Divisive issues in La Belle Province
The 2021 English-language leaders’ debate set off a familiar news cycle about race in Quebec: Someone from another part of Canada characterizes a development in the province as racist. The francophone media responds with allegations of “Quebec bashing.” The premier issues a statement. Commentators from elsewhere shake their heads and feel morally superior, while those here close ranks in indignation.
Step away from the daily headlines, however, and any impression that Quebec’s intellectual scene is unanimous on issues like race and colonization quickly fades. While there is predictable left-right polarization, there are also subtle distinctions. Some are asking how Quebec’s particular history relates to transnational patterns of domination. And others wonder how conversations about race should be framed — in the first person or the third?
Mathieu Bock-Côté is the reigning right-wing provocateur on these issues. The journalist and sociologist has developed a large audience through his columns in Le Journal de Montréal and France’s Le Figaro, which makes him that rare Quebec intellectual who attracts sustained attention on the other side of the Atlantic. But his celebrity has not translated into respectability. Much like Jordan Peterson, he is shunned within progressive circles and viewed with suspicion by some mainstream commentators. His most recent book, La révolution racialiste et autres virus idéologiques (The racialist revolution and other ideological viruses), received widespread coverage in France, and he is now a host for that country’s CNews, known by some as the “French Fox News.” The reaction to his book in Quebec was more muted, which prompted a fellow Journal de Montréal columnist to declare ironically that “no one is a prophet in their own province.”
La révolution racialiste itself is a compendium of clickbait regarding leftist excess. The woke have become iconoclastic zealots who terrorize the rest of us, as can be seen in everything from the felling of statues to Concordia University’s land acknowledgement (which, according to Bock-Côté, calls on people of European descent “to publicly apologize for being there”). Bock-Côté dubs these leftist radicals “racialists” and attacks their “diversity regimes” for positioning racial identity as the defining feature of contemporary life. Perhaps, he concedes, their type of lens may have some use in the United States, given that country’s history of enslavement and segregation, but its application in Quebec is a travesty that reduces people to their skin colour. After all, has the province not shown “the greatest hospitality” toward immigrants since the 1970s? Given that francophone Quebecers are accustomed to seeing themselves as a colonized people, accusing them of white privilege means they are “symbolically expropriated of their history in the name of openness to diversity.”
This cry of alarm continues through paragraphs that span multiple pages. Bock-Côté provides sardonic but largely accurate summaries of writers like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo that conclude with comparisons to the Soviet Union and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (As always, such analogies beg the question of where the gulags are and when the public beatings will start.) Hyperbole aside, some of his anecdotes are legitimately cringeworthy. One concerns a New York professor who supposedly fell asleep during a Zoom meeting on anti-racism and then faced a student petition to have her fired.
But it is not clear what Bock-Côté actually wants until the book’s final pages. One would have thought the problem was racialism (or “decolonialism” or “wokism,” depending on the chapter). It turns out the real enemy is “mass immigration.” This is an existential threat, because the key to a healthy society is to maintain “a national majority sure of itself and possessing a demographic predominance such that its status will never be fundamentally called into question.” In this way, the very presence of those newcomers that he deems insufficiently assimilated becomes cause for panic — a modern-day fall of Constantinople. At the end, Bock-Côté insists on a return to Enlightenment universalism and principles of citizenship, with France serving as the ideal model. Otherwise, Quebec faces the “terrifying phantasm of race war.”
Ignoring someone like Bock-Côté would be an act of willful blindness, particularly now that his rhetoric has gained political traction. Last November, for example, François Legault controversially recommended one of Bock-Côté’s earlier books, L’empire du politiquement correct (The empire of the politically correct). And in response to recent criticisms of Bill 21 as discriminatory against religious minorities, the premier took a page from the writer’s playbook and denounced the “woke” as those who “want to make us feel guilty for defending the Québécois nation, for defending its values.” Nevertheless, framing Bock-Côté as a representative voice would be an act of bad faith; other writers want to dismantle forms of exploitation in Quebec, not protect their society from the menace of diversity.
Alexandra Pierre’s Empreintes de résistance: Filiations et récits de femmes autochtones, noires, et racisées (Marks of resistance: Filiations and stories of Indigenous, Black, and racialized women) presents the perspective that Bock-Côté sees as so threatening. The book provides portraits of nine activists of colour, many of them first- or second-generation immigrants who have not always felt welcomed in Quebec and who see the decolonization of the province’s institutions as an urgent task. The language can be martial, as Pierre celebrates resistance and collective struggle. Yet rather than a mob of “racialists,” she gives us individuals, each with distinct outlooks and priorities.
Pierre describes the book’s inciting incident as a panel where she explained how her family history and the political strategies of Haitian women had informed her activism. Her audience appeared surprised, perhaps having expected a story of “successful ‘integration’ of the ideals of the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s feminists, and its left.” This reaction helped her realize that her own relationship with “majority feminism” was an ambivalent one, so she set out to interview women with similar trajectories.
The format of Empreintes de résistance suggests a governing principle: who you are shapes what you know about the world. Each chapter is dedicated to an individual and begins with an elegant illustration by Eruoma Awashish. Pierre lists her subjects’ places and dates of birth and their professions, which range from university professor to owner of a natural-hair salon. She then traces their life stories and developing political consciousness. At the same time, she weaves in contemporary scholarship on beauty standards, residential schools, the sovereigntist movement, the experience of maternity, and immigration.
Readers of critical race theory will recognize many of Pierre’s reference points: she cites well-known academics like Gayatri Spivak, Trinh Minh‑ha, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, and bell hooks. Yet there is also attention to local detail and unique dynamics. One woman, Sheetal Pathak, underlines the irony of defending the use of English in community mobilizations in Montreal, given the language’s charged history in her native India. As she exclaims, “I have no particular desire to defend it, but it’s the language that my parents can use, it’s the language that was imposed upon them.” She also describes an Indigenous person being criticized at a protest for having an English sign.
Pierre draws on such observations to deliver nuanced conclusions. She writes that “while one defends [French] as a minority language in North America, one must also take into account its colonial history, the earlier presence of Indigenous languages, and the differential relationships that diverse people inhabiting this land have with French.” Do not sacrifice complexity in the name of solidarity, she maintains. That results only in erasure, when the goal is emancipation.
Originally published in 2015, Kuei, je te salue: Conversation sur le racisme (an English edition was titled Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Racism and Reconciliation) takes a less formal and even more personal approach to these issues, through a series of letters between the novelist and journalist Deni Ellis Béchard and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, an Innu poet. Their exchange began after Fontaine confronted Denise Bombardier, a Journal de Montréal columnist, at the Côte-Nord book fair, after she had described Indigenous cultures as “deadly” and “antiscientific.” In the revised edition, their conversation resumes against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, the Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests, and the horrifying death of Joyce Echaquan in a Joliette hospital.
In an effort to model dialogue between “Autochtones” and “Allochtones”— Indigenous people and settlers — the writers explore racism and prejudice in an intimate tone. Fontaine details her adolescence in Baie-Comeau and her burgeoning awareness of her heritage, as well as her efforts to relearn her language on the Pessamit reserve. Béchard grew up as the son of Québécois parents in interior British Columbia and Virginia; his father looms large in his letters as a violent man who insulted the Indigenous people he worked with and who was ashamed of “ignorant” and “backward” French Canadians.
Béchard and Fontaine’s conversation is frequently an exercise in translation. The two compare their understandings of the Oka Crisis, with which Fontaine is obsessed: “I feel it under my skin.” More literally, Béchard asks her about the meaning of Innu words, which then sprinkle their dialogue. (Kuei, in the title, means “hello.”) In one evocative exchange, Fontaine fails to find a direct equivalent for the word “read,” as the term changes based on context and whether “the subject is animate or inanimate (alive or not alive).” She reflects on the structure of a language that designates pebbles as living beings and conjugates its verbs accordingly.
Meanwhile, Béchard often approaches Indigenous relations in Quebec through analogy. This conceptual translation sees him drawing on the situation of African Americans and his experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For Bock-Côté, such moves distort Quebec’s specificity. For Béchard, they are part of a learning process and a recognition that pernicious dynamics repeat in various parts of the globe.
In both Empreintes de résistance and Kuei, je te salue, the first-person narrative dominates. La révolution racialiste, meanwhile, opts for the third person, with Bock-Côté as something of a disembodied observer. Some might cast him as yet another white man masquerading as a universal subject, without accounting for how his position affects what he can see. But that critique is too easy. Indeed, Alain Deneault adopts a similar narrative style to very different ends with Bande de colons, which was nominated for the Prix des Libraires du Québec essay prize earlier this year.
Deneault is perhaps best known as one of the authors of Noir Canada: Pillage, corruption et criminalité en Afrique, a scathing attack on Canadian mining companies, which prompted Barrick Gold to sue for $6 million after it was published in 2008. As part of an out-of-court settlement, Deneault’s publisher agreed to pull the book, a move that prompted a push for anti-SLAPP legislation. It’s clear that Deneault has lost none of his nerve: his latest book builds on the French Tunisian intellectual Albert Memmi’s 1957 classic, Portrait du colonisé, précédé du Portrait du colonisateur (later translated as The Colonizer and the Colonized), to argue that francophone Quebecers have misunderstood their position in the colonial enterprise. Accustomed to thinking of themselves as the colonized and the English as the colonizers, they in fact inhabit a third category: the “colon.”
In Quebec slang, colons are idiots. Within Memmi’s system, “colonials” or “small colonizers” were the poor Europeans who lived in the colonies. They were “victims of the masters of colonization, exploited by these masters in order to protect interests which do not often coincide with their own,” but they still enjoyed privileges relative to the colonized. Memmi invoked this category in passing to insist that all Europeans were part of the colonial dynamic, regardless of social class. For Deneault, the colon is the perfect analogue for the proletarianized Québécois, and indeed for the majority of Canadians.
Deneault is less concerned with race than with Canada’s extractive history writ large. Because the country remains “a trading post that exists to seize wealth, whatever the cost,” he examines its development like that of “any other company.” In the process, he dismisses Canadian national identity as a few “trifles” and “auto-referential symbols.” But he also attacks foundational myths about New France, above all the notion that the early colonists enjoyed harmonious relations with Indigenous peoples. Instead, he argues that the very presence of Europeans had a massive destabilizing effect, with the French spreading disease and fuelling warfare among their trading partners. And the English Conquest did not transform these settlers into a colonized people. While Indigenous groups were “robbed of a world,” the Canadiens were, more simply, “frustrated in the attempt to create their own in the role of the colonizer.”
Some of Deneault’s other points will likely play better with the sovereigntist crowd, such as his insistence that Canadians are not citizens but mere “subjects of Her Majesty.” And, of course, plenty of republics in the Americas have been equally adept at despoiling Indigenous peoples and wreaking ecological havoc. More revealing is Deneault’s critique of contemporary New Brunswick, where he works as a philosophy professor. While the Irvings have come to dominate the province’s economy and its media landscape, he argues, the rest of the population consists of colons: willing dupes who do the family’s dirty work and clear-cut their own forests without enjoying the profits.
In his final chapter, Deneault insists that Canada’s ongoing colonial project should not be understood through the lens of identity. The state does not care whether the “cog” in its wheel is a “stereotypical subject” or “a woman born abroad, practising a minority religion, eating exotic dishes, and speaking a language at home that few people understand.” Yet this flippant dismissal of multiculturalism and the experience of recent immigrants may also be reason to pause. There is something comfortable about a vision of the world where we are all structurally exploited and only those with the stature of the Irvings are the bad guys. Being a colon is nothing to brag about. Still, Deneault’s subtitle, Une mauvaise conscience de class (A bad class consciousness), suggests that redemption through class struggle might be just around the corner.
In discussions like these, one should be wary of being let off the hook. Or perhaps I should be. I hesitated about whether I should appear in this review, and in what way. Should I list the markers that Alexandra Pierre might deem most relevant: a straight white woman born in Alberta, who speaks English as her first language? Surely this position influences how I view racism in my adopted home. Or it could be my credentials that matter: a doctorate from New York that’s focused on Caribbean literature, which to some may signal theoretical fluency and to others makes me suspect, too prone to endorsing American frameworks.
Either foregrounding or attempting to erase the self in one’s writing is a rhetorical strategy and an aesthetic choice. Readers might be charmed by the intimacy of Deni Ellis Béchard and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine’s exchanges, or they might yearn for more research and fewer anecdotes. Pierre’s portraits have texture and nuance, but they could leave one wondering what it all adds up to. And Alain Deneault’s theorizing either is ambitious and clarifying or shows a lack of epistemological humility. So is including a paragraph about myself honest or self-indulgent? Maybe it’s a matter of taste.
Taken together, these books testify to an ongoing debate that is far more complex than news cycles or competing incriminations suggest. It’s a conversation that draws its references from around the world, from theorists and activists in French and English, and from the many traditions that have shaped people living within Quebec’s borders. And it’s a discussion that speaks to the specificity of a place. We should all listen more closely.