MONTREAL — It was a former CFL player and community activist who helped push the concept of systemic racism to the forefront in Quebec politics this year, after forcing the city of Montreal to confront the issue.
Balarama Holness used a provision in the city's charter to trigger a public consultation that would include 7,000 participants and produce 38 recommendations, including that Montreal recognize the systemic nature of racism and discrimination against racialized groups.
Holness's petition — signed by more than 22,000 people — was launched in 2018, but the results were released last June, shortly after the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, which sparked anti-racism protests in the United States, Canada and around the world.
“The actions taken in Quebec and Montreal right now on issues of racism are directly derived from the public consultation that was forced on the city,” Holness said during a recent interview.
And while Montreal's mayor has said she recognized systemic racism existed and has vowed changes, the Quebec government has refused to accept the term. Instead, Premier Francois Legault created an anti-racism task force the same day in June the report in Montreal came out.
Holness said he believes the reticence toward using the term "systemic racism" comes from a fear among the majority of white Quebecers of seeing an erosion of their rights. “Their miscomprehension of the term also fuels this level of ignorance whereby systemic racism means all Quebecers are racist, which is simply not the case," Holness said.
The current debate over the term in Quebec is years in the making. Three years ago, the Liberals tried to hold a public consultation on systemic racism but cancelled the event after outcry from the public and the opposition. The government at the time said the consultation would amount to putting Quebecers on trial — an argument Legault has often repeated.
Quebec's unwillingness to address the systemic nature of racism — those biases, policies and practices entrenched in institutions — makes it difficult to address the issues, according to Dr. Myrna Lashley, assistant professor in McGill's psychiatry department.
"How do you fix the hole in your roof if you don't acknowledge there's a hole in your roof?" she said in a recent interview. "How do you think you're fixing something that doesn't exist?"
Part of the problem, Lashley said, is that people don't realize the oppressions racialized people are denouncing are rooted in 17th century colonialism. "It has become so inherited that people subconsciously just buy into it because it's all they've seen," Lashley said. "And those below the line, they've incorporated they are below the line."
She dismissed the idea that white Quebecers would be put on trial if the government aknowledged the systemic nature of racism. "I don't think they've looked at it from that perspective," she said of white Quebecers. "I don't think these are bad people, they've never lived it, they don't understand it.
"It's quite annoying when someone who hasn't lived the reality tells you it doesn't exist."
And despite the government's attempts to move on from aknowledging the term, Legault and his cabinet have been confronted with a number of cases this year from groups urging they recognize systemic racism in Quebec.
One of those cases involved the death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven who died in hospital in Joliette, Que., in September, after filming staff using derogatory slurs against her.
In the wake of her death, her family and her community produced a document called "Joyce's Principle," which called for a series of measures to assure that Indigenous people have equitable access to health services without discrimination.
The Legault government said it agreed with most aspects of the document, except the reference to systemic racism — about which it said it agreed to disagree.
Unlike other anti-racism activists, Holness, who played four years in the CFL and won a Grey Cup with Montreal in 2010, said he believes Quebec doesn't need to recognize systemic racism to address the problem. He said the Legault government recognizes many underlying issues in society such as racial profiling, under-representation of racialized people in the civil service and high unemployment among some immigrant communities.
“What they deem to be racism is what we call systemic racism — they’re still dealing with the issue, they’re just not saying the word," Holness said. “We can still advance these issues and move beyond the debate of the term.”
The anti-racism task force that Legault created in June produced a report at the end of 2020 with 25 recommendations, including that the province create a cabinet position to address racism and discrimination.
Whether or not there's consensus on the term, one civil rights advocate said that sooner or later, it will be the courts that will set the record straight.
Fo Niemi, co-founder of a Montreal non-profit that helps victims of discrimination and profiling navigate the legal system, said the courts have already issued rulings on systemic discrimination based on disability, gender and employment.
"At the political level, politicians and legislators can continue to deny systemic racism," Niemi said. "But we believe that eventually, it'll be through the courts that it will be more recognized in Quebec."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2020.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press