'Some of them would like to see me dead': Activist slams reluctance to confront Islamophobia in Quebec

"They are calling for me to leave Quebec or even to be thrown out of Quebec."
Haroun Bouazzi explains why it's so hard to talk about race and racism outside the English-French divide - particularly Islamophobia - in Quebec 2:15

Haroun Bouazzi knows from personal experience how difficult it is to talk about Islamophobia in Quebec.

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As co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs For a Secular Quebec, he has often spoken publicly about Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination in the province he's called home for nearly two decades. He's suffered consequences because of it.

"Extreme right-wing groups that I've never met write on the internet telling me hateful stuff. They are calling for me to leave Quebec or even to be thrown out of Quebec. Some of them would like to see me dead," he says.

Bouazzi has filed multiple complaints to Montreal police to investigate or file criminal charges against people who have called for him to be hanged, whipped to death, set on fire or shot between the eyes. Only one of seven formal complaints he filed resulted in an arrest, he says.


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Mosque shooting anniversary

Racism, intolerance and Islamophobia are at the forefront of the minds of many like Bouazzi.

Vigils were held around the province in January to mark the one-year anniversary of the day a gunman killed six people and injured 19 others as they were praying at a Quebec City mosque.

In the shooting's immediate aftermath, political leaders denounced violent hate crimes.

But over the past year, the term "Islamophobia" appears to have become verboten.

Muslims in Quebec have grown frustrated by a seeming reluctance from the province's political leadership to talk frankly about race and racism, even as reports of hate crimes against Muslims spiked.

The number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims in Quebec nearly tripled from 2010 to 2016 (15 to 41), with a high of 57 in 2015, according to Statistics Canada. (Reported hate crimes based on all religions increased from 72 to 116.)

Quebec City police reported that the number of hate crimes against Muslims doubled in 2017 compared to 2016.

Parallels with black feminist intersectionality

To Bouazzi, French-speaking Quebecers live an "an interesting intersection." They are simultaneously a white majority in the province, but a minority compared to English-speaking Canadians.

He says French-Canadians' own history with racism and discrimination has led to a reluctance to talk about other forms of racism in their midst, out of a fear such discussions will be re-contextualized solely as anti-Francophone.

"They worry that if they acknowledge the existence of racism in Quebec, it will be instrumentalized by English Canada to reaffirm stereotypes about Quebecois: [that] they're closed minded, backward. And you know what, they're not wrong. There's such a thing as Quebec bashing," he says.

To Bouazzi, the contradictions bring to mind discussions about black feminist intersectionality, especially as they play out in the United States.

"A couple of years ago now, I read a book of Bell Hooks (Ain't I A Woman), and she was talking about how being a woman and being black puts you, obviously, in an intersection of oppression," he says.

"Let's say you (a black woman) talks about the fact that you're subject to violence in your couple" from your husband or partner, he says.

"The fact that you fight sexism will (instead) be used to show that, actually, a black man is violent, and to emphasize the stereotype of black men."

"So by fighting one inequality, one oppression, (you) find yourself actually making stronger the other one you are subject to," he says.

Abandoned pairs of shoes and winter boots on the floor at the Quebec City mosque. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

Action against Islamophobia declined

That reluctance appears to have played out as the one-year anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting approached. Premier Philippe Couillard disagreed with requests by the National Council of Canadian Muslims to mark the anniversary of the mosque shooting as a day of action against Islamophobia.

"We believe that it is better to emphasize collectively our commitment against the phenomenon of racism and discrimination, rather than singling out one of its manifestations," he said earlier in January.

The council's request was also made to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but the federal government has so far not taken a firm position on the proposal.

Systemic racism commission watered down

In the summer of 2017, Couillard's government proposed a commission on systemic racism last summer. It was intended to include several public consultations that would look into multiple issues of racism across Quebec in sectors ranging from employment, health, education and housing.

Months later it was drastically scaled down to only look at economic opportunities for immigrants and visible minorities.

In the end, the commission took the final form of a one-day forum in December where Couillard announced a handful of new initiatives to help immigrants integrate into the workforce. In his opening remarks, the premier did not use the words discrimination or racism.


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"I wouldn't say it was changed, even. I'd say it was just cancelled," says Bouazzi. "I guess it still technically exists, but it's been changed very much to an economics-slash-jobs-and-immigrant story."

In response, a citizen-led coalition is working on holding a commission of their own, largely to address elements of systemic racism that the government's version was originally planned to do.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced a number of new initiatives aimed at helping immigrants integrate into the workforce, calling the one-day diversity and anti-discrimination forum a 'productive day,' Dec. 5, 2017/ (Radio-Canada)

Civil-political 'dance'

Bouazzi says about 50 different civil groups and associations have agreed to be a part of the new commission – more than the 31 groups who previously agreed to be a part of the government's original commission before it was pared down. It's currently only in planning stages, but he hopes to have it completed by the end of October 2019.

"We agreed that we won't bind ourselves to the next provincial elections. We will take the time it takes to do things the right way," he says. "So most probably, we won't be done before October next year."

That's not to say the Quebec government won't be crucial to whatever the new commission hopes to accomplish in the future. Bouazzi continues to pay close attention to the political climate in the province. Whichever party is in power will have a critical role to play in future discussions about race, racism and diversity in Quebec.

"Changes in society are always a dance between civil society and political parties. And if there is no dance, then there is no result. You cannot dance on your own," he says.

"The civil society is the starter of this dance" in Quebec, says Bouazzi — at least at this point in history. "We are actually maybe a couple of steps ahead. And now we have to make sure to somehow bring the politicians with us so that we can continue the dance."

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