On December 7 in downtown Montreal, close to 50 people gathered for Initiatives of Change (IofC) Canada’s roundtable and launch of their Trustbuilding Program (TBP) project, to explore racial discrimination in Quebec. This theme was chosen to stimulate dialogue, since it is a major, largely unrecognized issue in Quebec society. The event played a unique role in getting a diverse group of participants and speakers together to address the issue, filling the gap between other initiatives from academics and activists. Throughout the project, these dialogues will serve as the foundation for training leaders from diverse sectors of society to work towards healing the social and historical divides in Quebec.
The event started with an opening prayer by Marie-Émilie, a member of Initiatives of Change Quebec, as an Indigenous land acknowledgment pronouncement about the territory the event took place.
Rafael Benitez, an intercultural mediator and facilitator for the day, set the tone for the meeting, saying ‘This is a safe space where to reflect on racism in Quebec, to set a direction for our collective environments and to develop our ideas in order to invite others into also discussing racism.’
The roundtable, which is an academic discussion where participants discuss a topic, started with Marie-Iris Légaré. Marie, who is an education and ethical cooperation agent, presented the province’s legal framework. She also presented facts about racism in Quebec that laid the foundation for the conversation throughout the rest of the day. ‘There are more than seven billion of us in the world but only one race. We constructed a different concept of race developed during genocides and colonization. We have to deconstruct this idea,’ Marie-Iris commented. She encouraged participants to think about how the dominant group in society racializes those who are ‘different’. She emphasized that race ‘does not exist, it is a socially created construct.’
Yara El-Ghadban, a Palestinian writer, speaker and artist also presented during the roundtable. She is a former anthropologist and worked on the issues of identity and exclusion, by exploring the correlation between social awareness and imagination. Yara has, along with her family or friends, dealt with said discriminations, particularly her friends wearing hijabs. ‘It reveals the wounds of colonization,’ she remarked. Yara believes that imagination has a tremendous power, ‘if we can induce a question in our conscious imagination, it can influence life itself. Working on conscious imagination is crucial if we want to see social and systemic change.’ As a Palestinian, Yara has experienced the displacement of her community and extensive discrimination. ‘We flatten out our issues and group them under the label of diversity issues.’
Rodney Saint-Éloi, originally from Haiti, explained to participants how he founded Mémoire d’encrier, an independent publishing house that proposes through its wide-ranging catalogue alternative diverse perspectives. Rodney told the group that he believes that dominant groups classify ‘others’ in society, saying ‘the only space where we can live is imagination.’ As a writer, Rodney has turned the discrimination and racism he experienced by giving a voice to other writers, mostly from minority groups, who have also dealt with discrimination. 'In the work that I do as a writer, there’s this an awareness that our power stems from our own vulnerabilities,’ he told the group. ’We live in a world where we don’t talk about awareness. Literature is a massive weapon for exploring this as well as social change. The diversity of literature is crucial to the persistence of beauty in our world.’
Alexis Wawanoloath, the first Indigenous MNA at the Quebec National Assembly in 2007, was present to provide his perspective. ‘One way of addressing racism is through investigating the living conditions of Indigenous peoples,’ he said. He presented the situation of indigenous communities versus that of the colonies to participants. Alexis believes that Indigenous peoples are still defining who they want to align themselves with and who they can trust, if anyone. ‘We want to maintain our own practices. Our nations live and worship the land, our territories, which goes against the individualistic, exploitative mindset of the colonies.’ When speaking about what can be done, Alexis stressed that ‘we need legal reforms; we need to become actors within the government. Ultimately, we need a new Canadian constitution where we can inscribe our values into the Preamble.’
Barry Hart, who sits on the International Council for IofC International, was the last to provide his thoughts. Barry is a professor and researcher on Trauma, Conflict Studies & Identity issues in the Center for Justice and Peace Consolidation at the Eastern Mennonite University, in the USA. A country that, according to him, ‘has a long way to go in order to acknowledge Indigenous communities.’ Barry believes that racism is about ‘being afraid of the other.’ He explained that collective identification and manipulating sense of dignity comes into play within discriminatory practices. ‘Our thrust forward comes from our sense of self, a better understanding of who we are and how we are in relation to ”others.” If we change, others will change.’ Barry concluded that we need to move away from discrimination and systems that violate our humanity, towards dignity for all.
After the roundtable, IofC Canada offered a complimentary meal to participants so that they could keep having conversations about the topic. In the afternoon, Geneviève Dick, IofC Canada’s Trustbuilding Program project manager, facilitated an exercise called the ‘privilege walk’. For this activity, all participants stood in one straight line. The facilitator then read a series of statements out loud and participants either take a step forward or backwards if the statement applies to them.
Several ideas and required actions were presented in the following format: if you are right-handed, please take a step forward; if the language of the dominant group is your mother tongue, please take a step forward; if you constantly feel unsafe when you are outside at night, please take a step backwards; if you suffer from an invisible disease or handicap, please take a step backwards; if you can find in supermarkets band aids that match your skin color, please take a step forward.
At the end of the activity, participants could visually assess their privileges compared to other attendants by looking at where everyone stood in relation to the starting line. Several people mentioned how surprised, and sometimes disturbed, they were, by where they were standing at the end of the exercise. Overall, it was visible that the people who had a lot of privileges and were located ahead of most people were mostly white men. Conversely, people who seemed to have fewer privileges were for the most part minorities. This helped to connect the discussions to something more visual.
The event was a success and offered a powerful opportunity for people to connect around the theme of racism in Quebec. Canada’s Trustbuilding Program project team feels very satisfied with how the event went and is now preparing for the upcoming training sessions in March.
Photos by Gilles Pilette
The Trustbuilding Program is aimed at addressing divisive issues at the international and national levels, on the premise that only those who have undergone the internal process of becoming trustworthy themselves can close gaps across the globe. The Program was launched by Initiatives of Change International in 2019 with projects in Kenya, Canada and France.