Who Has the Right to Look at Québec?

Originally published on visualcultureweekly.wordpress.com on June 27, 2020.

Last week, Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien rejected a motion asking Parliament to tackle systemic racism within the RCMP proposed by the leader of the New Democratic Party Jagmeet Singh. Therrien then made a racist gesture towards Singh who in turn called him a racist. Speaker Anthony Rota later booted Singh from Parliament for his comments.

While this series of events highlights the very need to address systemic racism within Canadian Parliament, both the way Canadian media covered Therrien’s refusal to support an anti-racism motion and the Bloc Québécois’ defence of the Member for La Prairie present an important lesson on what Nicholas Mirzeoff calls “the right to look.”

In his book The Right to Look, Mirzoeff explores how the act of looking has been shaped by colonial structures of power. Having the right to see, to be seen, and to have one’s perspective recognized is at the basis of citizenship, belonging, and agency. The dominant gaze, controlled and defended by institutional and political powers, structures how we perceive our world, our place within it, and naturalizes colonial and racist power dynamics. Whoever holds the right to look is allowed to define the “real” for their own benefit.

To fight back against these dominant ways of seeing, which often hide behind a false discourse of humanist universalism, we must, according to Mirzoeff, question, challenge and eventually replace the imposed gaze with countervisualities ways of seeing that differ from the norm. The right to look, the right to look back at the nation from a position of Otherness must be included in any fight for social justice and political recognition.

Following Alain Therrien’s refusal to support the anti-racism motion, both Canadian media and the Bloc Québécois were guilty of reframing the issue pitting Jagmeet Singh against a faceless, nameless group of people. Alain Therrien was rarely named in headlines and few pictures of him were included in articles; he was often referred to as simply “a bloc MP.”

The Bloc Québécois were then very quick to protect their member, sending out their Whip Claude deBellefeuille and Party Leader Yves-François Blanchet to speak on his behalf, only allowing Therrien to speak to friendly media outlets that would presumably not ask too many tough questions. The Bloc then pushed a narrative that the NDP leader’s comments were directed to the entire party and, “logically,” to all Quebecers (assuming all Québécois are White and separatists).

This positioning reinforces how White Québécois nationalism has granted itself full custody of the right to look. It is the supposed neutral, the universal, the filter through which the province can see itself, imagine itself, speak of itself, immediately Othering anyone who dares question its righteous foundations.

This idea that Québécois citizenship can only be considered within a fixed nationalist narrative was prevalent in this year’s fête nationale celebrations. Under the theme “United,” the show promoted itself as one of the most inclusive celebrations in Québec’s history. While this might be true, most attempts at actual calls for change (as light and questionable as they were) were performed either through cishetero white bodies, or in support of the supposed humanist universalist discourse at the base of white nationalism, as though nationalism was the solution, and not the cause.

We saw this as Pierre Lapointe called for a “solidarity with no colours,” as David Gaudreault acknowledged trans folks, as Louis-Jean Cormier and he sang and rapped about racial equality in part “because their girlfriends are Black,” as Christine Beaulieu thanked the rivers of Québec in several Indigenous languages, or as Premier François Legault touted that, as a nation, we were “helped” by the First Nations and later on people from all over “joined in.”

Anything that does not fit within this national narrative, or challenges it, is simultaneously Othered, stripped of agency, stripped of the right to look back, and weaponized to benefit the Québécois nationalist project and to benefit those who accuse progressive politics of historical revisionism, even though the fête nationale celebrations was a great example of actual historical revisionism. Once more, the historical, social, cultural, and even demographic realities of this province is seen through a White nationalist gaze and the bodies that are allowed to hold that gaze are placed at the centre, as symbols of unity and understanding.

While the acknowledgment of diversity (in all its forms) within Québécois society is a much welcomed change to traditional Fête Nationale celebrations, if it is not accompanied by structural change, a commitment to increased agency for marginalized communities, recognition of systemic racism, and the dismantling of the myth of the universal Québécois subject, it is no better than the empty symbolism of a cop kneeling with protesters (ironically something the Québécois right-wing media constantly accuse federal politicians of doing).

Luckily, a counterproposal to the Fête Nationale was launched this year through Safia Nolin’s St-Jeanne. Broadcast on June 24th through the singer’s social media accounts, it featured over two hours of performances by artists who were given the freedom to participate however they wished. Acts included readings by Fabrice Vil, Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, Manon Massé, and Munya; drag performances by Denim Pussy, Kiara, Aizyssa Baga and Victoire Lovegood, musical performances by De.Ville and Jeremy Dutcher, and comedy by Tranna Wintour, just to name a few.

The show offered a reversal of the dominant gaze. Those who had historically been stripped of the right to look back at Québec fought back. They spoke from their own perspectives, their bodies were shown in traditionally Québécois spaces, their voices were uncensored, unabashedly critical, personal, challenging, contradictory, celebratory, authentic, real. It gave all who have ever felt unwelcomed or uninvited at St-Jean celebrations a space where, as the event organizers described it: “No one has to choose between their identity and their feeling of belonging to Québec.”

Whereas the Nationalist political elites and national institutions within Québec are hiding behind outdated notions of universalism and petty victimization narratives, Jagmeet Singh and all who are behind la St-Jeanne are contributing to challenging dominant perspectives that have for so long blinded many in the Province. I would like to mention that I write this as a Gay White French-Canadian Francophone who has exclusively lived in the Province of Québec for his entire life (both in Montréal and en région), and being held to a higher standard of discourse is not a death sentence, nor cultural genocide, it is a challenge that, if we take on with maturity, will only benefit us in the future.

It is time for all to claim the right to be able to speak from their positions without the threat of having their symbolic citizenship revoked, without having to negotiate their identity and belonging to the place they live in. It is time for all Québécois to fight for the right to look, the right to a perspective, the right to see and to be seen.

The right to be Québécois without condition.

Jesse Leonard

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