I generally avoid reading anything that is in French. Although I did most of grade school trudging through a French Quebecois school board, I still wince a little every time I have to write an email, or read an article in French. French is just harder than English—ask any Francophone. But, sometimes, I find myself unable to avoid it and compelled to refresh my vocabulary.
Back in July, after a day of protesting across downtown Montreal, I checked my phone to see that someone had sent me an op-ed published in Le Devoir, one of Quebec’s leading French publications. The title instantly caught my attention, “Se rat kay kap manje kay”, which is a Haitian proverb: “It’s the house rat that eats the house”, roughly meaning, ‘The culprit is found around us or near us’.
There was a lot of upheaval going on in Montreal’s Haitian community at the time: asylum seekers working as orderlies weren’t being guaranteed fair wages or permanent status; Montreal North, a borough with a large Haitian community, had the highest Covid-cases out of any other borough in the entire country; and the U.S.-Canada borders were still closed off from non-essential travelers, including asylum seekers.
But, as I read very slowly, I understood that “Se rat kay kap manje kay” had nothing to say about any of that. Rather, the piece insisted upon a long-lasting linguistic kinship between Franco-Quebecers and Haitians—the two ‘French nations’ of the Americas—and worried that Haitians were conforming too heavily to the ‘globalization’ of African American culture.
Haitian settlement in Quebec has been going on since the mid-60s. The autocratic rule of François Duvalier in Haiti caused thousands of its elite to seek refuge in countries like Canada. And, since French is Quebec’s dominant language, most Haitians, like my own family, came to the province knowing they’d have an easier time assimilating to its culture. In the last sixty years, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have settled in Quebec, making them the largest national community of African-descent in the province. Yet, because of this, the Haitian identity is often severed from that of a Black one. As Délice Mugabo posits in “Black in the city,” ‘Haitian’ has become an “easily recognizable marker that stands outside ‘Black.’”
In the same vein, the author of “Se rat kay kap manje kay,” Christian Rioux, who is white, attempted to categorize Haitians outside the category of ‘Black’ and argued that for any Haitian to think themselves as Black would be regressive.
“Sometimes I fear that this proud and noble Haitian identity may be in jeopardy today,” wrote Christian Rioux. “Haitians have nothing to gain from swapping their national identity for racial house arrest.”
The most glaring issue from Rioux’s piece was the decision to speak on behalf of a group of people without so much as hinting at the author’s own bias. Furthermore, it was quick to unify Haiti and Quebec’s struggle for sovereignty, explaining that one is “poor and free” and the other “always seeking freedom despite its opulence.”
Even at the height of anti-racism protests last summer, this type of opinion piece was surprising to me. It was hard to believe that a piece with such overt signs of racism could rise out of an extensive approval process of a major publication, like Le Devoir.
Rioux’s piece circulated on Twitter and Facebook and quickly got the attention of Montreal’s Haitian community. The following week, in response to Rioux, a collective letter signed by over fifty Haitians was released by Le Devoir. The letter, entitled “Une image toxique et fausse de l’essence même de notre identité” (“A toxic and false image of the very essence of our identity”), immediately denounced Rioux’s piece for conveying a “toxic and false image” of the Haitian identity and criticized the publication for perpetuating the anti-Black narrative. The same day, Brian Myles, director at Le Devoir, issued a statement of regret. Myles wrote that it had been their goal to demonstrate the complex realities of society, even as it applies to “the Haitian community and other groups in minority or precarious situations.”
It made matters a little better, seeing Le Devoir pass the mic and let the community speak on its own behalf. Yet, there was no retracting Rioux’s contribution to French-Quebec’s national project for sovereignty. In doing so, Le Devoir only perpetuated a nationalist sense of self-entitlement that borders us still today, one that is based on ethnicity.
This one instance of anti-Blackness is a symptom of Quebec’s denial in recognizing Blackness as part of its constitution. Back when it was New France, many of the province’s prominent figures had a hand in governing Haiti before it fought colonial power and won its freedom. The repercussions of this are still felt today whenever Haitians are forced to stand up for themselves against the Eurocentric current.
But, without the capacity to read in French, all of this goes unnoticed. In Quebec, only English-French bilinguals can interpret the divisive attitudes reflected in our media. While still a minority to the rest of the country, French Canadians make up most of Quebec’s population and its readership. How severely Christian Rioux’s opinion is shared with the rest of the province is hard to gauge. But this racist ideology speaks of a larger system of dominance that is organized through agencies of social and cultural transmission, as seen in mass media, academia, religious doctrines, art, etc. If we can translate it, we can see how racism is reflected and regenerated through the very language around us.
In the several months since Rioux’s piece, I have often asked myself if it would have gotten more attention if it had been written in English. It probably would have. But I also believe no English media would have even considered publishing something of its kind.
There is little incentive for media outlets to evolve their perspectives since most of these issues are very new. Quebec’s separatist modes of journalism are quickly proving themselves limited by monolingual attitudes. Quebec is a bilingual province, and its media should reflect that and be more inclusive.
In 2016, Anita Li wrote “How we talk about race,” in which she discussed the various ways Canadian media has failed to recognize diversity since the country often celebrates itself as being “multicultural.” Li, however, expressed excitement for non-traditional journalists innovating the field. “Born as start-ups, new media outlets also have non-traditional workplace cultures, including flatter hierarchies.”
It’s become a matter of knowing where to look. When it comes to bilingual Quebecois journalism, it is few and far between. Still, Twitter and Instagram accounts like @defundthespvm and @wokeorwhateva can translate content between French and English without losing any of its audience. This type of journalism is more inclusionary for many reasons. But, put simply, it allows us to occupy spaces that reflect the voices we hear in our schools, workplaces, or anywhere else that isn’t limited by one language.
About the Author
Nicolas André is a Haitian-Canadian son, a fading professional model, and an aspiring writer. Originally from the Laurentides region of Quebec, he has recently moved to Montreal. There, he occasionally visited his grandmother, who often used her Macaroni au Gratin as a Trojan horse for her stories of Haiti during the Duvalier-era. He has recently disappointed her by becoming vegan. He is currently studying Creative Writing and English Literature at Concordia University and writing for Collective Culture. You can watch him procrastinate from writing here: @pitiniki