Quebec anti-racism ads parody

From public denouncements to parody: Quebec anti-racism ads are a bust

“Those government ads were very representative of the CAQ. Even if they were well-intentioned, they show how utterly disconnected they are from reality.”  

Weeks after the Quebec government’s anti-racism ads hit the airwaves, the backlash continues. Even those directly involved with the PSAs are publicly asking to be disassociated from the final product. 

In a Radio-Canada interview, filmmaker Khoa Lê, who was behind the camera, expressed his dismay at being part of the project. He claims the government derailed the original concept by changing the wording and adding “Québécois” to the script at the last minute, essentially making the ads less about awareness and more about nationalism. Lê said he complained immediately when he saw the final version, but no one listened. He’s now apologizing for his own involvement in the project and asking the government to withdraw the ads and issue an official apology. 

“This was not the project I was hired to create,” he said during the interview. “I am asking them to remove them.” 

Two weeks later, the ads remain online, which, as communications strategist Martine St-Victor astutely pointed out during the same interview, also sends a clear message. 

Ads continue to baffle and offend

When Fatima Tokhmafshan first saw the government anti-racism ads, she says she had a visceral reaction to them. 

“I was convinced they hadn’t consulted any minorities,” says the geneticist who first arrived in Canada as a refugee and has been living in Quebec since 2015. 

What irked Tokhmafshan most about them is that, as a scientist, she saw no educational message, only cultural stereotypes and clichés. 

“Tackling racism starts with education,” she says. “As an educator, I saw no teaching material. They don’t pinpoint what makes certain Quebecers fearful of immigrants or racialized minorities and then dispels these prejudices. There was no outreach, they didn’t speak to someone who doesn’t want a Black nurse for example and try to answer the question. The ads just tell that person that I’m their “friend,” but that’s not enough for someone who fears someone like me to tackle their prejudice and change their behaviour.”

The scientist of Iranian and Lebanese descent says she’s seen her share of racism and has often been “othered” since moving here, even called “a filthy immigrant.” She says even her best friend who’s from Côte d’Ivoire and speaks impeccable French has often been treated badly. 

“I take pride in being a Quebecer, even though French is my fifth language and I’m still perfecting it,” she says, “but I feel like I’m not allowed to be a Quebecer because I’m not made to feel included.” 

Ads only contribute to ‘othering’

This “othering” Tokhmafshan describes is what Dr. Anne-Marie Livingstone finds mostly problematic about these ads. Dr. Livingstone is an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University whose research deals mainly with the relationship between public institutions and racial inequalities, as well as racial profiling in policing. As a Black Quebecer, she says she’s often seen these reductive, stereotypical, cliché images of people of colour. 

“We struggle in Quebec with these dichotomies, this understanding of who is considered a Quebecer, and to many people it’s white francophones on one side and everybody else (on the other),” she says. 

Aside from changes required on a much broader scale to tackle systemic racism, Dr. Livingstone says that media ads emphasizing ethnic differences and portraying people as culturally different only succeed in reaffirming a very homogenous identity of what a real Quebecer is. 

“We are reduced to being the ‘perpetual foreigner’, to retaining this ‘outsider status,’” she says. “The way to undo stereotypes isn’t by creating more stereotypes.” 

Might as well laugh 

The ads felt so cartoonish, that some Quebecers rightfully felt the only way to react to them was with humour. It wasn’t long before a series of parody ads surfaced online mocking the original ones, and quickly went viral. 

Parodies of the Quebec government’s anti-racism ads

Emna Achour, a Quebecer born to Tunisian parents, a former sports journalist and current stand-up comedian — “I left sports journalism because I was tired of the boys’ club,” she tells me, “only to enter comedy, which is exactly the same” — is one of the comics featured in the parody ads. 

When fellow comic Colin Boudrias reached out to Achour to take part in the parodies, she didn’t hesitate. “These ads already felt like parodies all on their own,” she says. “I saw them, and I was like ‘Is this real life?’ I honestly though they were a joke. They immediately reminded me of the satirical campaign Moi j’ai un ami blanc!

Moi j’ai un ami blanc (From public denouncements to parody: Quebec anti-racism ads are a bust)

The satirical video series Achour is referring to, which she was also part of, aimed at flipping racist stereotypes by poking fun at “I have a Black friend” statements white people often use as ammunition against micro-aggressions and even flat-out racism. 

Achour says the absurdity of the anti-racism ads, followed two days later by disturbing footage of Quebec City cops violently beating up Black teenagers and an officer using his boot to jam snow in the face of a teenager who is pinned face down on the ground, reinforced the message that ads like these can’t honestly address the problem. 

“They really need to start listening to people who tell them that systemic racism exists,” she says. “Otherwise, if I can laugh at the CAQ and get paid to do it, I’ll keep doing it.” 

Systemic racism should be acknowledged 

Comic Colin Boudrias, the main instigator and creator behind the parody ads, says the idea came to him when he started seeing the outrage on social media. He quickly reached out to Achour and other friends to put the ads together as quickly as possible. The reaction, he says, has been very positive and lots of people reached out to thank them for creating the parodies. 

“To me those government ads were very representative of the CAQ,” he says. “Even if they were well-intentioned, they just managed to show how utterly disconnected they are from reality. And then the Quebec City police brutality pops up and completely embarrasses them.”  

As a white francophone Quebecer, Boudrias is convinced many other francophones also share his discomfort with these ads he calls “cringe,” and he would like to see the CAQ finally acknowledge that systemic racism exists. 

It’s a sentiment shared by many. 

Dr. Livingstone believes the ads are an attempt by the government to placate critics, while never fully committing to real change. “The CAQ is an administration that continues to say one thing while doing something else,” she says. “It takes real commitment to dismantle biases and racism needs to be dealt with across the board. We won’t succeed with media campaigns alone.” 

Tokhmafshan says it’s hard for the government to tackle what it can’t acknowledge exists, which forces it to remain content with superficial measures that offer no conceptual change. 

“I can’t make a patient agree to a medical intervention unless they acknowledge that they have a problem,” says Tokhmafshan. “This government constantly denying that the system is inherently biased prevents them from doing the same.” ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.