La Belle Province not so “Belle” for Black people



In this writer’s student days in Ottawa, my dear friend, tall and Black, would return from his regular visits to Montreal with the same story – stopped and questioned by police every time.

That was in the early 1970s when Quebec was respected for being politically and socially progressive, when Pierre Vallières of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a separatist and paramilitary group in Quebec, penned the infamously-named book “Nègres blancs d’Amérique”, translated into English as “White Niggers of America.”

The book described the struggles of French-Canadians in much the same way as African-Americans’ civil rights struggles of the same period.  Vallières spoke of both groups as being the exploited lower class, and called for armed struggle against their common oppressors.

But circulating beneath all what Vallières spoke of were ripples of racist nationalism that kept rising to the surface with every iteration of separatists/French nationalist parties that followed the Parti Quebecois (PQ).

Clearly there is an appetite for this kind of politics in Quebec. In 1995, Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau blamed money and ethnic votes when the PQ lost a referendum that would have created an independent Quebec. Last Monday, 27 years later, nationalist François Legault and his “Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) were handed a second majority mandate to govern the province for the next four years.

The large majority win came just days after a most unpleasant campaign during which Jean Boulet, Quebec Minister of Labour and Immigration, said “80 per cent of immigrants go to Montreal, don’t work, don’t speak French or don’t adhere to the values of Quebec society.” This, when Legault is on record saying that allowing more than 50,000 immigrants in Quebec is a bit suicidal. This followed an earlier statement that linked the extremism and violence to immigrants. According to one Black Montrealer, who experienced the 1995 referendum: “we’re not talking about all immigrants. We’re talking about immigrants who are clearly identifiable, i.e. non-white immigrants.”

During his first term as premier, Legault’s utterings and actions have without fail showed that those who do not fit the profile of the “real Quebecer” (Read: non-white Quebecers), and vulnerable communities are not welcome in his province.  

In 2019 he signed Bill 21 into law, an act which barred public servants from wearing religious symbols. The Bill was designed with the Muslim community in mind. This was followed by the introduction of a “Quebec values” test for all new immigrants.

Legault’s malevolence towards non-white immigrants has been consistent throughout his first term and he has signaled by his words that his second term will stay the racist course. Clearly the Quebec electorate has a no problem with that,  handing him a whopping 93 seats of a 125-seat legislature.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Trudeau, ala Sergeant Schultz, hears or sees nothing in issuing the following congratulatory statement: “I look forward to continuing to work with Premier Legault and the Government of Quebec to address issues of importance to Quebecers and all Canadians. This includes fostering the growth of the green economy, fighting climate change, finding solutions to labour shortages, making life more affordable, helping create new affordable housing, investing in infrastructure, and building a clean and prosperous future.”

The Federal party leaders, like Trudeau, are also going to do their Sergeant Schultz impression as they have all done when racism rears its ugly head in Quebec; which is as often as when a cranky nationalist gets the urge. And every time our federal party leaders, shamelessly chasing after votes, get into their Sergeant Schultz act or at best provide some mealy-mouthed soundbite about minority rights or some such.

It’s plain we cannot depend on those we elect to challenge Quebec as it goes along its current path of intolerance. We will have to mount that challenge ourselves, beginning with extending noisy support to our brothers and sisters in a province that is not as “Belle” as it claims to be.