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Montreal to honour slave Marie Josèphe Angélique with park name

MONTREAL – She was either an arsonist who destroyed part of what is now Old Montreal to mask her attempt to escape from slavery – or, despite her servitude, an independent-minded black woman used as a scapegoat by an angry white population seeking vengeance in the wake of the destructive if non-fatal fire.

Whatever the truth about Marie Josèphe Angélique, the city of Montreal intends to honour the memory of the 18th-century slave who is at once a part of our history and the centre of a 278-year-old mystery.

“We thought it was an excellent idea,” said executive-committee member Mary Deros, referring to a request two years ago to the city from local journalist Kanyurhi Tchika that more be done to recognize Angélique’s life and death.

“Whether it was a public place or a street … something to commemorate this woman’s importance to Montreal.”

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On Monday, Montreal city council is expected to adopt a plan to name a stretch of green space just west of Champs de Mars métro station to honour Angélique’s memory.

The official inauguration of the park is set for Aug. 23, International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.

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This isn’t the first time Angélique, who is believed to have been born in Portugal around 1710, has been remembered as part of this city’s history.

In 2006, then Governor-General Michaëlle Jean presided over a ceremony on St. Thérèse St. in Old Montreal, where a plaque was erected not far from the site of Angélique’s death.

Historians agree that Angélique was executed – hanged and then her body thrown into a bonfire – in 1734, after she was convicted of having set a blaze that resulted in the destruction of 45 houses in what was then a town largely constructed of wood.

But was she guilty?

There were no eyewitnesses. Evidence heard during Angélique’s trial was largely hearsay, based more on her strong-willed character and on the suspicion the fire may have been deliberately set to mask her attempt to make a break for freedom.

The star witness for the prosecution was a 5-year-old girl who claimed she had seen Angélique carry a shovelful of coal up to the attic of her mistress’s home, the site where the fire broke out.

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A confession was obtained under torture, and Angélique was executed 10 weeks after her trial.

In the years that followed, two schools of thought emerged: one, that Angélique was guilty of nothing more than being a black slave in a town full of angry whites; the other, that no matter how the fire broke out, she was a symbol of resistance to the institution of slavery.

For Dan Philip, head of the Black Coalition of Quebec, honouring Angélique with a park “is a form of allowing the community to get some kind of consciousness of the evils of slavery, which translates into racial profiling and racial discrimination today.”

Philip supports the school of thought that Angélique was innocent, although he acknowledged Tuesday that the Coalition’s website took a different view, saying that “in April of 1734 (Angélique) committed the most dramatic act of resistance by setting fire to her master’s house.”

But beyond the debate over just what happened, Philip noted that publicly admitting Angélique’s existence – that slavery existed in Montreal – helps erode “the myth” that Canada’s history was shaped exclusively by the British and French.

To find out more about Marie Josèphe Angélique and her trial, go to canadianmysteries.ca.

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