A letter requesting that Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard launch a commission on systemic racism in the province was recently published in both English and French Montreal dailies.
The letter was jointly written by Suzie O’Bomsawin, an Abekani activist from Odanak; Emilie Nicolas, president of Québec inclusif (a lobby group for an inclusive society); Haroun Bouazzi, president of AMAL-Québec (Arabs and Muslims for a secular society); and Will Prosper (filmmaker and spokesperson for community group Montréal-Nord Républik). It was co-signed by about 45 Quebecers, among them activists, journalists, academics and even Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard of Quebec’s infamous Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation. I’m also one of those co-signatories.
As the letter clearly outlines, and should be evident to anyone with rudimentary observational skills, Quebec has a problem with systemic racism. Pervasive and long-standing discrimination, misrepresentation, and underrepresentation exist in all facets of life — from the criminal justice system, to the police force, to municipal and provincial politics, to all areas of the public sector, mainstream media and cultural outlets.
That the request for a commission should come as no surprise to anyone after recently publicized incidents of racial profiling, excessive police violence, blackface, and even the demonization of hip-hop as “violent music.”
But such a request is unfortunately still dismissed or viewed as unnecessary by many, mainly because most cases of racism today are of the aversive kind. In contrast to overt racism — blatant expressions of hatred and discrimination against racialized groups — aversive racism is much more subtle and subconscious. It takes the form of stereotyping communities (the Haitian actor who is only cast as a drug dealer) or allowing bias to affect selection decisions in employment (the man with the Arabic-sounding name who doesn’t get a call back for a job, the Asian woman who is assumed to be a math genius).
The statistics are pretty damning. Only five out of 125 members of the Quebec National Assembly are from racialized communities. Only four out of 103 City of Montreal councillors are racialized, even though these communities account for 30 per cent of the city’s population. It’s impossible to deny that there’s an obvious and pervasive problem with diversity and representation in Quebec — a problem that needs to be tackled honestly, earnestly, and with as little defensiveness as possible.
You can't change what you refuse to acknowledge. You can't acknowledge what you refuse to see. And whether a request for a commission is successful or not, Quebecers are right (and brave) to bring this to the forefront and attempt to tackle it. It’s no less of a problem elsewhere in the country, but that’s no excuse for inaction. Unfortunately, many will jump at the opportunity to use a conversation on racism as ammunition against Quebecers.
Self-satisfied and smug, Quebec bashers will point to such a commission as evidence of our intolerance, wrapping themselves up in a blanket of fake moral superiority and shaking their heads at how racist and backwards Quebecers are.
Canada, a country that removed Aboriginal children from their homes to “beat the Indian out of them,” implemented the Chinese Head Tax, jailed thousands of Japanese-Canadians in internment camps during World War II, and whose previous federal administration introduced the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices legislation just last year, doesn’t really have any moral high ground to stand on. But it won’t stop some from trying.
An EKOS poll in 2015 found that 41 percent of Canadians felt that Canada was accepting too many visible minority immigrants, and according to national studies and cross-country polls, one in six Canadians has experienced discrimination based on race. Throw discrimination based on religion into that mix, and we have a long way to go towards Canada developing into that post-racial, post-religious country some claim we live in.
But the sometimes tenuous relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada means that debates on racism, discrimination, and the treatment of minorities constantly run the risk of being hijacked and steamrolled by anglophones and francophones fighting to yell the loudest about who has had it toughest. Within minutes of posting the letter in support of a commission on social media, I was accosted by angry anglophones on Facebook complaining about the treatment of the English in Quebec, and by angry francophones on Twitter wrongfully assuming that my suggestion that Quebec has a racism problem means I certainly hate Quebec.
Quebec’s unique linguistic and cultural conundrum makes addressing this issue particularly complex. It’s practically impossible to tackle problems of diversity and racism in this province when the two largest minorities in the country (anglophones within Quebec and francophones within Canada) constantly attempt to monopolize the conversation and one-up each other on discrimination. It’s twice as difficult for either of these groups to see themselves as at fault, or having a role to play in perpetuating discrimination and systemic racism as dominant forces within Canadian and Quebec society, when so often neither of them is capable of seeing themselves as anything other than dominated and victimized.
But the prospect of predictable Quebec-bashing shouldn’t prevent the province from having a very necessary and overdue conversation on systemic racism. It could very well open the door to finally having one across the country that doesn’t end up being derailed.
As of now, provincial party Québec Solidaire and municipal party Projet Montréal have lent their support to the request, but this commission isn’t about scoring political or linguistic points. It’s about solving a problem that has real, measurable, and far-reaching legal, political, financial, and interpersonal consequences for people in racialized communities. The focus should be — and should remain — on that.