sign of the times

Discovering a New Word

After being punched up, bruised and bloodied, South Shore black businessman Francis Ojo was thrown into a police cruiser and made to repeat three times: “I am a nigger.” The Station 33 cops who repeatedly beat him up, laughed when Ojo complained about his injuries. Ojo had been accosted by the cops, in mufti, for no apparent reason other than being seen walking down Drummond St. with his white friend. His companion, Elaine Charles, who asked the cops to apologize, was shoved aside and threatened.

Last month, Tony Griffin, a 19 year old black youth, was shot dead by a Montreal cop named Alain Gosset. Gosset had an earlier encounter with another black man and had been fined following a hearing. In that earlier incident, the policeman had frequently used the expression “nigger”.

In another incident Montreal metro cops have been sued by a Mr. Velasquez, a man of Chilean origin, who intervened when he found the cops roughing up some black youth in a metro station. Once again the cops talked about sending the niggers’ back where they came from. When Mr. Velasquez questioned the cops, he was beaten up and arrested. Mr. Velasquez, ironically, is a man who teaches courses to Montreal cops on race relations – and the classes are held in the NDG police station where Tony Griffin was shot dead.

Hate Rediscovered

It seems Montreal cops have suddenly discovered the hurtful, hate-filled power of the word “nigger” as segregationists in Selma, Little Rock and other US. cities did in the early sixties. A last ditch attempt was made at that time to designate black people officially as second class citizens of North’ America. There is a ‘submission by degradation’ aspect associated with using the word “nigger” and Montreal cops are loving it. Like whore, fag, pinko, dago and paki, they are the expressions of a red-neck generation that one would have thought would have bypassed Quebec. Unfortunately, a certain section of Quebec’s population, smothered for a while by the great English-French divide, is now rediscovering the contributions of our Southern neighbours as well as those in the west coast, to a particular kind of hate-mongering history.

There is something intriguing, if not surprising, that almost all the cops involved in these racist incidents are francophones. After all very few of Montreal cops come from an anglophone background. But there is more to it than the sheer fact of a francophone majority in the force. The francophone majority of Quebec, who had passionately campaigned for an independent Quebec, who had with great determination defended Quebec’s French traditions, culture and heritage against the overwhelming onslaught of an insensitive English Canada – suddenly find themselves bereft of the dignity that guided their campaign. The troubadours of Quebec nationalism were artists, intellectuals, journalists, social democrats, and labour activists who had an opinion of the world as well, along with their urge to create an independent Quebec. They were progressive. The intellectual caliber of today’s Quebec nationalists, or at least the ones that are most vociferous, is akin to that of Governor Wallace’s Alabama storm-troopers. Coming out of decades of narrowness and ignorance, they have finally found their politics in the language and tradition of Reagan’s America. Suddenly the bigotry, backwardness and self-centeredness of a racial North America that had by-passed the English-French divide has found a voice in Quebec. Montreal cops are a glowing tribute to that reactionary backlash.

A few months ago a sizeable group of activists, several of them from the St. Jean Baptist society, staged a demonstration outside the Quebec Immigration offices against the arrival of the “boat people” from Sri Lanka and India. Mouthing horrendously xenophobic slogans against “immigrants”, they trooped around the block shouting against the “destruction of Quebec’s heritage and culture”. Montreal’s cops are a sign of these times – the regressive, de intellectualized, dollar-prone franco-phonism – a return to the days of racial intolerance born in the swamps of Louisiana combined with the doomsday hysteria of the Fallwell-Baker mob.

The Other Side

“Quebec Libre” has become a jaded, faded slogan, Gilles Vigneault lives in Paris, Pauline Julien is rarely heard of, René Levesque is dead. Which reminds me of Dorchester Street. Montreal’s rambunctious Anglophone community, the other side of the coin, has once again shown its rabidly anti-French face by attacking the renaming of Dorchester to René Levesque Blvd. “Inadequate consultations with citizens” is the measly excuse being bandied around to cover up the deep-seated disrespect and contempt for René Levesque. Westmounts new mayor has come up with the ultimate in hypocrisy by suggesting that Dorchester is too “cold” a street to be renamed after the indefatigable René – and therefore the five blocks of Dorchester that fall within Westmount will remain Dorchester Blvd.

A peculiar division of political forces is taking shape in Quebec. The well-to-do, both French and English, are elegantly pursuing the world of North American yuppiedom, and the less well-to-do are discovering right-wing trails leading South. The Anglophones are learning French (notice the quaint discovery of a French-speaking couple who moved into Kirkland recently and found out that they could actually be served at the corner store in French! This was a special Gazette ‘extra” last month.) The French have always wanted to learn English. They are finding it an inevitable step towards getting around in the “real world”. Bourassa’s Quebec is full of bonhomie for power-brokerage to the New England states. People in Quebec are talking dollars, buying houses and more cars despite the crash in the stock market. And in this new-fangled, plastic North Americana, a section of Quebec is discovering “niggers”, “boat people”, and mealy-mouthed excuses for bigotry and xenophobia. And this bigotry, in a somewhat more elegant fashion, is also obvious in the Anglo mob that accosts the senses around the Bishop-Crescent beat, in the columns of The Gazette and The Downtowner, and in the pronouncements of one of the two city opposition councillors whose left-to-right shuffle is synonymous with the times.

What is unique is that both these mobs have all along ignored the reality of multiculturalism, and have suddenly realized that apart from beating each other up, there is possibly some other sport to indulge in these days – more avarice to engage in – that is why in Bourassa’s hydro-Quebec, the word “nigger” may yet become a rediscovery of the “pioneering” instinct of the majority population.

Sign of the Times

South Asians have a lesson to learn before it gets too late. It is fine and correct to categorize ourselves as Anglophones. It is also correct to see ourselves as an integral part of the consciousness that has fought against bigotry and racism in North America. However we cannot pretend to be a different variety of a minority, even though our numbers may be getting larger everyday. It is the consciousness that determines our affiliation and not the shade of skin. It is unfortunate therefore that we missed the golden opportunity to be present during the large demonstration to protest Tony Griffin’s death. Only a handful of South Asians were visible. Not so good for a minority that wishes to be visible; not so good at a time when we as a people are facing growing attacks for “stealing jobs, jumping the lines and destroying culture.” Meanwhile, Montreal cops and the renaming of Dorchester remain a poignant reminder of the signs of the times. Political divisions long masked by the language debate are now showing up with the accompaniment of racial intolerance and elegant bigotry.