The revelations aired by Radio-Canada’s Enquête detonated like a bomb in Quebec society, as they should. Nonetheless, beyond the initial shock, this crisis should serve as a moment for deep reflection on the relationship between the people of Quebec and Indigenous people.
We are used to hearing our politicians speak of Quebec as a “model” to follow when it comes to relations with Indigenous peoples. In English Canada (no surprises here), we often hear quite the opposite : that the people of Quebec are insensitive to Indigenous issues. But what if the reality is much more complex?
We have repeatedly heard in the last few years that Quebec is an example to follow, when it comes to relations with Indigenous peoples. Listening to disparate political figures, from Bernard Landry to Thomas Mulcair, one gets the sense that “la Belle Province” is a real paradise for the eleven First Nations who live in the province.
I think these ideas reflect a widespread sentiment: since “Aboriginal Affairs” are under federal jurisdiction and since the law which governs them (1876’s infamous “Indian Act”) was written by Ottawa, we often believe that the federal government is responsible for the fate of Indigenous peoples’.
We often hear, “it’s the federal government’s fault!”
Hence, this habit of being unabashedly proud of agreements such as The Peace of the Braves, or the James Bay Agreement, in order to send the ball back into Ottawa’s court.
Even though we shouldn’t deny that these treaties are important advances (celebrated by numerous Indigenous leaders), we should not conclude, as Bernard Landry did recently, that “Quebec is exemplary in Canada.” The scandal of the last few days stands as irrefutable proof that this is not true, especially as we now know there have been similar cases reported with other police forces and in other regions.
If this news has shaken people up so much, it is precisely because it reminds Quebecers of French descent that they cannot just blame the Canadian state.
No, it’s not just the federal government’s fault.
The government and the institutions of Quebec also have their own historical responsibility for the tragedy facing Indigenous peoples. We have to recognize that fact.
Let’s be clear: I am definitely not saying the government of Quebec is “worse” than the Canadian government in this matter. The living conditions of Indigenous peoples are difficult everywhere. What I am saying is that for historical reasons, Quebec society has more difficulties recognizing and speaking about its responsibility towards Indigenous peoples than is the case elsewhere in Canada.
Quebec is lagging
I have travelled a lot in Canada over the last few years, and every time I felt like Indigenous peoples’ issues were much more discussed in the media there than they are in Quebec. Was I wrong? I asked this question to Alana Boileau, Justice and Public Security coordinator at Quebec Native Women and author of a master’s thesis on how much Quebecers know about the realities facing Indigenous peoples.
She confirmed my impression: Quebec is “without a doubt” lagging in regards to the rest of Canada. “In Quebec, we don’t even talk about Indigenous peoples’ issues, outside of crises like this one. The kind of media frenzy we are seeing right now is rare, or even unprecedented,” she told me. She gave me several examples of what is happening elsewhere in Canada: the presence of residential schools in the school curricula both in Saskatchewan and in Ontario, the existence of CBC Aboriginal, the existence of aboriginal police units (formed of police officers and social workers) in the Winnipeg police service, the visual presence of Indigenous cultures in many Canadian cities.
A quick look at statistics from Influence Communications also proves these points. In the last few years, Canadian media outlets have covered Indigenous peoples’ issues twice as much as their counterparts in Quebec. Their media presence remains generally low, but it is difficult to deny that is even lower in Quebec.
Nevertheless, Boileau raises an important nuance: “We have to recognize that the conversation around Indigenous people’s issues is mainly happening in English,” she said, bringing attention to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unfortunately, those proceedings happened almost exclusively in the language of Shakespeare. This doesn’t explain everything, but it is a challenge that needs to be addressed.
Oppressed or oppressors?
The problem is that whenever English Canadians reproach Quebecers for lacking sensitivity in relation to Ingenious peoples’ issues, the conversation generally returns to prejudices steeped in the most traditional forms of “Quebec bashing” : the people of Quebec are navel-gazers, insensitive, even racist. Any kind of discussion based on these assumptions is sterile.
If Quebecois society is less aware of Indigenous issues than English Canadian society, it is not because it is nationalistic, but because it has historically understood itself as an oppressed minority, and not as an oppressive majority. In other words, the history of Quebec is one of political subordination to the Canadian state. Quebec society is ill-equipped to understand its own domination over Indigenous peoples.
Furthermore, the independence movement in Quebec – or at least a significant portion thereof – has historically identified with oppressed peoples and their struggles for decolonization around the world. Nègres blancs d’Amérique, Pierre Vallières’s famous book illustrates this idea best. The Parti Pris manifesto also makes this clear: “In all of Africa, of Asia, and soon in Latin America, men like us dare this madness. We believe that soon, men just like them will stand up in Quebec; we’re betting on your courage comrades, and we will wait.” So, collectively, Quebecers have historically seen themselves as victims of colonialism, and not as colonizers. They are both right and wrong.
The scandal that surfaced in the last few days violently reminds us that as much as we have been – and still are – in a situation of political subordination, we also are in an unequal balance of power with Indigenous peoples. The people of Quebec are a minority in Canada, but a majority in Quebec, and as such, they are not immune to criticism from Indigenous peoples. Similarly, institutions in the province are not excluded from this. A clear example: the government-owned public utility company Hydro-Quebec is considered a great achievement of The Quiet Revolution and a symbol of Quebecers taking charge of their own destiny, yet it would be nearly impossible to deny that its relations with Indigenous peoples have been marked with frustrations and injustice.
A dialogue full of promises
Contrary to what the director of The Surêté du Quebec claims, relations between the Quebecois state and Indigenous peoples are in crisis. The outcry displayed by Indigenous leaders is evidence of this fact.
Given that reality, it is neither time for self-pity, nor for self-flagellation, but for dialogue: an egalitarian dialogue, nation-to-nation, founded on mutual respect and recognition, on the part of the Quebec majority, of their historical responsibility to Indigenous peoples.
The people of Quebec have a long way to go, but at the end of road, there is some light. We can also rediscover traditions and wisdom which, if one listens closely, have a lot to teach us about how to respond to the crises we are facing. There are spaces for collaboration and for our struggles to fight side by side: the defence of cultural diversity, the protection of our languages, the protection of territory, and the ecological transition.
Crises, let’s not forget, are also, often, opportunities.