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Fascism and xenophobia in Montreal

An interview with Jaggi Singh on fascist, xenophobic and islamophobic communities

by Arielle Friedman

Anti-racist protestors face off with police
Anti-racist protestors face off with police
Police forming a protective perimeter around the anti-Bill 59 Marche Du Silence
Police forming a protective perimeter around the anti-Bill 59 Marche Du Silence

 

Arielle: To start off with, can you tell me a bit about yourself, the work you do, and how you got involved in antifa organizing?

Jaggi: I'm an anarchist and community organzier based in Montreal. A lot of the issues I organize around concern migrant justice, indigenous sovereignty and solidarity, anti-poverty and anti-capitalism. I wouldn't necesarly identify myself as an antifa organizer, although there are groups that do.

Anti-migrant sentiment in Québec goes back a long way. I started focusing on it in the period of 2006, 2007, when there were the debates around reasonable accomodation. The Liberal provincial government felt compelled to have the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to investigate the extent to which government and business should accomodate religion. As No One is Illegal, we were saying that we're not going to accomodate racism, that a lot of these controveries were totally false controveries, that they were a way for racists and xenophobes to hide behind the idea of religious accomodation to express their ideas.

The reasonable accomodation debates calmed down after the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, but the sentiment behind them came back again with a vengance in a new form with the Québec Charter of Values in 2013 - 2014. We formed a group called Ensemble Contre la Charte Xénophobe or Together Against the Xenophobic Charter to combat it. Once again there was this normalization of a racist discourse, of an islamophobic discourse in particular, and an antisemitic one as well. In the end the Québec Charter failed for a variety of reasons, inclucing grassroots mobilization. We often use the analogy of a wack-a-mole, you know, when you use a hammer to stomp down something, it pops up somehwere else – that's what we're seeing.

I gave this background to show the different forms that this particular form of racism and xenophobia has taken. Now we're seeing people use the arrival of migrants – in the context of the largest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War – using that as a pretext to spread anti-migrant ideas, or to borrow from European movements to try to create organizations like Pegida.

 

Arielle: How does Pegida fit into this history?

Jaggi: In Europe, especially in Germany, Pegida has a traction or an appeal that's larger than that of other far-right or neo-nazi style movements. Many German people have responded to their message, which is disturbing. Honestly though, in Québec Pegida is the equivalent of a few internet trolls.

We're talking today in the context of a counter-demonstration that took place on Saturday against a potential demonstration of Pegida, and their infiltration of another demo called the Marche du Silence against Bill 59. What disturbed me the most was the fact that xenophobes and racists were hiding behind a demonstration supposedly for free speech and against Bill 59. So there's this group called “Non Aux Migrants.” They're the folks who wore white shirts with “X”'s on them. They have a Facebook page, although they've announced that they're going to take it down and create a secret Facebook group because they're realizing that some of their racist ideas are being exposed publically. You had a group called “Les Insoumis” which is a nationalist, identitarian, right-wing group which has been quite violent against Muslims. They were there openly, demonstrating their ideas, their political views, their flags, their symbols, quite openly at this Bill 59 demo.

As for the organizers, it wasn't so much that they're part of Pegida, but that they're open to having Pegida there, open to the dialogue, open to them coming. You'll see it in the Link, they quote one of the organiers of the Marche Du Silence who says that is was okay for Pegida to be there, that they were there, but that they were asked to keep their politics at home. Meanwhile the politics at the demo are at best very confusing – because you know, “We are Freedom” - from the far right to the far left everyone is claiming they're for freedom, but what does that really mean? And as we saw, there were people openly showing their islamophobic, xenophobic beliefs.

These groups are relatively marginal, but where is becomes problematic is when mainstream politicans take up those discourses and pander to them. We're seeing this pandering specifically in this federal election where the niquab is actually an election issue. It's absurd. I say that by the way as someone who doesn't vote and is very critical of the electoral system, but what's discussed during an election is reflective of where society is at. You have the Bloc Québécois running election ads where they're opposing pipelines – okay, fine – and where they show a pipeline in their ad with black oil leaking out and turning into a niquab. So these are the two main issues they're going after the other parties about. Harper's using that as well, and it's a complete non-issue, right? It's playing to people's fears, just like in the reasonable accomodations debate.

When you actually look at the facts of the issues, they aren't all that shocking to anybody. Like, the one woman who wanted swear in at the ceremony using her Niquab, her identity is known, she shows her identity to another person, and then at the ceremony she wants to wear her niquab. So its not as if people are hiding their identity or anything like that.

To bring it back to the basics, fascists and people who openly declare racist ideas don't have a place in the streets of Montreal and that's why we mobilized like we did last Saturday, and we mobilized like we did last March to oppose Pegida, and both times we were quite successful.

 

Arielle: What is the significance of Bill 59?

Jaggi: We made it clear when we demonstrated on Saturday that our counter-demonstration wasn't because we were in favour of Bill 59. Keep in mind as well that the Bill was withdrawn last week before the demonstration because it was so severly criticized – not because it was criticized by these xenophobes but because it was severly criticized across the political spectrum. I'm not in favour of it because I feel that the kinds of things it's trying to protect against will just give too much power to government agencies to determine what is hate speech or not, and all that is already covered in other provisions. Moreover, there's another side to Bill 59 that's ironic because it panders to the xenophobes, it has all this stuff about banning cultural practices like polygamy and banning genital mutilations and stuff like that. All of that is exaggerated here, but to the extent that it exists, it's already dealt with in other areas of th criminal code.

So it had both sides, right? On one hand, it has these provisions about hate spech so people can't say bad things about religions, on the other hand we're going to single out certain cultural practices so that people who are islamophobes can be happy. So all around, it was ill-conceived and I'm opposed to it. I feel like the organizers of the March Du Silence and others are using Bill 59 as a pretext for their anti-immigrant, xenophobic and islamophobic ideas. And exaggerating its potential impact, especially in light of the fact that it's not actually going through or being introduced.

The Charter of Quebec Values on the other hand was going through and it was being vigorously defended. It would have gone through if there hadn't been the 2014 election where the Parti Québécois (PQ) lost. The Charter would have had tangeable concequences on the ability of people who wore not just niquabs but hijabs or yamakas or turbans or other symbols to be able to work. It was an attack on working class women, essentially.

 

Arielle: A couple questions ago you alluded to the deeper history of islamophobia in  Québec . Could you could speak to that?

Jaggi: I'm not making the claim (that some people make) that somehow Québec is worse than the rest of Canada. Structural, ingrained racism is there in all of Canadian society, in Québec, outside of Québec and in Europe. Wherever you have settler-colonial or former settler-colonial societies you have this ingrained racism, and the scapegoating of the Other.

In Québec in particular you could speak to the history of anti-semitism. The Liberals in the 1930s and 40s who were in power during World War II when Jewish refugees were fleeing Europe, they had a “None is too many” policy – like, how many Jewish refugees should we accept? None – none is too many. One of the reasons they used to justify it was because of the anti-semitism in Québec society. An anti-semitism by the way that often correlates with the power of the Catholic church in certain countries. So you saw the same kind of anti-semitism in Spain, in Portugal.

Arguably there's been a turn in Québec by the nationalist movement. The nationalist movement in the late 1970, 80s and even the early 90s wanted to be a civic nationalism. So there were Quebeckers, what they call Québécois de souche (“old-stock Quebecker), you know, native-born Quebecker or people who go generations back to being colonists, but in this civic notion of nationalism we have to be open to migrants and immigrants and anglophones and all kinds of people, and that's how we'll build our project. Then you get certain sociologists and others who claimed that that this attitude might not be helping us very much, that we have to appeal more to the Québécois de souche in the regions. None of these sociologists would say so openly, but one way to do this is through racism.

In the provincial election of 2007, Mario Dumont was running for the Action démocratique party. This was during the Hérouxville controversy. Hérouxville was a small town in Québec in the Mékinac region that passed a code de vie, like a cultural code for their town. Now this was a small town, it has barely any immigrants, and this cultural code was so condesending, it said things like in our city we don't allow genital mutilation, and all these cultural practices that somehow might be practiced. It was a national story here in Québec. Mario Dumont played with it and he came in second in the election – his third party became a second party, and the PQ basically said, well we have to pander to that same vote. That's when they made the shift away from a slightly more progressive, civic nationalism to a more identitarian nationalism and used the idea of laïcité for that.

 

Arielle: It's really interesting that you compare how Jews were treated back then and how Muslims are being treated now. It seems like a lot of these groups, even though I'm sure they're antisemitic, they try to present themselves publically like they're not.

Jaggi: There's a definite focus on anti-islam and some people are sophisticated enough to link that to Israel as well. Some will talk about how Israel, US, Canada, UK, all these Western civilizations are being threatened by the muslim hords, but others don't hide their anti-semitism.

One example I saw recently is on Facebook, this guy posted a photo of this Quebecker, this guy with a nationalist Les Patriotes tattoo, who was confronting Marc Andre Bibo about his racism. So this guy posts a photo and talk about how he's disapointed in Quebecker who aren't proud of their culture and all that, and you read the comments and one of the comments is, “Is he Jewish?” Like, first of all that's irrelevant, secondly it's obviously a claim of like, “It's the Jew and the immigrants and the Muslims.”

There's also mentality of what I would call casual anti-semitism that people will still express, often about how people look, or about cultural stereotypes. Even to this day the term for a loan shark in French is shilock. It's still used! LaPress did a piece on loan sharks in Montreal, and the word throughout was shilock, shilock shilock, with no awareness of where that term comes from. Kind of you know, how maybe when we're kids or whatever we used the term “Gyp” and later we learned.

Like I said, there's a more sophisticated kind of islamophobia that links the defence of civilization and therefore Israel as being a force against, in their minds, the hordes of islamic jihadists or what have you. Definitely though I feel that if you just scratch the surface of a lot of these xenophobes, they would also be antisemitic.

 

Arielle: One last question; we've talked a lot about anti-immigrant groups in Montreal – what are some migrant justice, pro-refugee and anti-islamophobia groups are organzing that are happening?

Jaggi: Sure. While there was a counter-demonstration on Saturday, and a lot of attention focused on the far right, the neo-nazi right, on racist islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, I do want to express that we've succeeded in making sure that they don't have a public street presence. I don't want to exaggerate their imact, but nor do I want to underestimate it. There's definitely a foundation of xenophobic opinion, because politcans are pandering to that right now and they want to get those votes, especially in the Québec regions.

For around the same period of time I've talked about, from the early 2000s, late 90s until now, co-existing with 9/11 and other events, there's been a strong migrant justice movement here in Montreal. Groups like No One Is Illegal were founded here in Montreal back in the early 2000s. Campaigns to demand status for all, regularization, to support undocumented migrants in the city. Those go back a decade and they continue to exist. For example, on October 10th there's going to be a unity march against deportations bringing together four groups, including three groups who work around Haitian migrants, and Solidarity Across Borders.

We didn't just mobilize back in March because we were worried about Pegida in particular – we marched in larger numbers than usual because they were trying to march in an immigrant neighbourhood and go to Adil Charkaoui's mosque. Adil Charkaoui, you can agree or disagree with his politics, but people have attacked him personally because he's unapologetic – he's like, “I don't have to offer apologies for every other Muslim in the world.” When there's a white serial killer for example, every white person isn't expected to apologize for that, right? It's a double standard and it's racist. So there's the Collectif Québécois contre l'islamophobie that Adil Charkaoui is part of.

I wanted to stress the linkages that are made though groups like Solidarity Across Borders, between migrant justice struggles and struggles against poverty and capitalism, and in support of indigenous self-determination and sovereignty. On October 10th when we march, we're going to be meeting in Bethune Square at 2pm. At noon there's going to be an anti-pipelines march. They decided to have it at noon and they're going to march to our demonstration so that their organziers can particiate in our demo, so that we can make linkages between fighting against pipelines and fighting for migrant justice.

I'll end on this note. I've mentioned status for all, regularizations, fighting deportations, and fighting detentions, but we're also trying to build what we call a solidarity city. The idea of a solidarity city is very much in contrast with the blaming of migrants, the blaming of people's cultural and religious practices, the blaming of others, right? So you can create a society, which these racists are trying to do, where you blame all the problems on others and you don't focus on structural problems. Or, you have what we call a solidarity city, much like sanctuary cities in the US, where you refuse to ask for people's immigration status and provide services, health care, education, regardless of someone's status. You try to build a community, a solidarity city, on the basis of values that are rooted in mutual aid, in solidarity, in supporting each other. That's one of our main campaigns, and we had our solidarity city banner up while we were at both the anti-Pegida demo in March and at this anti-facist mobilization this past Saturday. Part of building a solidarity city is not allowing racist and xenophobes to openly express ideas that attack members of our community.

And I also want to stress, we did so in a way that was nuanced. Several times we pointed out that there might be many people in this demonstration that are there in good faith against Bill 59 – so are we, a lot of us are against Bill 59 – but you're being infiltrated by racists! There are a lot of nationalists who got upset, like “Oh, you're saying that all nationalists are racists.” We never said that, we're saying that these particular people are. You can stand up for your idea of what Québec should be and not be inherently racist. There's a lot of potential allyship to be formed with people who don't share your own particular opinion about Québec separation or capitalism, but are opposed to racism. This is especially important if we look to the great historical lessons of the past, the big one being the rise of fascism in Europe. The lesson is that not only that we need to stop this at the roots, but that we must work together with as many allies as possible who oppose racism.

 

For more information, please see:

http://thelinknewspaper.ca/article/blows-exchanged-between-anti-bill-59-and-anti-fascist-demos

http://www.solidarityacrossborders.org/

http://nooneisillegal-montreal.blogspot.ca/

https://www.facebook.com/NoOneIsIllegalMontreal

http://www.islamophobiequebec.org/

Anti-pipelines demo: https://www.facebook.com/events/121079164911411/

Unity demo: https://www.facebook.com/events/765456080244145/

 

 


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