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Under the Cover: A Plea for Pluralism in We, the Others
Toula Drimonis, author of We, the Others (Linda Leith Publishing), discusses how the rise of reactionary, anti-immigration sentiment in Quebec led her to start writing her book.
Why I wrote We, the Others
Since my book was published a year ago, I have repeatedly been asked why I wrote it.
A large part of the reason is my vocation. I’m a journalist and opinion pundit who lives and works in Quebec. I’m plugged into what’s happening around me politically and socially, and I’m used to both forming and sharing my opinions about current affairs, politics, and social movements. I like connecting the dots and I think I’m good at it.
But fundamentally, the explanation is simple: I’m the daughter of immigrants. Nothing can change that. How I often see the world is through the prism of how minority groups are treated and how immigrants are routinely othered. The rise of identity politics in Quebec has given way to increased othering and marginalization of those who are different from the majority. In the past five years, this government has not shied away from repeatedly treating immigration as an existential threat instead of part of the solution to major issues.
I wrote this book as a way for immigrants and children of immigrants to see themselves reflected in the challenges and concerns that identity politics and a fear of “others” often elicit. I wanted their experience and their frustration to be validated and honoured. I also hoped to explain the immigration and integration process to those unfamiliar with it, and perhaps allow for more understanding about why allophones and immigrants, and yes, anglophones, too (just like francophones) feel strongly about retaining markers of their own plural identities while still being very much a part of the whole. Finally, after a few years of noticing that anti-immigration rhetoric was ramping up everywhere, I wrote this book as both a plea and a warning. The main message I hoped to get across: rhetoric that repeatedly marginalizes and scapegoats minority groups is destructive for people’s sense of belonging and for overall social cohesion.
We, the Others was published during the 2022 Quebec provincial election, just weeks before Quebecers went to the polls. The timing would prove my concerns justified.
During that campaign, immigrants were repeatedly scapegoated and treated as a menace to Quebec’s hard-fought social peace and prosperity, as well as to the majority language and culture. Immigration was, once again, framed as a problem. Numbers and quotas to be debated, to be reduced, to be reluctantly permitted in for economic purposes. Never spoken of as people who’ve contributed and continue to contribute to the many ways Quebec and Canada are so great.
Despite the CAQ holding a strong lead during the campaign, the party’s elected officials chose to ramp up the nativist anti-immigrant talk and pushed easy buttons for easy vote pandering.
At a campaign stop, Quebec Premier Francois Legault would be quoted as saying the arrival of immigrants constituted “a challenge for our society” and a “potential threat to our values.” Asked by a reporter to elaborate, he went on to say that “Quebecers are peaceful, they don’t like bickering, they don’t like extremists, they don’t like violence,” indirectly implying that all those unsavoury elements arrive with immigration and making an irresponsible link between immigration, violence, and extremism.
A few weeks later, the premier would declare that accepting more than 50,000 immigrants per year would be “suicidal” for the province and the French language.
Even with Quebec’s high labour shortages, which cost the province billions in lost productivity, even with a rapidly aging population, and a low birth rate, immigration continues to be spoken about as a threat to be minimized, not an opportunity to be welcomed and maximized, and a fundamental part of the solution to some of these issues. Language and identity politics not only dictate our immigration policies, but also frame the way we discuss newcomers who actively contribute to Quebec’s economic, linguistic, and social vitality.
Legault would later tell a campaign crowd that non-French speaking immigration threatens national cohesion in the province, casually dismissing thousands of Quebecers who have come here without knowledge of the French language, who have acquired it and who, in turn, send their children to French school. Suddenly, a desire to learn the language was no longer enough. Having a mother tongue other than French was a “threat” to Quebec’s national cohesion.
Not to be outdone by the premier, Quebec’s then immigration minister Jean Boulet would state only days later during a Radio-Canada debate that “80 percent of immigrants go to Montreal, do not work, do not speak French or do not adhere to the values of Quebec society.”
He later walked back his offensive and blatantly untrue comments and said he expressed himself badly, but those harbouring xenophobic, anti-immigrant tendencies felt emboldened and justified in their beliefs, now voiced by the Quebec government itself. Our own immigration minister no less!
Seven months later, the CAQ would backtrack, and immigration quotas would be raised to 60,000.
But by then the damage had been done.
It is my hope that people reading this book with an open mind and an open heart gain a little more understanding and clarity about why patience, faith, and openness to difference are required for integration to take place. Plurality is not a threat to social cohesion. It’s an expansion and a gift in a constantly changing world. People have a right to their own shifting personal identities and multiple languages and cultures they cherish, which don’t threaten a healthy majority culture and language.
As Quebec and Canada continue to navigate important and necessary conversations on language, culture, and identity, we should remember that how we allow politicians and pundits to discuss immigration and integration matters just as much, if not more, than the questions we raise. How we frame these public conversations, how we talk about each other, the words that we use, all inevitably shape how we see one another.
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Toula Drimonis is a Montreal-based opinion columnist, writer and news producer. A former news director for TC Media, she has reported and written on politics, social justice, and women’s issues for national and international publications. She has worked in television, radio, and print in all three of her languages, and has appeared on TV as both panelist and contributor to English and French-language current-affairs and cultural news shows.
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