One Issue, Two Very Different Perceptions – By: Patrick Doyon

Last week, the «brownface» scandal of Justin Trudeau created a shockwave of outrage across Canada. All of Canada? Not quite. While “English Canada” was busy outlining everything that was wrong with the three instances of brown or black make-up by Justin Trudeau, media and commentators in Quebec spent more of its time outlining why it’s a non-issue.

Some of the same arguments found in publications throughout Canada made their way to French outlets, citing his young age, his record on multiculturalism or his well-documented enthusiasm for costumes. But mostly, in the media at large in Quebec, the outrage was directed more at… the outrage, the reaction itself, not at the act itself.

Columnists and other media personalities in Quebec were quick to give their own reasoning as to why this was the wrong issue to focus on, while in the English media, the scandal was finally what would make this campaign interesting and memorable.

Behind this anecdotal difference of approach lies a deeper reality about the cultural narratives found in French and in English Canada. This has a profound impact on how one should communicate in and outside of Quebec. Racism exists in Quebec just like it does in other provinces. However, the cultural references and the history linked to racism in the Belle Province may be the reason why Quebeckers just can’t seem to care.

Whether we admit it or not, English Canada is highly influenced by our neighbor to the south, whether it be through television, music or literature. With that influence comes a history, a memory almost, of slavery, of segregation and Jim Crow laws. It is part of the cultural landscape most Canadians are familiar with. It’s no surprise then, that when our current Prime Minister, who has praised himself for his record on multiculturalism, appears in “brownface” or “blackface” on multiple occasions, Canadians who have internalized the history associated with it find themselves outraged.

Quebeckers, on the other hand, whose cultural background isn’t so closely associated with such history, are left talking about costumes, cultural appropriation and how there are more pressing matters at hand with the election just a month away. It’s a useful reminder that one does not communicate the same way in Quebec as in Ontario or BC. No matter how comparable we may be on certain issues, there are vastly different cultural and societal references.

Thus, Andrew Sheer’s outrage after Mr. Trudeau’s apologies was probably much more in line with what English Canada was feeling towards the situation. In French Canada, his reaction was perceived as over the top.

Party leaders need to learn how to walk that fine line that will unite the country without turning any region off, they’d do well to remember that what could work “from coast to coast” is not as easy defined as they thought.

Patrick Doyon is an Associate Principal in Navigator’s Montréal office