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Blackface, Pastagate -- What Does Quebec Stand For?

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The most surprising thing about the newest Quebec scandal is how completely typical it has become. Quebec is the Cosmo Kramer of provinces; the zany antics are played out, and now we're just left with the unsettling racism.

For the second time this year, la belle province has made headlines based on a cartoonishly extreme attack on basic common sense and dignity. The first quarter of the year brought the infamous "pastagate" scandal, which ultimately culminated in the resignation of Louise Marchand, the head of the Office Quebecois de la langue francaise (affectionately referred to by many as the "language police"). The prolonged incident started with an Italian restaurant being sent a formal warning for using Italian words (example: "pasta") instead of their French equivalents (example: "pâtes") on menus and signage. It made international news, and I honestly thought the subsequent negative attention would help the province round a corner on its draconian language laws. Maybe the Quebec that cracked down on a small town newsletter for posting announcements in English as well as French would be a thing of the past.

Instead, this past week we have been treated to news about the weird return of blackface to Quebec when comedian Mario Jean wore the makeup to a recent awards show. I say "return" because it's been only two years since the last time this happened.

This could have been so very easy to handle. Donning blackface is neither commonplace nor logically defensible; it's a thing either done by assholes or Al Jolson. (If you or anyone you know has ever considered breaking out the face paint, answer the following question: Are any of you Al Jolson? If you're not, then stop and think about your life choices for a bit.)

The entire situation could have been resolved by saying: "Whoa, Mario Jean is kind of acting like an asshole, isn't he? He absolutely doesn't represent the Franchophone people as a whole," and we could have all gone back to making plans to visit Osheaga this summer. Instead, an outpouring of support emerged...in support of blackface.

The support came in different forms: One argument is that since Jean was impersonating a specific black person, the makeup was justified; another is that the idea of blackface is "imported," freeing it of its nasty racist implications in Quebec. Regardless, the response was far from the swift and apologetic resolution it could have been. Quebecois chose to stick to their guns and defend a perceived slight perpetrated by one of their own, because...well, just because.

And that right there is why this type of thing doesn't surprise the rest of Canada as much as it used to: Decades of often senseless contrarianism have robbed the Quebecois of much of their bite. When you're systematically opposed to everything, it's hard to make people believe you stand for anything.

Historically, Quebec's relationship with the rest of the country has been one of concessions, as is the nature of nation-building. Quebec is the reason Catholic schools are still publicly funded in many provinces, and the reason that French is a mandatory class in all elementary schools outside the province (interestingly enough, English classes were not made mandatory for grades 1 through 3 in Quebec until 2006). Because Quebec never technically signed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (it was part of the Constitution Act of 1982), it has developed some concepts parallel to the rest of the country. As touched upon a few years ago, Quebec is not technically a multicultural society -- it practices "interculturalism," a variant that allows for other cultures but emphasizes the prevalence of French culture above all else.

All of the above exceptions were to respect francophone culture as a legally distinct society, and to stop the historically French way of life from being absorbed into the British majority of Confederation-era Canada. These choices made sense at the time, but in the intervening century-and-a-half, some of the relevance has melted away. What remains now shapes the dominant french culture in Quebec, but it may be time for a province-wide discussion about how that culture chooses to define itself.

Quebec: As the Distinct Society you have fought so valiantly to become, what are you doing with that responsibility? Are you addressing the cultural and racial coexistence challenges that face every growing populace? Are you attempting to be an equal and balanced partner with the rest of Canada? Outside of becoming a magnet province for every woefully regressive, combative, needlessly exclusionary way of thinking in the country, what do you have to offer?

The public complaints, the international headlines, the debates surrounding francophone public policy; these things won't vanish until Quebec decides what is right, what is French, and which of the two is worth fighting for.

Correction: This post originally stated that English classes are not mandatory in Quebec schools. In 2006, ESL classes became mandatory in Quebec schools starting in grade one.

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