loved children, and wanted to be a nurse or a hairdresser.
She found out what answers were expected, passed the test, and was fortunate to be placed with a Montreal family who wanted her to look after their daughters and expected little in the way of housekeeping.
She knew only one other person in Montreal. Pay was $80 a month. But as a live-in domestic, expenses were low, bus fare was just 10 cents, and her new home, exotic.
“I had never seen so many whites at one time,” she said. “It was kind of strange for me.”
She remembers scraping frost off the windows of unheated tramcars to see where to get off, and frozen feet because she only had galoshes. Quebecers were nice, she said, communicating in sign language because she had only English. But she and her friend would only go to the Chicken Chalet on Ste-Catherine St. on their days off because it was one of the few restaurants where Black customers weren’t stared at.
She finished her one-year requirement as a domestic to earn her landed immigrant status, then travelled to the Madame C.J. Walker Beauty School in Indianapolis, Ind., studying for two years, because no schools here taught how to care for Black hair.
With $700 saved, she opened one of the first Black hair salons in Montreal — Thelma’s House of Beauty, on Queen Mary Rd. She ran it for 37 years, hiring scores of beauticians over the decades.
The community work started there.
Young people having problems found out Thelma’s was a place they could go for food, or money for a hot dog, or words of comfort.
She started a co-operative program with the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, training prospective hairdressers. More than 85 percent of the students found work upon graduation. She founded the Caribbean Pioneer Women’s association in 1985, which collected more than $60,000 in scholarships and bursaries for students and donated even more to educations projects in Jamaica.
“My mother and my father — I was blessed with them,” she said. “If there was one banana, we shared for all. We didn’t have a lot, but we would share.”
Johnson (who is the aunt of CTV news reporter and Quebec City bureau chief Maya Johnson) was honoured in the House of Commons in 2005, receiving a standing ovation for her accomplishments. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013. She recently celebrated her 90th birthday, when she received so many gifts and phone calls, “I cannot count.” She is still doing volunteer work.
She was named one of the laureates of this year’s Montreal Black History Month celebrations.
Her community spirit was borne of strong family, hard work (“These 10 fingers got me where I am,” she likes to say) — and good examples.
“My role models were the older people, I learned from them. I wish a lot of the young girls these days would participate in helping …What we did, we did it for free. We did it from our hearts.”
Weeks after he was named Montreal’s first Black council speaker in 2013, Frantz Benjamin opened council meeting by reading Invictus, which ends: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Benjamin was honouring the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who read that poem to fellow prisoners during his 27 years in jail, but the words had a personal significance as well. For Benjamin, who emigrated from Haiti over 40 years ago, it was decades of dedication to community work, focusing on social justice, discrimination and equal opportunity that led him to his fate. He is the father of two daughters, and author of five books of poetry.
The symbolism of attaining higher office is important not only for the Black community as a source of pride and encouragement, Benjamin said, but to all citizens because it demonstrates “the necessity that Canadian, Quebec and municipal institutions represent the populations they serve. Institutions must be mirrors of their society — it is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
“Obviously, we cannot rely merely on symbols. Sexism, homophobia, ageism, racism, Islamophobia, racial profiling and all other forms of discrimination can not be beaten by ‘first Black female or first Black male – .’ ”
Conditions for the Black population have changed, Benjamin said. But when you read Statistics Canada numbers detailing the socio-economic status of Blacks, read police reports on hate crimes and see reports emanating from the criminal justice system, “I can only conclude one thing: there are still institutional impasses that exist before we can speak of a society that is equal for all members of the Black community.”
Benjamin was elected the MNA for Viau in the October provincial elections.
Edouard Anglade became the first Black hired by the Montreal police force in 1974. Change would prove to be a slow process. It took another seven years before the next Black man was hired.
It was up to the Haitian-born Anglade to blaze the trail and suffer the abuse. As an undercover narcotics officer, he was harassed by uniformed patrol officers who thought they were dealing with a civilian. When he was a uniformed officer, it was the civilians who discriminated.
”I can remember answering calls with a junior partner and when we got to the place, the people would just talk to the white officer,” he told the Gazette in 1996. “He would be junior, younger, but it would be like I wasn’t even there.”
He was the focus of media and departmental scrutiny in 1988 when he filed for workers’ compensation after racist harassment from a superior forced him off the job, suffering from depression. He won his case but endured the silent treatment from his colleagues after testifying before a provincial commission. He said he had no choice.
”If I hadn’t seen this through, it wouldn’t just be Anglade who would be criticized — it would be the whole Black community.”
In 1996, he published an autobiography of his career.
“There were good experiences and bad ones. But I got through it. I succeeded.”
In 2016, the Montreal police force reported 8.5 percent of its officers identify themselves as Indigenous or members of a visible minority. (In Montreal, nearly 33 percent of the population identifies as such.)
Anglade died of a brain tumour at age 63 in 2007. At his funeral, Black officers paid their respects to the man and his 30-year career.
“He’s our Black pioneer,” said Montreal police Commander Jean-Ernest Celestin, one of 130 Black officers on the force at the time. “He’s the reason we’re here.”
Article originally published in the Montreal Gazette.