Back in the early 1990s, as the debate over Quebec sovereignty hurtled toward its traumatic climax, Mordecai Richler earned a reputation as the bête noire of separatist politicians, whom he relentlessly baited with his provocative critiques of their (and his) province.
In 1994, the year before a majority of francophone Quebeckers would vote to leave Canada, the curmudgeonly novelist who put Montreal’s Saint-Urbain neighbourhood on the map with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz bemoaned in the New Yorker the “climate of subtle, non-violent ethnic cleansing” that had led thousands of anglophones to flee the province since the Parti Québécois government adopted the Charter of the French Language in 1977.
If anything, Mr. Richler only helped the sovereigntist cause by invoking a horrific term associated with the 1992-95 Bosnian War to describe the treatment of Quebec anglophones. Qualifiers notwithstanding, he managed to mobilize all of francophone Quebec to get behind their leaders in rejecting what they maintained amounted to a slur against their province.
In his defence, Mr. Richler loved Quebec. He worried its language laws would erode the rich cultural fabric so gloriously depicted in his novels. And he was determined to stay. “There is nowhere else in the country as interesting, or alive,” he told Maclean’s magazine in 1992.
Flash forward almost three decades and it seems little has changed. French-speaking Québécois still unite to defend their province’s honour in the face of criticisms levelled against it by non-francophones. Only, now, it all happens on Twitter, and at a pace unfathomable during Mr. Richler’s era, when the long gaps between articles allowed for some cooling-off time. Nowadays, you practically need to quit your job just to keep up with the muck.
This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called time-out on “Quebec-bashing” after a series of tweets by University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran describing the province as, among other things, the “Alabama of the North,” set off a wave of recrimination and led to the adoption of a National Assembly motion denouncing “the frequent, hateful, discriminatory and francophobic attacks of which the Quebec nation is regularly the object within Canada.”
Prof. Attaran is not known for his nuanced opinions and his prodigious tweets on a multitude of topics are so obviously over the top that any reasonable person would ignore them. Comparing Quebec to a southern state that long resisted desegregation is too ridiculous to warrant an even casual glance at the reasoning behind it. Accusing health care workers of “medical lynching” against racialized patients and the Coalition Avenir Québec government of “white supremacy” are such grotesque caricatures that they are not worth rebutting.
Unfortunately, newly elected Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, desperate for some attention of his own, seized on Prof. Attaran’s recent tweets to demand his employer take disciplinary action against him for propagating “defamatory, contemptuous and denigrating comments toward Quebec and Quebeckers.”
Not only was this never going to happen, but all Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon’s letter to University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont accomplished was to highlight the apparent hypocrisy of Quebec politicians who accused the university of suppressing freedom of expression when it last fall suspended a professor for saying the N-word in an academic setting.
“Like clockwork the culture of white supremacy demands ‘freedom of speech’ for white folks to spew racist rhetoric than (sic) demands censorship from anyone who calls them out on it,” Ontario New Democratic MP Matthew Green tweeted in response to the PQ leader. “Kudos to [Prof. Attaran] for standing his ground against the racism he sees perpetuated in Quebec.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh refused to ask Mr. Green, who is Black, to apologize, saying: “A racialized MP who has had experiences in his life and who fights against systemic racism has the right to speak.” Still, accusing Quebeckers who criticized the suspension of professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval for using the N-word (to illustrate the concept of subversive resignification) of espousing a “culture of white supremacy” is pretty offensive stuff. Mr. Green seriously set back Mr. Singh’s efforts to rebuild his party in Quebec, where it retains just one seat. And for what? The instantaneous gratification of a tweet?
As for Quebeckers, they cannot claim their province is being unfairly singled out on Twitter when their government remains a rare holdout in North America in denying the existence of systemic racism. Recognizing that institutions created by and for francophone Quebeckers might not be very well-equipped to ensure equitable treatment for racialized and Indigenous Quebeckers should not be that hard. It would be a first step to righting what is an obvious injustice, and, maybe, silencing attention-seekers on Twitter.
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