Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Racism isn't just colour

Often we associate racism with colour of skin, physical comparison, facial features and the like. In the realm of insidious which I mentioned in my previous entry, I give you my childhood.

I was living on the South-Shore of Montréal in the late seventies and early eighties. It was the advent of the Parti-Québécois coming to power. The province had just gone through some dark times with Martial Law being imposed by Rt. Hon. Pierre-Trudeau. I was too young to remember the Pierre-Laporte incident, nor the soldiers manning the streets of Montreal, especially the East-End. I was 5 years old at the time. Shortly afterwards, my dad got an expatriate assignment in England.

When we returned in late 1974, the Prime Minister of Québec was Pierre-Bourassa (Parti Libérale du Québec). We were faced with the first of what would be a litany of discriminatory Bills issued by the Province in the next decade. Bill-22 it was called. It specified that no Québec resident could attend an English school, unless he or she was already enrolled, or could prove anglophone ancestry. It also specified that no new immigrant to the province could attend english school. There were provisions for English immigrants but I do not know of the specifics. Italian immigrants, for instance, had to enroll in french schools...period. That's how I understood it at the time.

Through luck and manoeuvering, I was able to continue my education in an english language school upon returning from England. My parents deemed this a necessity at the time so as to consolidate my newfound english language. My mother is of scottish descent which decreed that I am allowed to send my kids to english school in Québec if I so choose. French-only families are shit out of luck.

The government of the day was trying to retain french heritage through legislation. I won't debate as to the validity, indeed the success, of doing so, but there you have it.

Comes 1976, and the Parti-Québécois takes power. The dissatisfaction of the French towards their English overlords is finally being addressed in full. Or at least so claim the fanatics. As if the violence and manifestations of 1970 weren't enough, the province is driven deeper into scission. The party in power claims to be not anti-anglo, indeed simply... wait for it... pro-french. Sounds familiar don't it?

How close did we come to civil war? No one knows for sure. Everyone's experience of the time is so wildly different and tainted by beliefs that no one can give a straight answer today. Myself included. The fanatics were in all corners crying abuse and denouncing english domination. Maybe they had a point? I suppose. The moderates, that is, everyone else, did not see a need for violent, outrage and outbreak.

My own experience of the time was heavily tainted, of course. I was still on the high of Great-Britain and the wonderful things I had seen and learned there. However, I'll never really forget in my heart, that I kept getting nailed from both sides:

The assaults were verbal, when with my anglophone friends, I was the "Hostie de tête carré", square-head or bloke/block, until I replied in french. And then sometimes, during the crux of the problem, I was also the "fucking frog", until a swift "fuck-off already I'm anglo" solved that particular problem. The solution was relatively easy in this sense that I could reply in kind. Didn't make it any less hurtful, it just meant I could get even a little faster. The South Shore was at the time about a 60-40 split of anglo & franco, respectively. Immigrants were mostly on the island of Montreal proper, and later in Laval to the north.

As time went on some mild shit started happening. Houses would get egged or appled in my neighborhood, which was mostly anglo. Every other week it seems, we'd hear of a fight at André-Laurendeau/Macdonald-Cartier. One incident involved a chain saw one the one side and ball-peen hammers on the other. This one made national news if I remember correctly

Now there's a beauty for ya: André-Laurendeau was the french public regional high-school and Macdonald-Cartier was the english public regional high-school. These were two buildings not a 100 yards from each other separated by a 4 foot high chain-link fence. As if the chain extended all the way to the bus stop and right down the middle of the bus itself. Yeah, great way to produce a melting-pot of nitro and glycerine.

My dad decided to run for a low level school rep in our district and my friend's father was actually running for commisioner of the school board. These were some of the Parti-Libérale candidates running for the English School board. My dad was a realtive unknown and newcomer to the scene, so nothing happened to us...

But my buddy's father, on the other hand, was a well known liberal and an anglo to top it off.
His wife almost didn't make it!

Less than a week before the election, the police show up at my buddy's place. I quickly learn that his mother's car had been filled with gasoline, no, not in the tank, all over both front seats and floor. It was quite deliberate, although to this day we are unsure as to whether the intent was to intimidate or to kill. My buddy's mom was a chain smoker, an easy enough fact to determine. By the sheer grace of the gods, she had not lit up as she normally would upon leaving the house. If she'd opened the car with cigarette in hand, the damned thing would have gone up like a roman candle.

Now comes election day: one situation I particularly appreciated during the election process was that forces working for the PQ would do their best to intercept english speaking voters before they got to their poll and guide them towards empty polls where their ballot would be deposited in uncontrolled, and therefore uncounted, boxes. You are getting a mental picture yet? Then, they call in their friends from out of county to come and vote for the PQ rep, in a properly manned poll, in the anglo's name!

Massive complaints were lodged with the election bureau, which were sumarily ignored. After all, who would really care? It was only a school-board election. I can only imagine what happens at the provincial levels.

Unfortunately (of maybe fortunately) Denis Lazure was the elected PQ deputy in Chambly. This guy was a heavyweight with the PQ and they had major ressources, campaign drivers, etc, so losing the election was not going to be in the cards. Indeed the PQ did win the school board elections so my buddy's dad retired from school board politics. No more fuel for the fire, pun intended.

Anyway, this was my Québec growing up. Hatred running rampant, a little bit of violence mixed in for sport. Two things I do regret dearly, the fanatics stole our flag and our national holiday. When I see the flag nowadays, to me it's a symbol of fanatical-pro-franco-pride, it didn't used to be. The St-Jean-Baptiste was a beautiful, rustic holiday, now it is the rallying cry of the franco-fanatic, not Patron-Saint of all The Quebecois, as it once was. Slowly it is being taken back however, as the kids today have no knowledge of the bastardized 1980's meaning.

The PQ, wound people up so tight that they indeed manage to break the anglo stranglehold on the province, that's assuming there was one. The great exodus towards Toronto occured in those very years. The Montreal Star (newspaper) shut down as anglophones were leaving left, right and centre. You could count the number of people leaving through Montreal Star's subscription cancelations. The jewel of north american travel was supposed to be Montréal, a beautiful and cosmopolitain town, shiny Mirabel in the making (airport). We all know what happened to that.

There is a positive side to racism, and I say this with the consideration it deserves, had it not been for the rampant language racism that occured during those years, Toronto would not be the world-class metropolis that it is today.


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