La Presse

Far From Alabama: Quebec Must Face Its Own Systemic Racism

Black Lives Matter protest in Montreal
Black Lives Matter protest in Montreal
Patrick Legacé

-OpEd-

Let's talk about the words that are at the center of this wake-up-call of a debate.

There's the word "racism," for starters. It's a garbage dump of a word, one that embodies a stinking reality, that brings to mind filth like Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan.

That's what comes to the mind of a 48-year-old Quebecer. To the minds of a lot of people, in other words — people I know, people I grew up with in our very white suburb, the vast majority raised in the fold of 1970s-era French-Canadian Catholicism.

Where I come from, racism is also a word of action. Almost a verb. A Siamese twin of hatred. What I mean is, it's not something soft. Hatred is not passive.

Here's another term: "systemic discrimination." It established itself sometimes in the 2010s. I can't remember exactly the first time I heard it, but I remember I was taken aback: What, the "system" is racist? It couldn't be, goddammit. This is Quebec we're talking about. Canada. It's not a racist place.

Let me remind you that my understanding of the word "racism" was Hitler and the KKK. It was something active, like a hunt — a hunt of the race that is considered inferior. Canada and Quebec, I thought, are not perfect. There is racism here just like anywhere else. But come on, there are no lynchings, no Brownshirts here....

But then you linger on it. You listen again and again. You listen to those who are not like you.

There is racism here just like anywhere else.

You listen to these stories that are widespread amongst Black people, who are regularly stopped by the police while driving or on foot — for a "routine check," and right here in Montreal… Just like everywhere else.

Is it racism?

Well, you tell yourself: This obviously isn't Alabama in the 1960s.

Except if it's you who are sitting in the car. Sure, it may not be Alabama, but it's still something that's very annoying, and infuriating, and...unfair.

You look at the statistics. You listen to testimonies, again and again. And then you ask yourself: Wait, did it ever happen to me? Was I ever stopped for a "routine check"? For speeding, yes. For a stop sign that I passed too quickly, yes. For a defective headlight.

But just to check if I was really the owner of the car I was driving?

Never.

Did a police officer ever ask me how I could afford such a car?

Never.

Again you look at the stats. Higher unemployment rates, in spite of equal qualifications, for minorities, for those who are not from the circle of people with last names like Tremblay, who weren't baptized in the Church.

You look at the public sector and see that statistically, it doesn't represent the demographic weight of Quebecer minorities. Far from it.

You learn about these tests where employers receive fake CVs: one with the name Tremblay and one with a foreign name. Guess who has less chance of getting an interview?

"I agree with the notion of systemic racism" — Photo: Erwan Krn

That's when you realize that, yeah... maybe it does make sense to talk about systemic racism.

Not racism in the sense of hunting the other, or like Alabama in the 1960s or Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. But in the sense that the system is biased and doesn't give an equal chance to everyone.

Let's call this a blind spot. Is it racism, in the same sense that I conceived racism? No. But maybe it's because I grew up with a narrow vision of what racism is. All of this to say is I agree with the notion of systemic racism.

What I don't understand is why François Legault, our current provincial prime minister, refuses to say that there is systemic racism in Quebec.

I'm happy to see that he wants to fight racism, that he finds it unacceptable and created an action committee that promises a set of rules for next autumn. We'll see how this translates into reality. Either way, we really do need to tackle racial discrimination, and for one simple reason: It's unfair.

Again, I don't know why François Legault refuses to say that there is systemic racism in Quebec. But do I have a theory: It's because he knows Quebecers well.

If you are 30 or younger, born after 1990, it may be difficult to appreciate how much Quebecers were dragged into the mud over the decades, starting, let's say, from the time Quebec began to assert itself.

Outside Quebec, the Quebec bashing was a very concrete reality. The Parti Québecois (PQ), created by René Lévesque, was associated with Nazis. The Law 101 (which defined French as the official language of the provincial government) was denounced as racist, something like a form of apartheid.

When Mohawks rebelled in 1990 — the Oka crisis, as it's known — we were labeled as fundamentally racists, as if only people in Quebec have a guilty conscience with regards to Canada's first nations groups.

At each referendum, in 1980 and 1995, Quebecers — Francophones of course — were again called racists and intolerant just because they wanted to obtain a state in a democratic way.

Over the decades, things have been written about Quebec in the Canadian-English media that we can't imagine would be said about other provinces, societies, nations.

During the 1990 Oka Crisis — Photo: Dick Loek/The Toronto Star/ZUMA

So if you are 30 today, there's a good chance that this reality doesn't exist. To understand it, you would need to have lived at that time. To feel it. I remember. The generation of my parents remember. I won't say it's a trauma. But it's a very unpleasant memory.

A committee on systemic racism? For a lot of Quebecers, this will be another opportunity to criticize us. As it was done before…

Coming back to our prime minister: My theory is that he knows that there is systemic racism here but that also, he doesn't want Quebecers to be a piñata for all those who think that "frogs' — as everyone already knows — think like Nazis...

I've only experienced one racist insult in my life. I am talking about one concrete and clear example. About 30 years ago, on a soccer field in West Island, an English-speaking person called me a "fucking frog."

I don't say that to play the victim. I'm not. I talk about his because I remember the effect it had on me, what it stirred in me. A volcano.

Last week, comedian and singer Mélissa Bédard shared on social media some of the racist insults she has received over the years. She's Black, and the things people have said to her are appalling, disgusting. I can't even imagine what these racist insults do to her every time she reads them. I imagine my experience in West Island, but a thousand times worse. Multiply this over and over, for almost all Black Quebecers.

I don't know if we will be ever able to stop the flow of racists who don't hesitate to insult someone like Mélissa Bédard. But I do know that things could be done on the state level to stop "soft" racism — the systematic discrimination that, while it may be involuntary, is no less unfair.

Should it be done by saying that yes, there is systemic racism in Quebec? If we name the source of the problem, all the better.

Things could be done on the state level to stop "soft" racism.

But along with naming it, there also needs to be action. Because otherwise, what happens? Talk to Canada's indigenous populations, who are flooded with apologies of all kinds… but who are still as marginalized and discriminated as before.

My preference is that the State vigorously fight racism with all the available tools: laws, rules and norms, but also sanctions.

Actions, in other words. And overtures.

That's what the prime minister is promising, and that, I'd argue, really is something.

*This article was translated with permission of the author.

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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