Exactly 30 years after Mandela visited Montreal, locals wonder what he'd think 'if he was living in 2020'
Published Friday, June 19, 2020 9:34PM EDT Last Updated Monday, July 6, 2020 1:20PM EDT
MONTREAL -- On June 19, Montrealers turned out by the tens of thousands to celebrate the civil rights fight—that is, June 19 exactly 30 years ago.
The crowd was welcoming Nelson Mandela when the icon came to town in 1990.
“It will be a matter of great joy to us to see the name ‘Montreal’ appear on the roll of honour of those who stood with us until the end,” Mandela said at the time.
The day has long been a treasured memory for some Montrealers. And this year they’re thinking of it in a new light.
One person accompanying Mandela that day was Juanita Westmoreland-Traore, who would go on to become the first-ever Black judge in Quebec.
As Westmoreland-Traore watches the news unfold three decades later, she says it’s easy to see all the progress made. But it’s equally easy to see what’s left to be done, she says.
“We have adopted charters for equality and human rights. We have adopted statements and principles. But it’s the implementation that we’re still waiting for,” she says.
One of Mandela’s stops in Montreal was Union United Church in Little Burgundy. He entered to music and singing, as people reached out to touch him as he walked down the aisle.
Visiting the church, says Westmoreland-Traore, was his way of connecting with the city's Black community.
Kimble Sherwood, the church’s music director, still remembers exactly where he was standing that day as Mandela entered the church.
“I can actually say, for the first time in my life, [I was] witnessing somebody coming in with this power that you can actually feel—feel an aura in the room,” recalls Sherwood.
Sherwood’s community is now marching again, and kneeling again, to deliver the message that racism must end—this time under banners saying “Black Lives Matter.”
“I’m a baby boomer,” Sherwood says, but “I was even part of the protest these past few weeks,” marching on the street.
“Because I wanted to be a baby boomer supporting the youth today, as I see their resilience.”
Westmoreland-Traore, who has spent her career in the justice system, says the same problems continue to circle.
“We have a repetition of, I don't even like to use the word, but it’s basically police brutality,” she said.
“And I believe that for young men in our communities, there is a mistrust. Unfortunately, this mistrust, in many cases, is well founded.”
On the 30th anniversary of the visit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saluted Mandela as an inspiration to freedom movements around the world, and a symbol of the power of a single individual to make change.
Mandela left his mark in Montreal and at the Union United, and now locals are planning to create a permanent reminder of the visit: a mural.
“We hope that will take place this summer, that we'll be painting and building that mural right here on the Atwater side of the church,” said Michael Farkas.
Farkas is the president of the Round Table on Black History Month, a nonprofit that promotes Black history awareness in Quebec.
Mandela, of course, died in 2013 at age 95, half a century after he was first imprisoned for fighting against apartheid in South Africa, and almost 20 years after he became its first Black president and the first elected in a fully democratic process.
Sherwood said he imagines sometimes what Mandela would think if he were here, and this week more than ever.
“I think Nelson Mandela would be proud if he looked around, if he was living in 2020,” he said.
“I think he'd be shocked to see the support.”