Canada’s First Black Model – Johanne Harelle

Joanne Harelle with Montreal designer Michel Robichaud, early 1960s

A year before the first American black model, Donyale Luna, graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Johanne Harelle retired from her modelling career in Canada.

Johanne Harelle was born Joan Harell to a French Canadian mother and West Indian father in Montreal on January 29, 1930. She spoke English until her father died of tuberculosis when she was three and her mother was confined to a sanitarium for treatment of the same disease. Joan and her two younger brothers were sent to an orphanage where the nuns altered her name to a French spelling, and required her to speak French.

After finishing school, Joan worked as a maid, waitress, accountant, nightclub photographer, lab technician, and eventually, as a professional model from about 1957 to 1963. “I suffered from a little racism.” she recounted in a 1983 interview “There were a few incidents but not many.” While modelling, she met film-maker Claude Jutras and had a three year love affair with him, which also lead to some acting work. In 1963 she married a French sociologist and moved to Paris the following year. In 1981 she wrote her autobiography Un Lecon, and after a divorce, moved back to Montreal where she died on August 4, 1994.

Johanne Harelle in the trailer for A Tout Prendre, a 1963 film by Canadian director Claude Jutras

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