Editorial, Opinion

Quebec’s denial of systemic racism impedes progress

On March 17, La Presse reported that a Saint-Eustache hospital had posted job placements for “white only” personal attendants. According to the hospital, a “difficult” patient that refused treatment by non-white individuals, prompted officials to search for a white orderly to cater to the patient’s preferences. Such discriminatory job postings are illegal, and the government has launched an investigation into the situation. Nevertheless, the fact that hospital administrators assuaged the patient’s racism reveals a much deeper crisis that should infuriate every Quebecer. Although provincial officials refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism exists in Quebec, racism in the healthcare system will continue to persist until the government places morals above politics and support activists’ efforts to confront it.

While patients have the right to decline medical treatment, their refusal to receive care from a non-white practitioner is not only racist, but also devalues the physician’s years of training. Memory-loss conditions like dementia lead to poor behaviour, but they do not excuse racism, and catering to such outrageous requests only further rationalizes their harm. While no person should be denied care if their life is in danger, the medical professionals involved were not obligated to fulfill such an unreasonable request—especially when doing so is against the law and other solutions were available.

It would be a false equivalency to suggest that the patient’s request was comparable to a BIPOC individual demanding care by someone from their own community. Consider the tragic Sept. 28 death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw mother of seven who died in a Joliette hospital while being subjected to racial slurs up until the moment of her passing. Whereas racialized people have cause to fear for their safety, racists are driven by harmful, baseless stereotypes, and to accommodate bigotry of any sort is outrageous. Given Quebec’s history of discrimination in healthcare, marginalized persons have every reason to seek secure treatment from those with whom they can feel safe.

Whether the request was motivated by a medical condition or not, the patient’s insidious demands serves as an indictment on Quebec society as a whole. Still, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) administration has willfully ignored deep-seated racism in the province for years. Premier Legault’s immediate reaction to Ms. Echaquan’s death was particularly disturbing: In an Oct. 6 apology, he lurched on the talking point that the incident did not reflect the “Quebec nation” as a whole—defending nationalist rhetoric at the expense of moral necessity. Meanwhile, his administration continues to deny the importance of collecting race-based COVID-19 data, insinuating that the province is blind to race and the unique challenges facing racialized people. The government may in fact be blind to race, but only when it comes to addressing socioeconomic problems disproportionately affecting non-white people. 

Legault also recently appointed Benoit Charret, a white man with little relevant experience, to lead the government’s anti-racism taskforce. Although being white does not automatically disqualify Mr. Charret from holding such a position, it does mean he should be held to a higher standard. Nevertheless, he himself has already asserted that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec. This new position will be of no use until he and the rest of the CAQ party acknowledge the shameful conditions faced by racialized people. 

It is incumbent upon Charret to use his power to address the inequalities that permeate Quebec society. Above all, however, it is crucial that white officials who are appointed to positions of power elevate marginalized voices, rather than take credit for their work. To do otherwise would not only be unfair to the thousands of racialized activists fighting for their communities, but also perpetuate a contemporary white saviourcomplex.

Without question, Quebec must enforce laws against discrimination to ensure that those responsible for the St. Eustache postings are held accountable. But more than anything, it is essential that Quebec’s leaders admit that Saint-Eustache was not an aberration and treat it as a symptom of the racism festering in the province. 

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