Montreal·Opinion

When it comes to systemic racism, history belies your words, Mr. Legault

We too, in Quebec, have created our own bubble of denial and erasure resulting in persistent marginalization, chronic underemployment, doubled rates of unemployment and other hallmarks of systemic racism, writes historian Dorothy Williams.

We too, in Quebec, have created our own bubble of denial and erasure, writes historian Dorothy Williams

A protester comes face-to-face with Montreal police at an anti-racism demonstration downtown last week. At a rally before the march, several speakers criticized Premier François Legault for attempting to downplay Quebec's problems with racism. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

WARNING: This article contains explicit language, which is written out in full to convey the magnitude of a historical event.

As my eyes gazed southward, I heard a whisper that grew louder until it broke into a scream as Quebec's premier, François Legault, declared "there's no systemic discrimination, no system in Quebec of discrimination."

This denial made me gasp. The folly of ignorance and denial is not just a feature of America's history.

We too, in Quebec, have created our own bubble of denial and erasure resulting in persistent marginalization, chronic underemployment, doubled rates of unemployment, racial profiling, over-incarceration in prisons and Black youth in care, reduced access to health services, housing barriers and more.

And the existence of systemic racism within Quebec has been acknowledged. For over 40 years, various Quebec governments studied systemic racial barriers. A 2019 report exposed systemic racial bias within the Montreal police service.

Mr. Legault, the Quebec Human Rights Commission will surely have a comprehensive list of studies spanning the decades. You will notice that they often came to similar conclusions and recommendations.

Systemic or structural racism is deeply embedded in the apparatus and levers of the state. In Quebec, laws and social practices to control Blacks began with 17th century enslavement, and were rooted in the prevailing beliefs and teachings of white superiority during the Enlightenment era.

Indeed, many colonizers had the title "martyr" bestowed upon them posthumously for going to the New World and trying to save the inferior souls of Indigenous and Black people, whom they saw as heathens and referred to as "le sauvage" and "le nègre."

Non-whites occupied the lower strata of the hierarchy of races, a central tenet of New France.

An ad seeking the return of an escaped slave, published in the Quebec Gazette, Aug .4, 1791. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

The anti-Black codes, (i.e. le Code Noir) rules and practices eventually morphed into accepted policies of the state, where Blacks were assumed to be intellectually deficient and treated as social inferiors.

This affected Black learners, resulting in the wholesale streaming of Black learners into vocational training. Even today, this is a hallmark of Black education in Quebec.

Post-slavery, the devaluation of Black labour continued in the segregationist labour practices where even Black doctors and lawyers found themselves exiled into a self-proclaimed porter aristocracy.

They toiled on Canada's railways while supporting the wealthy in the Montreal's Golden Square Mile. They struggled for decent working conditions and it took decades before integration was achieved.

The most egregious example of systemic racism was the 1950s West Indian domestic scheme. Black women could settle here only if they worked as domestics, making the link between Black domestic labour and Quebec residency.

Mr. Legault, because of that system, thousands of women took up low-wage domestic work in order to gain immigration status. We grapple with this legacy today.

In the 1980s, the taxi industry was shaken by systemically racist practices. Quebec's Human Rights Commission laid bare the anti-Black business and administrative practices and the public's demand to racially discriminate against Black taxi drivers.

A Black taxi driver at work in Montreal in 1981. Two years later, taxi drivers, many of them Haitian, protested against racism and discrimination in the industry. (Radio-Canada archives)

We also had to fight against anti-Black community intrusions in Little Burgundy and against repeated police shootings, culminating in the convulsive response with the police killings of Anthony Griffin and Marcellus François.

The history of anti-Black injustice demonstrates that until recently, Quebec businesses successfully litigated for the right to racially discriminate.

Take note of the unsuccessful outcomes of just two Quebec court cases: Loews Montreal Theatres Ltd. v. Reynold in 1899 (a Black man went to a show and was ejected for sitting in the "wrong" place) and Christie v. The York Corporation of 1936, when a Black man was refused service at a local bar.

Neither man could rely on the courts for racial justice and fairness against accepted entrenched Jim Crow-like practices in Quebec. Why? Any business could say, "we don't serve Negroes," and the courts affirmed that discrimination based on race could flourish in Quebec.

There are too many other cases to mention, but perhaps the multitude of cases that roiled Montreal in 1969 will bring home this point. During the Sir George Williams University affair, Blacks were arrested as the chants of "Let the niggers burn" resonated in Montreal's downtown.

They lost rights afforded to other non-Black participants. The full weight of the court hammered home the lesson that Black dissent and protest was not tolerated. Basic liberties were revoked, including passport seizures, deportations and excessive bail.

The Sir George Williams University affair began over allegations of racism levied by a group of six West Indian students against their biology lecturer. (Radio-Canada Archives)

In 2020, Quebec cannot be complacent. Multiple cases are pending in tribunals and courts, challenging racial barriers to services and opportunities that others easily attain. The barriers are not always visible nor tangible, and are often buried so deep, they are difficult to recognize and root out.

Systemic racism is sometimes about dampening expectations. Sometimes, it's about quashing opportunity and ensuring that only some folks can play in the yard. Systemic racism, and its practices, are not just about repealing laws.

An everyday practice at work, in school, or a boardroom can perpetuate difference and privilege. It is the politics of exclusion, the questioning of the right of other cultures to be present or the belief that they're unqualified to be here.

Sadly, many government policies continue to be predicated on such premises.


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Dorothy Williams, PhD, is a historian who specializes in Black Canadian history. She has authored three books and contributed to other scholarly and academic publications: in 1989, Blacks in Montreal, 1638-1986: An Urban Demography, its translation, in 1998, Les Noirs à Montréal, Essai de demographic urbain, and finally, in 1997, The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal, the only chronological study of Blacks on the island of Montreal.

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