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Like a lot of Montrealers, on Monday I dug my car out of one snowbank so that I could park it in another mound of snow on the opposite side of the street. It was a gesture repeated many thousands of times across the city, part of our perennial rite of winter, the burden of the street parkenproletariat who can’t afford a private garage or the house to go with it.
Walking back across the street on that crisp afternoon, I was chatting with a neighbour who was smoking on the second-floor balcony. Given that we are both anglophones, it won’t shock you to hear that we spoke English. It did, apparently, shock another neighbour who was walking by on the sidewalk. She swore at me and told me, “Vous-êtes au Québec. Parlez français — c’est notre langue.” I won’t bore you with the exchange that followed. I’ll just say that my French was impeccable, especially the expletives I used to direct her to points south. The deep South.
This type of thing has happened to me before; the last time was about eight years ago, in Marseille. A young guy heard me speaking English with my travelling companion and felt obliged to inform me, “Vous êtes en France ici. Speak white!” I found the choice of words ironic, given that his accent and skin tone placed his ancestry somewhere in North Africa. His girlfriend had the grace to look embarrassed as I shot back an angry “Je parle français, calisse” in my charming québécois patois.
I could let these experiences scar me. I could take them as signs of rampant anti-English racism and prejudice and vow to never again live anywhere that kind of attitude is allowed to fester. Except that it festers everywhere. Sometimes it takes the form of slurs against anglos. Other times, it’s francos who are the target.
More often — much more often — it’s the less-populous minorities: the Italians, Greeks, Moroccans, Haitians, Chinese, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Irrational hate and prejudice is aimed at women every day. It targets gays, the disabled, the disfigured, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill.
There is no society that is immune to prejudice, discrimination and racism. Not Montreal, not Quebec, not Canada. You are not immune, and certainly neither am I.
Last Thursday, a group calling themselves Uni-e-s contre la francophobie held a news conference to announce the launch of a petition and website in an effort to mobilize public opinion against prejudice directed toward francophones. Or against Quebec. Or the PQ government, Bill 101 or the Charter of Values, because an attack on one is apparently an attack on all francophones. Even the francophones who oppose the Charter and the majority who voted for other parties.
In a 30-page “survey of recent incidents,” the group attempts to document various newspaper articles, opinion pieces, editorials, Facebook posts, tweets, cartoons, online comments and even restroom graffiti that it deems evidence of overt hatred of francophones in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. Hate speech that it says has escalated since the election of the Parti Québécois last fall.
The document contains plenty of examples of horribly violent images and language and sentiment expressed on social media, the type of neanderthal crap that any sane person would denounce, as I have done myself on more than one occasion. It cites buffoons like Don Cherry and Howard Galganov and points to whacko websites like Park Avenue Gazette, whose content and design reflects the views of a mixed bag of paranoid rednecks with severe attention-deficit disorders.
But it also includes dozens of references to articles in mainstream media that the survey authors contend are also hate literature of the most heinous kind.
Let’s look at a 2009 piece by the Gazette’s satirical Saturday columnist Josh Freed, who they say compared the Office Québécois de la langue française to the Nazis because of a reference to the language inspectors as “the Apostrophe SS.” (Freed explains the controversy here.) This so outraged language activist Gilles Rhéaume that he filed a complaint with the Quebec Press Council — which was rejected (read it here) because they, at least, understood Freed hadn’t called Rhéaume or anyone else a Nazi. (Either that or the Press Council members are francophobes, too.)
I dug deeper into several of the articles cited in the survey — many of them far from “recent” — and found the survey’s authors must have gone out of their way to misinterpret them and strip them completely of context. It can give you at least five examples of this, but one should suffice for today’s column.
In a section accusing Maclean’s magazine of francophobia because it published a cover story on Quebec corruption, they say that columnist Paul Wells, a well-respected journalist with a profound understanding of Quebec, called Bill 101 “an essentially intolerant law” in a piece written just after the election.
Wells was writing about the shift in PQ policies and language under the leadership of Pauline Marois. The document quotes him, saying this: “The PQ gets angry when my colleagues call this xenophobia. Fine. Call it Happy Fun Politics if you prefer. But it represents a fundamental change in the party’s policies on language and identity. It identifies bilingual non-francophones — people whose first language is not French but who can converse easily in French — as a problem. And it seeks to make Montreal a less welcoming home for them.”
OMG! He used the X-word! If you bother to read the entire column (it’s here), I defy you to describe it as francophobic or an attack on Bill 101. And if you DO think it promotes hatred of French-speaking Quebecers, I invite you to read many of his other columns where Wells promotes hatred of Stephen Harper, the Conservatives, the Liberals, the NDP, Justin Trudeau, the Senate, the Oilsands, Enbridge, autism and Michael Bublé.
I know that, by writing this column, some are going to accuse me of minimizing racism against francophones. Maybe I’ll even make the next blacklist. But the people who have truly watered down the strength of the message that racism — in any form — is unacceptable are the authors of a report that throws that label on every conceivable slight, sometimes going back decades. People who don’t draw a distinction between hating a particular race or religion vs. opposing a political option or ideology. People who toss the reasoned arguments of respected journalists, politicians and academics in the same basket as the hateful scribblings of anonymous Internet trolls and marginal crackpots.
If you wanted to look for racist statements, en français, against anglophones, Muslims, Haitians or Jews, you wouldn’t have to look much farther than Facebook and online comments in the Journal de Montréal.
Doing that, though, seems to me to be akin to hanging out with the nasty neighbour. The one who ordered me to speak French. The one who informed me that I could never be québécois even though I was born here, raised here and stayed here despite better opportunities elsewhere — because I am chez nous.
My nasty neighbour is the exception, not the rule. And we know that because for every exchange like the one I described, there are hundreds of thousands of interactions every day in this province where people of different languages, faiths and political views peacefully share offices, buses and beds.
By all means, let’s denounce intolerance wherever we find it. But let’s not spend too much time among the trolls lest we, too, only see a world that’s always in the dark. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.