Don't faint, but i'm siding with a separatist

Québec 2007 - démagogie et populisme

It will probably never happen again. But I am compelled to rise in defence of Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair, much maligned in the English-speaking press for calling Asians "slanty eyed" in a speech last week to students in Trois-Rivieres. Please, people, calm down. For once, your outrage is entirely misplaced.

For one thing, Mr. Boisclair did not call Asians "slanty eyed." Yes, he used the expression "yeux brides," but it does not mean the same thing at all in French. I know it sounds like a lame excuse. But this is one case in which a literal translation is quite mistaken; the French carries no insulting connotations. And I trust I have a strong enough reputation as a skewerer of Quebec separatism (and often, separatists) not to be mistaken for a PQ apologist when I say so.

I realize I'm asking a lot. My own Toronto-born husband has trouble believing me that it's not an insult to describe Asian eyes as "brides." I'm not entirely sure he does believe me. Certainly, most Anglo commentators bluntly refuse to entertain the possibility that there might be a difference between Mr. Boisclair's "yeux brides" and, say, former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau's "money and ethnic votes." Even after it has been explained to them. It's infuriating. And I, along with countless Quebecers, am infuriated.

Mr. Boisclair was slammed mercilessly in English editorials from coast to coast, including in this newspaper on Saturday. He's also in trouble with a few Asian interest groups -- though not from the two Asian women running for his party in the Montreal area. The Vancouver Province talked about "grave damage" to "Quebec's image" while the Calgary Herald displayed remarkable cluelessness by writing, "The rest of Canada should be ecstatic that Boisclair is unrepentant -- the sillier and more crass he appears to be, the more likely Quebec voters will turn against his separatist party." To Quebec francophones his remarks seem neither crass nor silly. Instead, the Montreal Gazette's Don MacPherson (the only Anglo I saw defending Mr. Boisclair) rightly pointed out, "The incident might generate some sympathy for Boisclair among francophones who don't understand why he has been criticized."
You betcha. For the simple truth is that "yeux brides" does not -- repeat, not -- mean the same thing as "slanted eyes." The latter is an insult whereas the former isn't. It's a simple descriptive term. And Mr. Boisclair was, in fact, praising Asian students' work ethic and telling pure-laine Quebec students they'd have to work extra hard to be able to keep up in the global marketplace.

As far as I know, there is only one way to use "yeux brides" pejoratively: in "la menace aux yeux brides," the French equivalent of "yellow peril." I'm not saying there aren't Quebecers (in the PQ and elsewhere) who are intolerant, ethnocentrist or even racist. But nothing in Mr. Boisclair's history gives me, notorious anti-pequiste that I am, any reason to suspect that he is one of them. Including his use of this phrase. Au contraire. Accusing him of being a racist is dangerously close to slander.

Even Mr. Boisclair's opponents, who usually don't miss a chance to vilify him in this tough campaign, came to his defence. Liberal Premier Jean Charest said, "Believe me, I find plenty of fault politically with Mr. Boisclair and I'm not shy about saying that. But I wouldn't fault him for using that expression." Action democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont added "From knowing Mr. Boisclair, I don't think it was done in a mean way, against people."

Weird, eh? Yet it's true. As Don MacPherson also rightly pointed out, "What we have here is a cultural difference of opinion over when it is appropriate to use physical characteristics to describe members of a race." As I have learned, using physical characteristics to describe people is generally verboten in English. But in Quebec, it often depends on the context. Some expressions, like "big lips" or "hook-nosed," are always pejorative and should be avoided. But "yeux brides" isn't. At least, not necessarily.

When Mr. Parizeau lost his temper on that fateful night in October 1995, he was virulently denounced throughout Quebec. People were rightly horrified. His outburst, which you'll notice had nothing to do with a physical description, was almost universally seen as bigoted, intolerant and ethnocentrist, and it was crystal clear, as the words came out of his mouth, that he would have to step down in short order.

By contrast, Mr. Boisclair's "yeux brides" was entirely innocent. I may never do so again, but for once I ask folks to give Andre Boisclair a break. On this one, he is not guilty of anything.
Brigitte Pellerin's column appears Tuesday and Thursday.

Laissez un commentaire

Aucun commentaire trouvé