Teaching systemic racism is bad, but the N-word is free speech?
This week I sat down with Maïtée Saganash, who was mobbed online after the premier criticized her educational video on systemic racism
Maïtée Saganash does not mess around with her crêpes.
She came to eat a rich breakfast and a rich breakfast she will eat: buttery crêpes stuffed with bananas, drizzled in chocolate and topped with three cloud-shaped lumps of whipped cream.
The server refills Maïtée’s coffee and double-checks the order.
“I guess you don’t want syrup with that, what with all the chocola—”
“Oh no, I’ll have syrup too,” Maïtée says, looking the server dead in the eye. “If I get diabetes, I’ll have asked for it. Can’t say I wasn’t warned.”
Whether in politics or one of Val-d’Or’s more fragrant greasy spoons, Maïtée doesn’t take half measures.
Her plate is the dietary equivalent of dousing yourself in gasoline and running into a forest fire. But after the week she’s had, you can forgive her a bit of excess.
A few days back, former Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée singled her out on Twitter for participating in a provincially funded video on systemic racism. “Singled out” might not be the right term. He snitched. Lisée publicly implored Quebec’s premier to pull the video from classrooms, and compared it to the state teaching the flat earth theory or creationism.
“I’m an Indigenous woman on Twitter. This isn’t my first time around the block. It was pretty clear what would happen next,” Maïtée said, taking a sip of coffee. “My phone just starts going ‘ding, ding, ding’ and then the trolls come out of the woodwork.”
One Twitter user posted a picture of Maïtée next to a bearded man wielding a machine gun over the caption “Find the difference.”
A Cree woman who speaks about racism is an act of terrorism? Had I known I was eating breakfast with a member of the Islamic State, I would have reported it to the RCMP.
Lisée disputes my characterization of his Tweet. Though it included her picture, the post didn’t tag Maïtée and he says that he holds her in the “highest esteem.”
After Lisée’s tweet, Maïtée was swarmed by similarly miserable people. They accused her of hating Quebec, of being a professional victim, they mocked her and shamed her merely because she claims that racism is built into our society (a claim most recently backed by the 2019 Viens Commission Report, but I digress).
“I broke down and cried,” she said. “To be targeted and bullied simply because you’re pointing out a problem, that’s not a debate, that’s just harassment. That’s just trying to drive someone out of the public space.”
This wasn’t triggered by an angry young man who lives in his mother’s basement and subsists on a diet of Cheetos and Monster Energy Drink. It came from the former leader of a party that changed politics in Canada forever.
It should be noted that Lisée received his fair share of backlash over the tweet. People called him racist and other awful things. I don’t believe Lisée is racist. While serving as leader of the PQ, he offered to implement a series of concrete actions against racism as an alternative to holding a public inquiry into systemic racism. He believes in structural racism but not systemic racism. I disagree. That’s life.
Lisée’s tweet had major consequences for Maïtée. Quebec’s most widely read newspaper published an article entitled “Quebec disavows educational video.” (That same day, the province reported about 1,300 new cases of COVID-19. Priorities.)
You might think Maïtée knows a thing or two about systemic racism.
While Quebecers asserted themselves with the Quiet Revolution of the ’60s, her dad, Romeo, and Uncle Johnny were taken from their parents and sent to separate residential schools. Johnny never came home because he died in state care. Romeo carries literal scars from his time as a ward of the federal government.
But it didn’t end there.
While at university in Montreal, a group of right-wing students started a podcast where they would denigrate Maïtée for being Cree. No one did anything to stop it.
None of this means that Quebec is an exceptionally racist place. It just means that our province, like all of North America, is the product of colonialism. If you’re born Indigenous, you don’t have access to the same opportunities that white people do. Your schools aren’t funded as well, you’re more likely to live in poverty, to go to prison, to die of a preventable illness.
This sounds systemic.
But there’s a coalition in this province of right-wing ideologues and former leftists who can’t stomach the phrase “systemic racism.” PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon practically wrapped himself into a pretzel this week to try to explain how there can be institutional racism in Quebec but not systemic racism.
“I remember I was on a panel with him once and he said, ‘Maïtée, what will it take for Indigenous people to consider themselves Quebecers?’” Maïtée said, while eyeing her boyfriend Jacob’s plate of bacon.
“I said, ‘Nothing. We’re not Quebecers. We’re part of our own nations.’ There’s this whole class of péquistes who can’t accept that we don’t aspire to be them. It’s frustrating.”
Saint-Pierre Plamondon is a nice enough fellow and he was educated at Oxford University, so it’s worth hearing him out. By the way, I know he went to Oxford because he’s mentioned it in every conversation I’ve ever had with him.
“When I was at Oxford…” or “Reminds me of this time when I was a student at the world-renowned Oxford University that has produced such geniuses as Stephen Hawking and T.S. Elliot….”
Yes, well, you can keep your fancy book learning, I’ll continue eating Chef Boyardee directly out of the can like they taught us at Dawson College.
Here’s something ironic.
Two weeks ago, people like Lisée wrote chest-beating editorials arguing that university classrooms should be a place where, in some contexts, it’s okay for white people to say “n*****.”
Now he doesn’t want students to be exposed to a polite video about systemic racism. And don’t get him started on Muslim teachers wearing a hijab on the job.
Freedom of speech! Sort of.
Maïtée now lives in the Cree territory of Waswanipi, where she works at the health board and dabbles in journalism. Her work on educational videos is award-winning and her column in Métro Montréal is consistently one of the most interesting reads of the week.
But toward the end of her time in college, the constant digs at her identity became too much. So she moved back home, where Jacob has befriended her Uncle Red and her cousins.
“My cousin told me that if we break up, he’ll still consider Jacob his friend and brother. No loyalty,” she smiles and elbows Jacob.
In the end, Lisée took to Twitter to denounce the trolls who attacked Maïtée. He didn’t set out to hurt her, but Lisée is no fool and he must have known something unpleasant would come of his tweet.
He also said it’s critical that we implement the recommendations of the Viens Commission and he’s right. We should.
In most circumstances, I quite like Lisée. He’s funny, he’s smart and he cares about making life better for working people. But the identity politics stuff is upsetting to me.
“He drank whiskey with me and some friends,” Maïtée said. “He knows me. That’s what makes this so hard.”
Update: The first version of this piece said Jean-François Lisée went to Oxford University. Due to an editing error, the educational background of Paul St-Pierre Plamondon was transposed with Lisée. It is Plamondon who attended Oxford University.
After spending the better part of a week in the mud outside Caledonia, and another week writing, my feature on the standoff at 1492 Land Back Lane will be out next week in Ricochet Media.
It’s 4,500 words! But they’re all important.
I hope you’ll read it.
If you want to see it first, be sure to follow @ricochet_en on Twitter. And if you’re not a newsletter subscriber yet, join us. This is the kind of thing I send out to subscribers every Friday.