This News and Opinions tab is available for Montréal Serai’s subscribers and friends to voice their opinion on social, cultural and human rights issues that affect us here in Québec, in Canada and internationally. While we may be in agreement with some or all of the sentiments expressed in these columns, we do not necessarily endorse the entire piece. We nonetheless feel that this topical forum is necessary, given the nature of systemic racism, the ongoing battles of Indigenous peoples to protect their lands, culture and children, and the inequalities and cultural majoritarianism that prevail. We are not in a position to copyedit or update the contents of such pieces. Opinion pieces that are not in keeping with our stated goals and values will not be publicized. Comments are welcome.

Opinion pieces:

Trial! Not an Apology

©Rahul Varma, Aug 1, 2022

Leading up to Pope Francis’ arrival, the government prepared Canadians to expect a genuine apology for a crime that the Church could no longer mask: the forceful removal of over 150,000 indigenous children from their families, sexual abuse, torture; more than 3,200 unmarked graves and the deaths of over 4000 indigenous children. But the so-called apology was an act of damage control to halt the decline of the Church’s eroding reputation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, published in 2015, listed 94 concrete actions to help healing and reconciliation with Canada’s injured Indigenous community. Action No. 58 asked the Pope to apologize “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children”, within one year of the report’s release. However, the Pope waited seven years, a period marked by more revelations of the Church’s crimes, which left the Pope with no option but to apologize to calm the rising public rage. 

In a carefully choreographed event, a sad-looking Pope asked for forgiveness “for the ways in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.” Pope Francis was deeply sorry because “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.” Calling the residential schools catastrophic, the Pope said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”

This was no apology; it was an empty sentiment to deflect the responsibility.

An apology must include an unqualified admission of the sexual abuse, deaths, torture, forced removal and cultural genocide. It must express shame and remorse, pledge reparation, justice restoration, and a commitment to collaborate in dismantling the legacy of colonialism the Catholic Church designed under the Doctrine of Discovery. The Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493, played a central role in the Spanish conquest of the New World. The document supported Spain’s strategy to ensure its exclusive right to the lands discovered by Columbus the previous year. Instead, Pope Francis apologized for the actions of “many members of the church,” absolving the Church as the governing body that has systematically covered up and protected predatory priests, nuns and clergies, refused to hand over documents, and promoted conversion and assimilation, resulting in cultural genocide.  As Indigenous leaders have repeatedly stressed, this Doctrine must be rescinded.

Most likely, the Pope’s words were drafted by his legal team to obscure the Church’s liability and maintain its brand.

The genocide against this hemisphere’s Indigenous people is a foundational crime of Canada (and the United States), resulting from the Doctrine of Discovery authorizing the seizing of non-Christian lands in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, South America and the African continent.

The testimonies from the survivors and families and evidence cited in the TRC confirm that the cover-up of sexual abuse, torture, and killings were not acts of individual priests but resulted from the Church’s policies, which is why the abusers were neither reported nor punished. The Church’s sexual abuse was about racism, white Christian supremacy, systemic domination, and decadence, not “indifference,” as the Pope said in his apology.

The United Nation’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, passed after the holocaust, stipulates that genocide of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is a crime, whether committed during a time of peace or war. The discovery of more than 1000 unmarked graves,  indiscriminate killings by the police and RCMP, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and systemic racism confirm that the elimination was intentional.

When a crime of this nature and this magnitude is carried out anywhere in the world, with long-lasting effects that still touch the lives of those living today, one must not beg the criminal or his institution to apologize but put them on trial to restore justice.

Rahul Varma

Playwright and Artistic Director, Teesri Duniya Theatre

© Jeremy Cabrera

Can the Gazelle ever win against the Lion?

A review of Koomsatira’s ‘Psycho 6’ and the impossibility of living an ordinary life as a youth belonging to the marginalized sections of society

By Shailee Rajak

The sun is out as is the rest of the world! As pandemic mandated restrictions ease down, the vibrant Montreal theatre world has come alive and is abuzz with the excitement of new productions and stagings, sorely missed during the last two summers. Kickstarting this season, Teesri Duniya theatre’s “Psycho 6”—written and performed by Oliver Koomsatira—explores the intertwined nexus of the government-funded foster care structure, youth gangs, pimping, increasing crime rates, and the defunct prison system. Directed by Liz Valdez, the play takes up the important task of asking the difficult questions—rarely addressed in the theatre community otherwise—about the extreme vulnerability of marginalized youth to criminal activities and general delinquency. It strives to explore the exploitative structures of a highly material society that creates oppressive conditions of socio-economic deprivation wherein the young generation is often pushed down paths of increasing danger out of sheer necessity. The play was well-received by the audience and had a successful run at the Montreal Arts Interculturels (MAI) from June 10th-23rd.

Semi-autobiographical in nature, the play takes the audience on a 75-minute cruise of emotions—from intense angst and rage to heart wrenching distress—as it traces the life of ‘K’, a young man who has been in and out of foster care since the age of 9. Surrounded by a group of rowdy peers involved in gangs and petty crime, a sick sister who desperately needs monetary help to access proper healthcare, and an unaccountable legal system that continues to function along a stereotypical axis of unfair labelling with regards to lower-class populations, K’s dreams of becoming a musician are never meant to be fulfilled. The almost dream-like quality of the sequences, where K performs his rap during the play, perfectly captures the ephemerality of his desires lost within the murkiness of his everyday reality. The protagonist’s words, “I have dreams too, like most of you. If I get to 25…”, hit like a punch in the gut while the powerful lyrics of his songs are still ringing in our ears. The play does a sublime job of breaking the romantic façade of an idyllic, innocent childhood to capture the utter helplessness of the youth belonging to a particular stratum of society. The constant reality-checks, given by tidbits of factual information interspersed within the narrative, provide commentary on inherent class inequalities, an ineffective prison system—prioritized in the GDP over the public education system—, the growing rates of crime in spite of this, the highly exploitative art industry that functions in this capitalist economy, as well as the seductive lure of easy money within the pimping business. The play’s central aesthetic foregrounds this formidable juxtaposition of abstract, yet intense emotionality of the individual constantly struggling to escape this quagmire of factoids anchoring him down to a dismal life.

Born in the not so affluent regions of Laval, Koomsatira and Valdez’s experiences of growing up amidst this culture of delinquency gain life in their reflections on stage. Their childhood was spent surrounded by friends who belonged to households run by single parents who weren’t always emotionally or physically available. Incidents of petty crime, such as car hijacks and thievery, were common and litter their earlier memories in abundance. The more heart-breaking accidents and loss of life, resulting from this general state of life, had a huge impact on their formative years. As such, the casting decision—to have the writer interpret his own words for the audience on stage—works like a charm! Oliver’s fluid, dance-like bodily movements are perfectly synchronized to the moody synth music and capture the essence of the play as easily as breathing. Even as he undertakes the arduous task of portraying 23 different personalities in this monodrama, his unwavering energy as he jumps and dances between characters keeps the audience riveted to their seats. As an anonymous theatre-goer aptly commented after a show, “It brings together everything—theatre, music, movement, masks, rap, and dance.” It came as a surprise to me when I learnt that neither Koomsatira nor Valdez have had any previous, professional experience in dancing or choreography. When asked about her experience of directing Koomsatira, Valdez noted, “Throughout the rehearsal and production process, I kept on asking myself, ‘How would the direction have been different if it was done by a man?’ For one thing, the performance would have been more violent, more aggressive.” Indeed, there is something feminine, something delicately communicative and sensitive about Koomsatira’s body language which is perfectly conducive to the message the play seeks to convey. In contrast to the performance, the text of the play itself is very harsh in its treatment of women and portrayal of femininity. In its usage of language and curse words which are derogatorily feminine in meaning, as well as the scenes portraying the pimping and prostitution of girls as young as 13-14 years of age, the play is jarringly horrifying. These opposing forces of feminine and masculine energy—battling for dominance in the fragile balance that exists between the acting and the directing, the script and the performance— beautifully encapsulate the crucial metaphor that forms the fulcrum around which the plot revolves; in order to survive this world, you need to become the ‘lion’, the king of the jungle or else you will be hunted and eaten like a gazelle, a prey to life as it exists in this era. This metaphorical aesthetic—and a very realistic representation of class-based frustrations—is what makes the triggering language and general sexism an artistic choice that adds on to the overarching dynamics of the play; indeed, an admirable effort by the playwright-director duo who seem to perfectly understand the responsibility that comes with performing politically charged, yet politically correct theatre.

Even as the play delves into the consequences of gang-related gun violence, questions of racial differences within this world of delinquency remain unexplored. While Koomsatira briefly touches upon the growth of crime as a highly lucrative industry that benefits national economies, the play homogenizes this phenomenon by refusing to acknowledge the major role that race and ethnicity have to play. Several tragedies—involving hate-crimes, murders of immigrant individuals or BIPOC families—have created waves of unrest in Canada in the past few years. Racial profiling by the police is another issue which has gained a lot of attention recently. It is no hidden fact that even amongst the marginalized, certain racial populations remain more vulnerable to crime and gun-violence, simply because of their disadvantaged and stigmatized position in the social and cultural hierarchy of the nation. The political legitimization underpinning gun-violence also passes unnoticed in the play, as subtext. Perhaps, an elucidation of the fact that gun-related violence and shootings are more commonly associated with alt-right, extremist groups and perpetrators with no previous criminal record—rather than organized, criminal gangs—would have provided further refinement to the abstract politics of the play. A call for more stringent gun laws would have been the perfect bow to wrap up this theatrical present.

Ultimately, the play situates itself successfully amongst the plethora of portrayals of the universal human condition which abound in contemporary theatre. Yet, it interrupts the monotony of this static discourse by empathetically capturing the vulnerability of the poor, marginalized sections of society without proper access to adequate social, cultural, political, and economic resources. In its complete usage of the theatrical space, in the rich intermingling of movements, sounds, lights, and words, the play gives a resounding homage to the theatre of experiential art that asks questions while being cathartic. In these post-pandemic times of gloomy stagnancy, Koomsatira’s play comes across as a breath of refreshing air that vibrates with the full potency of political activism at the community level and the resilient evolution of the individual human spirit.

Islamophobia & Racism cannot be defeated without dismantling colonial White Supremacy

© Rahul Varma, Summer Mahmud

The murder of three generations of a visibly Muslim family – a couple, a grandmother and a teenage daughter – by a 20-year-old white man is the latest in a series of blatant racially motivated crimes in “Canada”. Preceded by the 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque which killed six Muslims, the fatal stabbing of a mosque caretaker in Toronto, police shootings of Black citizens, endemic RCMP racism against Indigenous communities and individuals, rising anti-Asian hate crimes, growing anti-Semitism, Joyce Echaquan’s murder at the hands of the health-care system, and the discovery of the remains of 394 (and counting) Indigenous children in unmarked graves at “Residential Schools” across the country; communities are perpetually having their race and religion weaponized against them.

In a routine offering of sympathies, politicians have tried to convince us that this is “not Canada” – and certainly, this is not a Canada that we can or should accept. The frequency of these incidents forces us to address the situation critically and honestly. While the targeted victims span a broad range of racialized communities, the perpetrator remains the same – white supremacy.

Dismantling white supremacy in all its forms is absolutely vital if we hope – as we claim we do – to defeat endemic racism.

Canada, a country that successfully defined every aspect of its law and society to benefit  white colonizers, has a deeply ingrained legacy of white supremacy, despite putting in place “egalitarian policies”. For example, even though racial discrimination in housing was outlawed, the same classes – privileged by colonization – continues to make money off land stolen from Indigenous peoples. When racial discrimination in employment was outlawed, the predominantly white higher-ups continued to hold the positions of power that perpetuate the disenfranchisement of non-white folks who were denied those jobs previously. When the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” were not found in Iraq, no allied countries questioned, let alone punished, the US.

Promising to do everything in their power to end racism against all, politicians continue to overlook the fact that racism is a product of white supremacy, that manifests itself in uniquely insidious ways depending on its historic origin.  For example, the anti-Black racism, entrenched in the history of enslavement and colonization takes a different face from anti-Asian racism, intertwined with socio-political attitudes towards China, and the exclusion and fetishization of Asian women; both which are distinct from the continued colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples. To attack racism therefore, is not to attack one simple sentiment towards all the affected communities, but rather to dismantle deep-rooted white supremacy. The Asian “model minority” prescription is an example of how the divisive politics of white supremacy succeeds in pitting one minority against the other. For example, while Black and Indigenous peoples agitate against lack of civil rights, police violence, and inequality, the “model minority” is projected as a community that does not need agitation to succeed. Incidences of “success” are weaponized under a colonial framework against other racialized communities to benefit white supremacy. Accordingly, the media attempts to term Muslims who do not resist oppression and tokenization or make demands for better treatment to be “moderate Muslims” – in opposition to the implied default Muslim, whose lives and rights are disregarded repeatedly across the globe.

Islamophobia is shaped by geopolitics. It is strongly linked with events such as 9/11, the 2005 London bombings, the ongoing war in Syria, and the occupation of Palestine. While Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other aforementioned forms of racism have been persistent problems in Canada, it is vital – as with all forms of racism – to acknowledge the specific historical and current global context of Islamophobia. Islamophobia thrives in the domestic and foreign policies of “the West”, as well as certain Asian countries such as India under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. It shares many tools with settler colonialism, constructing Muslims as backwards, primitive and uneducated; an “enemy” who threatens national stability and spreads backwards Islamic ideals. White supremacy has constructed a Muslim caricature that is at once uneducated and a master of terror. Meanwhile, the same Western imperialist nations are complicit in the ruthless bombing of schools, universities, hospitals, press buildings, cultural and religious centers, civilians and children across these regions, destabilizing communities and murdering innocents in the name of “security”.

The Harper government targeted Muslims and fed this image with policies such as the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,”  anti-Terrorism bills, immigration laws and the over-policing of Muslims, once again legitimizing discrimination and reinforcing racist constructs under the pretext of security. Quebec’s Charter of Values and Law 21 that restricts Muslim women from wearing a Hijab, effectively institutionalize gendered Islamophobia here in Canada. In light of recent incidents, Trudeau remarked that while he disagrees with it, he doesn’t think that the bill encourages hate or discrimination. What his comment is clearly overlooking – outside of the explicit restriction of  women who wear Hijabs from partaking at an equal level in the public sphere – is that by othering groups based on their religion, culture and visible presentation, we are defining the norm; the “we” who is allowed to exist freely, and the “other,” whose rights are made conditional, restricted, and not absolute.

There are lines that Western governments will not cross when it comes to fighting racial disparities. These lines reflect the overarching lack of respect and value for non-white life. Despite the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in an unmarked mass grave at Kamloops “Residential School,” and the hundreds more continuing to be uncovered across Turtle Island, there has not been an apology from the Pope and affiliated Catholic institutions with whom the Canadian government works hand-in-glove. After 11 days of Israel bombing Gaza, with 227 dead including 64 Palestinian children, Western governments including Canada have expressed support for Israel’s “right to security” and tactfully condemned violence by both sides, as if the ongoing occupation, displacement and genocide has two comparable sides. The so-called “both sides” cliché is a carefully constructed ruse to maintain the veil of a moral high ground, without admitting that a vast power-imbalance pervades the issue; one side is highly militarized, the other occupied.

As Palestinians rummage through the rubble to collect their belongings and bury their murdered kin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweets congratulations to the Israeli president saying, “our two countries are bound together by shared democratic values and many common priorities.” Since 2015, Canada has exported $57 million worth of weapons to Israel, including $16 million in bomb components. Those who shoot worshippers at the mosques and run over families on sidewalks know that they are joining this “common priority”. Similarly, south of the border, Joe Biden vows to “end systemic racism”; yet within six weeks of his inauguration, his government resumed bombing Syria. When wealthy Western nations, like Canada,  fund the bombing of Gaza and the continued occupation of Palestine, and refuse to act upon reconciliation after the public discovery of  hidden mass graves of Indigenous children, individual white supremacists are given license to kill a visibly Muslim family, knowing it is no different than the government’s duplicity. If the Canadian government truly condemns such “brutal, cowardly, and brazen act[s] of violence,” they need to take a harsh look in the mirror.

Our hope is to mobilize the public in a call for action against white supremacy in all its various explicit and insidious forms. If we believe in equity, justice and an inclusive society, then we must evaluate the continued Western legacy of disregarding non-white life and truly consider the meaning of “justice for all”.

Quebec’s Secularism Law Is Meant to Marginalize Visible and Religious Minorities

© Rahul Varma, July 26, 2019

Playwright and Artistic Director, Teesri Duniya Theatre

CAQ Premier Francois Legault’s Law 21 is promoted as a progressive legal framework celebrating the values of religious neutrality, though its explicit and implicit implications are clearly neither secular nor neutral for minority citizens. Law 21 is a majoritarian law meant to invoke constitutional hegemony. What this law does is frame the rights and freedoms of visible and religious minorities as an obstacle to the homogeneous culture of the dominant group. This ideological mandate is driven by xenophobic responses towards diversity and multiculturalism and made by the dominant cultural majority. The passage of Bill 21 into law has created social dissonance, which puts the rights of religious minorities at odds with the agenda for national identity, which inevitably will result in undermining social harmony and progressive immigrant integration.

Secularism, as an ideology, upholds state neutrality towards religion through clear separation of religion and the state. As a principle of our society, this value sees citizenship embedded in equality, and the protection of an individual’s freedom of religious and ethnic identifications. It is precisely the government’s aims towards equality that have been dishonoured by Law 21 because it officially prohibits citizens, including Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women, as well as Sikh and Jewish men, from serving as police officers or teachers, or holding public office. This is strictly due to their choice of apparel inferring a religious identity (hijab, turban, kippah). During World War II, Sikh soldiers wearing their turbans contributed to defending the Western alliance against Nazis. These same men would be declared unfit to hold public office in Quebec. Law 21 effectively legitimizes state-sponsored discrimination.

While implemented by CAQ, Law 21 is part of an agenda of predecessor nationalist governments, which has been accomplished in several successive stages. The first stage is to make the numerically dominant group feel that their religion, culture, and lifestyles are under threat from groups alien to the dominant culture. Next stage is to spread a psychology of fear and persuade the public that Quebec’s values are endangered. The final step is to use majoritarian vote to suppress rights of minorities. This continued ethno-nationalist waves of mobilization are rooted in a complex colonial legacy. Take for example our late Premier Jacques Parizeau’s remark on how “money and ethnic votes” led to the defeat of Quebec’s independence, and the late Premier René Levesque’s accusation of multiculturalism being a federalist blow against Quebec sovereignty. Separatist identity in Quebec has long since been fueled by both an assertion of reparation and identity, as well as legitimate fears of losing Quebec’s unique cultural identity. However, the nationalist aspirations of Quebec’s dominant white Francophones have been realised on multiple levels, consolidated by Bill 101 as well as other measures to protect French culture.

While the ethno-nationalist mobilization that started with the separatist movement was originally rooted in protecting francophone rights and culture, the dynamics of Law 21 and more recent actions illustrate the darker side of imposing definitions of citizenship on to the rights of those in Quebec. This law directly threatens the dignity and rights of a small segment of the society, largely living in urban Montreal. This is a vulnerable visible minority that accounts for less than 11% of the total population of Quebec. By implementing Law 21, we are in danger of inviting extreme, right-wing views. We are empowering a nationalist rhetoric that envisions a culturally homogeneous state, where minorities remain marginalized citizens. This law capitalizes on fear, while stirring resentment, anger and vengeance, by disrupting social alliances and splitting the discourse into “us” and “them”: those who belong and those who are outsiders.

This fear and resentment has been observed in both the popular media and with paranoid xenophobes. The full extent of this was seen with Hérouxville councillor André Drouin, who solemnised the Code of Life, propagandizing that immigrants (by which he meant Muslims), must be barred from covering faces, for stoning adulterous women, performing genital mutilation, or dousing women with acid. Let there be no doubt that horrible crimes are inflicted on women in different parts of the world, and Quebec has been duly celebrated for a progressive stance on supporting women and men who are fighting to change these practices. However, what people like Mr. Drouin rashly overlook is the fact that there is no precedent of such crimes in Canada. Fears of such crimes are projected onto the dread of post 9/11 terror. Moreover, the Western world has accomplished credentials for lynching, enslaving, establishing residential schools, racial profiling, murdering aboriginal women, and assaulting Hijabi-ed women and lest we forget the mass shooting at a Mosque Quebec City. No “Code of Life” was ever passed to stop this bigotry. Drouin’s movement struck a chord with largely white-Franco Quebecers, drawing commentary from the late Premier Bernard Landry and ADQ leader Mario Dumont. While this was enough to prompt Premier Jean Charest to order the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation, a roadshow in the name of public consultation, it only left us with recommendations which have been largely ignored by successive Quebec governments.

The nationalist mobilization continued with ex-Premier Pauline Marois’ Quebec Charter of Values, which in addition to banning apparel such as the hijab, professed to liberate Muslim women from the clutches of patriarchy. The fact that Muslim women wore a hijab not because of but despite patriarchal powers, seemed of little importance in this rhetoric of liberation. Along the same vein, the succeeding liberal government of Premier Philip Couillard introduced the “Religious Neutrality Law” banning women from wearing niqabs, burqas, etc., while accessing public services such as public transport. A long Quebec resistance to the Catholic dominance shaping progression on gender and women’s rights has marked a great concern for women under all religions who may be oppressed to varying degrees and led to gains for gender equity. Given our human rights laws and protections, the liberation of women will come from their own struggle rather than a set of narrow nationalist laws and mentalities.

At present, populist mobilization has become a standard formula to undermine democracy and marginalize the Other in order to gain votes. It’s this doctrine which permitted Mr. Legault to win a solid majority, proclaiming, “The majority was asking for secularism.” This is not secularism but populism. Secularism is about neutrality and inclusion rather than majoritarian hegemony and exclusion.

The CAQ government has brought Law 21 as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Real problems are unemployment, healthcare, education, women’s issues, environment, equity, housing, indigenous rights and so on – not an alien dress code alleged to be compromising Quebec identity.  Arguably, if Quebec’s identity can be compromised by a strip of clothing, its identity and history must be very fragile.

There is only one answer to Law 21: citizens’ mobilization for a true secular Quebec.