QUEBEC CITY — Aly Ndiaye uses the heel of his boot to remove the frozen snow from a display case outside city hall, and reveals a reproduction of a 1760 print by British military artist Richard Short.
The print depicts the Jesuit college that once stood here and the damage it sustained during the British conquest of Quebec City. Most tour guides remark on the gaping holes caused by cannon fire.
Not Ndiaye. He points instead to a small black child in a corner of the print.
Dressed formally — white hat, billowy short pants and white knee socks — the boy is following an affluent-looking white couple.
"This is the first image of a black person in Quebec," Ndiaye explains. "Maybe even in Canadian history."
The boy's formal attire and the safe distance he maintains behind the couple indicate that the child, who does not appear to be older than 10, was their slave. The display, Ndiaye says, encapsulates black history in Quebec: "It's there, but we don't see it."
February is Black History Month. In Quebec, most people are unaware of the black and native slavery in their province's past. And yet, between 1629 and 1833, there were a reported 4,185 slaves here. Many lived in Quebec City, where they were employed in the homes of wealthy and prestigious families.
"Elsewhere in the Americas, slaves were part of the economy — they worked on plantations, harvesting tobacco, cotton and sugar cane. But in Quebec, having a slave was a sign of social status," Ndiaye explains.
"Black slaves were twice as expensive as native slaves. They were considered more rare, they had travelled farther and were considered more robust."
Ndiaye, 37, is better known as Webster. He's a rap musician who has recorded seven albums — his most recent solo work is À l'ombre des feuilles — and grew up in the Quebec City neighbourhood of Limoilou.
He and his sister were the only two black students at their elementary school. Because his nose was always in a book, childhood friends called him Webster, after the dictionary. The name stuck.
In the 1990s, Ndiaye went on to study Canadian history at Université de Laval, though it was not until after he graduated that he stumbled across some information relating to the history of slavery in Quebec.
"I realized it wasn't normal that we hadn't talked about this in school. I thought, 'If they won't talk about it, I will.' "
Dorothy Williams, a Montreal-based historian and author of three books about black Canadian history, would like to see the history of black slavery in Quebec taught in schools.
"As Canadians, we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to the U.S., and one of the key distinctions we make is saying we didn't have slavery — but we did," says Williams, who owns blacbiblio.com, which develops African-Canadian pedagogical materials.
"There are three or four generations of us walking around without knowing anything about it."
Ndiaye turned first to rap to communicate what he learned about the history of slavery in Quebec. His song Qc. History X cites the story of Olivier Lejeune, the first black man in Quebec, who was enslaved from the age of 8.
Lejeune studied the alphabet and catechism at the Jesuit residence on the Seigneurie Notre-Dame-des-Anges in what is now Limoilou. Born in Madagascar, Lejeune's name was given to him by Paul Le Jeune, the Jesuit who baptized him.
"Most of the African slaves who came to the Americas lost their African names," Ndiaye says. "It's a shame because this signifies a loss of identity and history."
Because rap reaches mostly young fans, Ndiaye decided he needed to find other ways to bring the history of slavery in Quebec to a wider audience. He started presenting conferences across North America; last spring, he developed a guided walking tour in Quebec City that he also calls Qc. History X.
"The X," Nadiaye explains, "stands for the unknown."
Between April and November — Ndiaye suspends the tour during winter — he says he had some 500 customers.
"My goal is to act as a bridge between history books and people today. The history of slavery in Quebec should be common knowledge."
Neil Schomaker, a Quebec City tour guide who trains other tour guides, invites Ndiaye to his classes to familiarize students with the history of slavery in Quebec.
"Most people mistakenly assume Canada was a haven for slaves — and it was, during the last years of American slavery," Schomaker says. "But for all of the French period and most of the British period, slavery was perfectly legal in Canada."
Ndiaye's two-hour tour begins in Place d'Youville, near the entrance to Old Quebec. Despite the absence of a plaque, he notes, visitors in the square are surrounded by evidence of this largely unknown chapter in the province's history.
The square is named for Marguerite d'Youville, founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal, commonly known as the Grey Nuns, one of several religious orders that kept slaves.
"Despite their belief in Christian charity, orders like the Grey Nuns and the Jesuits, and the Ursulines in New Orleans, didn't see a problem with having slaves," Ndiaye says.
At one end of the square is Palais Montcalm, a concert hall named after the French general Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, who also kept slaves.
The nearby stone wall surrounding Old Quebec was the creation of military engineer Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry, another slave owner.
The next stop is the former Petit Séminaire de Québec, now the Collège François-de-Laval. In the courtyard, Ndiaye points out the lines on the ground that indicate the former location of the home of Guillaume Couillard, said to be the first French colonist to arrive in Quebec City, in 1613, and a distant relative of Premier Philippe Couillard. In 1632, he is known to have acquired Olivier Lejeune as his slave.
Ndiaye wishes we knew more about Lejeune's life. Records indicate that in 1638, he was imprisoned for "calumny and defamation" after passing on a rumour that the British were returning to Quebec City. At the time, the colony was in the hands of the French, though it had been in British hands between 1629 and 1632.
We know, too, that Lejeune died in 1654 — he would have been about 30 — and that he was buried at the Cimetière de la Côte de la Montagne, Quebec City's oldest cemetery.
The saddest stop on Ndiaye's tour is the Redoute du Bourreau. Located in the Parc-de-l'Artillerie, just north of the entrance to Old Quebec, this is where Mathieu Léveillé lived when he was forced to work as the city's executioner from 1733 until his death a decade later.
Born in Martinique, Léveillé attempted three times to escape the plantation where he was kept as a slave. As punishment, the authorities gave him two options: death, or be shipped to New France to work as a slave and executioner — a job no one else wanted.
The first person Léveillé put to death was Marie-Joseph Angélique, the best-known slave in Quebec history.
"She was accused of setting a fire in Montreal to cover up her alleged escape," Ndiaye says. "It's unclear whether she did set the fire. But it was a large fire that spread across most of what is now Old Montreal. The only witness against her was a 5-year-old child."
Léveillé was forced to torture Angélique before hanging her. "Afterwards," Ndiaye says, "Léveillé fell into a deep depression from which he never fully recovered."
A more hopeful stop is Maison Péan on Rue St-Louis near the Plains of Abraham. Between 1784 and 1794, this stone building, now managed by Parks Canada, was the home of James Monk, the chief justice of Lower Canada after whom Monkland Ave. is named in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.
In 1798, Monk heard the case of an escaped slave named Charlotte. Unable to find a law that punished escaped slaves, he set Charlotte free.
"Word spread," Ndiaye says. "Other slaves heard what happened and left their masters. Monk refused to punish them too."
Though the British government did not vote to abolish slavery until 1833 — the law went into effect the following year — Monk's decision 35 years before precipitated the end of slavery in Quebec.
Even before Monk's ruling, not all blacks in Quebec were slaves. "Six per cent were free," Ndiaye says. Some had escaped from the United States, while others had been set free by their masters.
Today, Quebec City remains a largely homogeneous city — "still very white," Ndiaye says, "but it's changing."
Growing up in Limoilou, where he still lives, "there was a lack of diversity," he says. Now, "we need to see ourselves in the media, we need to develop a sense of Quebec identity, we need role models to follow."
Through his work as a musician, educator and tour guide, Ndiaye hopes to serve as the kind of role model he and his friends lacked.
"Doing the tours gives me a chance to give a voice to people who passed through history unnoticed — to free them from anonymity."
Aly Ndiaye was not in Quebec City when a gunman killed six worshippers at a mosque in Ste-Foy on Jan. 29. He got the news from his sister.
"I was surprised, shocked and speechless," he says.
"Quebec City is not xenophobic or racist. There are some people here who are, but there are more people here who are progressive."
In the days following the attack, Ndiaye felt discouraged — "but then, I rallied. We have to work together to eradicate hatred."
Slavery in Montreal
Aly Ndiaye would like to see a tour in Montreal similar to the one he offers in Quebec City. So would Dorothy Williams. But they say more research needs to be done on the history of slavery in Montreal.
Meanwhile, here are three sites that help tell the story of slavery in this city:
465 McGill St. This building marks the site of what was once the home of former slaves John Trim and his wife, Charlotte.
La Maison Parent-Roback, 10 Ste-Thérèse St. (corner of Vaudreuil St. in Old Montreal). This is the location of a plaque marking Marie-Joseph Angélique, the best known slave in Quebec history. Angélique was accused of setting a fire that led to the destruction of much of Old Montreal. She was executed in 1734 by Mathieu Léveillé, himself a slave.
Métro Champs-de-Mars. A stretch of green space just west of the métro station honours the memory of Marie-Joseph Angélique.