Idil Issa is a writer, speaker, and advocate based in Montreal and a member of the Intercultural Council of Montreal.
For centuries, names have had deep meaning in human society. Through my religious upbringing, I learned that God taught Adam the names of all things, effectively imbuing them with life. Taxonomists devise new names to signify human awareness of the existence of different species. In the 1600s, Europeans used names to claim territory, framing as terra nullius what was, in actuality, well-established lands and societies belonging to the Indigenous peoples already living there. Names frame, shape and sometimes warp our reality.
Recently, Quebec Premier François Legault has been showing in political terms how important a name can be. Mr. Legault has rejected opportunities to call out systemic racism in his province, refusing to do so even despite the September passing of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman whose final act was to bravely document, disseminate and protest the abuse she experienced in a hospital in Joliette, Que. Mr. Legault roundly condemned the incident as racist, but stopped short of naming it what it really was: the latest example of institutional and systemic discrimination.
He has even turned this refusal to name systemic racism into a wedge issue, melding it into a broader attitude in the province – that the rest of Canada is unfairly criticizing Quebec over a one-off racist moment committed by a few bad apples. “I don’t understand why people are trying to stick on one word,” Mr. Legault said in June. "I think what is important is to say and all agree that there is some racism in Quebec, and we don’t want that anymore.”
But by extracting racist acts from their real contexts, Mr. Legault is choosing to pull government out of the complicated work of being part of the solution – which is crucial, because it is part of the problem. In doing so, he reveals a lack of vision for how the power of politicians can and should be used, sapping the belief that institutions are where people should look for far-reaching change.
It is necessary to understand and name systemic racism in order for it to be effectively addressed; you cannot begin to act on a solution if you cannot even finish saying the problem’s name. The finer sociological points of how racism is perpetuated by individuals are less important than the realization that it is institutionally generated and, in some cases, sponsored – and as such, there is a level of accountability on the part of those leading institutions to effectively address the problem.
Society is, at its core, a collection of human beings – of their goods, interests and problems. Governing this loose admixture is power, which flares openly from time to time. One can sense where that power is located in a society when one looks at which problems are being addressed and how swiftly; one can see it when you look at where the goods are being funneled to and protected. The power imbalances are exposed when Black Canadians are denied mortgages and business loans, or when mental-health interventions by police in white neighborhoods are conducted peaceably, or when white Canadians receive quicker medical attention at hospitals. Whatever the intellectual overlay we use to understand racism, the real victories will occur when this power dynamic is identified and extirpated.
Others within Mr. Legault’s province have already tried to do so. Last year, retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens released a comprehensive report on the systemically racist treatment of Indigenous people by Quebec’s public services. So far, the provincial government has done little to address his 142 calls to action. Then, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minn., this May, a partisan provincial task force on racism was assembled. There haven’t been many updates on that body since. And in Quebec’s most populous city, the Office of Public Consultation and the Intercultural Council of Montreal released a number of recommendations to address systemic racism. Many are difficult to advance at a municipal level, however, and will require provincial intervention.
So Mr. Legault’s refusal to name systemic racism isn’t just a matter of symbolic semantics; it’s a matter of acknowledging that a complex problem, buttressed by expert testimony to its effects, is even worth addressing. Three years after a tragic 2017 shooting targeting Muslims praying in a Quebec City mosque, and amid efforts to curtail the Charter rights of Muslim women, Ms. Echaquan’s death was just another painful reminder that racism is alive and well in La Belle Province.
Ms. Echaquan’s last act of bravery must serve as a rallying cry for those tired of the provincial government’s deflections and digressions. Her act must become a name that Quebeckers can use to reflect a deep problem, even if our Premier, hindered by his own lack of vision, does not. The fates of Quebec’s marginalized communities cannot be mortgaged indefinitely. At this point, Mr. Legault doesn’t need to name systemic racism – any concession would just feel nominal. Instead, his government must present a clear plan for serious action to tackle systemic racism. The fact that the government isn’t even providing a name for our foe shows how far Quebec has to go – and how much of a disservice Mr. Legault is doing to his people.
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