Premier François Legault has kept firm in his denial of systemic racism in Quebec. However, in the current atmosphere created after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, leading to denouncing racism, many political leaders around the world are forced to take a defensive position. Legault is not an exception. “I’m not going to put Quebecers on trial,” he said in an attempt to rally his mostly francophone constituents behind him. Legault is certainly in a difficult situation, his denial of systemic racism seems at odds with what other leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have admitted. Besides, in the end, he also conceded that occurrences of racism actually exist in our province. Still, his strategy is to characterize those as exceptional, not something that could be described as systemic.
Then, what is systemic? Some people have problems with the concept, others mix it up with “systematic” which is something different. Basically “systemic” affects the entirety of something, in this case, a society. The term “systemic racism” implies elements or practices embedded in the functioning of society, so much that sometimes they are seen as “natural.” It is also a vast concept that includes from the most evident manifestations, e.g. police violence against blacks, indigenous people or other minorities; to more subtle and therefore less noticeable forms: minorities being underrepresented in some professions or in the public service, for instance.
Racism in its most brutal manifestation as we saw it in Minneapolis, could easily be regarded as the inhuman action it is, more subtle ways of discrimination based on the social perception of certain groups, however, are harder to pinpoint. In Quebec, and elsewhere in Canada, many people from ethnic communities, especially those termed “visible minorities” find it difficult to get jobs, despite their qualifications. In some professions like medicine, the host society might be right in taking precautions when there are important differences in training with the cultures where the immigrants originate. However, that shouldn’t result in foreign-trained doctors and other professionals having to confront insurmountable obstacles that make it almost impossible for them to practice their profession. The case of medical doctors is very significant since, in the case of Quebec, everybody knows that there is a pressing need for general practitioners, especially in regions. In the meantime, I know of at least one foreign-trained doctor working as a salesperson in a downtown store.
And then there is another sensitive issue to touch: does Quebec nationalism foster racism and discrimination? For those who are not part of the francophone majority, the suspicion and the temptation to make that connection is often present. Actions that have been taken by the current Quebec government which is labelled as “soft-nationalist” (i.e. non-separatist), especially the controversial Bill 21 help feed that assumption. The separatist PQ went even further when it tried to pass its Charter of Quebec Values. While labelling all Quebec nationalists as racist would be unfair—some of them believe in a sort of territorial nationalism, despite the inconsistencies of the notion—there is no question that any nationalism could lead to racist expressions. After all, once the gentler expressions of nationalism are removed—folklore, pop culture, epic literature—what is left is a plain and basic premise: “my nation (people, tribe, ethnic group) is better than yours.” Not precisely an invitation to tolerance and understanding.
Certainly, not all who support nationalism will embrace racist ideas or policies. Besides, other factors feed racist attitudes as well. However, the nationalist message may contribute to the ideological construct of racism. A construct that in its less visible manner may prevent some immigrants from working in their field of expertise, and in the most obvious and outrageous way, may result in white cops beating up or killing members of visible minorities.
Feature image: Thousands gathered to protest racism in Montreal last Sunday: systemic racism was denounced