Racism exists in Quebec, even if speaking about it remains a big taboo. This is why, a few weeks ago, a collective of individuals and associations delivered a petition to the province’s National Assembly, demanding a public commission on systemic racism. Since then, the project has been moving forward, with criticism from the likes of Mathieu Bock-Côté and support from certain politicians.
“Racism is still a problem, but we talk about it very little. And when we do, it’s difficult to expand the conversation beyond Montreal, even though it’s an issue that affects everybody,” explains Émilie Nicolas, a doctoral student in anthropology and one of the authors of an open letter that recently appeared in La Presse, denouncing systemic racism and demanding a commission on the subject.
For Nicolas, who is also the president of minority rights advocacy group Québec Inclusif, the crux of the problem is disclosure, openly admitting that it is present in many social spheres (culture, media, politics, law, work) and, above all, making the debate less personal.
“Talking about it makes people uncomfortable, and it can be taken very personally even though it’s a collective issue,” says Nicolas, “but it’s important to change the conversation. It should stop being a moralizing and individualistic discussion, and become instead a collective project of advancing the values of equality and justice.”
Building on the mobilization of numerous groups around issues like racial profiling and employment discrimination, including Montréal-Nord Républik and Montréal Noir (which was created following the death of Jean-Pierre Bony, who was fatally shot by officers of the Montreal police service, the collective hopes that a commission on systemic racism will allow for a bigger picture to emerge about this difficult and largely ignored problem.
Changing the system
However, in Quebec society, examples continue to rain down of racism and the exclusion of racialized persons in numerous domains.
“It’s abnormal that there are so few racialized persons employed in the public sector, that there are only 312 among the 20,000 employees of Hydro-Québec, that they make up less than one per cent of the provincial police force [Sûreté du Québec],” points out Will Prosper, spokesperson for Montréal-Nord Républik, activist and co-author of the petition.
Prosper had previously demanded an independent public inquiry into the death of Fredy Villanueva, which he linked to racial profiling, and quickly realized that the problem went much further than law enforcement and that a broader effort had to be made. “There are only three Black judges out of 500 in Quebec. The only judge who has made a ruling admitting the presence of racial profiling was Black!”
“On FM 98.5, ‘Montreal’s talk radio station,’ there are no racialized hosts (and the hosts are mostly male). It’s the same thing with the principal channel of Radio-Canada,” the French-language service of the CBC, Prosper points out.
For the documentary filmmaker, finding solutions will require long-term work, continuing the many years of on-the-ground efforts by numerous individuals and organizations. But for this to happen, people must recognize the problem and be willing to talk about it. “I believe that the commission will allow this and, after, reforms will become possible. The path forward isn’t clear yet, but something has to change,” Prosper says.
Endorsed by Projet Montréal, Québec Solidaire, and numerous elected officials of the Parti Québécois and the Liberal Party, the collective will be meeting with immigration, diversity and inclusion minister Kathleen Weil in June, even if Philippe Couillard, the current premier of Quebec, is the only one who can authorize such a commission. More than 900 people have signed the petition so far.
No official policy to counter racism exists in Quebec, whereas Ontario has recently created its Anti-Racism Directorate, which will study all future policies and evaluate their inclusiveness. The federal government also recently announced the establishment of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, following 10 years of citizen mobilization around the issue. Émilie Nicolas hopes that a commission on systemic racism in Quebec will be put into place more quickly.
“We think there’s an opportunity here for the government to endorse and advance what we’re proposing, notably because of the new policy framework for immigration, participation and inclusion that was introduced in March, updating policies that hadn’t evolved since 1994. A lot of things remain uncertain within that framework, so it would be advantageous for the government to use what we’re putting on the table,” says Nicolas.
“At the moment, citizens’ rights are being trampled upon because of the colour of their skin. We have to take this very seriously. It’s a responsibility we have for our own society,” concludes Prosper.