MONTREAL — Steps away from Montreal’s historically Black neighborhood of Little Burgundy, the handsome gray-stone house where the Canadian jazz virtuoso Oscar Peterson grew up sits conspicuously empty.
There is no city plaque on the house designating it a landmark, nor any street named after Mr. Peterson, a dazzling, finger-flying pianist and 20th-century musical giant whom Duke Ellington called “the maharajah of the keyboard.”
But Naveed Hussain, a 36-year-old nurse, thinks something more should be done to honor the musician — while removing what he views as an anachronistic blight, close by the musician’s childhood home.
Inspired by a global reckoning in support of Black rights, he wants to rename the Lionel-Groulx subway station, which memorializes a polarizing Roman Catholic priest and historian who championed the rights of Francophone Quebecers in English-dominated Canada, but who also espoused virulent anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies.
“The metros and monuments in this city are irrelevant to our current times and glorify imperialists and conquerors and, in the case of Lionel Groulx, someone who suggested certain immigrants didn’t have a place in Quebec society,” Mr. Hussain said. “Oscar Peterson is a symbol of unity.”
Mr. Hussain, who lived for a time in Little Burgundy, said he was fighting for nothing less than the soul of the city, eager for the subway station to reflect the contributions of Canadians of color.
But his push has given rise to a backlash and a counterpetition by those who contend that Mr. Groulx deserves his place in the city’s pantheon.
Especially for some older, French-speaking residents, Mr. Groulx is a towering figure of the first half of the 20th century whose insistence on equality for Francophone Quebecers deserves to be remembered.
“Leave the metro alone — it is a thank you for what this man gave to Quebec,” said Annie Roux, 60, a life coach and astrologer who has lived next door to the station for several years.
The naming skirmish has become an emblem of a long-simmering cultural battle over the toponymy of a city that was colonized by both France and Britain, where street names honoring 19th-century British monarchs sit alongside grand boulevards renamed after 20th-century Québécois nationalists.
Mr. Hussain said it was a fitting tribute to Montreal’s multiculturalism that someone like him, a Canadian-Muslim with Pakistani roots, was challenging the celebration of a man with anti-Semitic views in order to honor a Black jazz great who won eight Grammy Awards before his death in 2007 at 82.
Mr. Hussain’s petition to rename the subway station (which hyphenates Mr. Groulx’s first and last name) has received nearly 25,000 signatures — although some commentators on the counterpetition criticized a “witch hunt” against major figures of the past.
His campaign had also pitted modernizers against conservationists and scholars who argue that the names of subways, streets and statues should be preserved as historical records.
Cities across the world, from Bristol, England, to Lexington, Va., have been rethinking their identities amid calls to remove monuments honoring historical figures who advocated slavery or held racist views. In Canada, demands have been growing to topple statues honoring John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, because of his role in repressing Indigenous people.
On a recent day in Little Burgundy, once known as “The Harlem of The North,” local residents lamented that the social history of Black Quebecers was noticeably absent or underplayed in Quebec’s history books, popular culture and urban spaces, and overshadowed by the struggle of white, French-speaking Quebecers for their own rights.
“If you are brown or Black in Quebec, you are seen as the Other,” said Charlene Hunte, head of outreach at the Union United Church, which Mr. Peterson attended. Montreal, she observed, didn’t have a single subway station named after women or ethnic minorities. “Black history is being erased,” she said.
In Quebec, a majority Francophone province, Mr. Hussain’s attempt to rebrand the popular transport hub has intensified enduring debates over language, memory and the legacy of colonialism.
Writing in Le Devoir, a leading Montreal-based newspaper, Luc-Normand Tellier, an emeritus professor of urban studies at Université du Québec à Montréal, argued that Lionel-Groulx station should keep its name because of the pivotal role its namesake played in shaping the French identity of Quebec.
He suggested renaming the city’s McGill subway station after Mr. Peterson, since James McGill, an 18th-century Scottish businessman whose name adorns McGill University, owned six Black slaves. “Such a gesture would, at once, underline how slavery was intolerable while honoring the contribution of Blacks to Montreal society,” he wrote.
Robin Philpot, a prominent Quebec writer, argued that Montreal should guard against a longstanding drive by the British conquerors of Quebec and their descendants to Anglicize the names of streets and bridges in the city.
For others, like Eric Scott, who made a documentary film about anti-Semitism in Quebec, the support to keep the station’s name reflected an unwillingness to acknowledge “pro-fascist sympathies” in Quebec in the 1930s through the postwar period.
Experts agree that Mr. Groulx was a divisive figure who had expressed anti-Semitic views. But those views, they say, weren’t his central preoccupation and needed to be examined within the context of the prevailing social mores of his times.
Youssef Amane, a spokesman for Montreal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, said there was a moratorium on renaming subway stations. He noted, however, that Mr. Peterson had been honored with a park in Little Burgundy as well as a mural.
“There is more to be done to honor the contributions of the Black community,” Mr. Amane added.
In the late 19th century, Black migrants from across Canada, the United States and the Caribbean came to Little Burgundy to work.
During Prohibition in the United States, the area became a center for jazz, with boogie-woogie rhythms and booze both flowing freely.
Today, blocky social housing is being gradually supplanted by upmarket restaurants, designer condominiums and other signs of gentrification. The Negro Community Center, the heart of the community since 1927, was demolished a few years ago and is now an empty lot.
Oliver Jones, 86, a celebrated Canadian jazz pianist from Little Burgundy, who was mentored by Mr. Peterson and went on to play Carnegie Hall, said renaming the station after his old friend would help cement the neighborhood’s legacy.
“Wherever I have traveled, whether in Puerto Rico or China or Australia, everyone knows the name Oscar Peterson,” he said.
He said Mr. Peterson, the son of a West Indian immigrant who worked as a sleeping car railway porter, was deeply shaped by Little Burgundy. During the height of its popularity from 1930 to 1950, people across the racial divide flocked to the famous Black-owned Rockhead’s Paradise jazz club to hear him and other jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong play.
“It was the best show in town,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Peterson has received many accolades, including being honored with a Canadian postage stamp. But if there was any reluctance to rename a station after him in Montreal, Mr. Jones said, it was probably because he was an Anglophone and had moved to Ontario.
“Maybe they just picked the wrong station since Lionel Groulx is a hero for French Canadians,” he said.
Myrna Lashley, an expert on race relations and assistant professor at McGill University, supports renaming the station after Oscar Peterson. But she argued that cities struggling with what to do with statues and other memorials that can’t be renamed should install explanatory plaques to educate the public about past wrongs.
“We can’t start tearing everything down or we will have nothing left,” she said.
As for Mr. Hussain, he’s not backing down.
“Imagine if we were talking about Celine Dion, the city would be tearing up an entire street to honor her,” he said. “The same should happen for Oscar Peterson.”
Nasuna Stuart-Ulin contributed reporting.