Québec recently celebrated its day of national pride: la fête nationale. Once a religious holiday, since the 1960s and 1970s it has become a politicized annual event in which Québec reasserts its distinct history, culture, and language—indeed, its nationhood. The theme of this year’s festivities was Tous Unis (All United). While it appropriately tributed the support and solidarity that many Québecers (especially health and essential workers) demonstrated during the pandemic, the theme of unity at this particular time also begs questioning.
After the killing of George Floyd, in this province as elsewhere people marched the streets of Montreal, Québec, Sherbrooke, and other cities to call for the eradication of systemic racism. These protests and the heated debates they have sparked show that Québecers are far from united. The divisions seem to come down to the combination of the two words “systemic” and “racism”. While some Québecers concede there is systemic “discrimination”, others including Québec Premier François Legault acknowledge that there is some racism, but adamantly deny its systemic nature and refuse to qualify it as such. This is neither Legault’s first refusal to investigate systemic racism nor is he the only Québec government official to do so. Last week the NDP motion demanding that the government address systemic racism in the RCMP was defeated by Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien.
What do we make of these refusals to acknowledge systemic racism and deny its existence? Some will argue that the term does not resonate the same way in a francophone context where it is used only to invoke overt or explicit types of racism. Others offer a more persuasive explanation: the theory that denying racism comes from a fear of identity loss. Certainly, it is well-established that white francophone Québecers are anxious about losing their national identity and with it their political power. It is this unfounded fear that has justified the province’s efforts to reduce immigration, and to distance itself from the liberal “multiculturalism” of the rest of Canada. It therefore comes as no surprise that despite ample evidence of the contrary, the idea of systemic racism is being regarded as a trend or import that has no bearing on and in Québec.
To be sure, Québec is a distinct nation. Its history, French language, its policy of interculturalism, and most importantly its status as a minority culture within Canada do set it apart in significant ways. Sadly, however, as reports and consultations on policing and disproportionate incarceration show, when it comes to Black, racialized, and Indigenous populations, Québec does not differ from its anglophone counterparts. Denials of this sort are not unique to Québec. Canadians also like to set themselves apart from the United States, smugly declaring that we are less racist despite evidence showing that “structural racism does exist and it kills no less” here.
The refusal of a systemic racism framework avoids confronting how endemic racism is to the workings of institutions and structures of everyday life in Québec. Despite United Nations’ warnings, statistics, consultations, lawsuits, legal challenges, peer reviewed research, Indigenous women’s testimonials of police misconduct, protests, petitions (and so much more), all painstakingly offering evidence and definitions of systemic racism, its refusal implies that the notion is foreign to Québec. In fact, watching Legault grapple with growing public pressure to acknowledge systemic racism over the past three weeks, one is left with the impression that he is genuinely bewildered, asking “Why do we have to fight for months about one word [systemic] instead of fighting together against racism?”
The answer is simple. To keep them separate is to dilute the issue of racism. Since the systemic discrimination framework encompasses many differently marginalized groups, it glosses over racism to focus predominantly on women, people with disabilities, and members of LGBTQ communities. Similarly, to talk about racism without qualifying it as systemic feeds the idea that it is borne of ignorance and is tackled through diversity training and awareness-raising rather than by transforming economic and political structures.
Much is at stake in Legault’s ongoing refusals and denials. In espousing Québec exceptionalism, Legault fuels a disregard for the lives of Black, Indigenous, and racialized peoples. What is at stake in naming and addressing systemic racism in Québec is nothing less than life and death. And this naming, while crucial, is simply one dimension of the change that so many Québecers are calling for. Attaching the same old recommendations and reforms to new commitments will not do. The Black feminist leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have been clear. What is needed is collective action on defunding police, surveillance, and military structures, reinvesting in communities, community service supports, and schools, ending police presence in schools, and reimagining curricula using a decolonial and anti-racist framework.
Acknowledging systemic racism and developing concrete anti-racism measures that have resources, reporting, and accountability frameworks attached to them, which Black and Indigenous communities have long been advocating for, will truly help society to be “All United.”
Dr. Leila Angod is a 2020–2021 Lillian Robinson Scholar and Research Associate at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in Montreal.
Dr. Gada Mahrouse is Associate Professor at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in Montreal.