Slavery in Quebec embedded racial inequality into its institutions for centuries. Ignoring this history keeps us from addressing systemic racism.

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are
presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is
extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it
is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize,
ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the world came to one conclusion: enough is enough. The time had come for governing entities to recognize systemic discrimination and racism, speak out against racism and implement measures to increase police accountability. When the time came for Quebec to speak out, Premier François Legault, instead of recognizing and promising to act against racism, openly declared that systemic discrimination does not exist in the province.

What Legault somehow did not see is that systemic discrimination is pervasive in our major institutions. Many foundational institutions have become so racialized that racial biases or stereotypes informing systemic discrimination may be hard to perceive for white individuals holding positions of power in those same institutions.

In Quebec, many are still wondering how systemic discrimination could exist in a society that prides itself on the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The answer is simple: prejudice.

Legault’s view can be traced back to Quebec’s history of slavery — and the persistent denial of that history. This denial is one of the most important factors informing the perpetuation of systemic racism today.

Slavery in Quebec

As the Commission des droits de la personne suggested in its 2011 report on systemic racism, a genuine reckoning with the history of slavery in Canada, and especially in Quebec, would be an essential step toward rectification of systemic racism toward racialized people, most notably Black people.

Black slaves did not have the legal status of “persons.” They were ineligible to participate in the main societal institutions. On the other hand, many white families had preferential educational, economic and housing opportunities due to their status in Quebec society. These privileged positions provided benefits in the form of money, social capital and/or cultural capital. Not only did the exploitation and legal segregation of slaves generate many economic opportunities, wealth and assets for white North Americans, including Quebecers, but this aggregation of wealth was also passed down from generation to generation.

Between 1760 and 1840, slavery was part of the fixed hierarchical order of Quebec society and found in many sectors. Notable examples of slave owners are Jean-Baptiste Curatteau, the Sulpician priest who founded the Collège de Montréal, and James McGill, a well-connected merchant at the time, who often travelled between Montreal and Quebec City to sell slaves. It is crucial to understand that the owning of slaves was not reserved for the wealthy: artisans, shopkeepers and tavernkeepers also possessed slaves. It was an accepted practice that allowed the white population to own and utilize Black bodies.

Portrait of James McGill by Louis Dulongpré. Library and Archives Canada.

If the practice of slavery in Quebec cannot be compared to that of the United States, because the Quebec economy did not depend on plantations and the number of slaves was small, it nonetheless had the same economic purpose: the subjugation of one group of people for the profit of the other. Slaves were perceived as capital investments and were treated as real property (although without legal status). They were also used as collateral for debts owed by their masters. Slaves were known to serve as domestics in inns or in homes. They were mostly bought for the sole purpose of serving their host families or masters in domestic tasks.

The ownership of slaves was not legislated in Lower Canada; it existed outside of the law. The lack of regulation left owners of slaves free to own, lease or exchange them as they pleased. It was not until after the British Imperial Act of 1833 abolished slavery in the colonies, and courts started affirming that masters had no rights over their slaves, that signs of legal recognition of its immorality started appearing. According to the historian Frank Mackey, records point to 1840 as the beginning of the end of slavery in Montreal.

The era of slavery in Quebec left little or no trace of its existence. The small scale of the practice, the lack of legislation on slavery and thorough confusion over when slavery officially ended have all contributed to a sense of collective amnesia in the province today. So too has the absence of any modern segregationist movement, which might have allowed the history of slavery to remain in Quebec’s public discourse, much as segregation in the US has kept that country’s legacy alive.

The legacy of slavery

Slavery’s legacy endures in institutional arrangements that continue to have dire consequences for Black communities in Quebec today. Systemic racism is among the most polarizing of these consequences.

Slavery has gradually transformed and metastasized in interconnected organizations and institutions in which racial oppression still prospers. Systemic racism is seen in the disparities in employment, discriminatory wages, hostile work climates, discrimination in mortgage loans and home buying, discrepancies in community funding, and unequal access to an adequate education. These social realities are in fact the legacy of hierarchical structures of racial inequalities originating in the era of slavery. Exploitative socio-economic systems thrive upon instances of unjust enrichment of one segment of the population at the expense of the impoverishment of another.

Although much attention is paid to the oppression felt in socio-economic systems, the Black community has also paid the price in other areas. Black Quebecers continue to cope with the damage done to their physical integrity and psychological health, and the harm directed at families and the larger community.

The social reproduction of racial oppression through systemic racism is reinforced by the willingness of some whites to forget the slavery era and separate it from the present-day systemic racism. The social inertia that follows becomes an impediment to radical changes.

What Quebec needs today

Since late May, the world has declared its solidarity with Black protesters, and activists have taken to social media to campaign for social justice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many are asking for reforms and others are requesting more representation for Black people in our major institutions. These demands are steps forward in remedying the problem of systemic racism. Clearly, we are entering a very critical and decisive period. But the denial of systemic discrimination poses a threat to the progress of the movement.

The danger with the Premier’s denial is twofold. First, a governing body’s denial of systemic racism and its lack of action to remedy the situation could be interpreted as an invitation for other governmental, legal and educational institutions to ignore the problem. Second, Legault’s stance dismisses the persistent struggle of Black people in Quebec and reduces public confidence in the capability of Quebec institutions.

In order to move the needle on contemporary structures of racial oppression and discrimination, we must first acknowledge that racism is deeply embedded in our institutions. Then we must challenge our institutions and hold our leaders accountable when it comes to anti-discrimination policies and initiatives. No leader should remain silent. Finally, we must work toward the elimination of unchecked stereotypes and prejudices informing systemic discrimination and racism towards Black people in Quebec.

This societal issue transcends the confines of political partisanship. We cannot afford to look away. After all, avoiding the topic of systemic racism has not rendered Quebec free from it.

Premier Legault, the time for political accountability is now.

Photo: People hold up signs during a demonstration calling for justice for the death of George Floyd and all victims of police brutality, in Montreal, Sunday, June 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes