While horrifying, it didn’t come as a surprise that some people would leave racist comments on the Facebook page of a Quebec news outlet when it posted a story on the deaths of seven Syrian refugee children in Halifax in February.
Among the comments on TVA Nouvelles’ post: “Good riddance” and “We’re tired of paying for them.” One young man who posted xenophobic comments admitted in a radio interview that his constant exposure to negative information about Arabs contributed to his immediate feelings of hatred when he saw the story about the Syrian family.
Indeed, Quebecers are exposed to a steady barrage of dehumanizing tropes about, and caricatures of, Muslims. One recent survey conducted by Leger Marketing on behalf of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies found that while Quebecers matched the national average in terms of the proportion who said they encountered racism and hatred online, 62 per cent of Quebecers who saw such hate speech said it was most often targeted towards Muslims, compared to 46 per cent for Canadians overall.
While TVA Nouvelles was right to remove the Facebook post altogether in response, Quebecor, the media giant that owns it, must be held to account for the Islamophobic content that its outlets peddle regularly. Quebecor’s various properties have contributed to a hostile environment for minority communities in Quebec. Take, for example, two recent Journal de Montréal columns taking to task the survivors and families of the victims of the Quebec mosque shooting carried out by Alexandre Bissonnette.
Lise Ravary, a regular columnist who has said that there is no such thing as a “moderate Islam,” criticized members of the Quebec City Muslim community for wanting a stiffer sentence for the mosque shooter. In the same article, she maligned their previous efforts to find land for their own cemetery, suggesting both scenarios prove that community members have failed to integrate. She even questioned the decision by victims’ families to bury their loved ones in their countries of origin.
(In a seeming effort to distance herself from the idea that she promotes hateful views, Ravary penned bizarre columns in the Journal and Montreal Gazette, maintaining that she totally condemns the hateful comments left about the Halifax fire. In the latter piece, she seems to conclude that racism isn’t really the issue, because, scientifically, there is no such thing as race, and that people just seem to be really ignorant. The possibility that she herself feeds into that ignorance is, of course, left unmentioned.)
In another column for the Journal, a columnist named Joseph Facal defended Bissonnette’s parents for criticizing the sentence he received (life imprisonment, without possibility of parole for 40 years) and then accused survivors of wanting to inflict the kind of vengeance present in Middle Eastern countries. Such stereotypes fuel the type of hatred we see on social media, and in real life. The same year that Bissonnette killed six people in a mosque, hate crimes targeting Muslims actually tripled in Quebec.
“Quebecor Media Group has a unique perception of what journalism ethics are,” explains Université Laval professor and media expert Colette Brin, pointing to its 2010 withdrawal from the Quebec Press Council and lawsuit against the organization for continuing to render decisions regarding its media outlets.
Just last week, the Council found that TVA Nouvelles had breached journalistic ethics in a 2017 report that wrongly claimed officials at a Montreal mosque had asked a construction company to keep female workers away from a nearby site during Friday prayers. The Council concluded that the false reporting “unnecessarily exacerbated social tensions with the Muslim community” and that the outlet took too long in issuing a subsequent retraction and apology.
“There is no transparency: no public editor, no ombudsperson. Their approach is, ‘If you have a problem with us, sue us,’” says Brin. (Quebecor’s TV channels remain subject to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, but this does not apply to its print publications.)
Taking legal action against a media giant is out of reach for most people. One is left to hope that the public would switch off media that is divisive or which serves to inflame fear and xenophobia. But that’s not happening. Quebecor’s channels are the most popular in the province (though, thankfully, its television foray beyond Quebec was far less successful).
One could also hope that elected officials would look into this phenomenon, particularly considering the hand-wringing that originally followed the Quebec mosque massacre concerning the troubling media discourse in the province. A spokesperson for the coalition Sortons les radio-poubelles (“Take Out the Trash Radio”), has called for stronger consequences for those broadcasting racist, homophobic, and sexist views.
In the U.K., there was a judicial public inquiry into the actions of the British press following the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Is it time for a provincial inquiry into the promotion of racist discourse on the airwaves and online to help find a meaningful solution to all this? It’s hard to imagine Quebec’s government doing much to tackle this, considering that the premier has been reluctant to address the existence of Islamophobia and that its minister for the Status of Women belittles women who wear the headscarf. All while public servants brace for a discriminatory ban on their freedom to wear religious clothing, widely supported by a population encouraged to view non-Christian practice as a threat.
Certainly, Quebec isn’t the only province in which people expressed violent, racist views at a moment of deep national sorrow for the family in Halifax. A CBC Nova Scotia moderator told one user that they had to ban numerous comments on its coverage. Our communities are being dehumanized across the country, and this will continue to put people in real danger.
This environment must be categorically condemned by elected officials both inside and outside of Quebec, and it must be reined in. The loving majority must demand better.
Top photo of a December 2017 anti-racism protest against TVA taken by Miriam Lafontaine, originally for Concordia’s The Link. Republished with permission.