Diane Blain (centre)

We have a racism problem

Denial serves nothing and no one.

A couple of weeks ago, two videos went viral in Quebec. One was a personal testimonial from a Muslim man who was attacked with a knife in Quebec City in an alleged hate crime. The second video was of a woman being verbally harassed by a man as she was picking up her three-year-old daughter from daycare. The incident was motivated by the fact that she was speaking Arabic to her daughter. In it, the man approaches the crying child, menacingly lowers himself to her height and tells her, “Ask your mother if I can f*ck her.”

Both videos circulated widely, but the second one went viral internationally for many obvious reasons. It depicted harassment in plain sight, and the unwarranted and unprovoked harassment of a woman and her young child was extremely disturbing to watch.

While the sight of that pathetic coward of a man terrorizing a mother and her young child was disturbing, what most disturbed me, however, was the denial and deflection on social media. Most people thankfully condemned the act and hoped that Montreal police (with the help of social media) would soon find the culprit, but many immediately entered denial mode.

“That man can’t be from here,” some said. “Are we sure this video wasn’t doctored?” asked someone else. “We didn’t see what caused the altercation and what was possibly said to him before he lashed out,” said others, invoking memories of Trump’s “there are good people on both sides” speech after tiki torch-carrying neo-Nazis paraded through Charlottesville — as if anything at all could have justified terrifying and reducing a child to tears. “She shouldn’t have been wearing a hijab,” said another. For the record, she wasn’t, but even if she were, someone offering up the appearance of religious symbols as both the cause for and justification for racism makes them a racist — just so we’re clear.

The same denial popped up in the comments section for the first video. “Who knows what he did to invite that violence,” said one person. “We don’t have all the facts yet, so let’s not be too hasty to condemn the attacker.” Yes, let’s, at all costs, protect the hard-earned integrity and reputation of a man who yelled, “F*cking immigrant” and then knifed someone. While being cautious and getting all the facts is, indeed, necessary, I find it disconcerting that so many people were quick to err on the side of caution only for the white folks attacking, harassing and caught on tape generally being shitty human beings.

They extended no such courtesy to the people attacked. They must have “done something” to merit such treatment, their thinking went. After all, Quebec isn’t racist, so no such attacks could possibly appear unprovoked, right? Alexandre Bissonnette was a fluke. Pig heads were randomly dropped outside of Quebec mosques and swastikas randomly found their way to getting plastered on synagogue walls. Pierre Dion, who was handed a 30-day sentence for praising Bissonnette in YouTube videos, was also a fluke, right? Hate and racism belong to fringe groups, the average Quebecer doesn’t have a racist bone in his or her body. Islamophobia and systemic racism don’t exist in this province — Premier Legault said so, remember?

Amidst simmering tension and fears that Bill 21 has emboldened racists, Legault couldn’t even be bothered to publicly denounce these two troublesome incidents. Instead, he directed his office to issue a generic statement denying any link between the incidents and the government’s new secularism law. “We firmly denounce these terrible actions,” it reads. “Hate, racism and intolerance do not have a place in our society.”

They don’t? Are all these incidents apparitions and figments of our imagination? While acknowledging that we have a problem may contradict our vision of a peaceful and racism-free Quebec (and Canada, at large) merely denying that something exists does not miraculously make it so.  

What I found disconcerting, however, is that while he opted out of personally commenting on these two hate crimes, Legault did decide to take to Twitter recently to wax poetically about Journal de Montréal columnist and author Mathieu Bock-Côté and how fortunate it was that Quebec has given nationalism its proper place again.

Bock-Côté is someone who preaches a particular (and divisive) brand of ethnic (identity) nationalism and has even promoted replacement theory (grand replacement) in his writing — a white nationalist right-wing conspiracy theory stating that the white French Catholic population and the white Christian European population is being replaced with non-European people.

On the day that Legault was busy tweeting out praise for someone so reactionary and often quite anti-immigrant in his comments, Diane Blain, a speaker at a rally in support of the Quebec government and Bill 21 in Trois-Rivières, was issuing a call to arms. “We have so many enemies here in Quebec,” she said. “The federal government, federalist journalists, Muslims, Jews, anglos, Sikhs.”

Another person at the Vague bleue nationalist rally was quoted as saying, “I’m white. I’m proud of my country and I like walking around and feeling like I’m home. This isn’t Montreal, and it’s why we have to maintain our image of a city of whites.”

“A city of whites.”

I don’t know about you, but these statements horrify me. People publicly outing themselves as racists should not be ignored or treated as minor oddities. And people calling out actual racism should not be thought more offensive to Quebec sensibilities than the actual racism they are calling out. Selective blindness and lack of critical dissent are not markers of patriotism or nationalistic pride, just as acknowledging that we, too, have a problem with racism and ethno-nationalism is not de-facto Quebec-bashing.

And speaking of denial, just look at Oka right now for a glimpse into our collective white-washing and white privilege.

The land, which has been the point of contention for decades now, belonged to the Mohawk nation of Kanesatake long before any Europeans set foot on the continent. When the two “founding nations” arrived, they moved in and started insidiously and strategically occupying the area via outright theft.

In 1959, the municipality of Oka rented out part of the Pines to the Oka Golf Club and built a nine-hole golf course without Mohawk consent.  

In 1989, the Oka Golf Club wanted to expand into an 18-hole golf course and build a condo complex. The extension would have been built over the Kanesatake cemetery. Tensions escalated and resulted in a full-blown crisis, commonly known as the Oka Crisis. Kanesatake is now in the process of negotiating a land claim settlement with the federal government. A local developer wants to give back some of the Pines through a federal program. He’s also willing to sell additional land to Kanesatake.

The news prompted Oka mayor Pascal Quevillon to say the town is now at risk of being “surrounded” by Mohawk land and that Oka land values would plummet as a result.

Imagine being a descendant of colonizers who pretty much stole Indigenous land and dismissively complaining of being “surrounded” by the people you stole it from, lamenting how this could affect “your” land values. Imagine the prejudice-filled arrogance of issuing such a statement and being comfortable with it.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller rightfully stated when he was asked if the mayor of Oka has a seat at the negotiation table regarding the transfer of lands, “No, nor is he entitled to one.” This is how you respond to racism. You set the tone. You shut it down. You don’t make excuses for it and you most certainly don’t deny it. We need more of that and we need it now more than ever. ■