At the end of August, Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) leader Francois Legault called for slashing the number of immigrants to Québec by 10,000 a year to protect the French language. “I have deep concerns about the survival of French in the long term in Quebec,” Legault explained at a press conference. Alongside his anti-immigrant announcement the former Parti Québecois minister criticized the Montréal police for allowing women to wear hijabs on the job. Legault asked how a Jew would feel interrogated by a veiled policewoman.
A right-wing nationalistic politician citing Jewish sensibilities to oppose a police decision is a historic turnaround. In the annals of Canadian history Québecois anti-Semitism is probably the most widely discussed variety. Most infamously, medical students at Montréal’s Notre-Dame Hospital went on strike in 1934 to block a Jewish student from taking up a senior internship. But, Québecois anti-Semitism has been overemphasized in English Canada (at least in relation to the WASP variety) to undermine Québec nationalism. Driven by Catholicism and simple xenophobia, anti-Jewish animus in Québec was also enmeshed in legitimate majoritarian cultural and economic aspirations stifled by an Anglo elite, which Jews largely aligned with.
Francophones discriminated against Jews yet were themselves subjugated by Anglos. While broadly recognized, this history is rarely contrasted with Francophone/Jewish oppression of others. From an Indigenous perspective both groups’ wealth was largely derived from land stolen from First Nations. In addition to stealing territory, French settlers enslaved Indigenous people and the first Jew who arrived with the conquering British forces in 1759,Aaron Hart, became the wealthiest landowner in the empire outside Britain. He and other Jews living in current day Québec also held Africans as property. To better situate relative historic oppression, a Jew became grand master of the anti-Catholic Orange order in British North America three years after slavery was abolished while Toronto elected Nathan Phillips, its first Jewish mayor, in 1955, five years before indigenous people gained the right to vote in Canada.
Even compared to some other “white” groups French-Canadians and Jews have fared not so bad. During World War I thousands of Ukrainians were interned while 600 Canadians of Italian descent were jailed in the Second World War. In the mid-1800s thousands of Irish died of typhus at an inspection and quarantine station on Grosse Ile in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Neither Jews nor Francophones suffered equivalent abuse.
To the left of the ideological spectrum, a September L’aut’journal commentary criticized multiculturalism and suggested an independent Québec would restrict immigration. According to the nationalist paper’s publisher, Québec currently requires immigrants to maintain its numeric and political strength within Canada but that would change with independence.
I first encountered the blinders imposed by Québecois’ emboldened sense of vulnerability when Canada helped overthrow Haiti’s elected government in 2004. Québec-based politicians, businesses and NGOs led Canada’s violent, undemocratic, policies. In contrast to their generally weaker English Canadian counterparts, the Québec Left largely supported the coup (or stayed quiet).
During three years of campaigning with Haiti Action Montréal a (broad) racial/linguistic pattern emerged: the more ‘pure laine’ Québecois a person/institution the more likely they were to be antagonistic to Haiti’s impoverished majority. Nationalist/leftist Le Devoir’s coverage of the coup was by far the worst of the city’s four dailies. Within La Presse, Mauritius-born Jooneed Khan was a singularly sympathetic voice while the Montréal Gazette included a few sympathetic reporters. The Mirror and Hour were also better than counterpart “alt weekly” Voir.
The divide was also evident within left provincial party Québec Solidaire. Iranian-born spokesperson Amir Khadir was nominally sympathetic to Haiti solidarity activism while co- spokesperson François David traveled to the country in the midst of the coup government’s crimes and upon her return parroted the elite’s perspective (on Radio Canada and elsewhere), blaming supporters of the ousted government for violence. Later she spoke alongside Danielle Magloire, an individual who was part of the seven-person group that appointed the brutal coup prime minister Gérard Latortue.
But, most Haitians don’t speak French. French is the language of Haiti’s elite and language has served as a mechanism through which they maintain their privilege (10 percent of Haitians speak French fluently while basically everyone speaks Haitian Creole). A Québecois group in Haiti almost invariably reinforces the influence of French in that country. Whether conscious or not, a French-focused foreigner in Haiti has taken (at least linguistically speaking) a side in the country’s brutal class war. (In terms of Haitians adopting a more useful common second-language, Spanish would facilitate ties with the eastern half of the island while English would enable greater relations with other parts of the Caribbean.)
While the linguistic/class French/Creole divide is particularly striking in Haiti, it exists in most former French colonies. Aside from Québec is there any place in the world where French is the language of the oppressed? Yet, to project this province’s linguistic heritage Québec provides more development assistance than other provinces and Ottawa expanded its aid to ‘Francophone’ nations to placate Québec nationalists.
One reason Québec groups were hostile to Haiti’s elected government was that Aristide promoted the Creole language at the expense of French. ‘Progressive’ Québecois intellectuals/NGOs were tied to a Haitian elite benefiting from the power of French.
During a stint working for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union in Ottawa I chalked up a white supremacist office dynamic partly to an empowered sense of linguistic vulnerability. The predominantly Québecois office staff were righteous about bilingualism, which made sense for a pan-Canadian union. But, it made me wonder if this blinded the generally well-treated office to its lily-white character in a neighborhood with many of Arab and Somali descent. When the union collapsed into Unifor in 2013 and the national office transferred to Toronto, I briefly worked in a significantly more racially diverse space.
Toronto opened my eyes to another group’s empowered sense of vulnerability. In summer 2014 I saw thousands demonstrate in favour of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, a small strip of land inhabited by Palestinians mostly driven from their homes in 1947/48.
Over the two month long “war” I witnessed numerous random outbursts of anti-Arab racism. During a rally on Bloor Street a middle-aged man walking with his partner crumbled a leaflet I handed him, pointed at two older Arab looking men who responded, and yelled “barbarians”. In a similarly bizarre racist outburst, a man who was biking past a demonstration stopped to engage and soon after he was pointing at a young Arab looking child close by and telling me that I was indoctrinating him to kill. And then an older woman interrupted a phone conversation I was having about Israel’s destruction of Gaza and yelled she hoped Israel kills “10,000 more”.
But, it was a young man in a tank top who embodied the dangers of an empowered sense of vulnerability. The stereotypical college football quarterback stood at the end of a 300 metre long fence separating competing rallies and berated largely recent immigrant Muslim families arriving at the Ontario legislature. When I confronted him he invoked “never again”, but once he realized I wasn’t having the Jewish victimhood shtick the privileged looking twenty-something simply flipped the script, unleashing a torrent of racist, supremacist, views.
In a more sophisticated way the establishment Jewish organizations did the same. In the midst of Israel’s 2014 onslaught on Gaza United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith, Canada Israel Experience, March of the Living Canada and the Jewish National Fund organized a pro-war demonstration under the banner: “We Will Not be Silent: A March Against Global Anti-Semitism.” The Times of Israel reported: “The purpose of the march was passionately summed up in Bill Glied’s closing remarks: ‘Thank God for the IDF [Israel’s army]. Thank God for Israel. And remember together we must stand. Never again!’”
In another stark example of the Jewish establishment’s empowered sense of vulnerability, two weeks ago the Atlantic Jewish Council packed Halifax Pride’s annual general meeting with straight white men to vote down a Queer Arabs of Halifax resolution to disallow the distribution of materials at the Pride Fair touting Israel’s purported LGBT-friendliness. Queer Arabs of Halifax claimed these materials were part of an Israeli campaign to “pink wash” its violations of Palestinian rights. After the vote an audience member reportedly yelled “‘Straight white pride wins again’ and a contingent of BIPOC people [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour], many with tears in their eyes, angrily left the room.”
At a time when institutional anti-Semitism had largely disappeared, B’nai B’rith started producing an annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents in Canada in 1982. In A History of Antisemitism in Canada Ira Robinson writes, “the scope and sophistication of the Audit’s reporting have greatly increased in the more than 30 years in which the report has appeared, as have the number of incidents reported.”
In “Underdog: Confessions of a Right-Wing Gay Jewish Muckraker” Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy implies Jews are “underdogs”. In a Jewish Forward interview she noted: “The number of anti-Semitic people out there, and the volume of virulent and vitriolic e-mails I get, is appalling.”
It is simply preposterous to claim Jews are underdogs in Toronto. Among elite business, political and professional circles Jewish representation surpasses their slim 1.3% of the Canadian population. Canadian Jews are twice as likely as the general population to hold a bachelors degree and three times more likely to earn over $75,000. In The Encyclopedia of the Jewish diaspora: origins, experiences, and culture Mark Avrum Ehrlich claims a fifth of the wealthiest Canadians were Jewish and Toronto’s Shalom Life reported that six of the 24 Canadians who made Forbes’ 2011 list of global billionaires were Jewish.
An exclusive inner-city suburb, Hampstead reflects Jewish ascension in Montréal. Until after World War II Jews were largely excluded from the small municipality modeled after the Garden City movement, a late 1800s move by London’s elite to move out of the city centre. Without retail shops in its boundaries, Québec’s second wealthiest municipality is now three quartersJewish.
A specialist in Canadian Jewish history, Harold Troper provides a window into Canadian Jewry’s empowered sense of victimhood: “Jewish students in my classes… feel a strong proprietary right to the history of anti-Semitism, to the Holocaust, and to the earlier era of overt anti-Jewish discrimination in Canada. It is their proximate history, a basic element in their Jewish identity… That their experience of anti-Semitism is secondhand or thirdhand, however, does not seem to weaken their deeply held and often expressed conviction that anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger today.”
Born 80 years earlier François Legault would probably have supported Montréal medical students’ anti-Jewish strike. But, times have changed. The right wing nationalist politician now sees Jews as potential allies in his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant campaign.
No matter whether his political calculation is correct, Legault’s outlook highlights a historical reversal. And it reflects an ever-present danger of nationalism — be it Israeli or Québecois — when claims of historic victimhood are used to oppress others, the ideology is no longer progressive, but rather has descended into xenophobia, jingoism and racist chauvinism.
Yves Engler is the author of Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. Read other articles by Yves.