I, like many other Quebecers, watched the Fête Nationale show from home this year. The COVID-19 pandemic being what it is, there were no large gatherings, neighbourhood block parties, flag-waving or a big blowout celebration at Parc Jean Drapeau. It was a much more sombre, quiet, isolated affair.
Even the annual three-day South Shore St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church celebration (a part of my Quebec-Greek reality) was forced to go virtual this year. There was no Greek dancing and no celebrations under rows and rows of tiny blue and white Greek flags and the Quebec Fleurdelisé, which, from a distance, are indistinguishable from each other. It’s a visual depiction of my multiple identities co-existing harmoniously — something that always makes me smile.
Celebrating la Fête Nationale
This year’s Fête Nationale broadcast show – despite being a solitary affair – was exceptionally well done. I faithfully remained till the end, soaking up this joyful celebration of Quebec culture. Like most viewers, I was impressed by the visuals, sang along to Quebec classics like Beau Dommage and Diane Dufresne, remembered why I used to crush on Corneille’s silky smooth voice, was deeply moved by Christine Beaulieu reciting “thank you to our rivers” in several Indigenous languages and marvelled at how well Roch Voisine has aged.
Most of these cultural references mean nothing to you unless you’re a Quebecer. Those who (far too often) tell me to “go back home” because of my name, when they don’t agree with my political views, should do well to remember that their version of “Quebecer” should and does include more than what is identical to them.
Earlier that day, Inuk artist Elisapie published a powerful Facebook post, a cri de coeur that everyone should read. Before performing, she announced, “It is from our multitude that our wealth is born.” Coming from a people whose lands were colonized and whose language and culture were almost eradicated, I find that a generous sentiment on her part. It’s an accurate one, though. It’s only by seeing the whole that can we ensure that no one is left behind. And when no one is left behind, we all move forward much quicker.
A shift towards more inclusion
Staged in the context of a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and increasing social awareness about marginalization and discrimination, the celebration somehow felt different this year. There’s an undeniable shift taking place. A real step, I want to believe, towards more inclusion and diversity. I saw a conscious effort to de-centre white francophones from a national holiday that is supposed to celebrate all Quebecers — not just some. I had this sense that I was staring into the future, into this possibility of a place that I love and care for so much. It’s no accident that some people found the festivities disappointing. After all, there was a legitimate attempt to appeal to more than just them.
The minute I saw singer-songwriter Émile Bilodeau come out to perform wearing an anti-Bill 21 button, I knew what was coming.
I fully expected the annoyance and the fake outrage from people proclaiming la Fête Nationale isn’t for political statements (unless, of course, you’re making a statement they agree with), but I wasn’t prepared for the vitriol and death threats that came his way. Seriously? Death threats? Because someone doesn’t agree with legislation that he considers discriminates against other Quebecers?
When the people who claim to be Quebec’s most ardent defenders react this way, you start to question what exactly they’re defending. Is it a place that leaves room for everyone, or is it an outdated vision of Quebec society that always prioritizes them, and the “other” is not made to feel welcome? Bilodeau isn’t a “national traitor” as one person referred to him. He’s merely a Quebecer with an opinion you don’t agree with.
Backlash produces the opposite effect
To my surprise, these unreasonable attacks have generated many exasperated opinion pieces by Quebecers who’ve started experiencing a gradual disenchantment with and eventual rejection of policies and politics that prioritize the majority to the detriment of the minority.
With thousands marching in the streets right now, begging to be heard, many Quebecers are starting to realize they no longer identify with movements or support legislation that asks them to suspend minority rights or forces them to dismiss and derail the legitimate grievances of BIPOC groups just to appease the (often baseless) fears of the majority.
Bilodeau is not an exception. For many Quebecers (even those, like him, who are proud sovereigntists dreaming of an independent Quebec) the CAQ’s Bill 21 and the way it marginalized and stigmatized large swaths of people for no justifiable reason only amplified the need for many of us to widen the circle of who constitutes a Quebecer. The anger, vitriol, personal attacks and pushback I so often see in certain pundits these days has a lot to do, I feel, with this transition, this new chapter Quebec is entering.
There are people and pundits still holding on to their vision of a largely homogenous Quebec where the white, French (usually, male) point of view is centred and amplified and heralded as the ONE TRUTH. These folks are white-knuckling their resistance and lashing out at anyone and anything that dares give space and a voice to the grievances and perspectives of others.
They are perturbed by discussions about inclusion, representation, systemic racism and discrimination because they are either oblivious to these issues since they don’t affect them, or they feel attacked because it presents the possibility of a place that is not as welcoming and kind and open as they like to believe it is.
I love Quebec. I think it’s a beautiful and gloriously and excruciatingly frustrating and challenging and manic and magical place to live in. It forms a huge part of my identity, but my identity is formed by multiples. Because of my ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background, it cannot be limited to one vision, one language, one loyalty. That doesn’t make me less of a Quebecer. It makes me a different Quebecer.
There are many more like me out there. And we are as entitled as anyone else who lives and contributes here to a much more inclusive vision for this place.
The navel gazing that benefits no one
In many ways, because of its historical baggage (which I don’t deny, but don’t feel should be used to gaslight the concerns of others), Quebec is still behaving like a teenager slowly and grudgingly dragging its feet into the 21st century. People are coming forward with their stories of inequality and systemic discrimination and instead of responding with empathy and a desire to understand and learn, we’re still sitting here having deeply embarrassing navel-gazing, tone-deaf conversations about who’s accusing whom of being a racist or whether white journalists should have the right to say “White n*ggers of America” unchecked. Who cares? Can we please stop derailing the conversation and always bringing it back to the white majority and their hurt feelings?
Black Quebecers continue to be racially profiled, arrested and often killed for no reason. Quebecers of colour continue to be rejected for jobs and housing because their name is Mohamed or because they wear a hijab. Indigenous women continue being sexually assaulted by the very police that should be protecting them. Instead of listening, we are deeply mired in endless and distracting debates that dominate the public space, while an overwhelming lack of empathy for other people’s struggles and grievances persists and the conversation keeps circling back to Quebec victimization. Like First Nations Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard recently said in an op-ed, “We keep dying and you keep talking.”
Conditional acceptance is not acceptance
This systemic and widespread denial and negation of what is essentially people’s lived experiences, coupled with this insistence (nay, demand!) for uniformity and sameness has left many Quebecers like me exasperated.
If you don’t look and speak and pray (or, in this case, not pray) like the majority, then you are not one of us and your identity and sense of loyalty to this place will be questioned time and time again. These micro-aggressions will wear you down and make you doubt your place and your future here. There is genuine fatigue I see around me. It’s exhausting loving a place that doesn’t love you back unless you conform to a certain dictated norm.
“It comes as a great shock to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance… has not pledged allegiance to you,” writes the inimitable James Baldwin.
The more the status quo denies systemic racism, the more it tries to sideline and gaslight voices that demand to be heard, the more it treats people who disagree with them as traitors, the more it just shoots itself in the foot. There can be no social harmony and progress when only some feel respected and heard. It’s either all of us or none of us. The “nous” needs to stop being conditional. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.