Pierre Vallières

Pierre Vallières, the return of the N-word debate and a few inconvenient truths

So-called freedom of expression advocates are in a tizzy after a CRTC ruling criticized the use of the N-word by Radio-Canada in relation to a well-known Quebec book from the 1960s, despite its author’s eventual denunciation of what he once stood for.

The recent (non-unanimous) ruling by the CRTC ordering Radio-Canada to publicly apologize for the repeated use of the N-word on its airwaves in a 2020 segment discussing a book written by Pierre Vallières has led to further pushback and debates about the perceived limits of freedom of speech. The CRTC recognized the word was used in a non-discriminatory manner in the context of the show, but also concluded that Radio-Canada failed to show “sufficient respect and sensitivity” to communities impacted by the slur. 

While I continue to find it strange that people are investing so much time and energy defending their hypothetical “right” to use a derogatory slur that most of us, in 2022, already know is deeply offensive, I’ve never argued for its censorship. It has, however, been disconcerting to watch some folks literally trip over themselves on social media (and in certain opinion columns) to rush to say the full slur as their way of “protesting” a ruling they don’t agree with. They’re basically saying, “My need to say something that hurts you is far more important than your need not to hear it.” A weird little hill to die on, frankly. 

In response to the ruling, an open letter was published by 50 Radio-Canada personalities who believe the decision threatens “journalistic freedom and independence” and, before that, another open letter by a former Radio-Canada ombudsman and 13 other signatories who argue that the CRTC, by its decision, “denies Quebec history.” 

It’s flawed reasoning to claim that wanting to limit the use of the word out of solidarity with those most affected by it is “denying Quebec history,” especially when the CRTC clearly notes that the book remains “an essential read for understanding the historical, political and social context of the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec.” No one is denying the existence of the book, its title or the analogy made at the time. The past is comprised of fixed facts. What changes is how we choose to perceive all three today. It’s this resistance to a changing world, once again, that is causing most of the pushback. And the people resisting the changes are using the fixed words of an activist, who, even in his own lifetime, disavowed most of what he was attached to. 

An analogy that no longer stands

The justifications being used by the “freedom of expression is in danger” crowd as permission to say the word completely ignore the fact that the social context related to race issues has radically changed since the book was written. Words and societies evolve, and behaviour and language once considered acceptable are no longer considered so. It’s not “cancel culture,” it’s not “woke-ism,” it’s just social evolution. 

Those who enjoy quoting Pierre Vallières’s 1968 book N***** blancs d’Amérique do so because it equates the French Quebec struggle for equal rights and social agency with the American Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s. 

Vallières was inspired by the Black Panthers and drew certain parallels between the situation of French-speaking Quebecers and the struggle of Black activists in the U.S. Many Quebec nationalists at the time were sympathetic to what was happening in the U.S. and expressed solidarity with the movement. 

I can understand why the book continues to resonate with many Quebecers today. However, social movements, social mores and the vocabularies they employ evolve, and 50+ years later, both the title of the book and the misleading analogy it makes are hopelessly out of date. Reassessing those things (or trying to limit their use) doesn’t mean our freedom of expression is compromised. The fact that we haven’t stopped talking about the N-word for two straight years should be ample proof of that. 

Conflation of two very different struggles

Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, Chicago, 1968. Photo by Esk/AP/Shutterstock

Pierre Vallières essentially conflated class exploitation with slavery. Yes, French Quebecers were being financially exploited and being kept in a state of servitude and ignorance by the ruling class, which conspired with the Catholic Church to keep francophones poor, uneducated and producing baby after baby. But the Civil Rights movement in the States was a struggle for emancipation from racial segregation and ultimately the transatlantic slave trade; from the deep-seated inhumanity of racism that allowed for and legally endorsed being able to lynch, own, buy and sell another human being. That kind of inhumanity and brutality were never part of French-Canadian history. It’s also disingenuous to make such a parallel when one considers that, as colonizers, the French themselves had once been complicit in owning Indigenous and Black slaves. 

Another important point many scholars have made, among them Professor Bruno Corneiller, who studies race and settler colonialism, in his article, “The Struggle of Others: Pierre Vallières, Québécois Settler Nationalism and the N-Word Today,” is that, while Quebec nationalism in the ‘60s looked to the struggle for Black Civil Rights in the U.S., it ignored Black activists calling out racism right here at home. How many Quebecers know about the George Williams University affair in Montreal in 1969, a race-related riot and the largest student occupation in Canadian history? 

Not only did Vallières use an analogy that wouldn’t pass muster today, equating two struggles impossible to equate, he used a racial slur used solely on the Black community as a way of centring the white struggle of French Canadians. What’s the worst thing that could have happened to French Quebecers, he asked? They were treated as the N-word. 

He employed a word with horrific associations for the Black community while insisting on his right to benefit from the comparison. In much the same way today, those insisting on their freedom to use the deeply dehumanizing word fail to understand why it may not have the same weight for the communities profoundly impacted by it. 

Going beyond that book title

What I find most exasperating about this debate is that those most often quoting Vallières (and when I say quoting him, I mean the book title, they rarely quote anything more) insist on leaving him forever fixed and immovable in 1968, only dusting him off when it suits them. Those using his book title as a rallying cry for freedom of expression never appear willing to share anything he expressed after that time period. Perhaps because it’s inconvenient.

Pierre Vallières was a lot of things. A journalist, an activist, a sovereigntist, an FLQ terrorist and a convicted murderer. But one thing he wasn’t was attached to his point of view. As a radical Marxist advocating for an armed uprising against the rich, an anti-classist and anti-racist, he kept pushing the boundaries of what he advocated for. By the time he died in 1998, he had pretty much denounced most of what he had once fought for.

Vallières’s thought process evolved considerably over the years. As a fierce anti-colonialist, he didn’t like what he saw happening to Quebec’s nationalist movement and denounced politicians more concerned with maintaining their power than fighting for people’s rights. He openly criticized the movement in the ’90s and, in a 1994 preface to his book, made it clear that “there would be no question of social revolution in this nationalist conception of sovereignty.” He advocated for a “pluralist, plurilingual, pluricultural” Quebec that would “give equal rights to all citizens of Quebec.” 

Who’s denying Quebec history?

In his later years, Pierre Vallières worried that Quebec ethno-nationalism could degenerate into a xenophobic form of populism. “I just can’t accept a narrow conservative nationalism, a selfish one that doesn’t recognize the changes going on elsewhere,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. He grew disenchanted with the political parties fighting for sovereignty and didn’t even vote in the 1980 referendum. In fact, the 1990 standoff during the Oka Crisis “forced him to take a stance for the Mohawks and against the Quebec state and, according to Cournoyer, [he] even [went] as far as advocating for Indigenous rights to self-determination and sovereignty.” 

By the end of his life, Vallières fought for gay rights, mental health awareness and Indigenous self-government. While he still hoped for Quebec independence, he believed that a Quebec hostile to immigrants did not deserve to survive. Journalist Daniel Samson-Legault’s 2018 biography, Dissident Pierre Vallières: au-delà de N*gres blancs d’Amérique, mentions much of what I’m saying here. 

Those now rushing to advocate for Vallières’s book as “an important and integral part of Quebec history” (which it is), never seem to mention the rest of his body of work, which is also part of Quebec history. They never bring up his later conclusions or the interviews he gave. 

It’s as if all they care about is the title of a book that he wrote back in 1968, and the permission they seem to think it gives them to use that one word in it that they’re now convinced must be protected at all costs. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.