Politicians exploit phrasing of Shachi Kurl’s question to avoid issue of racism in Quebec

Had the former journalist avoided the word "discriminatory," it would have been tougher for the Bloc Québécois leader to dismiss the issue


Canada’s chattering classes, particularly in Quebec, spent a great deal of time focusing on a question asked by the president of the Angus Reid Group, Shachi Kurl, in the September 9 English-language leaders debate.

The September 10 edition of the French-language show L’Essential, hosted by Esther Bégin on CPAC, featured candidates from all four parties basically agreeing with the notion that one of Kurl’s questions insulted Quebec residents.

The premier of the province, the prime minister and the leader of the Conservatives piled on by saying that Quebecers were not racist. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh emphasized that no one province or territory should be singled out for systemic racism.

It was rather surreal. Quebec is the only  place in the country that bans people who wear turbans, hijabs or other religious symbols in public as part of their identity from working in the public service.

Quebec’s radio poubelle (trash radio) hosts have gone further in stirring up racial controversies than their counterparts in English Canada. Quebec is also home to La Meute, which is dedicated to fighting illegal immigration and radical Islam. One of its leaders attended the notorious white-power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The politicians are scrambling for votes and Kurl is a convenient target for them to achieve this objective.

But is it really insulting Quebecers to suggest that there’s a problem with racism in that part of the country?

One of the Angus Reid Institute’s own polls shows that people least likely to agree that Canada is a racist country were those who voted for the Bloc Québecois (13 per cent) in the last election. That compared to 55 per cent of NDP voters and 54 per cent of Green voters in the last election who believe that Canada is a racist country.

Whereas the B.C. legislature held a wide-ranging discussion among members about their experiences of discrimination, Quebec’s premier denies the existence of systemic racism.

Justin Trudeau even called Kurl’s opening question to Yves-François Blanchet “offensive” for suggesting that Quebec has a problem with racism.

It shows how desperate Trudeau is to prevent Blanchet’s party, the Bloc Québécois, from exploiting the debate to seize more seats from the Liberals.

That’s not to say there weren’t problems with Kurl’s question from a journalistic standpoint, which I’ll elaborate on below. But first, you can read the exchange that triggered so much discussion:

Shachi Kurl: “You deny that Quebec has problems with racism yet you defend legislation such as Bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones. Quebec is recognized as a distinct society but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws?”

Yves-François Blanchet: “The question seems to imply the answer you want. Those laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec.”

Kurl: “And yet, religious minorities, Sir, cannot progress if they wear their religious gear.”

Blanchet: “May I remind you, Quebec is not recognized as a distinct society. It’s been recognized as a nation on June 16 by the Parliament – 281 votes said that Quebec is a nation and everybody here seems to agree with that. No more distinct society, which never had any meaning anyway. Meaning anyway.”

Kurl: “So again, why the discriminatory laws and your support for it, Sir?”

Blanchet: “You may repeat as many times as you want that those are discriminatory laws. We are saying that those are legitimate laws that apply on Quebec territory and there seems to be people around here who will share this point of view, which again is by itself for Quebec.”

Here is my fundamental problem with the initial question: it contained a value judgement by calling these laws “discriminatory.”

As I watched the debate live, I blurted this out. Anyone who has learned interviewing techniques from the great Canadian journalist John Sawatsky (as I was lucky enough to do) knows that this is a no-no.

The value judgement offered Blanchet an easy retort – he could say they were not discriminatory. He could focus on the “trigger word,” as Sawatsky describes it, rather than address the substance of the question.

The exchange between Kurl and Blanchet reminded me of hip-hop radio pioneer Jay Smooth’s advice to people when encountering a racist. He says don’t call them a racist because they or someone who knows them will simply deny that they’re racist.

Focus on the actions, Smooth recommended. Treat them like they stole your wallet.

With regard to the Bloc leader’s support for clearly discriminatory laws, this would have been a better question:

Mr. Blanchet, one leader on this stage cannot be a police officer in Quebec. Because he wears a turban as part of his identity in public, he cannot be a judge even though he’s a lawyer. Others like him cannot dream in Quebec of becoming an emergency-room nurse to help heal the sick. Then there’s the issue of other religious symbols, such as a hijab. Can you explain to Canadians why a young Muslim woman who wears a hijab in public as part of her identity is not allowed to pursue her dreams of being a schoolteacher in Quebec? She can do this in every other part of Canada. Why not Quebec? How do you justify that?

With a question like that, Blanchet could not have seized upon the trigger word “discriminatory” and swatted it away like a pesky fly.

The followup question should have then cited reputable authorities who’ve stated that these laws are discriminatory.

That’s called “shooting over your shoulder.” By shooting over the shoulder – attributing sources – the politician has to answer to these authorities rather than making mincemeat of the journalist.

At the outset, Kurl’s question sounded tough to viewers. But it was actually pretty easy for Blanchet to dismiss because it contained the trigger word “discriminatory” and there were no specifics to back up the claim that “Quebec has a problem with racism.” 

Let this be a lesson to any young person, including those wearing hijabs or turbans, who dream of being journalists and holding politicians accountable for discriminatory legislation.

This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.

 @charliesmithvcr

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