François Legault media xenophobia virtue signalling censorship

Quebec’s exaggerated censorship crisis and unchecked media bias

François Legault wants to protect our freedom of speech from “woke radicals.”

Québecor had a hell of a week. Not one, but two of its opinion columns had to be either scrubbed from the company’s website or edited to remove offensive, racist and untrue allegations. First Réjean Tremblay, Quebec’s Don Cherry, wrote a column lamenting the good old days when the Montreal Canadiens were solely French Canadian (which would be never, by the way) using blatantly racist, anti-Asian language. 

Then, Normand Lester was somehow allowed to publish a column comparing the Mohawk Warriors to terrorists and the Proud Boys, both factually untrue and dangerous, not to mention (again) racist. After public outcry, the Journal de Montréal quietly removed the column from their website, without even the courtesy of an apology or explanation. 

It’s not accidental that both the TVA Group and Québecor’s newspapers withdrew from the Quebec Press Council (an independent media watchdog) over a decade ago. It’s easier to publish harmful, unsubstantiated opinions without the fear of recriminations if you pretend the entity that investigates complaints relating to journalistic standards and ethics doesn’t exist. 

Did Quebec pundits or politicians come out and condemn this racist rhetoric published by Québecor? Nope. Radio silence. Did Premier Legault, perhaps, clue in and realize that the province’s biggest media empire, with the power to influence minds and votes, being comfortable with publishing racist viewpoints and facing zero consequences is the very example of a system that marginalizes and alienates minorities — otherwise known as systemic discrimination? Crickets. Besides, who has time? Far too many people in the province appear to be too busy debating the sacred right to use the N-word, because, without it, how will the children ever learn? 

How is diversity training “shocking indoctrination”? 

Sophie Durocher completed the trifecta of terrible punditry by writing about Radio-Canada’s diversity training program. Not only did she treat someone leaking the reading material to her as some groundbreaking journalistic exposé akin to Watergate (complete with a Twitter thread of screenshots), but she appeared to be under the impression that the material itself was shocking. Has Sophie been living under a rock for the past few decades? Diversity and inclusion training has been such a mainstay of major corporations for so long that one can easily find meta-analyses of over 40 years of diversity training evaluations online. It’s as if I decided to write this week’s opinion column on the War Measures Act and lead with, “Guys, you won’t believe what I just heard! Has anyone written about this?”  

Durocher is treating a woefully generic and pretty mainstream corporate training session like some dangerously left-wing radical indoctrination, as if Radio-Canada employees are stashed away in the basement being force-read the Antifa Manual (which doesn’t exist, I’m being facetious). It’s frankly embarrassing that this stuff is even being published and widely consumed. And it would be merely laughable if Québecor didn’t have such disproportionate power in defining the public conversation in this province.

Upper management in media remains abysmally white and homogenous. Even more so in Quebec. And the more persistent demands for inclusion, equality and representation become, the more minorities with differing views take their rightful place in shaping majority consensus, the louder defenders-of-the-status-quo columnists scream because they are starting to realize they live in a society that no longer only caters to them. 

Imagine thinking there’s anything shocking about a company implementing a course encouraging inclusion. What exactly is so “radical” or “woke” about ensuring people feel comfortable and accepted in their work environment, about trying to understand people who’ve had different experiences, hurdles and upbringings? What’s so shocking about trying to be more thoughtful and empathetic towards colleagues or interview subjects who are transgender or non-binary, have a handicap or practise a religion you have no first-hand knowledge of? How is expanding your emotional and professional toolkit indoctrination and not merely evolution? 

Are we protecting free speech or shutting it down?

Caught in the never-ending cycle of columns on how “woke radicals” are attempting to “censor” certain words and works on campus, a manufactured crisis has been created. Premier Legault has now promised to “protect our freedom of speech” and “academic freedom.” This from a government that applied the notwithstanding clause to limit freedoms in Quebec. 

You mean the freedom of speech and academic freedom already protected by the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms, university institutions themselves, not to mention professors’ collective agreements? What exactly is Minister Danielle McCann supposed to intervene and do? Does Legault think that a shot of government authoritarianism will help the conversation move along or is he simply trying to shut down a conversation that he’s not interested in having? 

Regardless of what you think of either camp on university campuses right now, whether you think some students or professors are going too far or not far enough, it’s irrelevant. The very essence of freedom of speech (particularly in institutions of higher learning) is allowing these back-and-forth, push-and-pull, contentious and deeply uncomfortable debates to take place. It’s how society evolves and moves forward. A government attempting to stop them from happening is the very definition of censorship. 

The double standards and majority bias

But those now rejoicing at the promise of government intervention aren’t concerned by that because they were never really concerned about academic freedom to begin with. They simply want to shut down and de-legitimize certain uncomfortable conversations and social movements. Where were these defenders of academic freedom when Quebecers were demanding Andrew Potter’s head on a platter for his ill-conceived and deeply insulting Maclean’s column in 2017? Did any of them rush to defend him when he was forced to resign from McGill? Did anyone care?

Where were they when Education Minister Jean-François Roberge recently decided to uninvite McGill professor Daniel Weinstock from a conference on the future of ethics and religion courses, based on, of all things, erroneous information found in a Richard Martineau column, the paragon of journalistic accuracy? Where was the government when, as Will Prosper eloquently reminded us on Tout le Monde en Parle this past Sunday, Montreal North teacher Vincent Ouellette terrorized and verbally abused minority high-school students for over a decade or when another Montreal teacher recently called Indigenous people “savages” in class? Deux poids, deux mesures, indeed. 

In many ways, the current social climate reminds me of the SLAV controversy when Robert Lepage defenders were proclaiming the director’s right to freedom of speech, completely bypassing the fact that the show’s protesters were also exercising theirs. Why are mainstream journalists and pundits constantly referencing the letter written by a group of white professors about the N-word, yet completely ignoring the one written by Black professors? Why is one group’s concerns (the group unimpacted by the word) given more legitimacy and prominence than the other’s? Is it because majority bias is alive and well?

When the government intervenes to settle matters of freedom of speech that’s not when you rejoice — that’s when you worry. Independence from the state is a main component of academic freedom and government interference is the very definition of censorship. Legault’s intervention is nothing more than virtue signaling to his base that only what matters to them matters to him. 

There’s a reason the Premier of a province that has long passed the grim milestone of 10,000 COVID deaths and has failed to deliver on a number of its electoral promises regarding social housing, senior housing, educational reforms and healthcare continues to be this popular. Government mishaps and major pandemic failures notwithstanding, he communicates what a conservative, ethno-nationalist, right-of-centre part of his base desperately wants to hear. They, in turn, are willing to forgive the rest. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.