C’est Moi is the history lesson you never had

Featured image by Hannah Stinson

Marie-Joseph Angelique. Ever heard that name? Probably not.

Neither had Ryerson theatre alumni Howard J. Davis. That was until he took classes on Caribbean studies and Pre-colonial African history in his first year.

While reading about the Atlantic slave trade, Davis was introduced to a slave woman from the 18th century named Marie-Joseph Angelique.

Angelique worked from a widower in New France, present-day Montreal.

Her story captivated Davis – she fell in love with a white servant that worked in the same household, Claude Thibault. When Angelique feared her owner was going to sell her to a buyer in the West Indies where, relative to Canada, slaves were badly treated, she decided to run away with Thibault.

Davis said that people often look back at Canadian history through “rose-tinted glasses” and downplay Canada’s involvement with the slave trade.

“Most believed Canada to be a haven, a place of escape for slaves, where’d they’d come up and be free and that is not necessarily the case.”

The events that took place after the runaway attempt are some of the not-so-rosy moments in Canadian history.

Angelique and Thibault were caught by local militia a few weeks into running away. Thibault was arrested while Angelique was returned promptly to her owner.

Surprisingly, Angelique’s owner did not retaliate against her – but it was only because she was planning on selling her anyways.

The fear of being sold again would be used against Angelique.

A month later after she was returned, Angelique’s owner’s house was set on fire, early in the morning of April 10, 1734.

The house fire spread down the streets of Montreal, destroying a significant portion of the city.

While people attempted to subdue the flames, a rumour spread throughout the city – Marie-Joseph Angelique started the fire. It was a revengeful reaction to her master’s plan to sell her and separate her from her lover.

There was no basis for the claim besides town speculation and gossip – but any word was taken over Angelique’s, who was now notoriously known as the “runaway slave”.

Yet Angelique was tried and convicted, brutally tortured until she confessed to the crime. She was dragged through the streets of Montreal and then hanged.

Until recently, the consensus was that Angelique committed the crime – but the more historians look at the story, the more discrepancies they find with it.

The new theory is that Angelique was used as a scapegoat for a crime she didn’t commit.

It’s an important story, and one most Canadians don’t know – which is why Davis is trying to tell it, with a modern context.

C’est Moi is a short film that will tell the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, through modern-day Montreal.

Davis has been working on the film since his first year in performance acting when he first read about Angelique, who will be played by actress Jenny Brizard in the film.

He was surprised about how unknown Angelique’s story is.

It brought up a major concern for Davis – how much had been erased through mainstream Canadian history?

“The goal of the film from me is finding what is unearthed from our past that from our modern culture is inevitably erased,” said Davis. “The duality of those two things I found really interesting.”

While location-scouting for the film, Davis found a monument commemorating the Declaration against Racial Discrimination in Montreal had been removed by the city.

He said it amplified his concerns about historical erasure, but made the story he was telling even more important.

The movie is personal to Davis, as a mixed-race man.

“Essentially, I am the love child of a lot of discourse in history.”

Discourse that Davis said is necessary in the modern context, with the racially-tense climate of North America.

“Some people could argue that those stories of slavery and suppression of minorities are of the past and we don’t need to tell them anymore,” said Davis. “As much as I’d like us to get along – we cannot move on until we learn the underbelly of our culture.”

Davis hopes to lead the way to more a more diverse definition of what a Canadian story is.

“What’s beautiful is that I know that it’s already happening,” said Davis. “These kinds of stories are being done.”

C’est Moi has not been screened yet. You can find more information on the film here.