Minorities and the Student Strike

The following text was written by Will Prosper, a community organizer in Montreal North has been posted on CMAQ. He brings up some important points for people to consider, so i am reposting it here with permission:

Before I begin: this is strictly based on my own observations, I will scratch the surface but this is not an in depth look.

My first thought when the student strike started was to look for the involvement of blacks and the different ethnic groups from Montreal in the strike. Because, of course, for me it was easy to see the need to not increase but rather to eradicate the tuition fees, in order to provide an equal chance for all in higher education.

I know a tuition increase will have a direct impact on the enrolment of black students since we are on average one third poorer than the average population. Plus, more and more black youth (especially males) are quitting school before they graduate. Though blacks are getting more university diplomas on average than the rest of the population from Quebec, a 2008 study from McGill University showed that a black person who graduates from university will have less chance of finding a job in Quebec than a white person who doesn’t even have a secondary 5 diploma (high school diploma). Worse, blacks that graduate from the 2nd cycle of university (with an MA or PhD) will earn $20,000 less than a white person with the same diplomas. I should also mention that females are also earning less than their counterparts but I don’t have the numbers.

So knowing all these facts I agree with Ajamu Nangwaya that the different students unions should also be fighting harder against these inequalities that face blacks and different minority groups.

The CLASSE (the far left student group) adopted an anti-racist mandate which is a good step. But a black female colleague of mine who is part of a union at a college affiliated with the CLASSE recently attended a CLASSE assembly where she was treated like an outsider as soon as she came through the door. She was asked if she was lost by one of the hosts – of course that question was never asked to any of the whites present. I understand that this might be an isolated example, but to me it shows the mentality of the members who feel it’s not normal for a black person to be part of a student organization such as “La CLASSE”. I guess I don’t need to add that there were simply no visible minorities taking part in the assembly. Also, through my participation in the different student groups around Montreal, I rarely see visible minorities, often there are none. While the reasons behind the lack of visible minorities in the student unions are far more complex, the fact that there is presently no spokesperson, not a single one in any of the different groups, who is from a visible minority or even from the anglophone community doesn’t help these people to be more involved in a cause where they should be front and center.

Another factor, especially for blacks (and particularly for Haitians), is that our parents always taught us to study hard and that we should work our asses off to succeed in life. This is very similar in all communities, but where there is a difference, is that the parents of our parents were very poor and they worked their asses off to send their children (our parents) to expensive schools in Haiti and abroad. Therefore, for Haitians and other minorities, it’s considered normal to have an 82% increase in order to have access to a great education.

On the political level, another factor is that most visible minority immigrants came under a Liberal government in Canada and a lot of them remain loyal to the end, no matter what the Liberals do. Another unfortunate thing is that a lot of them stay on the surface and see that the PLQ (Parti Libéral du Québec) have a couple of token minorities in their party and they are satisfied with that. Also, the different parties usually don’t reach out to the visible minorities, therefore on a political level a lot of blacks remain disconnected from everything that is going on.

But one of the main political problems, I believe, is that during the defeat of the referendum, in 1995, Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Jacques Parizeau said, “If we lost, it’s because of money and the ethnic groups.” These words, to this very day, sow fear in most of the ethnic groups in Quebec. Because what this sentence says to many of them is, “Not only do we feel that ethnic groups will never be Quebeckers, but if Quebec becomes independent you will not be welcome here.” Since then the PQ has tried hard to erase that memory from ethnic groups but without success. The reason why I’ve mentioned this is that a lot of the ethnic groups associate the student movement with French-speaking Quebeckers who are separatist; I think this might be true for many of them, but most of them are leftists first. But in the minds of the ethnic groups they remember the previously mentioned statement.

So these are some of the things I was initially hearing from the community, but since Bill 78 the debate has evolved. I remember that during the first big demonstration on March 22nd I saw some visible minorities, but not as many as during the most recent big one on May 22nd.

One incident on March 22nd revealed the ignorance or carelessness of many students. One of the main stunts, which I personally did not see as it was a huge protest, was a big face of Jean Charest being carried by students with their faces painted black, i.e., blackface. (http://quebec.huffingtonpost.ca/anthony-morgan/greve-etudiante-minorites_b_1383521.html). When I heard this I couldn’t believe the students painted their faces black, especially after the other blackface incident at the University of Montreal a couple of months earlier (http://www.torontosun.com/2011/09/20/montreal-school-apologizes-for-blackface-stunt). But I also couldn’t believe that they marched all the way to the end without anybody telling them they were doing was racist.

Another incident for me is the huge “Speak Red” video made by students to support the strike (here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkbBeQ21d1c). It’s a great idea that was taken from a text called “Speak White” by Michèle Lalonde, which denounced the bad situation of French-speakers in Quebec and took form as a collective complaint against English-speaking Quebeckers. But in this video (Speak Red) you have over 25 people appearing and you don’t have a single visible minority. This video is not too different from all the other ones that we see again and again, with only white francophone in the forefront. It gives many people the impression that this crisis is only being led by a single group. (BTW I’ve contacted both groups who told me they didn’t know or notice their discriminatory actions.)

Guess what? Last Friday when I saw that the Canadian Federation of Students had come out in support of the Quebec movement, it was the first time that I saw a black person as a spokesperson for a student group – and it was from the anglophone community, from Ontario – ouch!

The situation in Quebec is very particular as we have a francophone minority living in a sea of anglophones. While they rightly want to preserve their francophone culture, they have often oppressed the other minorities while fighting for it. As for myself, I’m working hard to participate (4-6 protests a week) and organizing many demonstrations, especially in Montreal-North (a very ethnically diverse community which seems totally disconnected from the student movement). I’d like to add that since Bill 78 a lot more visible minorities have come to protests as the bill violates a lot of our rights as found in the Charter of Rights. But those in the forefront unfortunately remain the same. I don’t believe that nobody from the francophone community has noticed the absence of visible minorities, but not many people are fighting to change things. I will keep on fighting from the inside, against inequalities and discrimination.

I strongly support the student movement and the fight against Bill 78, but I wish it was my only fight. However, some students, organizers, journalists and others also need some higher education.


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