The Charter of Quebec Values, Intersectionality & Being a Black Feminist in Montreal
An Interview with Délice Igicari Mugabo
Délice Igicari Mugabo (@UwokwaMugabo) is a Black feminist activist based in Montreal, Québec and member of C-Uni-T,. 1 which helped to organize “Create Dangerously,”the 2013 Congress of Black Writers and Artists at McGill University. Her research interests focus on Black girls’ identity formation, social transformations within Québec Black communities, and interactions between Black peoples in the Americas. A former member of the Federation of Women of Québec (Fédération des femmes du Québec, or FFQ), one of the oldest and most established feminist organizations in Québec, she remains active within the FFQ’s Committee of Racialized Women. She was one of the spokespersons and part of the steering committee that organized the historic States-General of feminist action and analysis (États généraux, or ÉG), 2 a two-year process that engaged women from all over Québec to review feminist action and analysis, and develop perspectives for years to come. In the spring of 2014, Roshan Jahangeer interviewed Délice for Upping the Anti.
How did you become involved with the FFQ, and how does the organization speak to your feminist politics?
I did not come to feminism or to Québec’s mainstream feminist movement through white women, which is an important point for me to make. My family, my mother, and my grandmother brought me to feminism. Many women of colour (WOC) share that story. We can testify to our people’s historical struggles. My good friend and mentor, May Chiu, has also influenced my transitions in and out of the movement. She is a Chinese Canadian lawyer and community activist; we met when she was working at the organization where I am currently employed. When she became the coordinator of the FFQ’s Committee of Racialized Women she invited me to their meetings. It was through her and that committee that I entered the FFQ. This was right before the famous 2009 position the organization took against the banning of religious symbols worn by employees in the public sector. 3 So I entered the FFQ motivated by a very inspiring WOC activist at a moment when racialized women were “a hot issue.”
The FFQ is largely a white women’s space and a historical institution in terms of the influence and the impact that it has had in Québec history and politics, but it was also a space for me to understand where I fit in as a Black feminist and as a black woman in Québec history. It taught me that feminist spaces are not devoid of struggle. For instance, debates on who is a woman, who are the subjects of feminist liberation, which issues are taken up by the movement, who speaks, and who is heard will quickly remind you of your position at the margins. This is not to say that the margins are necessarily a bad position to occupy. As bell hooks taught us, the opposite can be true.
What has been your experience organizing in the FFQ as a woman of colour? What challenges have WOC faced historically in the organization?
I got involved at a time when WOC were on the chopping block. By that I mean that both the question of applying an intersectional lens to the work of the FFQ and the role and place of WOC were being debated within the membership. The organization’s position against the banning of religious symbols in the public sector was interpreted by a vocal segment of the membership as proof that so-called Islamists had supposedly infiltrated the FFQ, and that intersectionality was fracturing the cohesion of the organization. These were actual accusations, and they damaged peoples’ lives. For example, numerous written pieces defamed the character of my sister and fellow activist, Leila Bedeir. These attacks were meant to silence her, minimize her feminist work, and deflect from the important issues she continues to raise around Islamophobia, racism, and colonialism within the movement and Québec society. So when I say that I felt as if I was on the chopping block, I’m talking about that sense of vulnerability and instability that comes from the knowledge that one’s very presence is questioned or unwanted. Women of colour don’t live in theory; we experience these attacks in our bodies. However, while I wouldn’t call the FFQ a welcoming space, I can say without a doubt that some white women within the FFQ act as allies in the truest sense of the word and take anti-racist and decolonizing work seriously.
I always try to keep in mind that WOC of previous generations dealt with similar challenges in the Québec mainstream feminist movement. For example, the first ÉG were held in 1992. Around 200 immigrant and racialized women attended, including Esmeralda Thornhill and others from the Québec chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada. However, they failed to have an impact through no fault of their own. Their critiques of the ways racism and colonialism are not addressed by the movement are still applicable today. The response to these criticisms, if any, was weak. Reflecting on this legacy, I wonder what results will come of the work that others and I did and/or continue to do.
Many would say that the Québec feminist movement has taken an intersectional turn, I argue that if it has, it has been in discourse but not necessarily in material conditions. This turn has not addressed power and the movement’s investment in Québec as a white settler state; what we are seeing is not an intersectional turn but a remix of the intercultural approach. In the 1990s, the intercultural (as opposed to the multicultural) approach had gained traction in social sectors in Québec. Many women’s centres and groups assert that they do not understand the need for intersectionality since they had already incorporated the intercultural approach into their work. This is yet another example of how white institutions (feminist or not) have responded to people of colour’s (POC) political agenda and demands with cultural measures meant to reaffirm white settler power and superiority on one hand, and halt radical organizing of POC by promising to integrate them in that system on the other.
That is why I’m left feeling that we not only redid the work of the WOC who came before us, but that we also ended up with the same results under a different name. Maybe our daughters and their daughters will have to start over again. So I’m always questioning how meaningful and lasting the work will be. I always have this sense that our bodies and histories are being erased, and this is partly why I end up feeling that we have to rewrite it over and over again. And then it’s hard to feel like you can win. It’s difficult to have issues that pertain to Black women and Black communities emerge in the mainstream agenda. The fact that Québec is very invested in erasing and negating its colonial and racist history results in a refusal to tackle how anti-blackness manifests itself in daily life in this province. We must resist these attempts to dehistoricize our struggles because that would also lead to depoliticizing them. Black women make a very empowering decision when we decide that countering assaults on black lives are important struggles to wage, and that we don’t have to apologize for making them our priority.
How do you see intersectionality taken up in feminist organizing? Why was it important for you to put forward an intersectional analysis within the FFQ, and what work was involved in getting the FFQ to adopt this analysis?
Intersectionality is one of the best contributions black female scholars and activists have made to feminism. White feminist movements tend to appropriate intersectionality as if it were something they created; this appropriation results in intersectionality being used to do work other than addressing racism and colonialism. This is part of what Sirma Bilge has called the “whitening of intersectionality.” Minimizing the history of slavery in Québec and negating the current manifestations of anti-Blackness further precipitates the whitening of intersectionality.
In the FFQ orientation committee, WOC shared with other committee members examples of the work being done in other feminist spaces, which emphasized the tools that existed to better understand how different intersectional approaches can be translated in our work for the ÉG, including changing the way we have our meetings and changing the topics that we discussed. Often when we talk about the feminist movement in Québec, we think of women’s shelters and women’s centres, but other formal and informal groups exist that do feminist work differently: POC grassroots groups who organize for access to education, queer issues, immigration policies, against police brutality, etc. They develop non-hierarchical, intersectional models of community leadership in their struggles against all forms of oppression. Even though they are often marginalized within the mainstream movement, they do crucial work that must be recognized. When we WOC brought ideas to the orientation committee (for the ÉG), we were informed by our knowledge and experience from those groups; it was our way of remaining connected to all the other women with whom we live and work outside of those institutional spaces.
We argued that while it had been easy for white feminists to avoid the real demands of WOC during the first ÉG in 1992, it wasn’t going to be so easy this time around. The movement as a whole expected the ÉG to look back at the last 20 years and also to prepare us all for the type of collective work we would set out to accomplish over the next 20 years. In order for us to be able to work on the concrete conditions that we want to change, we need to have a precise understanding and analysis of the issues. We cannot achieve that without addressing how racism, colonialism, and imperialism function in Québec, and how we need to transform feminist struggles in light of that.
When we attempted to convince members to adopt intersectional approaches, offering models of white feminists who experiment with different ways of integrating intersectional approaches was helpful. I’m referring here to members of the groups RebElles and the Montreal Radical Dyke March, both of which put into action their visions of what feminism could be through inviting challenging conversations about homonationalism, transphobia, heteronormativity, colonialism, ableism, and racism. It was indeed very positive to be able to show that parallel work was being done, which was further proof that the mainstream Québec feminist movement risked irrelevancy.
That said, I don’t know if we convinced them. We were able to articulate that sexism and patriarchy are not the only oppressions that impact the lives of women and that colonialism, racism, capitalism, ableism, and heteronormativity continue to shape our realities and our struggles. But I wouldn’t conclude that we were successful in making the movement take an intersectional turn, because we didn’t address power. We had to be creative; we reframed it as intersection of oppressions because intersectionality is still seen as foreign to Québec, or as not applicable here but more relevant in the rest of Canada or the US. A lot of work was put into demonstrating that Québec cannot claim innocence when it comes to the continued history of colonialism and racism.
Can you give some examples of the resistance within the mainstream feminist movement in Quebec to intersectionality?
During the orientation committee’s first meeting when we started talking about intersectionality, a committee member said, “Well, intersectionality is very in vogue, but we should keep in mind that the federal government encourages groups to adopt that model as part of its federalist agenda.” The best way to discredit something or someone in Québec is by branding them “federalist.” So from the start, intersectionality had the double stigma of having been developed firstly by Black women, and secondly, by Black women who were living and organizing in Anglo Canada or the United States.
This resistance stems from the mainstream feminist movement’s investment in the nation-building project of Québec. David Austin focuses much of his work on the history of Black communities in Québec, and he says, “Québec’s own version of a founding national narrative is a tale of innocence and victimhood that conveniently omits the colonisation of Indigenous peoples, the practice of slavery and racial exclusion.” 4 Because the mainstream feminist movement in Québec is only willing to work within the perimeters of that national narrative, the possibilities for an anti-racist and decolonizing transformative project is limited, if not nullified.
The Québec founding narrative is not exclusive to sovereigntists; people from across the political spectrum embrace the same tale of innocence. That’s part of what makes it so powerful. We encountered resistance from diverse groups: from people who genuinely didn’t understand intersectionality; from those who doubt and question anything said by a WOC or a Black woman, regarding intersectionality or otherwise; and from Francophone Québecois white women who feel that Anglophone whites always treat them as inferiors. This latter nationalist type of resistance is very much based in the history of Québec Anglophones subjugating Francophones and elevating themselves as superior to their French counterparts.
But in the end, a refusal to change how power works and shift power relations was central to the resistance we encountered in integrating intersectionality. Stating that intersectionality isn’t relevant to Québec is not only a way to invalidate our experiences; it is also another way to dismiss the contributions that Black women and WOC have made to feminist theory and activism. If you write off feminist thinkers who create and disseminate their ideas all over the globe – the Kimberlé Crenshaws and the Malinda Smiths – then you’re definitely going to dismiss me. So that was an indication of the immensity of the struggle we were going to face. We have not succeeded in convincing them to adopt intersectionality, but we did convince them to try new modes of organizing and thinking.
Which resolutions passed at the États généraux Forum (ÉG) in November 2013? Which resolutions did not pass that you wanted to see passed and why?
I’m disappointed that many of the important propositions not passed at the ÉG plenary were the ones that dealt with deconstructing heternormativity, sexuality, and gender, and I sense a reluctance from the movement to do so. The propositions that passed do not address demands that trans women have repeatedly made of the mainstream feminist movement, which is yet another example of how intersectionality is used to address certain issues and ignore others. When people insist that WOC and Indigenous women came out as the winners of the ÉG, I doubt that includes trans WOC or two-spirit people. Interestingly, all of the propositions that were submitted by Indigenous feminist activists passed. 5 Although if read alongside the propositions addressing democracy and the role of the State, 6 we can quickly see, as Andrea Smith and Rinaldo Walcott have pointed out, the limits of mobilizing and organizing when we cannot think of and work for a future that is outside of the state. In other words, we cannot limit our anti-colonial activism within the confines of the settler-state. That said, when evaluating who “won” what proposition, I’m reminded of a recent piece by Brittney Cooper, a hip hop Black feminist scholar, in which she says “intersectionality was never put forth as an account of identity; it was an account of power.” 7 The identity turn of intersectionality is what allows the mainstream feminist movement to work on the surface of things and co-opt systemic critique.
Without a clear commitment to concretely apply the propositions that were voted on, the result was a “new” discourse on intersectionality, not a transformation. For instance, February 14 was the national day for missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and there’s always a march organized in Montreal. The WOC who attended the event will tell you that, as per the previous years, francophone white women’s centres and groups were absent. I sincerely hope that this is not an indication that nothing was learned during these ÉG, so I’m waiting to see how white feminists in Québec will translate into action the propositions that they voted on at the Forum.
Did any of the ÉG resolutions have an impact in the debate over the Charter of Québec Values?
In the wider public, the media gave a lot more space to all kinds of feminists who often seemed to come out of the woodwork to defend the Charter. Even if many of the feminist defenders of the Charter did come from within the movement, their newfound fame came from being seen as the counterweight to the FFQ’s position. When these other feminist voices organized in support of the Charter, they were often presented as being the legitimate champions for feminism. Much of the debate over the Charter of Québec Values, then, concerned white Francophone Québecers deciding how they will manage their nation; POC were invited to offer anecdotes and to act as props for either one of the camps. WOC were not invited to the public discussion unless it was to repeat or validate a predetermined agenda. Western liberal societies, all of them built on slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, have constructed a linear history that speaks of a so-called troubled past that was redeemed, and claim that we now live in a postracial and postcolonial land of equal opportunity for all. People opposed or defended the Charter based on the same idea that Québec has no “immigrant problem.” Even the mainstream opposition against the Charter, groups like Québec Inclusif, refused to call the Charter or its defenders racist. And so, challenges to the Charter that immediately became unacceptable were those that argued that Québec is a settler-colonial state and the Charter is what a settler-colonial state does, or that Québec has a racist past and a racist present, and that’s why the Charter is unacceptable.
What position did the FFQ take on the Charter issue, and what tactics did they employ?
The FFQ took a position against the Charter because it restricted women’s liberties that the organization had fought for. For example, it argued that the Charter impeded women’s abilities to be financially independent since some women affected wouldn’t be able to work. The FFQ also saw the Charter as targeting immigrants instead of being about laïcité (secularism). The organization made a distinction between real laïcité and the actual consequences of the Charter. Laïcité had become a straw man for targeting certain groups. The FFQ took several different steps, including submitting a brief at the Parliamentary Commission on Bill 60, organizing events to educate people and attempt to change the terms of the debate, and launching a special website to promote its own model of a feminist laïcité, 8 which served as a tool to educate the wider public on the FFQ’s principles. The staff always collaborated with Muslim feminists activists and supported the work of the Feminist Muslim Collective of Québec (La Collective des féministes musulmanes du Québec). 9
How do you assess the feminist interventions with the Charter and the divisions that it caused? What deeper rifts did the Charter debate highlight, especially among feminists and feminist organizations in Québec?
Many types of feminist interventions occurred during the debate, including official interventions from the FFQ and other mainstream organizations, but also from all the different Muslim women and activists who tried to push, sometimes successfully, to have their voices and arguments heard. Feminists who were pro-Charter also intervened in the debate. However, the debate made clear that we are not all on the same level as feminists. The ones who were pro-Charter had the most space to disseminate their ideas. It also became obvious that white people always received the biggest platform to voice their opposition to the Charter. The few Muslim women who were given a platform to speak for or against the Charter were the ones who fit the ideal representation that each side of the debate constructed.
The feminists who were anti-Charter were able to advance the critique that we cannot use laws to constrict liberties or freedom, and that a feminist approach to secularism would include laws that expand those freedoms. The FFQ, along with its Muslim feminist allies, offered a discussion on what we mean when we talk about freedom, liberty, and those types of ideals, and how we embody them in our struggle to achieve them. They also made clear that Québec is not only white Francophone, and that no policy can be articulated around the fantasy that Québec is, or has ever been, only white and Francophone.
For each group, different understandings of feminism and the praxis of feminism are what partially led to their respective positions on the Charter. For example, the group, For the Rights of Women of Québec (Pour les droits des femmes du Québec, or PDFQ), is an organization that was created right in the middle of the Charter debate. It was born out of an opposition to FFQ positions grounded in the understanding that patriarchy and sexism intersect with other oppressions, including class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and that the struggles of the FFQ should depend on the specific context. Still invested in the belief that the struggle against patriarchy and sexism defines feminism, the PDFQ is stuck in this essentialist definition of woman, as well as a universalist definition of feminism. The PDFQ encouraged the state to force women to abide by the PDFQ’s definition of emancipation, which sees some women’s freedom (particularly religious minorities) as a threat against other women’s march towards liberation.
The Québec Council on the Status of Women (Conseil du statut de la femme, or CSF) is an interesting case because it has taken different positions on religious symbols during different time periods and under different leadership. During the Charter debate, it was very much pro-Charter, but in 1997, it had defended Muslim girls’ rights to wear the hijab in high schools. Crucial to note, however, is that the CSF is not part of what we call the independent organized women’s movement because it is a government body that advises the government on any subject related to the status of women.
Despite the differences between feminists who defended the Charter and those who opposed it, what ultimately united them was their commitment to Québec, the state, and the nation. Because of that commitment, even the feminists who opposed the Charter framed their opposition in a way that highlighted that their opposition wasn’t to the state but due to a commitment to help it realize its full potential. To me, that revealed the limits of many of the arguments in opposition to the Charter. And that’s why we weren’t able to have a real discussion on colonialism and race; establishing Québec as a model liberal democracy was the priority that superseded and contradicted any possibility for an anti-racist or decolonizing agenda.
Which feminist voices were most prominent in the media during the debate?
All kinds of people came out of the woodwork speaking as feminists during the debates. Many white men became overnight feminist theorists. White women were swearing they had read the Qur’an and were out to explain it to the Muslim women who hadn’t caught on to their own oppression yet! I’m not saying this to be funny, but to convey how ideologically driven the debate was and how speaking over or speaking for POC often mutes dissident voices, especially when race and colonialism are at the core of the issue. Among those who spoke publicly against the Charter, many intellectuals and academics gained recognition from this debate at the expense of Muslim, Sikh, or Jewish women, as well as POC and immigrant women, who actually live the issues at stake and stood to be most affected by the Charter laws. They did not receive a platform comparable to that of the white men that I now see invited everywhere to speak. A “diversity industrial complex” is definitely being built in Québec. Just because one is against the Charter doesn’t mean that they can replace the voices of WOC who were going to be impacted by this policy. These were moments when voices of POC should have been amplified, not silenced. This is Allyship 101. Some would say that in a moment of crisis, it is best to let allies with the most social capital speak for the sake of achieving our goals. We need to ask ourselves what we gain when we center elitist patriarchal whiteness as a strategy. This debate taught us that in building alliances, we sometimes fall into questionable and damaging tactics.
I would also add that the media individualized struggles that had previously been collective. The feminist movement and the left in Québec are very much based in collective organizing; however, while the debate centered on women, feminism, and feminists, individual women or feminists received much more space to speak compared to groups and people who had been organizing collectively all along.
A main pro-Charter argument was that it would promote égalité homme-femmes (gender equality). This argument was taken up by the government and Premier, Pauline Marois, who claimed a feminist position because she was the first female Premier of Québec. Why do you think that argument was so easily accepted?
I don’t find it surprising actually. Feminism has been institutionalized and governmentalized. We have to remember that women also sustain patriarchy, and that this is also happening in a neoliberal context. The government has taken up feminist discourse but not necessarily its goals. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we end up with women in high profile positions claiming to know everything about feminism and people easily buying into that claim because a persistent assumption exists that women who have risen to positions traditionally occupied by men fought for it in the name or spirit of feminism. Radical transformation – let alone critique or dissent – has no place in that version of feminism.
Let’s be clear: the whole talk about égalité homme-femme is about white men and white women. White women are not fighting to be equal to seasonal agricultural male workers who arrive from Guatemala every summer or to Black men. As a matter of fact, Tiffany King’s 10 whole dissertation last year spoke to the fact that the history of settler-colonialism and slavery in Canada created a Black female body that is not only always out of place but also non-human. Then what does equality mean or look like for Black women in Québec? Colonial states, settler or not, do not use gender equality as a goal but as a tool of repression. Equality is used to demarcate the line between colonizer and colonized, between those who belong and the perpetual others. That is partly how certain white feminists in Québec can defend the rights of WOC but not those of Muslim women who wear the veil. Equality extends to those who can belong. Many years ago, the feminist movement in Québec decided to work more on equality between men and women, but also between nations, and between women themselves. It was a good step. Another conversation that remains difficult to have concerns the fact that Aboriginal women and WOC in Québec do not occupy the same position as white women. White women (re)produce the nation whereas WOC and Aboriginal women are seen as disposable or as a threat to it. Even when we work alongside one another, we are still not equal. Even WOC who were not privileged previously became more so by their proximity to whiteness 11 , or rather, by their adherence to a specific Québec national project.
What are the larger implications for POC or immigrants in Québec following the defeat of the Charter, and do you think the Charter debate has increased tension in Québec or led to new alliances through its oppositions?
The way that the discussion on the Charter happened revealed the work we must do to ensure racism and colonialism are addressed. Certain strategies that we employed during the Charter debate were not fruitful because they didn’t allow us to go further into those discussions. I think there were too many concessions, too many silences during the Charter debate, and now we’ve lost our voices on that battlefield. Because of the urgency to just stop the Charter, we were told or we felt that we couldn’t call out people on their racism because it would repulse people. That was the wrong strategy in my opinion because it didn’t help us further our other struggles.
When we talk about feminist interventions in the Charter, we need to look beyond the institutional segments of the movement. Once we know the limits on what’s possible to accomplish within institutions, we can also be very clear on the type of work that we are ready and willing to do outside of them. It’s been very revealing for me because, even if I knew that many feminists are active outside of the FFQ, I had often wondered, what do you do when you’re not in an institution with access to resources and to a platform? What kind of activism can you even do without all of those things?
It has been very liberating to start mobilizing and organizing with other people who do the work I’m interested in, with the values and the politics that I embrace. I have found new strength in engaging in activism with Black people and Black women from at the centre of it. rosalind hampton is a scholar and cultural worker who has written and taught me much about non-hierarchical Black feminism because, like she says, “even if you have the best politics, it comes back to being oppressive when it gets lost in hierarchy.” It is empowering to do my activism in a non-hierarchal way because I am able to take back responsibility and recommit myself to Black histories and futures.