François Legault Quebec systemic racism

Racism isn’t always a boot on your neck — in Quebec, we’re more polite

Our racism is the kind that teaches comforting fairy tales about Underground Railroads and “friendly” alliances with Indigenous communities.

I didn’t attend Sunday’s massive Montreal march against racism and police brutality because I was working. By the time I was done, the protest was over. I sat on my balcony, with a glass of white wine, eager to rest and just take in the end of the day.

It was perfect late-spring weather, the kind that feels so much like summer, you have to remind yourself that it’s technically not. Perched on my St-Henri balcony, I soaked up the sounds, smells and sights of my neighbourhood. Someone somewhere nearby was playing the saxophone and the sound bounced off the buildings and entered open windows. For a moment I was transported back to Frenchmen Street, in my favourite American city, New Orleans.

Directly below me, neighbours were busy gardening up a storm and another was reading a book with his cat perched on his lap. A bunch of neighbourhood kids — all equipped with Super Soaker Water Blasters — were playing in the alleyway. Even from a distance, I could see they were a mix of Black and white kids. They didn’t care and no one else did either.

They all chased each other around, giggling and laughing, occasionally shrieking when one of them got soaked. I watched them play and wondered if any of them knew that people around the world were protesting the senseless killing of George Floyd and so many others before him. I wondered if the world had punctured their bubble of innocence and ignorance yet.

A few alleyways away from mine, someone had hung a sheet with “Black Lives Matter” from a clothesline. It billowed in the wind, a uniquely colourful Montreal protest in a uniquely Montreal ruelle. A few streets down, a home has a sign in its window defiantly declaring, “Pas De Racistes Dans Nos Quartiers.” It always makes me smile when I bike by it.

Sitting on my balcony, taking it all in, I could see why some people can have a hard time believing that beneath all this peaceful coexistence, systemic racism and discrimination are problems here in Quebec, too. We live in a genuinely warm and welcoming society. For the most part, one doesn’t live in Montreal in fear of the other or feeling like a second-class citizen — and certainly not the people resistant to these debates right now. Even this maligned perception of “les régions” as anti-immigrant and xenophobic is often disproven when you speak to Quebecers who make their home there. It is a mistake to pigeonhole, generalize, make assumptions, to “other” or to assume malice or intent to harm, without hearing people out. But it’s also a mistake not to listen to those who tell you something is wrong and that we need to make it right.

Different but just as damaging

The systemic racism found in Quebec — as in the rest of Canada — is nothing like the racism in the U.S. I think we can all agree on that. The racism in the U.S. is fuelled by deep financial and social inequality. It is the long legacy of a country built by the labour of slaves, who suffered and died without ever knowing freedom on foreign soil.

The individual and systemic racism we have in Quebec and Canada is far more polite, more subtle, more pernicious and, as a result, often harder to detect and call out. It’s the kind that prefers to tell comforting fairy tales to schoolchildren about Underground Railroads and birch bark canoes and “friendly” alliances with Indigenous communities, instead of teaching about the horrors of Residential Schools and Black slavery — which existed here, too.

If we knew about deeply racist legislation like the Chinese Head Tax, our “None is too many” moments, and the innumerable obstacles and laws passed to discourage Black people from immigrating here, we would have no trouble understanding how racism is entrenched in our immigration system, and that the way our government is treating temporary foreign workers and migrant workers on the frontlines right now is not an exception but the rule.

We would know that the racial profiling by police isn’t a glitch, but something built into the system itself. We, both in Quebec and Canada, are history-illiterate and that forces us to focus only on the story we have been told: benevolent, kind, open, welcoming. Yes, we have been all those things at times, but most of the time we have not.

Say the word

Systemic racism is the casual indifference of our own Premier gently scoffing at questions about its existence in Quebec, ignoring testimonials as aberrations, as exceptions. It’s him shrugging his shoulders when asked by journalists, saying, “I don’t want to get into an argument about a word,” unable to understand that his unwillingness and reticence to utter it is deep denial and negation of an issue that affects so many people’s lives.

Racism doesn’t have to be a boot on your neck, extinguishing your life. It can also be indifference, apathy, dismissal, whataboutism, the daily micro-aggressions that beat, beat, beat someone down, the “jokes” that are never funny, deflection, erasure, gaslighting. Someone telling you “they don’t see colour” doesn’t make them an evolved, post-racial human being. To live in this world and say you don’t see colour is to be privileged beyond measure. It’s to not care about someone’s pain, caused precisely by what you are so quick to deny. Because to acknowledge racism is to be forced to do something about it. And who wants to do that?

Premier Legault doesn’t want to “get into an argument about a word” but his own words are revealing. When he says, “I don’t want to put Quebecers on trial,” I want to ask: “Are the people marching in the streets wanting better not Quebecers, too? Am I, writing for the millionth time on the subject, not a Quebecer, too? Are Black Quebecers routinely harassed and profiled by the police not Quebecers, too?” How is admitting that systemic racism is a reality (and not just a pesky difference of opinion) an accusation against Quebecers, unless only some of us are considered Quebecers?

The day of the march, a friend of mine remarked on Facebook that the event’s highlight for her was how “One guy went from chanting ‘F*ck the police’ to ‘Excusez-moi monsieur, la rue Drummond c’est ou?’ to a cop.” It made me laugh because that transition from angry to polite, from militant to mild-mannered is so quintessentially Quebec. We are not the U.S. This is a better, kinder place to live.

But it’s not racism-free, and like any society built on white supremacy, implicit bias and systemic discrimination run deep and are very much part of the system. How can we ever hope to fix it unless we name it? In the Harry Potter series, no one can say Voldemort’s name because of the underlying fear that simply speaking his name will increase his power. Is Premier Legault under the impression that uttering the words “systemic racism” will be a weapon used against him and Quebec? “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself,” says Dumbledore. Maybe it’s time the Premier listens to Dumbledore instead of Mathieu Bock-Côté, Denise Bombardier, Richard Martineau and other fear-mongering columnists like them who think racism is an American import and believe addressing it is “anti-white.”

Erasure is systemic racism, too

On Sunday, while over 10,000 Quebecers of all colours, ethnicities and languages were reuniting to protest against racism, the province’s largest daily French-language paper, the Journal de Montréal, offered an in-depth look at Quebec entrepreneurs and how they’re tackling the COVID-19 crisis. I glanced at the business owners featured on the front page. All eight featured were white, francophone men. Sylvain, Clément, Martin, Olivier… Not a single Stavros, Sylvie or Hussein to be found. No racial or gender diversity whatsoever and not a single editor at the paper noticed or cared. It’s downright shocking.

The most upsetting aspect of this exclusion is that members of ethnic and immigrant groups routinely top the ranks of Canada’s and Quebec’s self- employed lists. Employment statistics from the 2016 Canadian census reveal members of ethnic populations are more likely to start their own businesses. Ironically, many of these entrepreneurs often start their own companies because they have a hard time finding decent jobs and are routinely discriminated against. And yet, you would be forgiven for thinking that, based on the image I just described, all Quebec entrepreneurs are white men from a francophone background.

That image, not remotely an accurate representation of today’s Quebec, was just one more glaring example of systemic discrimination and implicit bias. Unconsciously or not, the presence and contributions of everyone else were erased. Quebec’s predominantly homogeneous newsrooms continue to contribute to this erasure. The same, of course, applies to our municipal and provincial governments and our police departments. The lack of diversity leaves the power of representation and narration to the majority, once again, that is unable to understand the experiences and grievances of the minority. It’s incredibly tone-deaf.

“I’m glad I understand that while language is a gift, listening is a responsibility,” wrote Black poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, whose 77th birthday just happened to fall on the day of the march.

Listening is a responsibility. Think about it for a moment. When most of the talking, defining, legislating is done by the majority, and most of what the majority says makes it onto the front pages of newspapers and in history books, which, in turn, help define our world and our concept of self, the majority has a responsibility to listen.

Acknowledging that we, too, have a systemic problem with intolerance and racism and discrimination, like the rest of the world, isn’t “picking” on Quebec. It’s about loving Quebec enough to expect more. It’s about working together to make this place better and more inclusive for all Quebecers. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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