The problem with the St. Jean Baptiste parade and race in Quebec

News Analysis

Egbert Gaye

The united outburst of anger and disgust at the sight of four young Black men at the St. Jean Baptiste Day parade pushing a float with a white singer swaying on it and   surrounded by white people in flowing white dresses resounded across the city, province and country.
Cries of racism reverberated and criticisms were hurled at the organizers, The St. Jean Baptiste Society (SSJB), the government and a society that showed no discomfort with the slave-like perceptions of Blacks.
And because it was an Internet-driven controversy with the Facebook video drawing thousands of hits, a chorus of race advocates and warriors sounded in defense of the dignity of our race.
Sadly, amidst the din, fury and all-out hostility, hardly anyone stopped to consider the collateral damage that are the Black students who came out to participate in a parade as instructed by their football coach (who is also Black), and ended up being categorized in a slave-like depiction.
It’s the duty of everyone to take a stand and raise their voice in the face of any appearance of racism and injustice, especially in this society where the institutions and powers-that-be have maintained blind eyes to the many ills that have kept Black and other minorities on the fringes of society.
Historically, the SSSJB as an instrument of the state has not been welcoming to those categorized as “others” in Quebec, and their parades have not been the place where evidence of diversity in this province has ever been showcased.
(It wasn’t that long ago, an African man wearing his traditional clothes caused a big kerfuffle in the parade.)
According to Dan Philip of the Black Coalition of Quebec, the SSJB squandered opportunities to properly reflect the important historical contributions to Quebec society, as is evident in personalities such as Marie Joseph Angelique, Mathieu DaCosta, Oliver Lejeune, or even modern icons such as Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones.
Similarly, in poll after poll, Quebecers in general openly admit to harboring racist attitudes toward many of the visible minority groups in the province, Muslims and Blacks heading the list of the most despised. (According to a friend, they couldn’t even bring themselves to lie about it.)
And it reaches way to the top, because no level of government has shown the will to act on the many points of exclusion and abuses meted out to Blacks in the province.
But Dan Philip makes the point that it will take a lot more than legislation to make any inroads in the fight against racism; much of that battle has to take place in the nooks and crannies of society, in communities, organizations and other institutions.
That’s why in some ways it’s heartening to see the uproar against that insensitive situation at the parade, because any opportunity to challenge those deeply ingrained prejudices must be seized and acted upon with the required fervor.
The truth is, this situation of some Black student athletes lending their manpower of their own volition to push the floats, as a way of keeping the parade eco-friendly, should hardly trigger a rallying about racism.
However, because SSJB and the province of Quebec are so sinful in their attitude to Blacks and other minorities, this simple incident with its troubling and insensitive optics makes them fair game.
But to expect that change will come because of this incident is wishful thinking.
Pity those poor students and their coach.