Coroner Géhane Kamel

The current hyper-defensive reactions by Quebec’s political elite over the use of the term “systemic racism” was brought into starker relief last week. It is rare for a Quebec bureaucrats to criticize Quebec as racist. But that’s just what happened.

The coroner in the Joyce Echaquan case shone the light.Joyce - an Indigenous Quebecer -recorded on her phone how she was ignored in the ER of a hospital because she was Indigenous and spoke English. Tragically she died from lack of medical attention.

Coroner Géhane Kamel's top recommendation in her report is that the province recognize such racism exists and take concrete action to eliminate it. The report, released Friday, also says “racism and prejudice” contributed to the Atikamekw woman's death, although the cause of death — pulmonary edema — was ruled accidental. Kamel bluntly stated that had Joyce been a white woman she would have survived.

Nothing makes most of our political class - particularly the Premier - cringe as much as any inkling that Quebec has more than a thin veneer of “systemic racism.” He totally rejects the notion while admitting that “racism” is a problem that must be fought but will not join other political leaders like Liberal leader Dominique Anglade and Montreal Mayoralty candidate Denis Coderre who have both accepted that “systemic” racism may indeed be a problem that must be studied and addressed.

Now, to,be fair, the definition of “systemic” has two definitions. The first is that racism is systemic through passage and implementation of laws that discriminate against a particular group on the basis of race, religion, creed, gender or language. That is actually the definition in a number of United Nations covenants that Quebec has accepted. The second definition of “systemic” is the mindset of individuals throughout a system who commit racist acts because laws or language used by political leaders make it seem acceptable. Premier Legault’s accepts the second definition and admits that there are “misguided” people in any society. But he categorically rejects the first or any connection between Quebec law and language that may incite the second. In this he is terribly wrong.

In this space we have defended Premier Legault from charges of racism in the passage of Bill 21 because that is a law of general application against the wearing of any and all religious symbols in four specific areas of public service where the intellectual and legal character of our society is formed. The legislature, the courts, public security and public schools. It is not like Premier Marois’ “Values Charter” that applied across the board from transportation to health care.

But Mr. Legault’s Bill 96 on language continues the 40-year attack targeting specific groups - Anglophones and Allophones - not only eliminating freedom of choice but imposing a de jure second-class status. That is what all the language laws have done and they have given license to far too many who now consider it acceptable to ignore or deride anyone speaking anything other than French even in life-threatening situations. The laws themselves, violate the 1992 UN Covenant on the Protection of Religious and Linguistic Minorities that Canada signed and Quebec accepted by reference and the 2012 Global Inter-Parliamentary Union Declaration in Quebec City that reiterated the Protection of Linguistic Minorities and that Premier Marois herself accepted. She also acted as host for that conference.

If Quebec’s political elite reject the word racist would they accept the Coroner’s word “prejudiced?” It is a distinction without a difference. And all sparked and imbued into the lifeblood of Quebec through 40 years of culture wars. In the name of decency it is time to stop. Premier Legault, withdraw Bill 96!

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