After debating the issue for more than a year, last month the Quebec government finally announced that the province would hold a series of consultations on systemic racism, to address racial bias in the job market, social services, public safety, and, notably, the media.
But although the consultation was inspired by a May 2016 open letter published in La Presse that was signed by over 50 members of Montreal’s Haitian, North African, and Asian communities, people from racial minority groups have been almost entirely locked out of the media and political discussions around it.
“What really makes an impression on me is how the principal people concerned have not been given the chance to comment on this,” says Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Arabs and Muslims for a Secular Quebec (AMAL-Québec), who was one of the four co-writers of the original letter.
Despite questions from all sides about its exact mandate, format, and time frame, a name change, and a game of hot potato that saw the file transferred from the provincial human rights commission to the Ministry of Immigration, Diversity, and Inclusion, the provincial government announced October 18 that the consultations would still go forward — on the same day it passed Bill 62, which prohibits people receiving public services (even transit riders) from wearing niqabs, burqas, and other face coverings.
Just after the consultation was formally launched, Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée accused Premier Philippe Couillard and the governing Liberals of “divid[ing] Quebecers in order to store up votes.” Lisée, a former journalist, mentioned that two Muslim advocacy groups involved in the consultation had already referred to Quebec society as a whole as Islamophobic and xenophobic.
Anything relating to the role of religion in public life is an electric subject in Quebec, where the Catholic Church controlled education, social services, and social mores for centuries before it was gradually pushed back into its proverbial lane in the 1960s and 70s. Many sovereigntists are also committed secularists. In 2014, the then-governing Parti Québécois fell on its sword over a planned “Charter of Quebec Values,” which would have prohibited public servants from wearing “ostentatious religious symbols” on the job. The provincial Liberals countered with their own bill that would apply to just face coverings.
Lisée and the Parti Québécois have been particularly vehement in their defense of a “secular” Quebec, calling out nonprofits participating in the consultation for having religious roots. During a House debate over the consultation, the PQ leader cited a conspiracy-happy news site called Point de Bascule, the Quebec equivalent of The Daily Caller, while mentioning that “no less than 15″ columnists were opposed to the consultation, and referring to it, as he has repeatedly, as “the trial of Quebecers” (“le procès des Québécois”).
“Nothing surprises me anymore… but that was a shock,” says Bouazzi. “Since when do we make public policy through newspaper columns?”
Ironically, the consultation itself is intended to highlight, among other things, unconscious racial bias in the province’s media.
But some outlets seem happy to do that themselves. On September 20, La Joute, a popular talk show on right-leaning network TVA, focused on the consultation. “This makes no sense to me,” said analyst Luc Lavoie, addressing his equally indignant colleagues, Paul Larocque and Bernard Drainville. “I’m not racist, my society is not particularly racist, my neighbours aren’t racist… where does this idea of systemic racism in Quebec come from? Are we living under apartheid?”
— Tamy Emma Pepin (@TamyEmmaPepin) September 20, 2017
Lavoie, Larocque, and Drainville are all white francophones, and a screenshot of the three men above a banner that asked “Quel racisme systémique?” (“What systemic racism?”) drew snickers when it made the rounds on social media.
Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec host Marie-France Bazzo felt the need to defend herself on a colleague’s show after hosting an all-white panel on the subject on En attendant la soirée. “The panelists could have chosen any topic, but one of them started a discussion on systemic racism. We had a very good discussion where the two viewpoints were presented with eloquence,” Bazzo said, speaking to Catherine Perrin of Médium Large. “Then I read a comment on Twitter from an antiracist activist…that said ‘No racialized people discussing systemic racism? Really?’ That made me angry. I thought, ‘What? There are subjects that white people are not allowed to talk about?’”
AMAL-Québec’s Bouazzi doesn’t see it that way. “Anyone can talk about systemic racism, but if people who are directly affected by it are made invisible or tokenized, then that doesn’t work.”
Quebec’s media, particularly its opinion media, is remarkably white. In the pages of the Journal de Montréal, which is owned by the same conglomerate that owns TVA and where columnists have produced some of the most vehement writing against the consultation, only two of 30 columnists — Moroccan-born former politician Fatima Houda-Pépin and Uruguayan-born political scientist Joseph Facal — come from racialized communities. At highbrow left-leaning daily Le Devoir, lawyer and entrepreneur Fabrice Vil, whose family is from Haiti, is the only visible-minority columnist out of 38. At centre-left daily La Presse, Rima Elkouri, born in the Montreal suburbs to Syrian and Lebanese parents, is the only non-white voice among the paper’s opinion writers. The freesheet Métro Montréal does slightly better, with four of its 15 columnists coming from racialized communities.
La Presse managing editor Éric Trottier is unreservedly self-critical about his newspaper’s track record on diversity. After more than a decade of soul-searching, Trottier and his team launched an internship program for journalism graduates from minority groups last year. Two people who completed the program were hired.
“Our newsroom is very white, francophone, and Catholic, and we can’t represent the society we live in if we go on like that,” he says. “Ten years ago, we had difficulties recruiting minorities because there were just fewer people, but today, the city is much more diverse.” Since then, Radio-Canada has also launched a diversity internship program focused on First Nations graduates.
However, there are still obstacles to getting people of colour into newsrooms. “For the past three years, we have had budget cuts, and if I’m going to hire one person during that time, I’m usually going to hire an experienced person; that makes it difficult for young graduates,” says Trottier. “Many immigrants have English as a second language, rather than French, and of course we require impeccable written French. Having said that, there are no obstacles that are big enough to excuse a lack of diversity.”
“As a woman from a small town in Quebec, I’m not going to have the same experience as a guy who grew up in Montreal with Moroccan parents,” says Métro editor-in-chief Rachelle McDuff, who sought out minority columnists during a recent overhaul of her paper’s editorial roster. “[Diversity] allows for different exchanges and perspectives. We are not perfect, and there is still a lot of work to do, especially in the newsroom, but we try.”
When writers from diverse backgrounds do have the floor, they tend to address issues of racism and diversity. Elkouri, Vil, and Métro’s Houssein Ben-Ameur have written at length about the consultation and about larger issues of diversity and white privilege.
“Media outlets are a function of the society they work in, and in the francophone media, minorities are definitely underrepresented,” says Elkouri. “If we don’t have gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and a diversity of voices, we’re unaware of certain issues.”
The relative invisibility of minorities in Quebec media has contributed to a situation where, in Elkouri’s words, “a lot of people take it for granted that [systemic racism] doesn’t exist.”
For many Quebecers, the idea that Quebec society has a “problem” with systemic racism amounts to an accusation of racism. This perspective has also been adopted by the PQ and by the second provincial opposition party, the Coalition Avenir Québec. “I’ve written columns where, afterward, people will write to me and say, ‘Why do you say we’re racist? Why do you say racism is a system in Quebec?’” Elkouri says. “People here are very worried about losing their identity and language, and when we talk about racism, we’re often accused of being more concerned with the fate of minorities than the fate of the majority. It’s a very delicate question.”
Exactly how delicate is apparent to anyone who reads the comments on a piece on the subject. In mid-September, Ben-Ameur addressed the consultation and the absence of minority voices in the media debate around it. “Denying the relevance of the consultation is a show of white privilege which, ironically, only reinforces the need for such a debate,” he wrote, in a column titled “Les Blancs et le racisme systémique” (“Whites and systemic racism”). “If members of minorities tell us there’s a problem, we need to listen.”
“Why don’t you go somewhere else if you want to disrupt the social fabric?” a commenter responded. Most of the comments were in the same vein, although a number of readers did challenge the trolls; Ben-Ameur calls the comments in his defense “extraordinary.”
“I do read the comments, but I’ve been dealing with trolls for a long time, and it takes a lot to shake me up,” says the Tunisian-born columnist, who has been a blogger since before most people knew what a blog was. “I got the page-view statistics, and this was the most visited column that I had done….I knew there would be a good debate. When a subject touches me personally, I don’t hesitate to grab it.”
He adds that he doesn’t think the defensiveness around systemic racism is unique to Quebec. “Even during the struggles for women’s rights, for Indigenous rights, middle-aged white men have presented themselves as if they know what’s best for everyone.…When members of a minority ask for more equality, the majority will always try to defend itself and keep its privilege. It’s a human thing.”
Bouazzi and Ben-Ameur hope that the consultation will serve as a catalyst to get members of Quebec’s minority communities talking. “Having a more representative group of writers and commentators is important…because people who have experienced systemic racism won’t be able to say it doesn’t exist,” says Bouazzi, who has lived in Quebec for nearly 20 years. “I love my society too much to say that we’re incapable of having this discussion. It will be a battle… but if you can’t sweep under the rug, you won’t get rid of the dust.”
Top screenshot from a panel discussion on systemic racism on TVA’s La Joute. The chyron translates as “CONSULTATIONS ON RACISM: A BLACK HOLE.”