Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Quebec Minorities Get Caught by 'Us' vs. 'Them'

Non-French-speaking ethnic groups feel like scapegoats after separatists blame them for loss

MINUTES after vote tallies showed Quebec's separatists narrowly losing a referendum to secede from Canada, ethnic minorities in the province were shocked to find themselves being blamed.

Money spent by big businesses opposed to separation and ''ethnic votes'' were why Quebec nationhood had failed, provincial Premier Jacques Parizeau told a crowd of disappointed separatists Oct. 30. He spoke of the ''temptation for revenge.''

About these ads

Outraged ethnic groups across Canada, politicians, and political commentators immediately began firing back with their own verbal missiles.

Was Quebec's premier really suggesting the French majority exact ''revenge'' on minority groups who voted to remain with Canada? ''No,'' said many separatists, embarrassed by the speech.

About 10 percent of Quebec's 7.3 million population belongs to ethnic minorities concentrated mostly in Montreal. The groups include Greeks, Haitians, Italians, and many others. In addition, there are about half a million English Quebeckers.

Watching Parizeau's televised speech at home, Helen Stringos recognized the message immediately and couldn't believe it.

''I was appalled that he would make those of us from other backgrounds ... a scapegoat for his political misfortune,'' she said.

No stranger to the horrors of ethnic nationalism, Mrs. Stringos and her parents fled Smyrna, Greece, when the town was overrun by invading Turks. After fleeing unrest in Egypt, she arrived in Montreal in 1956. She has reared two children here and says she loves living here.

But to her deep dismay, the strains of ethnic nationalism that leaped from Parizeau's speech seem only to echo a low, steady drum beat during the referendum campaign.

About these ads

Ancestry counts

French-speaking Quebeckers sometimes refer to themselves as pur laine, or literally ''pure wool,'' having ancestors of French origin. Everyone else is referred to as les autres, or the others. ''When they use these terms, you feel like a stranger in the country where your kids were born,'' Stringos says. ''You heard the word 'revenge' in Parizeau's speech. I don't like to be on the receiving end of that.''

Parizeau resigned the next day. But many separatists have felt compelled to denounce his comments. They say that Parizeau in one bad speech had reversed 30 years of work to counter the world's perception of the Quebec separatist movement as based on ethnic nationalism.

In the two referendums held on secession so far, minority groups have voted more than 90 percent against leaving Canada. That large block vote does not sit well with many in the 84 percent French-speaking majority.

''It's going to be very ugly,'' says Reginald Whitaker, a York University political scientist. ''The hard-line nationalists in Quebec are saying the true Quebeckers voted 'yes' and that this vote was stolen by the Anglophones and other ethnic voters.''

So is Parizeau alone? Or does ethnic nationalism lurk deep in the hearts of other separatists?

''What we believe in is a civic or territorial nationalism,'' says Yves Martin, a longtime confidant and adviser to Parizeau. ''We think that Quebec is a people and that this includes everyone that resides on Quebec territory, including the English-speaking community and other minorities. It would be very unjust to convey to people outside Quebec that sovereigntists are ethnic nationalists.''

But Max Bernard isn't sure. As head of the Canadian Jewish Congress in Quebec, he has closely monitored the rhetoric flowing from the separatist campaign. Parizeau's comments, while unusually blunt, were not unusual among separatist leaders during the campaign, he says.

''We have seen separatist politicians for some time saying things similar ... to Mr. Parizeau's remarks,'' he says. ''The words are better chosen, not quite as offensive. But they're there.''

In the Oct. 29, 1994, edition of the Journal de Montreal, Deputy Premier Bernard Landry is quoted saying: ''It is not healthy that a democracy in Montreal be at the total mercy of the vote of the ethnic community.''

On Feb. 26, 1995, Pierre Bourgault, founder of the National Independence Assembly that gave birth to Parizeau's Parti Quebecois, told reporters: ''I'm terribly embarrassed concerning the vote of Anglophones. The last poll shows that 97 percent of these persons questioned would vote 'no' to a referendum on sovereignty. For me 60 to 65 percent represents a democratic vote, 80 percent a xenophobic vote, and 97 percent is a clearly racist vote. Such a majority vote would only be seen in totalitarian countries.''

Mr. Bourgault, a Parizeau adviser, was quickly fired.

Bouchard protects image

Lucien Bouchard, the popular leader of the Bloc Quebecois separatist contingent in Parliament in Ottawa, now appears likely to succeed Parizeau as premier of Quebec.

He has been careful to protect his image - quickly distancing himself from Parizeau's recent remarks. ''As far as we are concerned, we believe this statement does not reflect what sovereigntists think; it does not reflect the way sovereigntists behave,'' Mr. Bouchard said.

But in a referendum campaign speech last month, Bouchard said: ''We're one of the white races that has the fewest children,'' referring to the low-birth rate of Francophone Quebeckers. He had also frequently lapsed into the use of the phrase les autres while campaigning.

With Bouchard, the arguments of ethnic nationalism are ''better articulated, smoothed over,'' Mr. Bernard says. ''But it's still an exclusionary message. And when you look at Bouchard's speeches throughout the campaign, you get the sense he is really talking about a nation composed of old-stock Quebeckers [whose lineage goes to back to France].''

Racism 'is a real thing'

Others, like Johanna Rifai, president of the Arab-Canadian Women's Association, agree completely with Bernard. ''The racism and prejudice by the Francophone majority against the ethnic community in Quebec is a real thing you can't deny,'' she says. ''It is now being accentuated in the political arena.''

Jorge Guerra, Quebec regional vice president of the Hispanic-Canadian Congress, says that Parizeau's comments echo ''one line of thinking in the party that is an important motivator in some parts of the party. But it's not the position of the majority.''

But Robert McConnell, former publisher of the Montreal Gazette newspaper, who has lived in Quebec for 20 years, is worried. Now a media consultant, he is a member of the vocal Anglophone minority in the province.

''I underestimated the Bouchard phenomenon,'' he says. ''Any time you get into this sort of us-them situation ... you get a visceral reaction. And he has probed deep into the collective memory for the worst he can find, evoking ancient images of French Quebeckers on their knees in front of English masters. ''It has created a volatile situation,'' he says.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.