It's funny the things people react to. Suggest that enough Quebecers are racist to warrant an official government response, and nary a peep ensues. But express concern that an independent Quebec might be, ah, somewhat nonchalant about anti-Semitism and the cracking-down-on-terrorists business, and someone will try to get you arrested.
Dear me. Do I detect an uneasy conscience?
Start with race. On Aug. 16, a front-page story in the Citizen began, "Racism is becoming such a problem in some Quebec communities that a provincewide strategy is needed to fight it, the Quebec minister of immigration and cultural communities said yesterday." The minister, Lise Theriault, explained, "I think it is a myth that you are not a real Quebecer unless you are pur [sic] laine, (of original stock) but it is possible in some regions people think like that." I haven't noticed anyone objecting to her assessment in the mainstream media.
I refuse to believe that Quebecers in general are racist. But at the same time, where I grew up an unspeakably dumb idea was universally known as "un plan de negre," something only a Negro (or the even more offensive "n" word, there being no distinction between the two in French) would devise.
Never do I recall anyone objecting to the expression. In fact, I'm ashamed to admit, it wasn't until I was almost 30 that I realized how wrong it was. And I'm not from Three-Teeth Central but a quiet suburb, and a respectable one at least in the minds of its inhabitants.
Sure, there are racist individuals in Quebec. Enough to make it harder for non-white people to find jobs -- as the Aug. 16 Citizen story explained, "Quebec's unemployment rate is about eight per cent, but the jobless rate for visible minorities is 17 per cent." In fact it seems that workplace-related racism is worse in Quebec than elsewhere.
As I wrote in the Montreal Gazette in early May 2003, "a study conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies shows Quebec is one of the worst places in North America for blacks and Latinos to find employment. Out of the 56 states and provinces surveyed in 2001, Quebec came in 53rd, ahead of only West Virginia, Oregon and Wisconsin.
"The unemployment rate of Quebec black job-seekers that year was 9.3-per-cent higher than that of white job-seekers ('white' being defined as having declared no ethnic heritage)." For Latinos unemployment was seven per cent higher, putting Quebec 55th, just ahead of Rhode Island.
I don't remember any abusive mail over that particular column. Like the recent Citizen story it was shocking one day, forgotten the next. But when I or others suggest Quebecers still have a problem with anti-Semitism, watch out. Or ask Barbara Kay.
Unless you are a regular consumer of French-language media, you may not realize just how much trouble the National Post columnist got into over her Aug. 9 column about the possible rise of "Quebecistan." After prominent Quebec politicians were shown leading a "peace" protest in which Hezbollah supporters and Hezbollah flags appeared in sufficient numbers to warrant a healthy dose of criticism, Ms. Kay wrote that Quebecers' "cultural and historical sympathy for Arab countries from the francophonie," plus their "reflexive anti-Americanism and a fat streak of anti-Semitism that has marbled the intellectual discourse of Quebec throughout its history has made Quebec the most anti-Israel of the provinces, and therefore the most vulnerable to tolerance for Islamist terrorist sympathizers." If Quebec were to separate, she added, it's quite likely "that Hezbollah would be off the official terrorism list by Day Two of the Republic of Quebec's existence."
Harsh stuff, to be sure. Ms. Kay had to expect a strong reaction. But what she got was completely hysterical. Columnists accusing her of not knowing anything about Quebec (she's lived in Montreal for some 35 years), of exhibiting shameful "intellectual incontinence," of being blinded by her typically English-speaking Canadian federalist anti-Quebec ideology, and of being an enemy of Quebecers. And those were the polite comments.
It appears Ms. Kay has managed to turn virtually every last French-speaking Quebecois against her. Even Premier Jean Charest felt compelled to defend his province's reputation, calling the expression Quebecistan "une grossierete" (very crude). The separatist Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste complained to the Quebec Press Council, and last week prominent independentist Gilles Rheaume announced his intention to call the police because he says Ms. Kay's column constitutes hate speech.
Apparently most Quebecers think the lingering racism in their society is marginal and dying out, so it's safe to criticize. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, well, call me names or call the cops, but the explosive reaction suggests to me an uneasy conscience.