Dominique François Gaspard, physician and community builder (born 22 December 1884 in New Orleans, Louisiana; died 6 February 1938 in Montreal, QC). Gaspard was a respected doctor and a trailblazer in Montreal’s Black district. After serving with distinction at a field hospital during the First World War, he devoted himself to medical practice in Montreal. He also worked to create social and intellectual outlets for Black men in the city. A bilingual Catholic, he was unique in the city’s early-20th-century anglophone Protestant Black community. His story speaks of a complexity of language, ethnicity and migration not often explored in narratives of Quebec’s English-speaking and Black communities.
Dominique Gaspard c. 1911. Photographer unknown
Early Life and Education
Dominique Gaspard grew up in the vibrant Afro-French Creole community of St. Katherine’s parish in New Orleans. The Creole (free people of colour) enjoyed positions of privilege.
As Gaspard entered adolescence, his parish became dominated by the Josephites. The mission of this religious order was to convert Blacks to the Catholic Church. In 1904, a Josephite recommended that Gaspard enter the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. African Americans had been studying there since the 1860s. However, Gaspard is the first Black student of whom accounts survive that describe his lived experience in the town. Gaspard stayed in Saint-Hyacinthe during the summer months. He worked as a waiter and became a fixture in the community.
After graduating in 1911, Gaspard aspired to become a Dominican priest. However, he encountered opposition at the Séminaire based on his race. He then decided to study medicine at the Montreal branch of Université Laval (later renamed Université de Montréal). He started the program in 1912.
Séminaire de Saint Hyacinthe, QC, about 1910 | MP-0000.1134.5 from the McCord Museum collection is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.5 CA.
First World War Service
In August 1914, Canada was at war with Germany (see First World War). Dr. Arthur Mignault, surgical officer of the Mount Royal Rifles, set up a French Canadian field hospital in France. The No. 4 Stationary Hospital in Saint-Cloud was run by the French government but staffed by volunteers from Université Laval. Dominique Gaspard was one of these medical volunteers.
Did you know?
Most Black servicemen of Gaspard’s time had to protest for the right to enlist in Canada’s military (see Black Volunteers in the First World War). Those who obtained this right were typically offered a segregated enlistment. Gaspard’s military career stands out because he faced neither of these barriers. This may be because he was training alongside white students when he was called up. Prejudice in many other army units barred Black recruits from joining.
In April 1917, the French minister of war recognized Gaspard’s exemplary service in France. Gaspard received the minister’s Médaille des épidémies (“epidemic medal”) for ensuring the safety and sanitation of the hospital.
Career in Montreal
In 1918, Dominique Gaspard opened a general medical practice on Saint-Antoine Street. His office was near the hub of the city’s Black porters, east of Old Montreal. Years later, he moved further west on Saint-Antoine, near Mountain Street and the Black jazz nightclubs. Gaspard was close to the daily commute of Black porters who walked to and from Bonaventure, Windsor and Central stations.
Did you know?
In the first half of the 20th century, 90 per cent of working Black men in Montreal were railway porters. Although the position was respected in the community, it was one of few roles available to Black men. Racist and biased hiring policies prevented even highly educated men from getting jobs in their field.
By 1921, Gaspard served the wards of Sainte-Cunégonde, Saint-Antoine and Saint-Joseph. He may have been the first Black doctor in these wards, though many of his patients were white. As a respected and bilingual physician, Gaspard was always in demand. He was known for his skill at diagnosing illnesses.
Dominique Gaspard became involved in Saint-Antoine’s Black community life (see Little Burgundy and Montreal’s Black English-Speaking Community). In January 1920, he joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Montreal’s first Black community association. It was one of the few doors open to Black men for social and intellectual pursuits. In the UNIA’s Liberty Hall, Blacks could socialize freely. Discussions of science, race, philosophy, history, finance, government and civics took place there. Gaspard developed a working relationship with Dr. D.D. Lewis, president of the Montreal chapter of the UNIA. This relationship put Gaspard at the forefront of Montreal’s early Black community development.
On 15 June 1921, Gaspard married Ethel May Lyons, a member of Union United Church. She was well known and from a respected family. Gaspard’s marriage — notably, to a Protestant — eased his social integration into the Black community.
In 1927, Gaspard became a founding member of the Negro Community Centre (NCC) of Montreal. In representing Montreal’s Black community, the NCC questioned the status quo. It played a key role at a time when Black people were often not welcome in the city’s other community centres (see Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada). The NCC raised human rights issues and helped bridge cultural divides. At first, it focused on youth. Over several decades, though, the NCC became the creative and social heart of the community.
Gaspard helped to establish the Coloured War Veterans’ Legion (Quebec no. 50) in Montreal. The branch was chartered on 20 March 1935. It became the only legion in Canada for Black veterans, who were often not welcome in other legions.
Gaspard’s role in the Black community kept growing. In 1937, he applied to set up the Canadian Brothers’ Social Club Inc. This high-class athletic social club for Blacks in Montreal was to provide “billiard and pool rooms, dining rooms, tennis courts, skating rinks, swimming pools, newsstands, and to carry on therein the sale of cigars, cigarettes, tobacco and candy.” The ambitious project aimed to counter the persistent social ostracism that Montreal’s Blacks endured. On 18 September 1937, the province granted the charter.
Unfortunately, the club never opened. After a four-week illness, 53-year-old Gaspard died on 6 February 1938. He was buried in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges Cemetery.
In 1953, 15 years after Dominique Gaspard’s death, Black veterans in Montreal named their legion in his honour. The new name — Dr. Gaspard Royal Canadian Legion Branch no. 50 — recognized his contribution to the community and the country.
Decades later, women of Union United Church lamented that “the Black community…lost a beloved humanitarian when he passed away.” They attributed his death to the selfless medical help he often gave without pay.
Gaspard’s life is a unique object of study for historians. No other account exists of a French-speaking, African American Catholic who graduated from the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, stayed in Quebec and integrated into Montreal’s Black community.