I covered a “cultural diversity festival” this week in downtown Quebec City, which means now is as good a time as ever to write a post about diversity in this city…or the lack thereof. The festival had plenty of high points– wonderful Haitian music, Moroccan sweets, multicultural non-age-discriminating street soccer in the shadow of the Porte St-Jean. But it also highlighted the city’s lack of real mutliculturalism. I am only just now noticing the point to which the city I’m living in is monochromatic, and so are the mentalities of a lot of its people.
You have to be living under a rock now in Quebec not to hear about the “charter of values” which is a proposed law to assure the religious neutrality of the state. Nothing wrong with that as a goal, if you ask me. But the proposal involved forbidding public employees –including teachers, doctors and all manner of bureaucrats– from wearing any religious symbols, including the Muslim woman’s hijab, the Jewish man’s kippa, the Sikh man’s turban, presumably the Hindu bindi and the Rastafarian bonnet as well, and any “ostentatiously large” cross, star of David, pentacle, et cetera. How are they going to decide what is ostentatious; will they use tape measures?
I’ll go into that more in a (near) future post. But the Charter has exacerbated tensions between immigrants and native-born Quebecers, and between Muslim and other religious groups and the secular, more or less atheist majority. It also brought my attention to some things I hadn’t noticed before about Quebec:
* My university is just not that diverse, especially compared to Carleton. There are pictures of each graduating class of undergrads on the wall in the communications building. In the last two graduating classes, I noticed six non-white faces, of which two, perhaps three, were Chinese girls adopted and raised by Quebec families; there was one guy with a Haitian name and two West Africans. (Granted, I did not count Native people because they are not always easy to distinguish from white French Quebecers)
* French Quebecers have a tendency to use the words “Québécois” and “white” interchangeably. For some reason, this really gets on my nerves. I was doing a photo shoot a few weeks ago and we were looking around for people of different ethnicities. One colleague, midway through the shoot, says “We need a black man, an Asian woman and a Québécois.” As if the black man and the Asian woman were not Québécois or something? I know the person who made the comment and I know she is the furthest thing from a racist, but the fact that the comment was made *unconsciously* says a lot. So I, as a white French-speaking person, could pass for Québécoise, but someone who’s born in Quebec of Haitian or Congolese or Asian parents– one of my colleagues, for example, or Diomède’s kids– will always be “noir” or “asiatique” and never “québécois”, no matter how many times they watch hockey, or sign their kids up for hockey, or end a sentence with “là là” or eat fromage en grains out of the bag? Something is really strange here. I think the only reason I’m weirded out by it is because the words “Canadian” (as used in the English provinces) and “American” are purely citizenship terms. Unless your head was stuck in the mid-20th century, you wouldn’t say in English, “We need one Asian guy, one black woman and one Canadian” or “We need one American, one Latino and one black girl.” So when my Anglo brain literally translates those Anglo terms with their Anglo significance into French, it finds them hurtful. Although when you think about what the very narrow use of the word “Québécois” might mean for Quebec-born black or Hispanic or Asian people, it doesn’t exactly *contribute* to a sense of belonging now does it?
*There is a painting in Petit-Champlain near the river called the Fresque des Québécois (above). It was painted in 1999 and is supposed to represent all Quebecers, ancient and modern, but there are no racial minorities there.
*Any city which holds a multicultural street festival and calls Zumba and Nacho Cheese Doritos “Mexican” needs to seriously, SERIOUSLY improve on its multicultural street cred, and its research skills. It just does.
*A Russian friend of mine dreamed of moving to Quebec, filled out a lot of paperwork to do so…and moved to Toronto a few years later. She says, “In Quebec I was like an extraterrestrial among the locals. The society is very closed and they seem to have something against everyone who is not like them. In Toronto I’m still an extraterrestrial, but there are a lot of extraterrestrials there.”
*A Burundian friend, an articulate, kind and gentle guy who speaks perfect French and is working on his masters, says (and he’s not one to lie or overexaggerate) that he sent out 100 service-industry CVs before finally getting a callback…from a McDonalds. My flatmate, a white Québécoise, got a job in a much nicer restaurant on her second or third try. “What can I say,” said my Burundian friend, his tone more resigned than bitter. “If your name is Niyonkuru or Ngendakumana, not Tremblay or Laroche, it’s not easy.” A highly educated Bosnian woman adds, “If your name is not francophone, it may be eliminated from serious consideration.”
*In Ontario, with ads featuring a lot of people, advertisers usually take pains to have people of various races. Not here (except in government recruitment).
*A month ago, during Quebec Pride, an atheist drag queen and her sidekick, a guy who ran across the stage in a red niqab, started their act expressing their support for the Charter and, as their segment went on, stirred the crowd up into a cheering Islamophobic frenzy that I can only describe as creepy. I was scared of what might happen if a veiled woman suddenly walked past. I am well aware that state-sponsored homophobia in Muslim and Christian theocracies has ruined thousands of lives. I’ve met some of those people. But as a California congresswoman said while voting against the US invasion of Afghanistan three days after 9-11, “let us not become the evil we deplore.”