Quebec government racism PSA 3

The Quebec government fights racism with one hand, feeds it with the other

“So, how does a government fight what it can’t even acknowledge? With teeny tiny half-measures like these.”

The Quebec government launched a TV, radio and print campaign this week, as part of what it says is a three-year campaign to fight racism and put an end to prejudice. The ads aim to raise Quebecers’ awareness about the fact that we all have unconscious racial prejudices and biases, by running segments like these: 

“A man from South America with tattoos running in the street is called… our Quebec neighbour. Let’s put an end to prejudice.” 

“A group of young Black people gathered in a park at nightfall are called… Quebec friends. Let’s put an end to prejudice.” 

The Quebec government fights racism with one hand, feeds it with the other

The campaign, running in both French and English (it should be noted that the government chose to strangely omit the word “Quebecer” in the English PSAs, which has caused another stir) is a government response to one of the 25 recommendations made by the Action Group Against Racism report, following Joyce Echaquan’s death and the racist treatment she suffered in a Quebec hospital. Curiously, there are no ads targeting prejudice against Indigenous communities. Minister Charette said those are only coming in 2022. 

Any efforts to eliminate subconscious racial bias and prejudice are to be commended, but watching those ads I’m not convinced they will do much. They may be well-intentioned, but they appear hopelessly out of touch, zeroing in on outdated racial stereotypes. It doesn’t look like the creative team behind them sought out the input of racialized communities or targeted focus groups. 

More importantly, by creating a campaign that’s focused solely on individual prejudices, the government has, once again, opted to dismiss the most prevalent form of discrimination affecting minorities in Quebec today: systemic racism. 

How does a 15-second ad telling Quebecers to play nice and not jump to conclusions help tackle the very real issues of racial profiling by police, the underrepresentation and constant misrepresentation of certain racial groups in the mass media, and all the race-based barriers to employment and professional advancement? There are countless studies proving that every one of these issues affects minorities in Quebec today (as they do everywhere else in Canada) but only here must we contend with accusations of “Quebec bashing” if concerns are raised. 

So, how does a government fight what it can’t even acknowledge? With teeny tiny half-measures like these, that’s how.

Media bias continues to feed prejudice

A government unable to face its own proper biases allows them to manifest in myriad ways around us. This starts with one of the easiest and most insidious: media bias. 

A 15-second ad can’t counteract the damage of daily opinion columns in the most widely read newspaper in Quebec, routinely denying systemic racism exists, exacerbating social tensions and constantly painting the justified concerns of minorities as “woke-ism.” 

Tame, safe, comfortable government ads pandering to your racist uncle Bob with cliché scenarios simply don’t stand a chance against the daily onslaught of columnists who enter people’s homes via their daily news and disparage entire communities. Quebec’s media bias, fuelled by common cognitive biases many harbour without even knowing — intentionally or unintentionally — breeds suspicion of “others.”

On any given week, I can read about immigrants responsible for the “demographic drowning” of French Quebecers, Mohawk Warriors treated as “terrorists” or watch on TV as a police analyst claims a 16-year-old white boy “doesn’t have the profile to be in a gang, because of his nationality” and absolutely no one on the segment calls him out. 

Just last week, Journal de Montréal opinion columnist Denise Bombardier wrote a column about a “race war unfolding before our eyes,” where “thugs” are roaming the streets like “wolves.”

She doesn’t come out and say it, but both the headline and the content clearly imply who the thugs are and who the victims are in this so-called “race war.” Strangely enough, for a woman so concerned by the proliferation of guns on the street, there is zero mention of people like William Rainville, a 24-year-old Sherbrooke man arrested earlier this year when police found five hockey bags in his car containing 250 disassembled Glock-type firearms parts that had been smuggled in from the U.S.

His arrest made the news, of course. This is how one La Presse article talked about him: “A young and ambitious businessman from Sherbrooke on the rise in the real estate industry, freshly graduated in finance and accounting, finds himself behind bars to the amazement of those close to him.” 

A white man arrested for gun trafficking is apparently a shocker to everyone — including the media. A Black man is arrested, or a Black teen is stabbed to death? It’s to be expected, unfortunately. 

Remember when the Journal de Montréal ran an article on street gangs and someone on staff decided to run an archived picture of what they thought street gangs look like to them? Turns out, the image actually depicted Black students from Calixa-Lavallée high school waiting in line to enter — of all things — a church in Montreal North. The nine minors and their parents are now suing the Journal and Québecor for defamation. 

Remember the TVA report on mosques not allowing women construction workers on site? It took an entire year for TVA to retract the false story, but in the meantime the damage was done. The story was fuelled by bias against Muslims and it, in turn, added to it, further stigmatizing the community. These are textbook examples of racial prejudice and media bias, very much part of systemic racism, yet government officials, including our own Premier, often read and share these same columnists as legitimate discourse.

Actions speak louder than campaigns

Quebec systemic racism François Legault
Quebec Premier François Legault brings flowers to the site where 16-year-old Thomas Trudel was killed last week.

Systemic injustice requires systematic dismantling from the bottom up, because racial bias is subtle, insidious, read-between-the-lines kind of stuff. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s nurtured within a system that allows it, makes constant excuses for it, turns a blind eye to it, deflects and minimizes it. Indigenous Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has, I believe, the best definition of systemic racism I’ve ever read: “Systemic racism is the racism left over after you get rid of the racists,” he said. That’s why it’s sometimes so hard to see. 

The government’s actions continue to reveal the incongruence between official statements and what’s put into daily practice. A recent committee appointed by Premier Legault charged with increasing the number of young people playing hockey in Quebec has zero diversity on it, despite the government claiming that promoting diversity in the sport is one of its main goals. How do you appoint an all-white committee to increase diversity, and what kind of echo chamber are you operating in that no one pointed it out? 

The Premier also drew criticism recently when many Quebecers noticed he was quick to denounce the murder of 16-year-old Thomas Trudel yet felt no need to issue a similar public statement when two other teens — Meriem Boundaoui and Jannai Dopwell-Bailey — were also tragically killed. Whether intentional or not, affinity bias was certainly at play, and any political handler will tell you the optics were terrible. The double standards in his reaction painfully brought home the message to many minorities that the way their lives (and their deaths) are seen and mourned is not the same. 

So, sure… PSAs are great and might help win over a few racists worried their tatted Colombian neighbour who likes to jog, or the Mohameds next door gathering for Ramadan, aren’t going to kill them. But how does this campaign help Black men constantly racially profiled and killed by the police, or Indigenous people terrified of entering a Quebec hospital for treatment, or visible minorities still underrepresented in every single provincial public sector job? 

In 2021, and with all we know about the challenges that minorities face with systemic discrimination, this campaign objective is such an incredibly low bar! The conversations we should collectively be having should be far more advanced by now. They should be a speed train leaving the station and the government’s still over here leisurely trying to teach Quebecers how to ride a tricycle. At this speed, we’ll never get to where we need to be to tackle these issues. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.