Window Seat: Looking Out from the Margins at Quebec’s Anti-Charter of Values

Delice Mugabo

   The Quebec Charter of Values was the common name given to a Bill that was presented as a solution to a debated that had started in 2006 about the “reasonable accommodation” of religious and cultural minorities, and particularly religious symbols in the public sphere. It was first proposed in early 2013 by the newly elected Parti Québécois government and was submitted to the National Assembly as Bill 60 in October of that year. The public debate around the Charter in Quebec centered on the merits of regulating non-Christian religious practices and facilitating the “integration” of immigrants.

   On April 7, 2014 the minority government of the Parti Québécois was defeated in a provincial elections and the Parti libéral du Québec won a majority of seats. Although the Charter, as it was proposed by the PQ, is now defunct, the Liberals promised on the day after their election to submit their own version of a Bill, a pared-down Bill that will nevertheless set limits on the ability of visibly religious people to move through and work in public space. We should also note that the new government has talked repeatedly in the last year about “forced marriages” and “honour crimes” being among its priority policy “problems.” It is, in short, still open season on people of colour.

   I titled my paper “Window Seat” to reflect the outsider position from which I observed the debate on the Charter. I come to you today as a black feminist, and that is the position from which I always speak, for black feminism is the only perspective that has acknowledged the totality of my being and equipped me with the analytical tools I need to assess the kind of political action I should engage in for complete liberation for all. Black feminism has also connected me with the struggles of the black women and black people who have come before me, and has forced me to become accountable to others through time and space — for we are a transnational and intergenerational people.

   I am also a Muslim of Rwandan origin, born in the Republic of Congo, who immigrated to Quebec at 5 years of age, who speaks French with a Quebecois accent, who used to be an active member of the political party Québec solidaire, and who is now questioning her work and place within the Quebec feminist movement. Despite all that I am, I put my blackness at the centre because it’s the most visible part of me in a settler, post-slavery, and “colorblind” society and it represents a history that Quebec continues to work hard to deny or tone down, as well as a present that it continues to exploit and police.

   I am aware that in presenting this paper at an English university, my arguments can easily be interpreted to be a critique of Quebec and of French Quebercers as a distinctly or especially problematic place and people; a critique that takes the form of what is called Quebec-bashing. As Darryl Leroux wrote in his recent piece on the Charter and nationalism in English Canada and in Quebec, I too am “reminded in this moment that [English Canada] has a deep and generalized disdain for Quebec, especially when it comes to anything to do with the PQ.” Yet many of us know all too well that part of what happens in the discourse around the “two founding nations” or the “two solitudes” is that it silences and delegitimizes the histories of native peoples and the voices of people of colour. As a black woman, I am held hostage by projects that oppose my liberation.

   My aim is to pry away at the usual framing of the Charter debate by bringing a black feminist critique to bear upon the dominant counter-arguments that have been entered into the conversation. In pursuing this, I insist on the importance of keeping race and colonialism at the intersecting centre of our critiques and strategies of a transformative politics. Central to my presentation is the importance for our struggle to remain grounded in history even — and especially — when it is inconvenient and difficult.

   For the purpose of this presentation today, I will base my arguments on the declaration and manifesto Québec Inclusif, which has received wide coverage in the Quebec media. Here is how Québec Inclusif introduces itself in its manifesto:

We are a group of academics and professionals from the legal, philosophical and journalistic fields, joined by citizens of all backgrounds and origins. We count among us both separatists and federalists, as well as others with no firm position on Quebec’s constitutional future.

   The group’s website received more than 200,000 hits during the first week and the manifesto garnered over 20,000 signatures within that period. The support that they received was far and wide, coming from artists, officials from all the opposition parties, public figures, and activists from social movements, the Quebec intelligentsia, and lay people. I am in no way singling out that group, for their positions are far from unique in Quebec and have been repeated across the political spectrum, from the Left to the Right. However, I focus my analysis on Québec Inclusif because its authors were given a prominent public platform to advance their specific critique of the Charter.

   Throughout this paper, I will focus on discourse deployed in this manifesto because as black Canadian sociologist Amal Madibbo points out, “the analysis of social and language practices particularly through discourse allows one to identify how language users make sense of their actions and their social realities by expressing positions and representations”. Specifically, I will examine the reasoning behind two of the mainstream arguments that have been invoked against the Charter. The first contends that the Charter will create exclusions while the second asserts that it will make the integration of immigrants difficult. I want to show that both arguments are based in a revisionist version of history of Quebec and frame it as a model post-racial society.

On Quebec Inclusif Erasing Race and Racism from Their Discourse

   The first dominant counter-argument to the Charter I want to critique is a recurring theme in the discourse of Québec Inclusif. Their manifesto writes,“Quebec has always been a warm and welcoming land where everyone could contribute to the greater social quilt.” A much-cited example to support this affirmation is Quebec’s embracing of the “boat people” of Vietnam during the 1980s. Other examples include Kosovars in the 1990s, and more recently, Columbians.

   While Québec Inclusif advanced this argument in order to challenge the Charter, it fits into a broader Quebecois narrative that although — or perhaps because — French Canadians were subjugated by Anglo-Canadians, French Canadians have been more empathetic toward those who have wanted to settle here. This narrative also suggests that social integration for new immigrants (which is assumed to have taken place) occurred seamlessly and even naturally and didn’t involve struggles on the part of “the integrated”. We’re given the impression that if these arrivals have “integrated”, it’s due to the unending, always-existing openness of settler Quebecers. In this scenario, Quebecers were benevolent actors while “immigrants” were passive but grateful recipients of their generous openness. This is what Québec Inclusif’s particular challenge to the Charter wittingly or unwittingly invoked.

   All this, of course, is a fiction and a glorification of Quebec history. It is born out of a foundational and mythical “tale of innocence and victimhood that conveniently omits Quebec’s history of the colonization of Indigenous peoples, the practice of slavery and racial exclusion”, to quote David Austin. By forgetting colonization, Quebecers are able to claim the territory as their own. By omitting slavery, Quebecers are able to claim that all black people arrived in Quebec by way of immigration and were generously welcomed by French settlers.

   This historical narrative prevents us from speaking about the fact that some of us were brought here by force and as objects, and that we remain undesirable regardless of our level of education or fluency in French or our secularism. Pretending that these broad and longstanding problems never existed makes it hard to assess the Charter — which appears, without this history, a singular aberration, a kind of mistake that needs to be isolated and corrected. In contrast, bringing historical dis-identification, subjugation, and resistance to the fore reveals that the problematic dynamics underlying the Charter aren’t only between Quebec and its recent immigrants. Being black and indigenous has always been a problem Québec needed to contain and the defeat of the Charter does little to change that.

   To critique this dominant historical narrative in no way denies that Quebec has always been a racially diverse society and that there is a history of people of colour migrating to Quebec, starting their lives in a new society. Instead, it helps to draw out further connections among these histories, including the parts that have been regularly erased. It allows us to fully recognize the active role played by immigrants throughout Quebec’s history and to resist  depoliticizing the regulatory process of “integration” deployed in Quebec, as in the rest of Canada.

   I should note that many anti-racists and anti-colonial activists signed the manifesto as well. Though many recognized the limits of the manifesto, they saw in it an opportunity to mobilize against the Charter and hoped that it would open discussions that could eventually transform the political context beyond the Charter. In other words, they supported the manifesto in a strategic manner to achieve a concrete and immediate goal — to halt the Charter.

   While I sympathize with these aims, I think it is important to reflect upon the kinds of alliances and solidarities that are opened up in this move, and the ones that are foreclosed by it. We might want to consider what it means to work in coalition with people for whom our stories and our truths are inconvenient to their goals. What kinds of coalitions would this be? What kinds of not-yet-coalitions does it foreclose? More broadly, I want to question the idea that it is possible, or desirable, to use a dominant narrative of power to arrive at a transformational politics.

   A provisional answer to these questions can be found by looking at the actual solidarity (or lack thereof) between Québec Inclusif members and black activists in Quebec. Take, for example, Québec Inclusif founding member Judith Lussier’s response to black feminist and food justice activist Nydia Dauphin’s writing about the phenomenon of blackface in Quebec. During an award ceremony last year, several white comedians performed in blackface on stage. When Dauphin published an article on blackface and racism in Quebec, Lussier used her column in Journal Métro to criticize Dauphin and ridicule the historical analysis that Dauphin provided about racism and anti-blackness in Quebec.

   This illustrates what a mistake it would be to understand mainstream opposition to the Charter as a fundamentally anti-racist or anti-colonial project. The same discourses and the same people who rip their shirts in public for inclusion and the integration of immigrants are sometimes the same people who use their social and political capital to silence black women for calling out Quebec on its racist and colonial practices.

   If the Québec Inclusif position is to be seen as a first step towards engaging a broader discussion on racism and colonialism, I would argue that their manifesto explicitly states the contrary. The third objection that they raise against the Charter is that it will generate a “ear of the other”.  It is in that section that they make clear that they “resist the temptation to demonize the defenders of this conception of secularism by charging them with racist and xenophobic intentions because doing so only leads to polarizing the debate and curtailing the opportunity for a real exchange”.

   According to the group, the racial ordering of Quebec as nation is not what produced the Charter; it is only one possible outcome that may result in its implementation. This is an important distinction because it presumes of a certain racial innocence in Quebec’s management of social and material life. Further, nowhere in the brief that the group submitted at the National Assembly to the Public hearings on the Charter were the terms racism, or colonialism, or their derivatives mentioned.

   As David Austin rightly puts, “the production of false truths and power are inextricably linked. Power is facilitated and exercised through the production of truth, through contrived narratives designed to maintain power, order, and authority, to make laws, and to produce wealth”. A lot has been written about the ways in which the state produces a narrative that constitutes white settlers as the legitimate owners of the land, subsequently ascribing to them the exclusive right to “manage” native and immigrant populations. Mainstream detractors of the Charter recuperate and solidify that narrative when they refuse to address the way the Bill “simply follows in the history of neo-colonialist assimilation”, to quote Idle No More Quebec.

   “The eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to the terror [of whiteness]. It has also become a way to perpetuate the terror, by providing a cover, a hidden place.”

On Québec Inclusif and Interculturalism

   In addition to Québec Inclusif’s reiteration of a dominant (and problematic) version of Quebec history, it also provides support to Quebec’s more recent approach to social integration : what is called “interculturalism.” The manifesto explicitly supports this approach in the conclusion of the manifesto, where it is suggested that if Quebec does away with the Charter, “in terms of culture and identity, Quebec may continue to celebrate its authenticity through a rich culture protected by an integration model that is tried, tested and true.”

   As with the earlier argument, there is a strategic reason behind this one, though it may not be a good one. Proponents of the Charter have often accused its detractors of playing into the hands of Canadian multiculturalism — a doctrine that the Quebec mainstream rejects. Attempting to dodge such an accusation, Québec Inclusif clearly situates itself alongside or within the interculturalist model that Quebec began to develop in the late 1970s, which became fully articulated in a 1990 policy document. Simply put, interculturalism includes three main tenets: French as the national language, a democracy in which all are invited to participate, and a pluralist society that promotes cross-cultural dialogue. Since both proponents of the Charter and detractors like Québec Inclusif have proclaimed to be guided by interculturalism, it is important to consider some of the pitfalls of that project.

   Interculturalism is part of what allows Quebec to present a linear history of itself: one that does away with ethnic nationalism and moves into a cosmopolitan civic nationalism in which participation is extended to anyone living within the territorial limits of Quebec. Federalists and sovereigntist Quebecers alike embrace this political agenda, because it seems to ground Quebec among other Western nations that have adopted a liberal model of state management. When Québec Inclusif writes in its manifesto that “With this draft Charter of Values, the Parti Québécois fulfills its shift from a civic or liberal nationalism towards an exclusionary one”and that it is “at great risk of weakening the Quebecois identity rather than strengthening it”, it is because the Charter is seen by many as a setback from the work that Quebec has done over the past three decades to acquire a respectable status among other Western nations.

   But is this a status that opponents of the Charter should be buttressing? Is interculturalism a project that we should be affirming in our resistance to projects like the Charter of Values? It should be recognized here, at the very least, that Left scholars and activists have developed a strong critique of interculturalism, emphasizing the work that it does in protecting and affirming white francophone Quebeckers’ power over the management of the land and all aspects of life upon it. In positioning interculturalism as the desirable norm in relation to which the Charter is an aberration, Québec Inclusif sets back the cause of anti-racism and anti-colonialism in Quebec and beyond.

   In light of this, I have to doubt seriously that transformational politics are at the centre of mainstream oppositions to the Charter. On the contrary, I would say that arguments like those of Québec Inclusif have the consolidation of a liberal and deeply oppressive, state as the unacknowledged goal.


   The struggle over the Charter of Values — although it appears to be over (for now) — reveals some of the stakes in anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle in general. It is my view that, to postpone our critiques and our goals in the service of a short-term end (like annulling the Charter), is to participate in a larger politics of silence. As Black Canadian feminist scholar Notisha Massaquoi poignantly suggests, “many of us are forced to exchange a peaceful existence for violent relationships”. If nothing else, I would argue that racism and colonialism are the violence that the terms of our allyships must struggle against.

   What I am trying to bring home is the importance committing to transformative justice and politics. This is always difficult work that must remain grounded in history to succeed. I want to end here with beginnings. In situating this debate in Quebec’s history, we can better see all those affected by the Charter. Instead of being afraid of losing allies, this moves us to expand the number of people we reach. Citing Red Summer, Muslim black feminist filmmaker, “a community broadens, once their scope broadens”.


Austin, David. “Narratives of Power: historical Mythologies in Contemporary Québec and Canada” Race and Class, Vol 52, No 1, 2010.

bell hooks, as quoted in Darryl Leroux’s PhD thesis, « Commemorating Québec : Nation, Race, and Memory », Carleton University, 2010, p. 43.

Idle No More. “Idle No More Québec denounces the colonial measures of Pauline Marois Government”. 12 Sept 12, 2013. Web.

Leroux, Darryl. “Whose Values? On Nationalism in English Canada and in Québec”. The Media Co-Op. September 13. 2013.

Muslimah Media Watch. “Black Muslim Lesbians Find Community in Atlanta’s Gay Mecca: Part 1.” Patheos. Web. 29 May. 2013.

Québec Inclusif. “Manifesto – Québec Inclusif”. Québec Inclusif, 16 April, 2014. Web. (As of this date the manifesto had 27,743 signatures.)