News and Opinions

This News and Opinions tab is available for Montréal Serai’s subscribers and friends to voice their opinion on social, cultural and human rights issues that affect us here in Québec, in Canada and internationally. While we may be in agreement with some or all of the sentiments expressed in these columns, we do not necessarily endorse the entire piece. We nonetheless feel that this topical forum is necessary, given the nature of systemic racism, the ongoing battles of Indigenous peoples to protect their lands, culture and children, and the inequalities and cultural majoritarianism that prevail. We are not in a position to copyedit or update the contents of such pieces. Opinion pieces that are not in keeping with our stated goals and values will not be publicized. Comments are welcome.

Opinion pieces:

Islamophobia & Racism cannot be defeated without dismantling colonial White Supremacy

© Rahul Varma, Summer Mahmud

The murder of three generations of a visibly Muslim family – a couple, a grandmother and a teenage daughter – by a 20-year-old white man is the latest in a series of blatant racially motivated crimes in “Canada”. Preceded by the 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque which killed six Muslims, the fatal stabbing of a mosque caretaker in Toronto, police shootings of Black citizens, endemic RCMP racism against Indigenous communities and individuals, rising anti-Asian hate crimes, growing anti-Semitism, Joyce Echaquan’s murder at the hands of the health-care system, and the discovery of the remains of 394 (and counting) Indigenous children in unmarked graves at “Residential Schools” across the country; communities are perpetually having their race and religion weaponized against them.

In a routine offering of sympathies, politicians have tried to convince us that this is “not Canada” – and certainly, this is not a Canada that we can or should accept. The frequency of these incidents forces us to address the situation critically and honestly. While the targeted victims span a broad range of racialized communities, the perpetrator remains the same – white supremacy.

Dismantling white supremacy in all its forms is absolutely vital if we hope – as we claim we do – to defeat endemic racism.

Canada, a country that successfully defined every aspect of its law and society to benefit  white colonizers, has a deeply ingrained legacy of white supremacy, despite putting in place “egalitarian policies”. For example, even though racial discrimination in housing was outlawed, the same classes – privileged by colonization – continues to make money off land stolen from Indigenous peoples. When racial discrimination in employment was outlawed, the predominantly white higher-ups continued to hold the positions of power that perpetuate the disenfranchisement of non-white folks who were denied those jobs previously. When the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” were not found in Iraq, no allied countries questioned, let alone punished, the US.

Promising to do everything in their power to end racism against all, politicians continue to overlook the fact that racism is a product of white supremacy, that manifests itself in uniquely insidious ways depending on its historic origin.  For example, the anti-Black racism, entrenched in the history of enslavement and colonization takes a different face from anti-Asian racism, intertwined with socio-political attitudes towards China, and the exclusion and fetishization of Asian women; both which are distinct from the continued colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples. To attack racism therefore, is not to attack one simple sentiment towards all the affected communities, but rather to dismantle deep-rooted white supremacy. The Asian “model minority” prescription is an example of how the divisive politics of white supremacy succeeds in pitting one minority against the other. For example, while Black and Indigenous peoples agitate against lack of civil rights, police violence, and inequality, the “model minority” is projected as a community that does not need agitation to succeed. Incidences of “success” are weaponized under a colonial framework against other racialized communities to benefit white supremacy. Accordingly, the media attempts to term Muslims who do not resist oppression and tokenization or make demands for better treatment to be “moderate Muslims” – in opposition to the implied default Muslim, whose lives and rights are disregarded repeatedly across the globe.

Islamophobia is shaped by geopolitics. It is strongly linked with events such as 9/11, the 2005 London bombings, the ongoing war in Syria, and the occupation of Palestine. While Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other aforementioned forms of racism have been persistent problems in Canada, it is vital – as with all forms of racism – to acknowledge the specific historical and current global context of Islamophobia. Islamophobia thrives in the domestic and foreign policies of “the West”, as well as certain Asian countries such as India under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. It shares many tools with settler colonialism, constructing Muslims as backwards, primitive and uneducated; an “enemy” who threatens national stability and spreads backwards Islamic ideals. White supremacy has constructed a Muslim caricature that is at once uneducated and a master of terror. Meanwhile, the same Western imperialist nations are complicit in the ruthless bombing of schools, universities, hospitals, press buildings, cultural and religious centers, civilians and children across these regions, destabilizing communities and murdering innocents in the name of “security”.

The Harper government targeted Muslims and fed this image with policies such as the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,”  anti-Terrorism bills, immigration laws and the over-policing of Muslims, once again legitimizing discrimination and reinforcing racist constructs under the pretext of security. Quebec’s Charter of Values and Law 21 that restricts Muslim women from wearing a Hijab, effectively institutionalize gendered Islamophobia here in Canada. In light of recent incidents, Trudeau remarked that while he disagrees with it, he doesn’t think that the bill encourages hate or discrimination. What his comment is clearly overlooking – outside of the explicit restriction of  women who wear Hijabs from partaking at an equal level in the public sphere – is that by othering groups based on their religion, culture and visible presentation, we are defining the norm; the “we” who is allowed to exist freely, and the “other,” whose rights are made conditional, restricted, and not absolute.

There are lines that Western governments will not cross when it comes to fighting racial disparities. These lines reflect the overarching lack of respect and value for non-white life. Despite the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in an unmarked mass grave at Kamloops “Residential School,” and the hundreds more continuing to be uncovered across Turtle Island, there has not been an apology from the Pope and affiliated Catholic institutions with whom the Canadian government works hand-in-glove. After 11 days of Israel bombing Gaza, with 227 dead including 64 Palestinian children, Western governments including Canada have expressed support for Israel’s “right to security” and tactfully condemned violence by both sides, as if the ongoing occupation, displacement and genocide has two comparable sides. The so-called “both sides” cliché is a carefully constructed ruse to maintain the veil of a moral high ground, without admitting that a vast power-imbalance pervades the issue; one side is highly militarized, the other occupied.

As Palestinians rummage through the rubble to collect their belongings and bury their murdered kin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweets congratulations to the Israeli president saying, “our two countries are bound together by shared democratic values and many common priorities.” Since 2015, Canada has exported $57 million worth of weapons to Israel, including $16 million in bomb components. Those who shoot worshippers at the mosques and run over families on sidewalks know that they are joining this “common priority”. Similarly, south of the border, Joe Biden vows to “end systemic racism”; yet within six weeks of his inauguration, his government resumed bombing Syria. When wealthy Western nations, like Canada,  fund the bombing of Gaza and the continued occupation of Palestine, and refuse to act upon reconciliation after the public discovery of  hidden mass graves of Indigenous children, individual white supremacists are given license to kill a visibly Muslim family, knowing it is no different than the government’s duplicity. If the Canadian government truly condemns such “brutal, cowardly, and brazen act[s] of violence,” they need to take a harsh look in the mirror.

Our hope is to mobilize the public in a call for action against white supremacy in all its various explicit and insidious forms. If we believe in equity, justice and an inclusive society, then we must evaluate the continued Western legacy of disregarding non-white life and truly consider the meaning of “justice for all”.

Trump’s Shout-Out to Fascism

Paris Elizabeth Sea, December 1, 2019

What’s the best headline for Trump’s recent reading performance about the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton? Some very dangerous ideas were embedded in the address he gave on August 5th, but no one at the NYT seems to have noticed. Whether you prefer “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” or “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS”, the real news of the day is slipping under the radar. The speech rings loudly with what should be alarm bells for anyone concerned for democracy and civil liberties in America.

Starting by demonising the internet, Trump calls for surveillance of Americans’ social media accounts:

“First we must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs. I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partis— (sic) partnership with local state and federal agencies as well as social media companies to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

Trump then cites the Parkland shooter as an example of how red flags were ignored prior to his attack: “…nobody took decisive action. Nobody did anything. Why not?” So Trump figures himself the Man of Action. The problem is, even without the Freudian slip, there is simply no reason to trust this president not to try to discriminate against his political opponents and the marginalized groups he has already publicly maligned.

Next, Trump calls for censorship of Americans’ cultural expression and threatens the right to bodily autonomy:

“Second, we must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately.”

Trump goes on to use an anti-abortion dog whistle to call for “culture change” to build “a culture that celebrates the inherent dignity and worth of every human life”. Given the fact that Trump has denigrated many of his critics and whole groups of ordinary people without any apparent concern for their inherent dignity, it surely can’t be prudent to follow his direction in shaping American culture, nor look to him to decide if women can stand their ground against involuntary pregnancy.

Continuing, Trump calls for the erosion of privacy protections and civil liberties under the guise of improving mental health laws, not mental health care:

“Third, we must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence, and make sure those people not only get treatment, but when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls (sic) the trigger, not the gun.”

In other words, he wants to make it easier to track people with mental health conditions, force them into treatment, and lock them up against their will if necessary. Where would the president, who rationalised white supremacists’ violence in Charlottesville, routinely calls his political opponents “crazy”, and puts children ripped away from their parents in concentration camps, draw the line to protect the rights of Donald Glover or Greta Thunberg?

Trump’s next call is for a very selective form of gun control:

“Fourth, we must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety, do not have access to firearms, and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process. That is why I have called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.”

What Trump doesn’t call for is an end to the partisan use of power to appoint judges which, in a deeply racist and politically polarized America, simply ensures such laws will be used discriminately against marginalized groups, as current laws incarcerating and disenfranchising many Americans already are.

Finally, Trump calls for the means to curtail the right to a fair trial:

“Today, I’m also directing the Department of Justice to propose legislation ensuring that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders face the death penalty, and that this capital punishment be delivered quickly, decisively, and without years of needless delay.”

This is tantamount to saying the government of the day should be allowed the opportunity to construct a hate-crimes case against its opponents and fast-track their execution. 

However comforting it may be to criticise Trump’s performance as stilted and unconvincing, it would be a mistake not to hear and understand his true message. He is demanding the tools to take America further down the road to fascism. Setting up surveillance mechanisms, policing dissent, sectioning off groups for special treatment, reducing civil protections, biasing the judicial branch of government, reinstating federal capital punishment with the option to move at speed. Whether taken singly or together, the implications of these proposals are enormous. Lest anyone think that because Trump was maladroitly reading a script from a teleprompter he wasn’t speaking from the heart, think again.

Paris Elizabeth Sea is an independent observer of politics from a Canadian perspective.  A poet and professional science educator, her creative work explores politics, feminism, and environmental issues and has been published in numerous literary journals and publications. Her award-winning political poem, Early Morning, PMO, is available online at the website of CV2 magazine.

Quebec’s Secularism Law Is Meant to Marginalize Visible and Religious Minorities

© Rahul Varma, July 26, 2019

Playwright and Artistic Director, Teesri Duniya Theatre

CAQ Premier Francois Legault’s Law 21 is promoted as a progressive legal framework celebrating the values of religious neutrality, though its explicit and implicit implications are clearly neither secular nor neutral for minority citizens. Law 21 is a majoritarian law meant to invoke constitutional hegemony. What this law does is frame the rights and freedoms of visible and religious minorities as an obstacle to the homogeneous culture of the dominant group. This ideological mandate is driven by xenophobic responses towards diversity and multiculturalism and made by the dominant cultural majority. The passage of Bill 21 into law has created social dissonance, which puts the rights of religious minorities at odds with the agenda for national identity, which inevitably will result in undermining social harmony and progressive immigrant integration.

Secularism, as an ideology, upholds state neutrality towards religion through clear separation of religion and the state. As a principle of our society, this value sees citizenship embedded in equality, and the protection of an individual’s freedom of religious and ethnic identifications. It is precisely the government’s aims towards equality that have been dishonoured by Law 21 because it officially prohibits citizens, including Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women, as well as Sikh and Jewish men, from serving as police officers or teachers, or holding public office. This is strictly due to their choice of apparel inferring a religious identity (hijab, turban, kippah). During World War II, Sikh soldiers wearing their turbans contributed to defending the Western alliance against Nazis. These same men would be declared unfit to hold public office in Quebec. Law 21 effectively legitimizes state-sponsored discrimination.

While implemented by CAQ, Law 21 is part of an agenda of predecessor nationalist governments, which has been accomplished in several successive stages. The first stage is to make the numerically dominant group feel that their religion, culture, and lifestyles are under threat from groups alien to the dominant culture. Next stage is to spread a psychology of fear and persuade the public that Quebec’s values are endangered. The final step is to use majoritarian vote to suppress rights of minorities. This continued ethno-nationalist waves of mobilization are rooted in a complex colonial legacy. Take for example our late Premier Jacques Parizeau’s remark on how “money and ethnic votes” led to the defeat of Quebec’s independence, and the late Premier René Levesque’s accusation of multiculturalism being a federalist blow against Quebec sovereignty. Separatist identity in Quebec has long since been fueled by both an assertion of reparation and identity, as well as legitimate fears of losing Quebec’s unique cultural identity. However, the nationalist aspirations of Quebec’s dominant white Francophones have been realised on multiple levels, consolidated by Bill 101 as well as other measures to protect French culture.

While the ethno-nationalist mobilization that started with the separatist movement was originally rooted in protecting francophone rights and culture, the dynamics of Law 21 and more recent actions illustrate the darker side of imposing definitions of citizenship on to the rights of those in Quebec. This law directly threatens the dignity and rights of a small segment of the society, largely living in urban Montreal. This is a vulnerable visible minority that accounts for less than 11% of the total population of Quebec. By implementing Law 21, we are in danger of inviting extreme, right-wing views. We are empowering a nationalist rhetoric that envisions a culturally homogeneous state, where minorities remain marginalized citizens. This law capitalizes on fear, while stirring resentment, anger and vengeance, by disrupting social alliances and splitting the discourse into “us” and “them”: those who belong and those who are outsiders.

This fear and resentment has been observed in both the popular media and with paranoid xenophobes. The full extent of this was seen with Hérouxville councillor André Drouin, who solemnised the Code of Life, propagandizing that immigrants (by which he meant Muslims), must be barred from covering faces, for stoning adulterous women, performing genital mutilation, or dousing women with acid. Let there be no doubt that horrible crimes are inflicted on women in different parts of the world, and Quebec has been duly celebrated for a progressive stance on supporting women and men who are fighting to change these practices. However, what people like Mr. Drouin rashly overlook is the fact that there is no precedent of such crimes in Canada. Fears of such crimes are projected onto the dread of post 9/11 terror. Moreover, the Western world has accomplished credentials for lynching, enslaving, establishing residential schools, racial profiling, murdering aboriginal women, and assaulting Hijabi-ed women and lest we forget the mass shooting at a Mosque Quebec City. No “Code of Life” was ever passed to stop this bigotry. Drouin’s movement struck a chord with largely white-Franco Quebecers, drawing commentary from the late Premier Bernard Landry and ADQ leader Mario Dumont. While this was enough to prompt Premier Jean Charest to order the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation, a roadshow in the name of public consultation, it only left us with recommendations which have been largely ignored by successive Quebec governments.

The nationalist mobilization continued with ex-Premier Pauline Marois’ Quebec Charter of Values, which in addition to banning apparel such as the hijab, professed to liberate Muslim women from the clutches of patriarchy. The fact that Muslim women wore a hijab not because of but despite patriarchal powers, seemed of little importance in this rhetoric of liberation. Along the same vein, the succeeding liberal government of Premier Philip Couillard introduced the “Religious Neutrality Law” banning women from wearing niqabs, burqas, etc., while accessing public services such as public transport. A long Quebec resistance to the Catholic dominance shaping progression on gender and women’s rights has marked a great concern for women under all religions who may be oppressed to varying degrees and led to gains for gender equity. Given our human rights laws and protections, the liberation of women will come from their own struggle rather than a set of narrow nationalist laws and mentalities.

At present, populist mobilization has become a standard formula to undermine democracy and marginalize the Other in order to gain votes. It’s this doctrine which permitted Mr. Legault to win a solid majority, proclaiming, “The majority was asking for secularism.” This is not secularism but populism. Secularism is about neutrality and inclusion rather than majoritarian hegemony and exclusion.

The CAQ government has brought Law 21 as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Real problems are unemployment, healthcare, education, women’s issues, environment, equity, housing, indigenous rights and so on – not an alien dress code alleged to be compromising Quebec identity.  Arguably, if Quebec’s identity can be compromised by a strip of clothing, its identity and history must be very fragile.

There is only one answer to Law 21: citizens’ mobilization for a true secular Quebec.