Quebec systemic racism

Photo by Rebecca Bain

Quebec has a systemic racism problem, obviously

“Fighting against racism is everyone’s responsibility. Pretending it’s only a problem somewhere else solves nothing.”

As the black community and allies around the world protest and grieve George Floyd, an unarmed man senselessly killed at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, the violent clashes have exposed simmering frustration. Bookended by an incompetent U.S. President who seems to do everything to unleash even more chaos and unrest, and a pandemic that has accentuated and exposed social inequalities, a visceral anger has enveloped the country.

Over on this side of the border, I immediately noticed the eagerness with which our local politicians tweeted out their support. It’s welcomed and it’s important, but it’s also easy. Denouncing George Floyd’s killers should not be hard. Any decent human being with eyes and a heart should be able to be horrified by that murder.

But, here’s the deal. You don’t have to only pay attention to racism when the violence is that extreme, that vile, that malicious, that gut-wrenchingly brutal and documented for all of us to see. You don’t have to only become angry and riled up by discrimination when it takes place south of the border, but turn a blind eye to it here — or worse, deny and deflect, get insulted, accuse activists of “identity politics” and “hidden agendas” because it disturbs your belief in the myth of Canadian and Quebec exceptionalism.

The stats say otherwise

Quebec Premier François Legault can, once again, deny that there’s systemic racism here, because he looks over at the U.S. and finds us better by comparison, but that’s an incredibly low bar. The cold-hard statistics reveal a different story. Look at the unwarranted arrests of black men, of police violence that targets them, at cases of racial profiling and “police surveillance that is targeted and disproportionate,” at systemic discrimination that prevents black men and women from advancing into positions of authority, look at the flagrant lack of visible minorities in all levels of government and government services. That’s systemic. Now pay attention to the micro-aggressions black folks deal with, day in and day out; listen to their fatigue and worry and indignation. I have honestly never seen so much pain and frustration around me.

“Yes, racism looks like hate,” says American author Scott Woods, “but hate is just one manifestation. “Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on.” 

In deep denial

Quebec systemic racism
Photo by Béatrice Vaugrant (Quebec has a systemic racism problem, obviously)

You don’t need to see a boot pressing down on a man’s neck for eight straight minutes, calling out for his mother as he’s dying, to understand that racism exists. You don’t need to pay attention only when black people die with their heads in a death grip, their spines broken on the way to a precinct, behind the wheel of their car, in their own damn home, being shot in the back while they’re running through the streets to escape some faux-cop wannabe-vigilantes“protecting” what they believe to be theirs.

When Quebec columnists write “Don’t import American racism here” I am baffled at the request. Why do we need to import what we already successfully produce at home? This deep desire and denial to see us as untouched by racism continues to shock me. Remember when the report came out last year revealing that black and Indigenous people were four to five times more likely than whites to be stopped by Montreal police and SPVM Chief Sylvain Caron said he was “very surprised”? Really? I’m not stopping them, your officers are. Why are you surprised? Shouldn’t you — at the very least — be aware of it? One must be willing to close their eyes to the statistics, to the official reports, to the personal testimonials of those affected in order to go down that road.

Only eight months after apologizing for systemic racism against Indigenous communities (Viens Commission), Premier Legault says he stands in solidarity with protesters, but when it’s time to look at his own house, he acknowledges no systemic racism in Quebec. So, solidarity, mais quand tu nous tiens? Just because the racism here isn’t as violent doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Denial and deflection serve what purpose when it constantly breeds frustration and distrust in your own backyard?

Homegrown discrimination

As the mother of a 17-year-old son, community activist Marie-Christine Jeanty started giving him advice early on about how to conduct himself in case he was stopped by police.

“The entire time, I kept wondering why I had to even do this,” she tells me. “I resented it, and I don’t want him to be fearful all the time. I want him to take his rightful place in this society, but I’m constantly worried for him. He tried to reassure me that he’s not the type to get into trouble, and I had to explain that it wasn’t him I was worried about. Every black mother I know has had the conversation — the words might be different, but the worry is the same.”

Ismaël Seck is a teacher in Parc Extension, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. He, too, worries that society lets minority kids down and often views black teenagers as threatening.

“One morning this past January, two police officers came to my class and arrested one of my students, and two others in separate classes,” he says. “One of them was violently pushed onto a desk in front of his classmates and brutally handcuffed. The students — one of whom is a Syrian refugee — were traumatized.”

The students, all visible minorities, one African, and two of Asian and East-Asian origin, respectively, were only between the ages of 14 and 16. None of them resisted arrest and remained calm, so the violence was unnecessary and unprovoked. Seck’s student wasn’t even guilty of anything.

“Here we are, trying to teach them to trust the police,” Seck says, “telling them ‘they’re there for you’, and they were treated to such unacceptable behaviour by the SPVM. And their parents don’t often have the education to know their rights or file a human rights complaint. I feel like we failed to protect them. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Jeanty has spent years hearing stories of police violence and racism. Her mother, Maryse Alcindor, is the first black woman to hold a deputy minister position in Quebec. With degrees in history and law, Alcindor has worked tirelessly for human rights for over three decades. In 1987, she was a member of the Police Minority Commission, established by the Human Rights Commission, that examined the killing of Anthony Griffin by Montreal police. The case of the young unarmed black teen who was shot in the head outside an NDG police station in 1987 was a pivotal moment in race relations in the city.

‘Your actions don’t match your words’

“Growing up, I heard so many stories of unwarranted violence, but so many people try to undermine minorities’ concerns,” she says. “The police force needs to acknowledge there’s a systemic race problem, but they never do. When they tweet out that they’re in solidarity with George Floyd protesters, it’s hypocritical at best. Your actions don’t match your words. All I see is deflection and denial. I’ve seen report after report, research after research pointing to concrete proof of systemic racism, isn’t it time we actually do something about it?”

Jeanty is vice-president of the Conseil interculturel de Montréal, an organization that advises city council and the executive committee on services and policies that can be implemented to promote the integration and participation of members of different cultural communities to the city’s political, economic, and cultural activities. They recently made 10 recommendations to transform institutional culture, attitudes and empower citizens, among them that the city acknowledge systemic racism and implement an anti-racist intercultural policy.

“These are easy-to-implement recommendations,” she says. “They can start there if they want to begin making changes.”

Victims can’t be victimizers too — or can they?

Why, even when there are cases where there can’t be any other plausible explanation but systemic racism, is its existence brushed aside so easily in Quebec?

Is it unwillingness to see ourselves as the bad guys, too? Is it fear that it paints us in a bad light? Is valid criticism of the systemic racism that exists everywhere in the world perceived as Quebec-bashing here? Does the history of persecution and discrimination that francophones have historically faced in the past result in a real unwillingness among francophones to see themselves as victimizers, but only as victims? How can the francophone majority possibly be guilty of systemic racism or insensitivity when they, too, have suffered? Easy: Anyone who forms the majority has the capacity and power to systemically oppress minorities. Does it burst our bubble, our illusions, the myth of an open, tolerant, anti-racist community? Because, experts will assure you, the existence of societal tolerance (which very much exists in Quebec) does not automatically cancel out systemic racism. The two can easily coexist.

“The biggest issue here in Quebec is that historically French Quebecers have been discriminated against by the Canadian state,” says Seck. “The debate is always binary here, English/French, black/white, racist/not racist… we need to acknowledge the complexity of our society. The discrimination suffered by French Quebecers is real, but it does not erase the discrimination suffered by Indigenous and Black communities.”

Seck, who is descended from a Senegalese father and a French Quebecer mother, knows about English colonization. “But my family from Senegal know about French colonization,” he says. “They fought for France and when they returned home and wanted to get paid, they were massacred. We need to teach history inclusively and acknowledge all discrimination.”

Listen to and believe people’s realities

Quebec systemic racism
Photo by Emma Dowson McKenna (Quebec has a systemic racism problem, obviously)

Seck is hopeful, however. He feels that we’re reaching a turning point as a society. “I’ve never seen the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag used so much,” he says. “The first time I went to a Black Lives Matter rally, we were barely a few hundred. On Sunday, we were 10,000 and from all diverse backgrounds.”

As the conversation continues, it’s important, now more than ever, for people to listen to those experiencing discrimination. Systemic racism and police violence against their communities are not exaggerated, made-up concepts opportunistically used and exploited for made-up causes, but the daily reality that they face. Those who accuse marginalized groups of loud and angry “identity politics”always make the same mistake: they only pay attention to the reaction. They never notice the action that preceded and necessitated the reaction.

“Some people say that since the majority of people aren’t racist here, why spend time focusing on those who are,” says Seck. “The place of racism in authority positions — politics, media, law, education — is a big issue. People in those positions can affect so many lives and need to be accountable. If politicians and the police don’t acknowledge systemic racism and don’t do anything about it, their shows of solidarity are nothing more than public relations. Talk is cheap.”

Enough with the gaslighting

America is not special. Canada is not special. Quebec is not special. We are not immune to racism and prejudice and discrimination. These are nations built on systemic anti-Indigenous racism and white supremacy and it’s time we acknowledged that. Denouncing and fighting against racism is everyone’s responsibility. Pretending it’s only a problem somewhere else solves nothing right here at home.

Having a Premier who says he stands in solidarity with anti-racism protesters, and then in the same breath says there’s no systemic discrimination in Quebec is serious gaslighting. If you can’t even admit it exists, how will you ever fix it?

“The facts are there, we’ve seen the facts,” says Jeanty. “I don’t want to see anymore facts. I don’t want you to tell me how to feel. We need to work together to create a better, safer world for everyone.” ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.