Yes, it’s racist

Judge Eliana Marengo recently told another human being that she had to be stripped of her identity and publicly humiliated in order to have her case heard in a court in Québec. That is to say, the judge refused to hear the case while she was wearing a hijab.

For clarity, Article 13 of the regulations of the Court of Quebec make no reference to headscarves. This was just one judge’s decision to make life harder for another human being. And it was racist.

Wait, how was it racist?

This is a point that people keep refusing to understand. I have written previously about how you can be substantially racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. without ever actually making reference to a person’s race, sex, orientation, gender, etc. This is exactly the same thing.

A policy that makes life harder for one group of people is discriminatory against that group, regardless of how obliquely that group is singled out in the wording of the policy itself. And it’s still discriminatory even if that policy contains an ostensibly non-racist/non-sexist/etc. counter-example to ward off suspicions of racism, sexism, etc. (Cf. the Charter of Values and conspicuously large crucifixes).

It is laughable that Marengo invoked equality to justify her racist abuse of power. She deigned to instruct us in righteousness by telling us, “The same rules need to be applied to everyone.” To get an idea of how the rules are applied to everyone in Québec, I have compiled Table 1, below.

White people do religious stuff in the public sphere in Québec all the time. Nobody minds. Nobody gets upset. Certainly nobody refuses to give them the basic justice that all humans are due. But when one private person of colour wears a hijab to court, suddenly a) it’s fair game to publicly humiliate them and strip their identity, and b) it’s hitting below the belt to call it “racist” when it happens.

Table 1: A convenience sample of conspicuous religious accommodations in the province of Québec, indexed by race

Religious thing Private or public? Who did it? (Race) Is it okay in Québec?
Prominent crucifix in legislature Public White Okay!
Giant cross overlooking biggest city in province Public White Okay!
Big white cross dominating the provincial flag Public White Okay!
Nearly every street and city named after a Christian saint Public White Okay!
Private person wearing hijab in court Private POC “This is unacceptable! Religious people are always demanding more and more accommodations. This is not about race at all!”

Why the PQ and its Charter of Values is racist

On a couple occasions, I have been challenged by people who are upset when I say that the Parti Québecois and its Charter of Values are racist. While I disagree, I can understand their objection. On the surface, the Charter of Values makes no reference to race, and there are even non-white members of the PQ, so it might be hard to see how I make the case for racism.

Before I directly address the problem of racism in the PQ and the Charter of Values, there are two fairly non-controversial general propositions about oppressive systems like racism that I will briefly outline. Understanding these positions will clarify why I say that the PQ and the Charter are racist.

1. You don’t need to have a negative disposition toward a group to be party to that group’s oppression

One of the most self-centred conceits of us white people regarding racism is the idea that it primarily exists as a state of mind for the white person—as if the biggest problem about racism is that it’s a character flaw for white people. (Mutatis mutandis for men and sexism, straights and homophobia, cis people and transphobia, etc.)

I see a parallel to this all the time when I implicitly or explicitly call out a straight person for something homophobic, and suddenly the biggest problem is that the straight person is offended at being thought a homophobe, not that something genuinely hurtful and oppressive happened to a queer person.

A society can be substantially sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. in which its citizens have a generally positive attitude toward women, people of colour, gays, and trans people.

This is because racism, etc. are systemic and institutional ways in which a society is structured to make life worse for the oppressed group, while maintaining privilege for that group’s complement. Racism, etc. are not primarily a matter of personal dislike between two individuals, although that is unfortunately also part of it.

For emphasis, even if every single person in Canada had a personal epiphany, repented and swore to never have a negative thought about any other person on the basis of her race, that would not affect the problem of racism in Canada in the slightest until we dealt with the laws, power structures, social norms, institutions, and systems set in place to privilege us white people and make life harder for everyone else. Same thing goes for any other system of oppression (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

Thus, appealing to the character or the intentions of a person or group (E.g. “They’re not racist! They don’t hate brown people because …”) is not a good argument against someone being racist, since racism is not primarily a matter of the state of mind of the group that is doing the oppression.

2. Even if a proposed piece of legislation doesn’t mention an oppressed group at all, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t oppressive to that group

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine there’s a group of legislators who propose a law, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud. Here is the proposed law in our thought experiment:

Everyone who wants to vote in Canada must bring a current government-issued photo ID and their birth certificate, and the names on the two documents must match each other exactly.

It is not hard to see why a law like this is sexist. (“But how can it be sexist? It doesn’t even mention women!”) It’s sexist because (except in Québec) it is common for women to change their names when they get married. Hence, such a law would systematically disenfranchise women more than men.

The important thing about this argument is that the oppressiveness of the law doesn’t turn on whether women are explicitly mentioned or whether the legislators had any hateful emotions toward women. The oppressiveness of the law toward women isn’t a function of the state of mind of the legislators at all. The only question that is relevant with regard to whether the law is sexist is whether or not it systematically makes life worse for women and not for men.

If you concede that a law like the one above is fairly clearly sexist, then it’s not a big cognitive jump to see why “Stand Your Ground” laws in the United States, for example, or even the Charter of Values here in Québec are racist. These are laws that systematically single out particular racial groups and not others, to make life worse for them. “Stand Your Ground” is racist because white people in the United States are overwhelmingly using it to murder people of colour. The Charter of Values is racist because we are using it to make life worse for people of colour.

It’s true that race is not mentioned in the Charter, but it is conspicuously silent on the subject, just like how there was no mention of women in the law in our thought experiment that if enacted, would disenfranchise most women. Even the prohibition on wearing very large and ostentatious crucifixes comes across as a transparent attempt to preempt accusations of racism. I grew up among very conservative Christians, and never once met a person who wore a large cross. Ever. I’ve never even heard of that happening among the most devout. I’m sure that the only reason that large Christian symbols were even mentioned is so that the PQ can say, “See? We’re not racist. The law will even apply to whites!” It certainly wasn’t included because there’s a problem with Christians wearing too many big crosses, threatening the neutrality of the state.

The Charter would not change life at all for white religious people. They already wear clothing that conforms to the Charter’s requirements. On the other hand, the Charter will cause crises of faith for many non-white religious people, make them feel unwelcome in Québec, and remove any representation they would have otherwise had in positions of authority in the province. The fact that this prohibition is invoked under the banner of “neutrality” is laughable.

So even though there is no mention of race, the Charter is racist because it systematically targets POC to take away their freedom and make their lives worse.

Lessons for Québec from British pop singers and Japanese Anime: “secular” is not “neutral”

The Québec charter of values

Over the last few months, much debate has occurred over the proposed Québec Charter of Values, which was ostensibly introduced in order to guarantee the “neutrality of the state.” The real reason, of course, is that the PQ wants to gain political points with its separatist base, and has no qualms about riding roughshod over the rights of minorities to do so.

That said, I still want to address the “neutrality” thing, because it bothers me so much when I see people making the claim that the Charter will make the machinery of the state more “neutral.” But first, let’s consider a couple related questions.

Why do British people lose their accents while singing?

Have you ever heard a person ask, “Why do British people sound American when they sing?”

The reason for this phenomenon is not that British people actually sound American when they sing. For that matter, if you think about it, American people don’t sound particularly American when they sing either. Because of the mechanics of singing, everyone has to pronounce their words in more-or-less the same way, regardless of their speaking accent.

While speaking, one’s accent might influence what syllables to stress and whether to use a short or a long vowel sound for particular words. When singing on the other hand, pretty much all of that is dictated by the music itself. There is really only one way to sing “Ave Maria,” for example, no matter what your accent is. And so, everyone sings the same way, and it’s not the same as anyone’s speaking accent.

Don’t believe me? Read the words, “Ave Maria” in your own head in different kinds of accents—standard BBC, Zoidberg, Morgan Freeman, etc., and then imagine those same people singing it. Unless you’re imagining them really exaggerating their accent, they all have to sing it in pretty much the same way, just due to the nature of what singing is.

Why are Japanese Anime characters drawn as white people?

Curiously, this is the same thing that happens when a person asks, “Why are Japanese Anime characters drawn as white people?

They’re not. Read the linked article. Japanese Anime characters are drawn as cartoon characters. They are not photo-realistic representations, and it is only the assumption of American viewers that fills in the gaps in favour of these characters being white. It’s the same reason that when you draw a stick figure, you assume it’s a white male, unless it has a dress or a something to mark the “other.”

What’s going on in these cases?

The underlying assumption in both of these questions is the same fallacy. The assumption is that the majority (in these cases, white and American) is “neutral,” “default,” “normal.” In the absence of all markers to the otherwise in one’s singing voice or in cartoon characters, many people will fill in those gaps with what they take to be “neutral,” and come to the conclusion that British singers all sing with an American accent, or that Japanese Anime characters are drawn as white people.

A similar fallacy is being made by supporters of the proposed Québec Charter of Values. Like the cases above, they assume that what they are (i.e. non-religious, or maybe non-visibly Christian) is the “default,” but in this case, instead of inadvertently filling in something that’s neutral with details from what they take to be the default, they are explicitly trying to make an ideal “neutral” person, based on their own assumption of what the “default” is, or should be.

Challenging the assumption—”secular” is not “neutral”

I have heard so many politicians indicate their support for the Charter because it’s supposed to make the state more “neutral.” There is no reason why not-wearing-a-head-covering is “neutral.” In fact, I’m here to tell you that there is no a “neutral” to be found.

There is no normal, neutral, or “default” type of person when you’re thinking along categories like gender, sex, race, religion, orientation, etc. And as far as religions go, an atheist person is not a person who has no religious beliefs. It’s that her belief is that there’s no God. To repeat: there is no “default.”

What would neutrality actually look like?

Imagine a little boy in Québec who grows up in a family where head coverings are the norm. He looks at his doctors and teachers, and none of them looks like him. He has a minor run-in with the police in his teens, who call him “towel-head,” and slowly, over time, he realises that there is no one—not a single person—in a position of power in his province who looks like him. His Christians friends, on the other hand, have all kinds of role models—teachers, doctors, judges, lawyers—all employees of the state who look just like them.

How is that neutral?

If something is supposed to be neutral, it has to be neutral for everyone, not just for the majority.

By saying that a public worker has to remove her head-coverings in order to be “neutral,” we are saying that a certain group of people, namely the non-religious and the Christians, are more “neutral” than the rest.

The test that the PQ seems to be applying for whether a government employee appears to be neutral is this: If a white, Christian person looked at a government employee, would that person worry that she was going to be treated by the government employee differently because the employee is religious?

If your major concern is protecting white Christians and non-religious people from anyone who wears a head-covering, of course the answer is to say that a “neutral” state is one where everyone conforms to the standards of dress for Christians and the non-religious. But really, we should stop calling it “neutrality” in favour of a more honest term like “state enforced atheism or Christianity.”

I suggest another test for the neutrality of government employees. Something like this: If a non-white, non-Christian, non-secular, totally marginalised minority person looked at our government employees, would that person worry that she was going to be treated like an “other”?

If a child growing up in Québec sees a number of people wearing head coverings in government jobs that is proportional to the number of people wearing head coverings in the general population, that would be true neutrality.

Internet vigilante justice against the police in Montréal through social media

I hate Instagram too, but arresting someone for using it is ridiculous
I hate Instagram too, but arresting someone for using it is ridiculous

It’s hard to trust the police in Montréal these days. “Officer 728” is a household name, known for her abuse of power, which was caught on video. There was also a famous CCTV video of a prostrate man being brutally kicked repeatedly by the Montréal police. This problem isn’t restricted to Montréal either. Recently a police officer in Vancouver was caught on video punching a cyclist in the face while putting him in handcuffs.

Technology and the abuse of police power

I used to largely dismiss reports of police abuses of power. When I saw graffiti saying, “eff the police” or something to that effect, I used to chalk it up to conspiracy theorists and delinquent youths. Now that it’s all on Youtube, it’s harder to ignore the problem.

(I also used to dismiss those who spray-painted “burn the banks” in a number of parts of Montréal as conspiracy theorists, but since 2008, I can kind of see where they’re coming from.)

We’re entering into an age when abuses of power by police are being caught on tape more and more often. I don’t think that police abusing their power is a new thing, or even that the rates have changed recently. I’m of the position that it might just be more visible because of the recent development that nearly everyone is carrying around a camera in their pocket that can instantly upload video of police brutality to Youtube. The Google Glass project (and the clones that are sure to follow) may make this even more common.

This is unsettling to me, partly because it might mean that a lot of the times I dismissed claims of police abuse, I was in the wrong.

We should all be legitimately outraged by this

More importantly though, this should make us all angry because this is not how justice works in Canada. Even if the robbery suspect was completely guilty of every crime the police suspected, we don’t allow individual police officers to dole out their own personal vengeance in the form of physical beatings. We certainly don’t allow groups of police officers to do so against suspected criminals as they lie helpless in the snow, and most emphatically, there is no place in Canadian justice for criminals to be punished in this way (or any other) without due process or without even having been formally charged with a crime.

A police officer punching a restrained person is much worse than a regular citizen punching another citizen. This is because the police are, so to speak, the final guarantee that the government has power over its citizens and that there is the rule of law in a country. The most basic reason for others not to steal your stuff is that if they do, there’s a good chance that the police will come and take away their freedom in such a way that it’s not worth it for most people to engage in that behaviour. All laws largely work on the same principle. Sure, there’s other sanctions that a government can use, like taxation, but even that is underwritten by the threat of police coming and putting you in prison if you break the tax laws.

So, when a police officer physically abuses a citizen, he shakes our faith in the proper functioning of the machinery of government. This makes the issue not just one of bad PR for a particular police department, but one of general faith in our country to work in a just and equitable way. Further, if the police are vigilantes and there is no recourse, it legitimizes vigilante justice by the people against the police.

This means that when a police officer abuses his power, there must be some recourse that is transparent, timely and just. There can’t even be the appearance that the police are above the law, otherwise what you will see is ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice, which is a very scary prospect.

Ordinary citizens are taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice

In response to the issues I have described above, as well as a number of much less famous examples of abuse of police power during the protests in Montréal, there has been a movement toward the use of social media to identify the police who are abusing their power. This is being done by citizens who believe that there has been abuse of power by police in Montréal, and that the normal channels of addressing these abuses have been of no avail.

They are collecting photos, videos, identification numbers, names and addresses of police officers, cataloguing their transgressions and calling for retribution.

The police are calling this “intimidation.” They are calling for it to be taken down. They’re (rightly) complaining that there is no way for a police officer who is wrongly accused in this way to clear his name, and that the police, and even some non-police are being put in danger because of this.

What needs to happen

I have not been involved in the student protests in Montréal. I have never been beaten by the police. I generally believe that if I call 911, thanks to my skin colour, it will be the “good guys” who show up at my door. That said, I can understand why someone who was abused by a police officer might be tempted to post this information out of frustration at the ineffectiveness of the official recourse against such abuse.

In some ways, the police have been implicitly training us to use these methods if we want anything to get done: Likely the police officer from Vancouver would have gotten away with punching the cyclist in the face if the cyclist’s friend hadn’t caught it on video and posted it to Youtube.

If the police want us to use official channels to address police abuses, they have to give us reason to think that it’s better to do that than to just appeal to the Internet for justice. Politically-motivated arrests of people for posting “intimidating” things online won’t cut it.

I think we will only see a real change in public attitudes toward police brutality given the following three conditions.

  1. The official channels must be transparent. It must be clear to everyone that something is being done, and we have to see that officers who abuse their power are appropriately punished. Confidence in the relationship between the state and its citizens is what’s at stake, and so the solution must be one that publicly restores confidence.
  2. Official channels must be timely. The old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied” applies here. If citizens get impatient waiting for justice to be applied, they may be tempted to take it into their own hands.
  3. Finally, official recourse against police abuse must be just. This is where an official means of recourse against police brutality could actually outdo Internet vigilantes. Internet vigilante justice will always be faster and more transparent than anything official could ever be, but an official channel can enforce punishments fitting to the crime, and can claim legitimacy in a way that vigilantes never can.

If a police officer publicly faced criminal charges, rather than just a “paid leave of absence” followed by “counselling” and this happened in short order after an accusation of abuse, this would do a lot to restore faith in official channels. The people of Montréal might even learn that the legitimate checks and balances are preferable to pursuing vigilante justice through social media.

The Bonhomme Theme Song

Bonhomme Bonhomme, qu'est-ce que tu fais?
Bonhomme Bonhomme, qu'est-ce que tu fais?

Do you remember learning about the Carnaval de Québec in French class?

There’s a particular song that they used to teach us during the unit on the Carnaval. It’s Bonhomme’s theme song, I guess. When I went to Québec this winter, there was a marching band that followed Bonhomme around playing it.

I used to think that the lyrics were, “Bonhomme Bonhomme qu’est-ce que tu fais? Bonhomme Bonhomme qu’est-ce que tu fais? Je vais jouer au violon! Je vais jouer au violon! …”

Translated to English, this means, “Bonhomme Bonhomme, what are you doing? Bonhomme Bonhomme, what are you doing? I’m gonna play the violin. I’m gonna play the violin.”

Turns out, according to a native French-speaker, that is not only incorrect, but also very creepy.

That it was creepy was not at all surprising. I mean, look at him. And I suppose, given the state of French instruction in Ontario, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got it wrong.

Makes sense to me though. “Bonhomme Bonhomme, what are you doing? Bonhomme Bonhomme, what are you doing?”

In related news, my cellphone ringtone is now the theme song to Téléfrançais.

Cabane à sucre

This weekend past, I was invited to a family event in rural Québec—an outing at a sugar shack, or a “cabane à sucre,” in French. It reminded me of when my parents decided to tap the tree in front of our house and boil it down to syrup. The house smelled of maple syrup for weeks!

Anyway, here in Québec, these guys actually built a shed out in the country so that they don’t have to deal with it in their kitchen.

Something that we didn’t do when we made maple syrup, is making de la tire, or maple taffy on the snow.

Other stuff I saw in Québec City

A church in downtown Québec
A church in downtown Québec

While I mainly went to see the Carnaval, I also went for a walk around the Old Québec a bit while I was in town. It’s a very beautiful city.

There are all sorts of wonderful old buildings, churches and historical-type things going on.

Not only that, but they have excellent lighting at night, so it makes for some good photos!

You just have to be willing to wait for an opportune moment, when there isn’t a car going past, who will leave streaks of light all through your exposure. Thank goodness for digital cameras.

Celtic cross at night
Celtic cross at night

I think I must have spent about fifteen minutes trying to get this photo of the celtic-looking cross. I’ve got a whole bunch of photos of it with streaks across it, thanks to cars.

After three or four tries, I was almost prepared to set the self-timer and go stand in the middle of the road, just out of the frame of the camera, so that I would prevent any cars from passing through it. I only wanted a twenty-second exposure, and there was only one car every minute or so.

Oh well.

I like the details on the cross, and I think it was worth the wait.

An angel with a globe
An angel with a globe

Next is an angel with a globe. I’m not sure what his deal is. I guess he’s like a busker, except that he doesn’t really perform a musical instrument.

Not a bad job, I guess.

Unless you don’t like the cold. It wasn’t too bad while I was there, anyway. It was consistently around -1ºC or -2ºC, and in the sunlight, during the day, that’s not too bad.

He seems happy, anyway.

Important people I saw at Québec City

Bonhomme de Neige
Bonhomme de Neige

While I was in Québec City, my path crossed two important people. The first and most important was of course Bonhomme de Neige himself. I nearly missed him, but I happened to arrive just as he was leaving, so that I could snap about a dozen shots of him, paparazzi-style.

Later that day, while I was walking along a road between the Plains of Abraham and the Carnaval, I saw a big SUV drive past me, and I noticed that it had a blue flag with a royal symbol on it.

I remarked that I thought that it was a royal standard on the car that passed, but my friend told me that we would have heard if the Queen was coming. After the first car came a couple other RCMP cars.

The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston
The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston

When the car stopped, out jumped David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada. Apparently he had come to visit Québec City. And he passed within two metres of me!

So, I ran up and took a half dozen photos of him, paparazzi-style, since that seemed to be the thing to do that day.

Carnaval d’Hiver!

Rainbow ice carousel
Rainbow ice carousel

This weekend, I went to Québec City to see the Carnaval d’Hiver, starring Bonhomme. I have a lot of photos and things to talk about, so I’m spacing it out over the next few days. To start off with, I’m going to post a bunch of photos of sculptures and things I saw.

The lights in the carousel tent changed all the time, so it was very difficult to get any good photos, but I’m reasonably happy with the way this one turned out. The whole tent was full of ice sculptures of different games—chess, monopoly, etc. I wonder if it’s harder to sculpt in snow or in ice. I imagine that it would be easier to make a silly mistake in the snow, but that ice is less forgiving.

By the way, carousels are creepy.

Creepy snow spider
Creepy snow spider

These are just a few of my favourite things that I saw at the Carnaval d’Hiver. There were lots of other really good ones, but these turned out to be the most photogenic.

The creepy spider is wonderful. I love the eyes on the front, and the way that the light comes from behind it.

I wonder where these people get their ideas for what they will make out of their chunk of snow, and by what means the chunk of snow is delivered there.

An apple with a mouth
An apple with a mouth

The apple with the mouth won the prize for everything, I think. Seriously. There were about a half dozen awards at that one.

It’s really quite well done. I wonder if it’s supposed to represent anything besides just an apple with a mouth. I have no idea how a person would sculpt the inside of the mouth like that. Maybe they did the top of the mouth first so that they could sit on what would become the tongue, and then later went back to fix it. The snow must be very well-packed for it to allow for this sort of thing.

Girl in hood with dragon
Girl in hood with dragon

I also liked the hooded girl with dragon. Good details on the dragon. Unfortunately, the very night that I took these photos, it snowed, and many of the finer details were covered up forever.

This sculpture in particular did not fare very well through the loss of all the fine details. Look at all the scales along the tail, the teeth and eyes. The little girl in a hood is delightful as well.

I overheard a bunch of French-speakers refer to the girl as “Little Red Riding Hood,” I thought, but I don’t remember a dragon in the English version of that story, at least.

Korean with fish
Korean with fish

Apparently, there were teams of snow-sculptors from all over the world who came to participate. I’ve attached the South Korean contribution. It’s a person with a fish.

I also have photos of the Koreans working on this one the whole previous night. They put a lot of effort into it.

There was also a team from Morocco. I didn’t care for their sculpture as much. But then, they probably don’t get too much snow there, so I guess we can cut them some slack.

Plan for snow sharks
Plan for snow sharks
Sharks hiding in snow
Sharks hiding in snow

Another favourite of mine is the sharks hiding in snow. I have both a photograph and a video of that one.

As best I can make out, these are actual living sharks that were imported and then covered in snow. They’re just waiting for the right moment before they start eating the unprepared visitors to the Carnaval d’Hiver.

How to get your full driver’s licence without taking your G test

  1. Get your G1 and then your G2 licence in Ontario in the normal manner.
  2. Move to Montréal for school.
  3. Exchange your G2 for a Québec permis probatoire.
  4. Wait for the permis probatoire to expire. Do not get in any car accidents during this time.
  5. When the permis probatoire expires, they will give you a full licence.
  6. Pay the fee (approx. $100) and smile for your photo.
  7. You never have to take your G test.

Or such is my understanding of my situation, after a phone conversation with someone who works at the SAAQ this afternoon.