MONTREAL — Quebec is being widely criticized for its plan to launch public consultations on systemic racism, even by those who agree visible minorities face many structural barriers in the province.
The debate has highlighted a deep divide among Quebec’s political left, with some people saying the consultations encourage an ideology of victimhood and demonize the province as inherently racist.
Some civil rights activists argue the consultations are meaningless unless the government is finally prepared to hold its institutions accountable for failing to uphold racial diversity.
Moreover, activists say they will increasingly use the court system to push through changes in society regardless of what comes out of the government’s consultations.
Michele Sirois, a political scientist and president of a women’s rights organization, believes there is no systemic racism in Quebec.
That concept, she explained in an interview, is imported from the United States, which has a history of structural racism against people of colour.
“The Americans had a slave trade,” she said. “We didn’t. Our problem is about the full integration of immigrants.”
Sirois recently penned an opinion piece in Le Devoir, a left-of-centre newspaper, and wrote that the term “systemic racism” reflects ”an ideology of victimhood” and promotes the idea that only white people can be racist.
“The left is divided in Quebec,” Sirois said in the interview. “And there is an increase of people on the left who are saying, ‘stop these consultations, which will only increase racial tension in society.’”
Quebec has asked its human rights commission to launch public consultations on systemic discrimination and racism.
Only discussion on discrimination involving race, colour or ethnic and national origin will be allowed when the hearings begin in September.
The goal, the government said, is to forge ”concrete and durable” solutions in order to “fight these problems.”
The Canadian Press attempted to contact Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil, whose office is leading the consultations, but was told she would not be available to comment.
Weil said in July, when she first made the announcement, the consultations “are an occasion to mobilize all of civil society … to propose actions to eliminate the obstacles towards full participation of all Quebecers.”
Fo Niemi, executive director for the Montreal-based Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, said those on the right and the left who deny the existence of systemic racism aren’t looking hard enough.
One clear example, he said, is that Quebec’s human rights commission is so understaffed it can only render decisions many years after a complaint is lodged.
Niemi cited the case of a young man who waited seven years to be awarded $33,000 by the commission after he was racially profiled by Montreal police in 2010.
That case also highlighted the fact police are still not tracking data on racial profiling, five year after the force said it would start taking profiling complaints against its officers seriously.
“The system knows that going to the human rights commission is like going to a nameless graveyard,” Niemi said. “This is a systemic problem.”
Another example of systemic racism in Quebec society is reflected in the lack of diversity in the judiciary, he said.
Niemi pointed to a 2016 study published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy indicating that out of 500 judges in Quebec, three were visible minorities.
He said if the percentages of visible minorities within institutions such as the public service, corporate boards of directors and the judiciary are lower than in regular society, that is a sign of systemic racism.
“It’s an indication,” Niemi said. “It’s a very important evidential element.”
Niemi said activists are increasingly going to the courts to force society to become more diverse, because nothing else seems to be working.
“It’s inevitable,” he said.
“It’s only a matter of time before some of these legal actions start to take place. Quebec is a bit slower in terms of this kind of litigation, but it’s coming and we are leading that movement for change.”
Forgotten in the upcoming discussion is Quebec’s anglophone population, said Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director of the Quebec Community Groups Network.
She notes how the consultations specifically do not touch on discrimination based on language.
Laforge said many people in Quebec’s English-speaking community are people of colour from the Caribbean islands, adding that the province’s civil service is comprised of a fraction of anglophones compared to their numbers in the general population.
Moreover, she deplored how the government’s documents outlining the consultations have so far been released in French only.
“It’s not serious,” Laforge said. “If you don’t release your documents in English or make accommodations for people who don’t speak French fluently, you just aren’t being serious.”