The Quebec government continues to sweep racism and Islamophobia under the rug

Last week’s unanimous motion declaring that Quebec is no more racist than the rest of the world is meaningless and self-serving, doing nothing to help Quebecers whose lives have been impacted and forever changed by racism.

Quebec’s National Assembly is unanimous on this: there is no more racism to be found in the province than anywhere else in the world. Our elected officials adopted the motion last Wednesday affirming that Quebec is one of the “most open and welcoming nations” in the world. 

I hear that assertion a lot on social media. It’s usually preceded by that very same person telling me to go “back to where I came from,” so as gratifying as positive affirmations can be, they sometimes run the risk of reflecting perception, not reality. 

I could adopt a motion of one tomorrow stating that I’m an NBA-level basketball player, but I’m certain the Milwaukee Bucks won’t come knocking anytime soon. Now, I’m not saying that Quebec isn’t an open and welcoming society — because it most certainly is — but issuing comforting statements that only aim to reassure and placate the majority while passively ignoring the issues that minorities in Quebec say they’re profoundly affected by is political grandstanding that collectively lets us off the hook.

“We denounce without nuance any accusations that racism is more deeply rooted in Quebec, we also denounce the prejudices held against Quebec, as well as any link made between racism and Bill 21,” said the statement. Naturally it was adopted unanimously and without debate! Who’s going to vote against a motion that sets such an incredibly low bar? 

Anti-Muslim sentiment more prevalent in Quebec

The motion presented at the National Assembly didn’t materialize out of thin air. It was primarily in reaction to a statement issued by an organization Canadians United Against Hate, which called Quebec “the epicentre” of Islamophobia in Canada, and actively denounced Bill 21 and its detrimental consequences for Quebecers who choose to wear religious symbols.  

The organization’s statement was issued following last week’s release of an Angus Reid survey on how Canadians perceive religions. The poll revealed that 52% of Quebecers have a negative view of Islam, compared with 39% of Canadians living in other provinces. It’s a significant enough difference that critics of Bill 21 are justified in pointing out that anti-Muslim sentiment is more prevalent in Quebec. The same survey shows that 72% of Canadians support the wearing of the hijab in public, but that rate drops to 55% in Quebec. Again, a noticeable difference. 

One can support the claim that racism isn’t necessarily the motivation or intent behind Bill 21 (even the Liberals and Québec Solidaire, who oppose the legislation, voted for the above motion) while still denouncing the legislation’s consequences. It’s after all the precise reason why a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that Bill 21 is discriminatory and infringes on fundamental rights, especially those of Muslim women.

And since it’s only in Quebec that such legislation profoundly affecting religious minorities exists in North America, it’s not difficult to see why Quebec remains the focus and target of much scrutiny. Quebecers have a right to denounce and call out unfair and unfounded assumptions about Bill 21, but whether its supporters like it or not, the legislation will continue to be challenged by courts and minority rights advocates, which our democratic system allows for, and they shouldn’t assume that it’s Quebecers as a nation that are being put on trial each time the legislation is debated. 

Quebecers’ bias against religion affects religious minorities

It’s also not unfair to point out that anti-religion sentiment in Quebec largely targets religions the majority has no affinity for or prior comfort level with, and in turn that bias affects minorities’ lives and sense of belonging here more so than in other parts of Canada. Since Bill 21 became law, religious minorities have repeatedly voiced that they now feel less safe and less welcome here. At what point do we listen to what they have to say and acknowledge it as an uncomfortable truth? That distrust of minority religions displayed by many Quebecers may not be blatantly racist but it’s far from innocuous and it marginalizes and stigmatizes religious minorities. And it’s Quebec politicians and pundits that often set the tone. 

Recently, former PQ leader Jean-François Lisée wrote an opinion piece arguing that “comparative arguments (regarding degrees of racism) have little weight when the task is to fight back against discrimination, racial profiling, decades-long neglect of Indigenous communities. They have value, however, when mainstream voices outside Quebec take a moral high ground to misjudge and mischaracterize Quebec, its citizens and its history on issues of race and tolerance.” 

I can wholeheartedly agree with that statement (and even much of his article) while simultaneously pointing out that the author also happens to be the same man who, during his leadership campaign, justified the need for a ban on Muslim clothing by claiming that a Muslim woman could hide an AK-47 machine gun under her burka. Is such a ludicrous statement racism? Political hyperbole? Unconscious bias? Garden-variety Islamophobia? Whatever it is, that type of public discourse (routinely legitimized by Quebec politicians and the Quebec media) affects Muslim women who live in Quebec more than the majority might care to understand. One can declare Bill 21 isn’t motivated by racism while failing to comprehend that racism doesn’t manifest as hate alone. It can also appear as casual xenophobia, coded language, indifference to how a piece of legislation affects only minorities, easy vote pandering on the backs of the few. 

More than one thing can be true at the same time

I understand Quebecers have a need to defend themselves against the routine miscomprehension of Quebec. There’s undeniable anglocentrism in Canada and it’s easy for those who don’t always understand Quebec’s majority culture, its fears, its perspective and its concerns to label the province “backwards” and “racist.” It’s also misleading and unfair to imply that only one province has a problem with racism (systemic or otherwise) when it’s certainly a problem everywhere in Canada and around the world. 

However, allegations of Quebec-bashing are far too routinely (and might I add strategically) used in this province to deflect from legitimate criticism of Quebec society, government or public policies. It leads us nowhere, unable to have important and necessary conversations because every time someone tries to address issues affecting minorities, a small and very vocal minority screams bloody murder. 

Less or equal racism is still racism 

In 2020, the Quebec government’s action group on racism made it clear that racism exists here and who it targets. “In our society, two major groups are particularly vulnerable to racism and discrimination,” the report concluded. “They are visible minorities and Indigenous people. […] We have a moral duty to strive for excellence […] working together to achieve a common ideal, that of an even better Quebec, a Quebec without racism.” 

This National Assembly motion isn’t “striving for excellence.” It’s a declaration of mediocrity. 

Are we going to myopically congratulate ourselves about comparable levels of racism and discrimination, or are we going to address and eradicate racism in Quebec? Because declaring that we don’t hold the monopoly on racism can’t possibly be our game plan.

Indigenous representatives are imploring the Quebec government to finally recognize systemic racism and adopt Joyce’s Principle, which guarantees equal access to healthcare for all. Despite a 2019 report revealing that Black and Indigenous people were four to five times more likely than white people to be stopped by Montreal police, racial profiling cases continue to be rampant and police violence continues to be the cause of numerous human rights lawsuits. Minority representation in Quebec’s civil and state-run corporations continues to be very low and, as recently revealed by Le Devoir, racism profoundly affects civil servants’ lives, too.

Actions, not self-serving affirmations 

There is tangible proof of inequitable access to healthcare, education, career opportunities and justice for minorities in Quebec. And instead of tackling these issues head-on, we’re engaging in privileged whataboutism. 

Our elected officials are supposed to not only set the tone, but also the bar. And right now, they’re setting it incredibly low and hoping most Quebecers are satisfied with that. We shouldn’t be. 

Quebec may not be any more racist than the rest of the world, but it’s still just as racist. That might be enough to satisfy those unaffected by prejudice and bias, but it’s cold comfort and of no real value to Quebecers whose lives have been impacted and forever changed by racism. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.