MONTREAL — A day after demonstrators in Montreal criticized Francois Legault for his refusal to acknowledge systemic racism in the province, the Quebec premier held firm on his position.
Legault told reporters in Montreal on Monday he's committed to implementing a plan to stamp out racism in the province and expects details in the coming days.
Thousands marched in Montreal on Sunday in an anti-racism rally, with some expressing frustration with Legault's stance.
But Legault said he doesn't want to get drawn into a war over the term "systemic," nor does he want it to turn into a trial of Quebecers — the vast majority of whom Legault says aren't racist.
The premier conceded that racism exists and called for a "quiet evolution" on the matter to deal with it — evoking the province's Quiet Revolution in the 1960s that brought about social and political change in Quebec society.
Legault noted black members of his own caucus have recounted their own experiences with racism, and he repeated a promise to go beyond rhetoric and establish a provincial policy to fight racism.
"For me, we have Quebecers of different colours, different origins, but we are all human beings and we're all equals, no exceptions," Legault said. "But we must face the reality and the problems lived by some of our fellow citizens, and we must act."
Demonstrators Sunday said Legault's refusal to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism —biases, policies and practices entrenched in institutions — is missing the bigger picture.
"I don't understand why people are trying to stick on one word. I think what is important is to say and all agree that there is some racism in Quebec, and we don't want that anymore," Legault said on Monday.
He said the province could have cancelled Sunday's march and one the previous weekend for public health reasons, but he decided they should be allowed to go ahead. Legault noted that francophones and women in Quebec have made advances to overcome discrimination, and he said the same must happen for racial minorities.
Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, a civil rights advocacy group, said it is important to recognize that racism isn't always direct and can be subtle.
Niemi noted that courts have recognized systemic discrimination and systemic racism for more than three decades, but there's a level of intellectual confusion surrounding it.
"Systemic racism is not a general indictment of a society as a whole, and it's important to stop using systemic as a tool to generalize or accuse an entire society in a sweeping manner," Niemi said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press