Born Under the Tobacco Flower, and Raised Under the Lis

Dreams of a separatist Quebec nation are founded on conservative, racist attachments to bloodline that leftist adherents cannot so quickly disavow

On June 17, 2016, La Ville de Montréal hosted a vigil in Montreal’s gay village for the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. At the event, Esteban Torres, a local Latino trans activist, was violently confronted by Montreal police officers and taken into custody after calling for revolutionary action onstage. Torres had been speaking alongside Premier Philippe Couillard at the vigil. After the 2016 memorial event, media outlets like the Montreal Gazette actively criminalized and racialized Torres in print, portraying him as having violently attacked the Premier during the vigil. What had occurred was much less sinister.

Toward the end of the vigil, Torres turned to the Premier and shouted, “Revolution! We will take back the street!” Torres then threw a paper ball at the Premier. Secret police immediately rushed Torres, put him in a chokehold, and dragged him out of the vigil. Torres was later charged with assault with an unidentified object and disturbing the peace. He was released on a promise to comply with a list of conditions including not being allowed to organize with Pink Bloc anymore, seeing a psychiatrist, and following their recommendations, including prescribed medication, and in October 2017 Torres was officially sentenced to 18 months’ probation and conditional discharge for his “assault” on the Premier. Torres’s attack and arrest is exactly what queer and trans communities of color have feared from the increased levels of policing in Montreal’s gay village. Proposed by groups that comprise predominantly cisgender white gay men, like the Collectif Carré Rose, who fear potential homophobic violence in the village, the increased police presence in Montreal’s gay village has led to an influx of police violence against queer and trans people of color at the hands of a police force who have proven themselves to be violent and unchecked—so violent, in fact, that the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, a nonprofit organization, was formed in order to take the police to court for their racist policing. This is a police force who prolifically assaulted students during the student strike for “rioting,” only to riot in downtown Montreal themselves when they went on strike in 2015.

The police in Quebec have become the enforcers of not only Quebec law but the social values of Quebec sovereignty as well. Quebec sovereignty is a set of values, beliefs, morals, and principles held by French Quebecers, wherein they position themselves as oppressed under the English regime in Canada—going so far as to appropriate racial slurs used against Black people to describe their condition. Quebecois campaigns for sovereignty range from interventions in public discourse to governmental policy, and can manifest as pressure to use the French language in Quebec, proposals around Quebec separatism (the desire for the province of Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada), and immigration policies that seek the unification and integration of all cultures under a French Quebec regime (ironic considering French Quebec’s concerns about being marginalized within the Canadian state). However, Quebec sovereignty inherently undermines the sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples whose land French Quebecers have settled on, one group of Inuit and 10 First Nations comprising 55 communities in total (without counting Indigenous peoples who live in urban centers) and perpetuates anti-Black, xenophobic, and Islamophobic attitudes throughout Quebec. 

The police have been granted the authority to intervene in communities of color throughout Quebec—from Val-d’Or, where Indigenous women recently came forward about the abuse they have experienced from the police force, to racist and brutal police killings in Montréal-Nord that reflect the white-supremacist foundations of Quebec sovereignty. The same foundational principles form homonationalist rhetoric amongst French Quebecers, and are mobilized by Couillard and his police force, who pay lip service to queer and trans communities to improve their own public image but mark queer bodies of color for violent removal and erasure from the Village.

What seems curiously lost within the local social-justice narrative around the Montreal vigil is the role that white supremacy, colonialism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia within Quebec nationalist rhetoric played in the events that occurred. I’ll never forget being privy to a conversation at a community event among a few folks who tend toward this leftist politic. As someone who has navigated this community for the last five years, I was unsurprised to hear someone ask, “Do you think it would have been the same if Esteban hadn’t thrown the paper?” They were referring to the events the led up to Torres’s arrest. The words cut into me.

It’s hard for me to stomach the participation of leftist communities in criminalizing narratives around Torres’s violent arrest, especially when it’s framed as a necessity to rationalize the humanity of racialized peoples when our bodies are put in harm’s way because of state violence. Rather than perpetuating the continued criminalization of Torres within the narrative of what happened that day, we should instead ask, Would this have happened if Esteban had been a white French man? Sometimes I wonder, For a community that self-proclaims itself as so subversive, why are we so scared to talk about difference? White folks in leftist Montreal communities, despite who they fuck, despite being critical of the state, and despite their gender, are complicit in embodied colonial and racial violence. Sharing a beer with me at NDQ, the local queer hangout spot, does not make you any less the beneficiary of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

Neither does it make leftists immune to Quebec-sovereigntist attitudes. In my example, an individual with a leftist politic played into the Quebecois fictionalization of the racialized other—the dichotomy of (certainly white) Quebecois and all “others” who must be assimilated under dominant French rule.  This dichotomy is only further reified by a reductionist politic that focuses solely on issues of mobilization and movement building, often framed around conversations of movement tactics versus real and felt subjectivities, such as class, gender, sexuality, and race. In reducing the discourse of our movements to tactics of mobilization and refusing to address difference, Quebec leftist movements can be inattentive to issues of race, (ironically) class, and gender. By upholding white-supremacist Quebecois rhetoric around Torres’s arrest, this leftist activist unwittingly upheld the role that Quebec-sovereigntist rhetoric, and its attendant Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, and xenophobia, played into every facet of what happened to Torres at the 2016 vigil. Further troubling is the framing of Quebec’s leftist and queer organizing communities as having a white consciousness.

French colonizers have adopted a sovereigntist political, cultural, and social rhetoric in which they imagine themselves to be a colonized people—Indigenous, even. The claim of pure-blood ancestry (or “pure laine”) is one of many fictitious nationalist myths they propagate to assert their right over this territory as its original owners in a very similar fashion to Zionist Israel’s fictionalized birthright. This fiction allows the Quebecois to: (a) adopt an Indigenous identity by erasing Indigenous peoples from the colonial landscape and replacing them as the colonized peoples of this territory and (b) negate their own identities as colonizers and responsibility for ongoing processes of settler colonialism—what Eve Tuck has called a “settler move to innocence.”

Perhaps this is why the standoff at the Mohawk community of Kanesatake in 1990 (often called the Oka Crisis in settler media) was so explosive—the people of Kanesatake fought to preserve an area in their territories that they call The Pines, a sacred space where their ancestors are buried, from government-backed corporate development of a golf course. The assertion that the Kanien'kehá:ka are the rightful people of this land completely dismantles Quebecois blood-right. It is no surprise, then, that the settler community from nearby Châteauguay enacted their supposed blood-right with racialized violence against the Mohawk people during the height of the Oka Crisis in order to protect what they viewed as their sovereign right over the lands Quebec stands on.

The faux blood-right of the Quebecois peoples is upheld by a complex set of histories, mythologies, and an ideology that they have fabricated and maintained for generations. This can emerge as appropriation of Indigenous cultures and iconographies as “Quebec culture,” such as maple-syrup ceremonies lifted from the Haudenosaunee and La Chasse-galerie, a nationalistic mythology about conquering a haunted canoe that blends Indigenous stories with French stories, and includes a Quebecois settler version of Le Grand Manitou (the great spirit).

The most popular mythology is of some long-lost grandmother claimed by French Canadians to prove their birthright, belying the gendered dynamic of colonial fantasy. Quebecois people who claim a “long-lost relative” generations removed will often claim a feminine-gendered relative, enacting an entitlement to the land that relies on the imposition of rape culture on the bodies of Indigenous women, gender-variant people, and sexually diverse people—a form of gendered violence that was also the crux of the settler-colonial project.

Another paramount foundation of Quebec sovereignty is an insidious culture of anti-Black racism. Charmaine Nelson has done extensive work uncovering histories of slavery in Montreal that the Quebecois have conveniently erased from their cultural, social, and political memories. As Robyn Maynard considers in her book Policing Black Lives, this erasure functions to uphold a chronology of unbroken state violence on Black bodies that manifests in a contemporary affect of anti-Black racism amongst the Quebecois. State-approved violence against Quebec’s Black communities is especially apparent in the police killings of Bony Jean-Pierre, Abdirahman Abdi, and Pierre Coriolan. The community organization Montreal Nord (named after Montreal’s Montreal Nord neighborhood, where police killings prolifically take place) and Black Lives Matter organized well-attended vigils to demand both justice for these victims and safer conditions for their communities. Bony’s death resulted in Montreal Nord community members protesting in the streets, resulting in a violent altercation instigated by the Montreal police.

Islamophobia also propagates within Quebec-sovereigntist rhetoric, and in just as sinister ways. Just last month, the National Assembly in Quebec City approved a bill that requires people who give or receive any public service to uncover their faces, which directly affects women who wear the niqab or burka. There continues to be public violence against Muslim women who choose to wear head covers and white-supremacist terrorist attacks against mosques in Quebec metropoles, which only intensified after the increased visible sanction of white supremacy created by Donald Trump’s appointment as President of the United States, and the Quebec Charter of Values. The Quebec Charter of Values was a bill proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013. The Quebec Charter of Values was a proposed amendment to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms intended to disallow “conspicuous” religious symbols for state personnel, and singled out the mandatory requirement to removed head and face coverings not just in order to work with the provincial government but in order to interact in any way with state services as well.

Islamophobia in Quebec isn’t limited to stand-alone acts of violence, and has prolifically corroded Quebec’s political and social landscape, perhaps most notably in recent history during the debates for reasonable accommodation that emerged after a period of intense public debate among Quebec residents over the extent to which the practices of minority and immigrant groups should be accepted within Quebec. In response to the public’s concerns, the Quebec government established a commission in 2007, led by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, Gada Mahrouse has said, “With its focus on encouraging an ‘honest’ dialogue, within which French Canadian Quebecers were called on to determine the reasonable limits of tolerance of immigrant and minority identity, and with its theme of secularism under threat from the veiling of women, the Commission proceedings, whatever Bouchard and Taylor’s intentions, became a vehicle for the circulation of an idea of crisis and the overall perception that, unless Québec was careful, its core values would be undermined by a rapidly increasing Muslim immigrant population.”

The Bouchard-Taylor commission exposes an insidious truth about Quebec identity: The Quebecois are presumed to be white and Catholic, and those whom the Quebecois question whether they can “accommodate” are positioned as racialized others. Such a rhetoric serves to uphold the white-supremacist foundations of Quebec and Quebec sovereignty, and perpetuates an attitude of xenophobia—in particular Islamophobia—throughout contemporary social relations within Quebec.

Quebec is home to a plethora of media outlets and commentators that reflect Quebec sovereignty’s white-supremacist underpinnings, like Le Journal de Montréal and Richard Martineau, who have made their careers off of hateful racist and xenophobic fearmongering because, well, there’s a market for it. In 2016 Morgan Lowrie wrote for the Huffington Post that “Quebec separatists see new hope after [the] Brexit vote.” Of course Quebec sees itself in a successful sovereignty campaign based in fearmongering and nationalist colonial rhetoric that targets the Muslim and Black communities in violent and disturbing ways. But the ultimate fallacy of the self-proclaimed (and false) double consciousness of the Quebecois, that the Quebecois are an oppressed people under English rule, is that sovereignty for white settlers on stolen lands is actually just restated colonialism. French radical movements that appeal to Quebec sovereignty uphold its white-supremacist, xenophobic, and colonial attitudes, and cannot discursively separate themselves from the same attitudes that spark racialized violence against people of color in Quebec.

There is a Quebec saying, “Né sous le lys et grandi sous la rose,” meaning, “Born under the lis and raised under the rose.” With this sentiment, the Quebecois are using the analogy of the French fleur-de-lis and the English rose to argue that, while they are colonized by the English, they will always be French. My adaptation in the title of this piece is a reference to the Haudenosaunee who resided in Tio’tia:ke prior to French occupation—who were born under the tobacco flower but raised under the lis in nearby Kahnawake and Kanesatake—whose continued presence here reminds us French claims to sovereignty are asserted standing over the bodies and bones of the Black slaves they kept, and the Indigenous peoples they decimated and continue to decimate by occupying these territories as a settler. Just as Andrea Smith coined the pillars of heteropatriarchy—the pillars of Quebec sovereignty are, despite its partial home in leftist movements, Indigenous genocide, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Black racism.