Thursday, June 20, 2013

Quebec Bashing 101

Quebec bashing, otherwise known as the anti-Quebec sentiment which is a rather nice term for something so ugly, is basically a manifestation of racism. I know, I know, You’re going to say “I’m not racist, I just hate Quebecers” or “I can’t be racist since I routinely accuse Quebecers of being horrible racists… and I mean that as a bad thing” or even this gem that was once offered up to me as a justification “It’s not racism because Quebecers aren't a race”.  Nonetheless, Quebec bashing is, without a doubt, an acceptable form of racism in Canada.

The Quebec basher will often pose as a social commentator who is simply casting a critical eye on Quebecois society but what he finds is invariably sinister. Hey, it’s not his fault. That’s just the way things are in Quebec, right? Wrong! Why? Because when there is a consistent habit of always applying double standards, of ignoring context or anything positive, of distorting and exaggerating anything negative, making these negative things emblematic of an entire people and not of individuals then your social commentary is more akin to saying that Mexicans are lazy or Jews are greedy. Endlessly repeating “Quebecers are racist” is no different.

According to most studies on attitudes towards immigrants  or statistics on hate crimesQuebecers don’t seem any worse than Canadians; sometimes they do better than the Canadian average. However, the impression you get in the Canadian media is that things are far worse in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. Recently it was reported that the Quebec Soccer Federation had decided to ban the wearing of turbans on the soccer field. This got huge media coverage. It even reached IndiaThis story provoked the usual “analysis” in Canadian media about how sick and racist Quebec society has become. I don't remember having any kind of say in the QSF's decision so why am I, as a Quebecer, being dragged through the mud?

Meanwhile, Quebec signs yet another historic agreement with the James Bay Cree. It's a power sharing agreement that gives the Cree a substantial say in what goes on in almost a third of Quebec. A territory the size of Italy. This agreement is simply building on a previous historic agreement commonly called "Paix des Braves", which was signed by Bernard Landry in 2002. These agreements could be a model for Canada, giving native people a far greater say about what goes on in Canada's vast expanses. But English Canada has never agreed to cede this much power to the native people. In fact, this is what the Cree Grand Council had to say about La Paix Des Braves: 

"Most importantly, the Crees signed the "Agreement Respecting a New Relationship Between the Cree Nation and the Government of Quebec" on February 7, 2002 that implements certain obligations of Quebec to the Cree People for community and economic development under section 28 of the JBNQA. While Canada has similar and sometimes joint obligations with Quebec under the same section, Canada has yet to sign a similar agreement to implement its obligations."

Why doesn't this say anything about Quebec and Canada? Why is this story relegated to the back pages whereas the silly soccer controversy is talked about non-stop and even reaches India? Why don't we talk about the high standard of living of the Quebec Cree compared to the Cree living just across the border in Ontario? Why don't we talk about the fact that Native people are underrepresented in the prison population of Quebec whereas in Saskatchewan Native people are over-represented by a ratio of seven to one? Wouldn't this suggest that people in Saskatchewan are far more racist than Quebecers? Why does one story get so much more attention than the other? Simple: one story fits the "Quebecers are racistnarrative and the other doesn't.

Another example: In the run up to the Iraq war there were demonstrations in many cities around the world including in Montreal and Toronto. The one in Montreal attracted about 150,000 people whereas in Toronto only 15,000 showed up despite the fact that Toronto has a greater population than Montreal. I remember thinking "Well, that's interesting! I wonder how the Quebec-haters are going to spin this one".

The next day Le Devoir had an editorial cartoon about the Quebec government's plan to attract more visible minorities into the civil service. It showed Osama Bin Laden applying for a job as a civil servant in Quebec. When asked about relevant experience, he answered that he had once belonged to a sleeper cell. Get it? Civil servants... Sleeper cell... Well, the people at CBC radio didn't. To them the Osama character was a generic Arab and so this cartoon was insinuating that all Arabs are terrorists... More proof that Quebecers are racist! When I got to work, this is what my Anglo colleagues were talking about.

Arab-hating racists aren't likely to go out in the streets to protest the probable slaughter of Iraqis. The fact that ten times more people protested in Montreal than in Toronto did not even register in the Anglo mind. It didn't convey any significant information about Quebecers or Canadians. Twisting a cartoon from Quebec's only sovereignist newspaper in order to make it look racist did register. That's what grabbed their attention. An anti-Semite isn't simply someone who believes negative stereotypes about Jews, it's a person whose mind is constantly looking for confirmation of these negative stereotypes. Information that contradicts his beliefs doesn't register in his mind. It's non-information. 

Ask an anti-Semite to describe the Jews and you'll get a grotesque caricature. Ask a Klansman to draw you a black person and you'll get a hideous sub-human monster. Ask the Canadian media about Quebec and Quebecers and you'll get something pretty similar. Everything negative is exaggerated beyond reason and given far too much attention. Quebec basically has no redeeming qualities. Its language laws are the worst oppression since Nazi Germany and are that cause of every single problem from crumbling bridges to school shootings...

From inferior race to racists

In the beginning

I think it's important to take a brief look back at the history of race relations in Canada in order to put Quebec bashing in its proper context. I believe the backdrop to all this could be the old English-French rivalry going all the way back to the Hundred Years' War. Then, the English Reformation, when most of England converted to Protestantism and France remained Roman Catholic, added an even deeper division in which each side could see the other as not only as a foreign evil but also a heretical one. However, a new element was added to the mix in North America, one that never existed in Europe. This element stems from the fundamental difference between the English and French colonies in North America and their relationship with the Native population.

New England was from the outset an attempt to literally build a new England. It involved cutting down trees and eliminating the native population. Consequently, the English had no respect or kindness for the natives of the New World.  The Puritans in Massachusetts tended to see the Indians as filthy, torture loving savages and were comfortable with their elimination or migrated absence.

The objectives of the French in the New World were less ambitious. New France was basically a trade colony and existed primarily for the fur trade. Champlain, the founder of New France, was no Cortés or Pizarro. He did not come as a conqueror. He came to set up a business venture and the native people were an important part of this business. They did the actual hunting. Champlain’s mission was to make alliances with the natives and get the business up and running, it was not about conquest and subjugation. French settlements in Quebec were made following alliances with the Native people and with their consent. By all accounts, French settlers tended to coexist peacefully with the local Indians. In fact, there were many cases of intermarriage between the two groups.

Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that the French were morally superior to the English. French imperialists simply did what was in their interests as all imperialists do. A good relationship with the natives was good for business and military alliances with them was France’s strategy to level out the ten to one demographic imbalance between New England and New France. Nonetheless, this set the tone for the relationship between French and native and it also created the perception among the English that the French in North America had “gone native”. Of course, this wasn't merely a perception, particularly in western parts where the merging of French and Cree even gave rise to a new language called Michif.

Not quite white

After the Conquest,  French Canadians not only lost their commercial empire in the West but most of their access to executive positions in their society and the capacity to shape their destiny as a people. Before 1760, they had access to most important business, military, and political positions in the colony. Afterwards, not only did the population lose some of their elites, who moved on to pursue their careers elsewhere in the French Empire, but those who remained in New France lost their handle on government, administration, business, and the military. The French Canadian gentry entered into decline. Gradually, the colony’s elites were overwhelmingly composed of the Anglo minority, power residing in the hands of London and of men nominated by Britain. And thus began nearly two centuries of French Canadians mainly occupying the role of an exploited underclass. 
Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, an American philosopher and author, visited Lower-Canada (Quebec) and wrote about his travels in “A Yankee in Canada" (1853). In this book he gives us his impressions of French-Canadians:

"It has been observed by another that the French Canadians do not extend nor perpetuate their influence. The British, Irish, and other immigrants, who have settled the townships, are found to have imitated the American settlers and not the French. They reminded me in this of the Indians, whom they were slow to displace, and to whose habits of life they themselves more readily conformed than the Indians to theirs.... Thus, while the descendants of the Pilgrims are teaching the English to make pegged boots, the descendants of the French in Canada are wearing the Indian moccasin still… The impression made on me was that the French Canadians were even sharing the fate of the Indians, or at least gradually disappearing in what is called the Saxon current."

George Vattier, a French academic who taught at the Royal Military College of Canada in the early 1920s summarized the English Canadian attitude towards French Canadians in his book “Essai sur la mentalité canadienne française”:

What hurts French Canadians most is that people pretend to disregard them, and speak and act as if they were not there... when they were the ones who discovered and colonized this country, and founded Québec a century and a half before the English took it over!... They will be less inclined to forget it to the extent that English Canadians still pretend to consider them inferior and intellectually backward, often alleging that most of them are Métis, or at least are barely educated, speak a dialect that has nothing in common with French, and are opposed to progress and only suited to occupy second-rate positions. In this connection, the English have constantly repeated... that French Canadians were only fit to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.”

Even as recently as the 1960s the president of CN at the time, Donald Gordon, openly said that the reason that none of his 17 vice-presidents were French Canadians was that no French Canadian was competent enough to hold such a position. In other words, French Canadians were an inferior people not capable of big and important things. This was a commonly held view by English Canadians for most of our history together. Of course, today, talk of racial inferiority is no longer acceptable and it is quite astounding how quickly this was turned into "Quebecers are racist". We therefore went from being racially inferior to English Canadians to being morally inferior to them in about a decade. By the 1970s people like Mordecai Richler were already spreading lies about how the PQ were using a Nazi song in their political campaign.

Racism as a propaganda tool

The media image you get of Martin Luther King Jr today is the "I have a dream" MLK. It's the image of the man who said racism is bad and we should all just get along. But there was another Martin Luther King Jr, a more radical one. He is conveniently forgotten by the media of today. He was the man who said that America was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He was the man who opposed the Vietnam war and denounced the economic injustice in America. That MLK was vilified in the media at the time and would still be vilified today were he around. He was vilified because he challenged the established order in the US.

The desire among many Quebecers for independence is no more sinister, racist or xenophobic than the desire among Canadians to remain independent from the US or Britain. Quebec's independence movement is as legitimate as any other national liberation movement and is not based on any kind narrow-mindedness or bigotry. But it is a threat to Canada's established order. Therefore, it needs to be smeared and constantly associated with negative things like racism, etc. That is exactly what the Canadian media does. I'm not saying there is a big conspiracy. It's more of a big Quebec bashing bandwagon that people are encouraged to jump on. It gives you an instant, eager audience clamoring for more. Criticizing the bandwagon will get you ignored which is a bad career move for a media type.