“When we first talked about this event,” said scholar David Austin, addressing an over-capacity crowd at Montreal’s Concordia University, “it was, at least to my mind, going to be a small discussion. I think we can thank Madame Pauline Marois for the fabulous turnout.”

If ever there was a fruitful time for a discussion of race and colonization in Quebec, it was in the wake of the PQ government’s introduction of the so-called “Charter of Quebec Values”.

Though 60 chairs were set up, nearly 100 people crammed into the classroom to hear a three-speaker panel entitled “Colonialism in Québec: Myths, Misgivings, and Nationalism.” Austin, a Caribbean-Canadian onetime youth-outreach worker who is now a faculty member of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History, had just published a new book titled, Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal.

Also presenting lectures were Délice Mugabo, a board member of the Fédération des femmes de Québec (FFQ) and a member of the FFQ’s Racialized Women’s Committee, and Darryl Leroux, an academic from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Though the three speakers tackled very different topics, they were united in examining the idea that Quebec’s majority white francophone society is the product of colonialism. All three disputed or refuted this idea from several perspectives: Mugabo spoke about the difficulty of getting feminists in Quebec to commit to serious discussion of race and colonization; Leroux denied that Quebec could be colonized by the English because it already existed on top of Indigenous nations it had itself colonized; and Austin discussed the way that traditional discussions about what Quebec was depended on non-white people being invisible or unacknowledged.

Beginning the discussion, Mugabo introduced the term “intersectionality,” which she defined as meaning that “we are all positioned at the intersection of race, class, nationality, religious background, sexuality, ability and so on. Oppressions occur at those intersections, but so do power relationships between individuals and groups.” Intersectionality, then, means trying to recognize not only how power relationships that oppress people don’t exist on their own, but intersect one another to create more powerful forms of domination.

In Quebec feminism, Mugabo said, there has been an attempt to make intersectionality a guiding principle, and that notion led to events like the 2004 signing of the Protocol de Solidarité between the FFQ and the Femmes Autochtones du Québec, which was supposed to signal a new relationship between the two organizations and their members.

However, she said, there remains a colonial racism in many aspects of the Quebec feminist movement that is rarely expressed out loud, but shapes the way discussions and decisions take place.

“There is a significant body of individuals and groups who refuse intersectionality because they do not want to have a serious discussion about the legacy of colonialism and ongoing racism,” Mugabo said. She noted that an indicator of this has been the reluctance of feminists to engage in a discussion of whiteness and white privilege.

“A very concrete and basic example of this is the refusal by the majority [of feminists] to speak of white women in Quebec as just that: ‘white women.’” The Quebec feminist movement’s unwillingness to recognize white privilege, she argued, is due to the movement’s ties to Quebec nationalism, which “requires Quebec white people to be regarded as oppressed and colonized, and makes it hard to recognize the white privilege that Québécois people necessarily possess.”

Particularly difficult for some members of the feminist movement, Mugabo said, was freeing themselves from the nationalist narrative. That story goes that, “Anglos colonized Native people and did the same with francophones. Ottawa now treats Native people like minors and there’s nothing we can really do about it until we achieve independence.” She quoted her co-panellist David Austin in calling this “a tale of innocence and victimhood that conveniently omits [Quebec’s history of] the colonization of Indigenous peoples, the practice of slavery and racial exclusion.”

Interviewed later, Mugabo said that whether or not Indigenous women know the word “intersectionality,” they – like black feminists and other women of colour – have always been forced to understand it in real-life terms. “Being in a position where we were dominated and oppressed meant that we had to take into account that struggle had to happen within our communities. And it wasn’t just a struggle to liberate ourselves, but also our communities, because we’re not going anywhere without them. So that’s what’s important to me in terms of alliances. The question becomes: ‘When we struggle together, how do we do it in a way so that we don’t lose ourselves?’”

Noting Austin’s advice to “fight where you are, and start from where you are,” she said, “When you start from where you are, you have to look around and ask: What is happening? Where do you situate yourself in that struggle? In my context, colonization is what is happening, so that is part of what I struggle against.”

Darryl Leroux took the discussion in a more historical direction, noting that since the 1960s, Quebec has been strongly allied with France and presented in many cases as a form of French colony in North America. This alliance benefited those in Quebec who saw France as a strong global ally in the cause of independence, while it also benefited France, which had lost so many of its African colonies to anti-colonial uprisings and wanted to continue believing in itself as a beacon of civilizing values.

“As colonized nations rose up against it,” Leroux said, “France turned increasingly to Quebec to reinforce its exceptional role in world history.” In return, he said, “Quebec revels in its international status along with France in a way that situates it as a colonizer,” promoting a “shared European civilizational heritage” and encouraging initiatives similar to those pursued in France. (He reminded the crowd that France banned “conspicuous religious symbols” in schools beginning in 2004, in a law announcing state secularism very similar to Quebec’s Charter.)

Today, Leroux said, France is full of “Sites of Memory” that exist to allow Quebec francophones to search for their genealogical origins in the French countryside, and is supported by an impressive genealogical framework in Quebec that encourages these searches. What this amounts to, argued Leroux, is a redefinition of white Quebec francophones as “fundamentally European – focussing very narrowly on the bio-racial dimensions of the French-Quebec relationship. This is no longer just a cultural narrative around things like language, ethics and conduct. It’s an explicitly blood-based relationship being celebrated here.”

How, then, asked Leroux, can white Quebec francophones see themselves as colonized? “Can a population be colonized that already displaced the Indigenous population themselves?” Even considering what he called “the many paradoxes of race in Quebec,” Leroux said the story of the colonization of Quebec doesn’t work.

“Considering themselves colonized has very serious implications for the Québécois, but more importantly for Indigenous peoples all over what is known as the territory of Quebec,” he said, after the talk was over. “My understanding of colonization does not work with the idea of the Québécois being colonized, primarily because my idea of colonization involves the displacement or dispossession of people indigenous to the territory, which the Québécois are not.”

Leroux also questioned the sovereignist argument that First Nations would fare better in an independent Quebec, noting that it amounts to Quebec nationalists asking Aboriginal people to “just join in with us without changing the basis of what us means.” Importantly, he said, the question asks Aboriginal people to support a national project whose proponents are “not going to deal openly and explicitly with the fact that we have a history of colonizing, displacing and dispossessing Indigenous people, whether through hydroelectric projects or historical forms of colonization that basically led to massive deaths in Indigenous communities, intentional or not.”

Ending the night, Austin brought the discussion in close to the issue of day-to-day public life in Quebec, asking who gets noticed and who gets heard, and why.

“The master narrative in Quebec and Canadian history is profoundly shaped by race,” he said. “English and French people perceived and understood themselves as distinct races, while Indigenous people and people of African descent, including slaves, were invisible – or unvisible: they were people who were visible and present, but not acknowledged.”

Building on what Leroux had pointed out about the ethnic Europeanness of Quebec nationalism, Austin recalled former Premier Lucien Bouchard’s speech to a women’s group in October 1995, during which Bouchard said, “Do you think it makes any sense that we have so few children in Quebec? We’re one of the white races that has the fewest children. This doesn’t make any sense.”

That comment expressed, Austin said, a widely held fear among white Quebec francophones about biological identity being contaminated by non-white people entering the gene pool. Though the comment was controversial at the time, it was not considered sufficiently shocking to harm Bouchard politically: he remains to this day a respected figure in Quebec.

“We have a nationalist narrative in this province that excuses or allows essentially eugenic notions of race,” Austin concluded. “The notions of Québécois de souche and pure laine imply race. They’re geneticist. We have to stop and think about how that’s become common, everyday language.”

The problem goes back to invisibility, he argued. “It’s not to make a statement that Quebec is any [more racist] than other parts of North America, but we can’t neglect the fact that there are particularities and specificities in this province that have to do with being dominated on the one hand by an Anglo minority and an English majority in rest of Canada, and also being a colonizer, having colonized Indigenous people, made them invisible, and written them entirely out of the narrative.”

What this means, he said, is that Indigenous people and people of colour who have always been present in Quebec, as well as recently arrived immigrants, are faced with the strange problem of a majority white, francophone society that thinks of itself as a persecuted minority.

“That has profound implications in terms of how the majority interacts with and responds to so-called minorities,” Austin said. The continued attempt by majority Quebec society to reinforce the invisibility of Indigenous people, along with Black people and other people of colour, makes it possible for what he called “chez-nous attitudes” toward non-white-francophones to continue to exist.

“Quebec has never been made up only of French Quebecers,” he underlined. “But part of what we’re seeing today is that when so-called non-French-Quebecers begin to actively occupy public space, it becomes a challenge. It’s no coincidence that the Quebec charter is [directed specifically at] non-French-Quebecers and their religious symbols. Behind closed doors, behind walls, that’s one thing. But this is about the space they occupy in the public sphere.”

However, in spite of the anger and outcry over the Charter of Quebec Values and what it suggests is the PQ government’s privileging of white French identity above all others, Austin remains optimistic.

“There can’t be a Quebec national identity that doesn’t include people of, for example, Turkish, Tamil, Sri Lankan and especially Indigenous origins,” he said. The present controversy is an opportunity “for Quebecers to rise to the challenge and think of a different kind of Quebec that is true and in keeping with Quebec as it actually is, and not what the dominant forces are trying to make it into. The onus is on French Quebecers to change. Because Quebec has already changed.”