DOXA Fest: Dear Jackie demolishes a Canadian myth about racial benevolence

Filmmaker Henri Pardo punctures a perception that Montreal is somehow better than other cities because of how it welcomed baseball star Jackie Robinson in 1946

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      Directed and written by Henri Pardo

      Baseball great Jackie Robinson helped create a legend about Canada that has been embraced by white liberals to this day.

      It goes like this.

      Robinson experienced horrific racism in spring training in Florida in 1946 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But later that year, he was warmly welcomed in Montreal, where he played a season with the minor-league Royals franchise. 

      While Robinson initially endured some racial slurs from the stands when he broke minor-league baseball's colour barrier in the Quebec city, he also won over the vast majority of fans with his fabulous play. Robinson and his wife, Rachel, later spoke highly of their experiences in Montreal in 1946.

      This cemented the view of Montreal as a place that treated Black people better than anywhere else in North America.

      But is it really the truth?

      Three-quarters of a century later, filmmaker Henri Pardo decided to puncture that myth in his often searing but also endearing and uplifting cinematic letter to Robinson entitled Dear Jackie. The feature-length film was shot entirely in black and white and is being screened at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.

      There's no denying the community's reverence for Robinson. One of the elders, Ivan Livingstone, speaks in the film of being in awe of the courageous baseball star walking in the aisles of the Union United Church in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood and sitting among them.

      Pardo also emphasizes his deep respect for Robinson in the film's opening. But after Robinson left Montreal, the tightly knit Black community still had to endure stunning indignities and racism, which had already existed for decades before.

      In Dear Jackie, retired teacher and former star athlete Ivan Livingstone shares stories about racism he experienced in Canada.

      In the days when train travel was king, Black men were gone 20 days a month, working 18-hour days as porters—one of the few jobs available to them. They were all called "George", says Pardo as the film's narrator.  

      "False sexual assault allegations were as numerous as the days we worked," Pardo declares. "You know, Jackie, that didn't stop us from thriving and playing and exploring new ways to express our Blackness.

      "You weren't the only great person to play here," he continues. "Miles, Dizzy, Cab, Ella, Thelonious, Sammy, and so many others came to do their magic."

      It's a story of a loving and dynamic 20th-century community that remained resilient in the face of tremendous pain.

      Pardo also shows how the myth of Montreal the Better was belied by "urban renewal" that razed 70 percent of Little Burgundy. Part of the community was dispersed to make room for a freeway in the 1960s and 1970s. 

      The imagery of the destruction is so vivid and compelling. There's no sugar-coating Montreal's institutionalized racism in these scenes.

      But the discrimination was nothing new.

      The perception of Montreal the Better was also contradicted by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling decades earlier. In 1939, it upheld a decision by the York Tavern, which was attached to the old Montreal Forum, to refuse to serve a man named Fred Christie because he was Black.

      That legalized the type of racism that Viola Desmond endured seven years later when she challenged segregation in a Nova Scotia movie theatre. This occurred in the same year Jackie Robinson was winning applause in Montreal.

      Radio host Pat Dillon-Moore has put the spotlight on police racism in Montreal.

      Then, there was the punishing police racism against Montreal's Black residents in the 1980s and 1990s—and more recently— that Pardo documents so effectively. Those scenes are difficult—yet necessary—for whites in Canada to witness to get any sense of the immense pain felt by the city's Black community. 

      But in the end, it's the interview subjects who make Dear Jackie so memorable—retired teacher and former athlete Livingstone, activist Majiza Philip, broadcaster Pat Dillon-Moore, food-bank worker Charlene Hunte, firefighter David Shelton, and so many others.

      "This genocide that was committed here is a tragedy," Shelton says in the film. "We consider First Nations people less than human. But we can acknowledge what happened. We can try to find a way forward looking honestly at the crimes that have been committed and the heartbreak that has been levied on so many people.

      "And we don’t do that because we still dehumanize them," he adds. "They are a page, one page, in the history book."

      It's through these Black voices—expressed truthfully, articulately, with dignity, and from the heart—that Canadians can learn the true history of their country.

      In the end, that will help set the stage for far more inclusive urban renewal than what occurred in the past in Little Burgundy and so many other Black communities across North America.

      Video: Watch the trailer for Dear Jackie.