Quebec politicians and political pundits have had a busy week tarnishing Bochra Manaï, Ginella Massa and Omar Alghabra with subtle racist innuendo and outright Islamophobia.
It all started with Bochra Manaï’s appointment as Montreal’s first-ever commissioner on racism and systemic discrimination. After Quebec Premier François Legault felt it necessary and appropriate to comment on a municipal appointment, referring to the choice as “a mistake,” the bad-faith and out-of-context attacks against her started multiplying.
It’s troublesome that the Premier would seek to discredit and undermine someone’s appointment simply because he doesn’t share their aversion to Bill 21. As former president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal Jean Dorion astutely remarked, “It’s the spiral of exclusion: not only should we exclude women who wear a hijab from certain jobs, but we should also exclude women who don’t wear a hijab who have taken up their defence.”
Legault’s interjection is particularly ironic considering he complains about federal interference in Quebec issues at the drop of a hat.
Full-out witch hunt
Given the green light by the Premier, the witch hunt began. What followed was a maelstrom of bad takes from pundits and former politicians who really seem to have a hard time accepting a Muslim woman who doesn’t think like them in a position of power. One pundit even made the nonsensical assertion that Manaï was hired to “see racism everywhere,” which makes as much sense as hiring an oncologist to root out cancer and then complaining that cancer is all they see. That’s precisely their job: to detect and extract the problem.
Legault, Martineau, Bock-Côté, Lisée, Durocher and Drainville all had something to say… I’ve never seen so many people who deny the existence of systemic racism have so many opinions about the person Montreal hired to tackle it. But, if we wouldn’t pay attention to a COVID denier’s assessment of Quebec’s vaccination plan, why are we supposed to lend credence to opinions that lack the one main requirement — an acknowledgement of the problem — needed to weigh in on this appointment?
An appointment that makes sense for Montreal
It’s not the first time Premier Legault had a hard time understanding that his politics do not represent all Quebecers — and most certainly not all Montrealers, who overwhelmingly did not vote for him.
Because of its history and demographics, Montreal was and always will be different, much to some people’s dismay. It’s no accident that the CAQ only managed to win two ridings here.
As much as it likes to play up its ethno-nationalism with the occasional battle cry of “Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit,” the CAQ’s much vaunted majority consists of 37 per cent of the popular vote, the lowest percentage to grant a majority in Quebec’s history. Many of us, it would appear, based on our voting preferences, like to live a little differently.
In the past, Montreal city administrations have unanimously expressed their disapproval of both the PQ’s Quebec Charter of Values and Bill 21. Unlike the CAQ, Montreal’s government has also not shied away from acknowledging systemic racism. It’s only natural that the city would hire a person who will push the envelope and tackle these issues head on, not someone who will perpetuate the status quo.
Deserving of a fair chance
Social progress has never been made by making the status quo comfortable. Manaï wasn’t hired to appease majority bias, she was hired to challenge it.
A spokesperson for Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante responded to Legault’s comments: “The City cannot, legally or morally, discriminate against a qualified candidate based on their position or past jobs. The rigorous hiring process put in place was followed to the letter, and the hiring of civil servants is the prerogative of the City of Montreal.” It was a polite “butt out.”
I don’t know Manaï personally, but her reputation precedes her. People whose judgement I respect have high praise for her. Her academic background in immigration, her expertise in the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in urban communities, and her on-the-ground experience with Parole d’excluEs an organization that fights against poverty and social exclusion in Montreal North make her highly qualified for her new role. I am looking forward to seeing what she brings to the table and she deserves to be given a fair shot and not undermined before she even begins her mandate.
Islamophobia and political smears
These past few weeks have been bad for casual Islamophobia in Quebec. Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet’s smear campaign against newly appointed federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra drew the ire of many, including well-respected political commentator Chantal Hébert, who concluded that “other than his name and religion,” there was absolutely nothing Blanchet could have based his unfounded attack on. Coming to his defence, former PQ leader Jean-François Lisée wrote an opinion piece, Bonne semaine pour l’Islam (A Good Week for Islamism), that contained arguments that were as questionable as the comments he was trying to defend.
Sophie Durocher then jumped in and attacked Ginella Massa, the new host of CBC’s Canada Tonight, who wears a hijab, asking how viewers would feel if Radio-Canada journalist Céline Galipeau wore one, too. She seemed oblivious to the fact that her question said more about her and her own bias than it did about either of these well-respected and competent journalists, only one of whom is subjected to this extra layer of hateful scrutiny and undermining of her position because of religious intolerance.
Blanchet, in the meantime, vaguely alluded to Islamic ties with zero proof (only innuendo) simply because Alghabra had briefly served as head of the Canadian Arab Federation 16 years ago. These baseless accusations are unbecoming of a member of Parliament. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justifiably reacted with furor at Blanchet’s carefully coded language: “That kind of political pandering to the worst elements and to fears and anxieties has no place in Canada.”
I would urge those denouncing Blanchet (and Quebec by association) to remember that a whopping 70 per cent of Quebecers did not vote for the Bloc in the last federal election. We should not get caught up in the self-serving hype that motivates some of these political leaders and pundits in their attempts to appropriate what it means to be a Quebecer for their own political purposes. Their opinions do not represent Quebec.
Many Quebecers have no issues with either Manaï’s or Alghabra’s appointments and certainly don’t question why a perfectly competent journalist like Ginella Massa is hosting a national show. Most Quebecers I know are open and welcoming to people from religious minorities and were just as appalled by these bad-faith comments as I was. But, while xenophobia and Islamophobia aren’t unique to Quebec, it’s primarily here that certain news outlets feel comfortable with endorsing and publishing this kind of hateful rhetoric.
In denouncing Blanchet, Trudeau alluded to Trump’s rhetoric and the violence it recently wreaked at the U.S. Capitol. But he needn’t have gone that far. In less than two weeks, Quebec will be commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Quebec City mosque massacre, where six innocent men were slaughtered for no other reason than the fact that they were Muslim.
The dangers of normalizing Islamophobia
It’s no secret that Alexandre Bissonnette was heavily influenced by far-right pundits and Trump’s xenophobic and Islamophobic rants. A year and a half after his attack, 49 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand were murdered while praying. The killer’s guns were decorated with the names of several violent white supremacists, including Quebec City mass murderer Alexandre Bissonnette.
Hate has a way of spreading and you never know if your words or actions will serve as a vector. Rhetoric that succeeds in creating division, suspicion, and marginalizing and othering minorities is dangerous. When majority bias allows politicians and pundits to claim that religious diversity is deserving of additional scrutiny and somehow incompatible with co-existence or professional neutrality, you are entering dangerous territory. You are pandering to and allowing far-right elements to latch on to this rhetoric and further their own dangerous agenda. Not only is it harmful for targeted minorities, it’s also deeply destructive to social cohesion. It must be condemned loudly. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.