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The Teaching of Contempt

Gemma Raeburn and the Montreal Police

Beryl Wajsman

26 November 2008

In November 2004 Dollard des Ormeaux resident Gemma Raeburn and two friends, Peter Charles and Frederick Peters, were moving items from her garage into her home. Following a call from a neighbor, six armed Montreal police officers showed up, accusing the three of robbing the house. The only crime they had committed was that they were black.


The neighbor who had called the police was a 17-year-old who said that people with “black things” on their faces were committing a robbery. What happened after the police arrived turned from farce to tragedy. When Raeburn asked one of the officers if they would have pulled their guns on white people, the officer responded that “…bullets don’t see color…”. When Peters told one of the other officers that police in his native Grenada did not behave in a similar fashion the officer snapped back “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your country?”


Raeburn and her friends brought complaints to the Police Ethics Committee. The Committee suspended the two officers. The officers took their case to Quebec Court and their appeal was successful. The Court ordered the suspension of the first officer wiped off his record and the second had the suspension converted into a reprimand. Gemma Raeburn’s reaction said it all. “If we can’t even recognize racism, how are we ever going to cure it?”


We won’t go through the litany of racial incidents and attitudes in Quebec in this editorial. From the firebombing of a Jewish school, to the intolerance exhibited during the accommodation hearings, to the Police Brotherhood’s move to stop a coroner-ordered inquiry into Mohammed Bennis’ death, they are all too fresh in our minds. What we would like to consider here is why it seems so easy to demonize and marginalize minorities – “les autres” – in this Province. So easy that even courts can be caught up in the sad, twisted mindset of trivialization.


An answer was provided by comments on the provincial campaign trail this past week. Pauline Marois proposed toughening Bill 101 by applying it to currently exempted small businesses and hiring more inspectors. Jean Charest wants Ottawa to turn over all cultural and communications matters to Quebec and proposed protecting “Quebec-made” cultural products through preferential and discriminatory taxes.


We are not suggesting that Marois and Charest are in any way racist. Yet perhaps in some manner they have failed in an even greater responsibility of trust. A racist sometimes simply does not know better. But our politicians in Quebec know very well how to play the pandering card. The same old fear-mongering that has been going on for 40 years -  and before that in the Duplessis era – grabs votes. It grabs votes in the narrowest way possible. By appealing to the lowest common denominator of our society. Proposals such as these re-enforce the message – and a not too subliminal message at that -  that it is acceptable to marginalize the “other.” That there are two classes of citizens and that there will be no level playing field. This is a propagation of the teachings of contempt.


And from the time these teachings leave the mouths of politicians to the time they filter down and are disseminated in the media and enter the minds of all – from judges to juveniles – the damage is done. It is time for Quebec to do better.


It is time for leaders of Quebec civil society to appeal to the better angels of our nature. We have examples from an unparalleled progressive political patrimony to draw on. Lawyers and legislators, judges and jurists, pundits and politicians should end the perpetuation of insecurity and interposition. Let them draw lessons from Papineau who led the fight that emancipated all minorities 20 years before England; from Lafontaine who structured the first responsible government in the British Empire; from Laurier who proclaimed that it was the proudest boast of his public life to have been denounced by Roman priests and condemned by Protestant parsons and from Trudeau who institutionalized the supremacy of the individual over the whims of the state.


All leaders have a responsibility to make us better, more inclusive, more tolerant. Let no one be fooled. The poison that led to officers drawing guns on three middle-aged black citizens was not produced in a vacuum. It was concocted in the corridors of power where we so often search for justice and not merely law. There is one sad lesson all honest Quebecers must recognize. That lesson is that any society where public policy is proposed and propogated on the basis of personal prejudices  giving privilege and preference to one group over another based on parochial particularities - be they of race, color, creed, faith or tongue – will inevitably produce hallmarks of intolerance.


We write this on the very morning that the Sûrete du Québec arrested the first suspects in a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the Laurentians this past summer. It is time to acknowledge that “sang et langue” doesn’t cut it anymore. It never really did. It was always the big lie. Civil society should recognize that there are more votes to be gained from the heirs of Quebec’s patrimoine politique progressiste nonpareil than from the heirs of la grande noirceur.

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