(In)visibility in a new land

This post is written by Maraki Shimelis Kebede, an education researcher currently based in Montreal, Canada. Maraki received her Ph.D. from the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State University, where she studied the experiences  of  minoritized  and  immigrant  students  as well as  educational equity  in  international  development  efforts. Maraki also served as a Graduate Assistant at Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights. We worked together during my time there, helping to organize CECR’s conference for the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board. I’m thrilled to feature this stunning piece on SD Notebook.

During his 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, Malcolm X said, “If you black you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South. Stop talking about the South. As long as you south of the Canadian border, you South.”Racism and discrimination are realities beyond just the Southern US, but they are also very much alive in Canada too.

As an African immigrant woman who has lived in the United States, I am not new to the pains of the Black experience in predominantly White spaces. But in May 2019, when I moved to Quebec—Canada’s French-speaking province—to be with my husband, I had no command of the French language. I was no longer just a visible minority (having phenotypic traits like dark skin); I became a linguistic minority too. The racial minority status is complicated and spans far beyond just observable characteristics of our skin, but skin color remains a primary marker of how society categorizes others by race. The intersectionality between my racial and linguistic identities made me more visible (i.e. more obviously an outsider) and, consequently, invisible (i.e. excluded) too. Microaggressions directed at my race were made worse by my inability to speak French (or vice versa). I was quickly reminded of how privileged I was to speak English during my time in the US. I stick out like a sore thumb here in more ways than I have anywhere else that I have ever lived. Yet, because policies and practices often exclude my demographic, Quebec has managed to make me feel the most invisible I have ever felt—even in my efforts to challenge the system. As a new mother here, during a pandemic at that, my racial, linguistic, and immigrant identities came to the forefront for me in a way that they never have before—especially in the face of discrimination and feeling a lack of belongingness in a new place. Intolerance and discrimination is often fueled by the perception that the success of one group of people requires the demise of another. It is an inability to envision collective progress—to only view the world as a zero-sum game: “If Black people thrive, then that means White people cannot”, or “If we embrace indigenous people, anglophones, and/or immigrants, our French will be lost.” But diversity works in quite the opposite way—collective progress allows all groups to thrive. Anti-bias work, inherently, has a win-win agenda. Today, on the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I think of the giants—activists like the civil rights leader and Pan-African revolutionary, Kwame Ture, who dedicated their lives to fighting social injustices and who paved the way for families like mine—and of how much work remains to be done.

Intolerance in Canada and Quebec

Despite Canada’s reputation as a racially tolerant society and the nation consistently ranking first in the world for the best quality of life (take from these rankings what you will), discrimination is ever-present in many of its policies and institutional practices. In fact, a national study in 2019 found that a majority of Black (54%) and Indigenous (53%) Canadians continue to experience racial/ethnic discrimination. Contrary to popular belief, the narrative of a tolerant Canada does not make discrimination easier to address here. In fact, I would argue that Canada’s reputation makes it more difficult to bring these issues to light (which is a similar reality to many progressive places in the US). The underlying disbelief that prejudice exists in a country like Canada (even when Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, admits to it), takes that much more away from oppressed groups’ power to come forward and be believed or demand change. Historically, Canada was built on many of the same atrocious processes from which the US benefited (such as genocide against indigenous people and slavery—what Dalhousie University professor and historian, Dr. Afua Cooper, called “Canada’s best-kept secret”). The vestiges of its ugly past continue to course through the veins of Canada today.

Left: Enslaved people being sold at an auction. Right: People in Ottawa protesting the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a mentally ill Black man who died after being beaten by police in 2016. Photo: teleSUR (2017)

The province of Quebec is no exception in terms of intolerance of various forms of personal identity. Intolerance in Quebec today spans from microaggressions and seemingly subtle examples of prejudice (e.g. higher education policies that alienate and oppress Black students) to blatant discrimination (e.g. hospital patients that ask Black healthcare workers for a White caregiver). In January of 2022, a White woman in Montreal was caught on video making an anti-Asian rant in a grocery store regarding COVID-19. In February of 2022, a parent reported that for the past three years, a high school in Montreal was assigning homework that included racist images of a Black man and woman followed by instructions to describe the two “gangsters.” Yet, Quebec’s Premier, François Legault, doesn’t believe that systemic racism exists in Quebec. Islamophobia also runs rampant here. In January of 2017, six Muslim worshippers were killed and five others were seriously injured by a White nationalist terrorist at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City. Two years later, Premier Legault, once again denied there being any islamophobia in the province (a statement he later retracted). Then in December of 2021, Fatemeh Anvari, a primary school teacher in Chelsea, a small municipality, was (legally) fired for wearing a hijab, under Bill 21 (a secularism bill, which forbids the wearing of religious symbols by certain civil servants in positions of authority).

French Language and Identity in Quebec

What makes Quebec particularly unique is its tumultuous relationship between the French and English. Present-day Quebec was a French colony for a century before falling to the British regime in 1763, leaving a large francophone population under British rule. The province has always had non-francophone immigrants but, owing to the tensions between its colonizers (France and Great Britain), the debate on preserving the French language versus biculturalism has been present since Quebec’s founding. In past decades, Quebec has even had a secessionist movement, which led to a mass exodus of anglophones from the province, but the secessionist movement is today in decline; instead, the desire to secede from the rest of Canada has now been replaced with a desire to make all newcomers assimilate into Quebec’s French heritage. This identity informs the cultural fabric of Quebeckers and the sociology of their language today. Quebec is the only province with French as its sole official language; the other 12 provinces/territories use either both French and English or just English. Canada, as a nation, and all its provinces separately (including Quebec) are bilingual at the constitutional and federal levels (meaning, a few government services in Quebec remain available in English) but Quebec’s provincial institutions are all officially French. However, discussions about the clashes of language and identity in Quebec are almost always about native White Quebeckers and completely miss new immigrants and racial/ethnic minorities. In ignoring how language disputes impact these already marginalized groups, they render us invisible. Ultimately, by not recognizing how language laws shape the experiences of minoritized groups, Quebec is not only hiding but excusing its racism.

For its entire history and certainly today too, Quebec continues to struggle with something of an identity crisis. On the one hand, governing policies fail to recognize that Quebec has not historically been nor is it currently a solely French-speaking population (it’s as though policies cannot “see” non-francophones). Never mind that present-day Quebec is first and foremost home to many indigenous peoples who were stripped of their culture and languages, which continue to be undermined and deprioritized today. On the other hand, the Quebec government is fighting to preserve its French heritage claiming it has been threatened by the presence of non-francophones. There is a misconception that anglophones are a wealthy minority (due to a few outliers who skew the average income of anglophones) but 2016 Census data showed that anglophones are more likely than francophones to be under the poverty line. Visible minorities and Quebeckers whose first language is neither English nor French fare even worse, economically. Yet, in May of 2021, the Quebec government introduced Bill 96, which furthers the rights of francophones over linguistic minority groups—including stripping the availability of basic services in English and taking disciplinary measures against Quebec civil servants who use English—all under the guise of protecting the French language. This reaction is not unlike many states in the US that enacted laws to make English their official language as a result of feeling threatened by a growing Spanish-speaking population. While Bill 96 has not yet passed, its introduction has already had significant consequences. For example, civil servants have become afraid to speak English and English services are being taken away. Similarly, it has also influenced government-led actions like freezing enrollment levels in English-language colleges across the province to prioritize francophone students, and requiring shop attendants to replace “bonjour hi” with just “bonjour” when they greet their clients. Once again, in all of these considerations to preserve French, there is little to no talk about the revitalization of indigenous languages that are threatened by both English and French languages.  

But is the French language really in danger of disappearing? Premier Legault’s government claims it is, citing an internal study published in 2019, while history experts disagree with these interpretations, arguing that it is merely the exclusive use of French in the workplace that is in decline. The reality is that 95% of the Quebec population has some command of the French language, and anglophones only comprise 16% of the Quebec population while indigenous people comprise roughly 2% of the Quebec population. What we are seeing is not the disappearance of French but a rise in English-French bilingualism (as noted by the 2016 Census). In fact, bilingualism rates were higher among people whose mother tongue was English (69%) than those whose mother tongue was French (40%). Legault’s government is worried that the next generation will not learn French but the data also shows that the next generation is proving to be even more bilingual than the one before it.

The Plight of Immigrants in Quebec

Nonetheless, Quebec continues to be home to many residents who are not francophone. In Montreal alone, over a million people have a first language that is neither French nor English. The province’s radical push to preserve French has major implications for immigration and the 14% of Quebec’s population who are immigrants. For instance, Quebec prioritizes immigrants who speak fluent French. Worse still, one of Legault’s election promises was to reduce immigration by 20% in order to preserve Quebec’s French identity. A directive to reduce immigration is not only inherently harmful to newcomers but it can have a compounding effect in the nationalist Quebec climate for non-francophone immigrants who are at the mercy of fearful street-level civil servants’ interpretations of these laws. For instance, Quebec’s culture of deprioritizing non-francophone immigrants may make street-level bureaucrats more likely to incorrectly apply their discretionary powers to restrict these immigrants’ access to services that they are otherwise entitled to.

When I was pregnant with my son, I went to a free provincial clinic for a whooping cough vaccine, which would in turn protect my son. I didn’t have my Canadian permanent residency card yet, which means that I didn’t yet have my health insurance card either and was paying for all my health services out of pocket. The receptionist at the clinic could not understand my status and kept calling me a refugee. I tried to explain that I was not a refugee but that I was an immigrant nonetheless—this made no sense to her as I did not fit into the categories she knew (refugee or permanent resident, both of which receive government subsidized care). Instead of looking for a way to understand how paying patients are processed, she decided to tell me that she could not proceed with providing me with care. In the end, a superior had to be called, my husband had to explain our situation in French, and they had to make special notations in my file before vaccinating me. Issues with the interpretations and enforcement of immigration laws can also have very drastic implications for newcomers (let us not forget Emilie Dubois, the French national who was denied residency in Quebec because her Ph.D. thesis was written in English, even though French is her native tongue).

“Bilingualism” in Montreal

Language is a big barrier for me. Montreal prides itself on being perfectly bilingual so I had high expectations before moving here but it is not bilingual; it is not even imperfectly bilingual (a reality that I have learned is often difficult for francophones—including anglophones who speak French—to recognize, as it does not affect them). There are certainly English-speaking pockets in Montreal but the overarching reality on the ground is that French is very much held to be both the preferred language (people are more comfortable with French) and the superior language (people value French more than English or any other language). I remember walking up to a cashier at a liquor store with my husband, who was in the middle of translating a French word to me from one of the wine bottles we were getting ready to purchase. The cashier said something (in French) that I could tell did not sit well with my husband. Once we were outside, I asked what that was all about. My husband rolled his eyes and said “he was patting my back for indoctrinating you into Quebec life by teaching you French.”

By 2016, 45% of Quebeckers spoke both English and French but the reality is that bilingualism is a very broad term. Recently, I found a bump on my son’s skin so I called Quebec’s free health-line. I selected English to get directed to a nurse who speaks English. I was on hold for an hour and a half (just one example of the severe labor shortages in Canadian healthcare) and when the nurse finally answered, she didn’t speak English well enough to help me so she had to put me back in the queue for another 20 minutes and have me try my chances with the next nurse. This is the reality in Quebec and, yes, even Montreal. Many who are bilingual are still very much francophone because, under the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101), all public and subsidized private K-12 schools must use French as their language of instruction. Therefore, for many Quebeckers, their command of the English language is often not sufficient to provide services in English. In fact, an employee of a Canadian courier once told me that if I ever need to call their company again, I should always select French when dialing because the English line will never be answered.  

Bilingualism is a term used very lightly here, which results in those of us who are not francophone to incorrectly expect ease of access to basic services in English. In 2020, my husband and I enrolled our son in a daycare that presents itself as bilingual. We love the staff but upon joining, we faced several language barriers (e.g. materials about their rules and regulations were all in French). New York Times journalist and inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the Howard University, Nikole Hannah-Jones, once talked about having “skin in the game” in reference to the fight for racial justice requiring Black and Brown people to be fully invested. She gave the example of sending her daughter to a segregated school in the hopes of being able to leverage her middle-class status to integrate it economically. Even though my husband and I were terrified about raising our son in a province where we fear he is very likely to endure racial traumas, I wanted to channel Nikole’s courage and commitment to making the world better for others by having “skin in the game.” So we stayed with the daycare and I decided to look for ways to leverage my privilege (namely, my education) to improve the circumstances for both my son and other non-francophone parents in similar situations. I inquired about joining the daycare’s Board of Directors. Fortunately, they had an open seat and welcomed me to apply. They were impressed with my application and background in educational leadership but declined my request, specifically citing that accommodating me would make things difficult for the francophone members of the board who do not speak English.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

For minoritized groups everywhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has both exacerbated and created new manifestations of social inequities. I spent my first year in Montreal finishing up my Ph.D. while pregnant. Our son was born in March 2020, a week after Quebec’s first confirmed COVID-19 case and a week before the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. Premier Legault announced our first public health emergency shortly thereafter and all gathering places—including schools, bars, gyms, and pools—were forced to close. My husband and I decided he would continue to work and I would spend the first year at home with our son until the pandemic passes (how wrong were we?).

It has now been almost 3 years since I moved here, 2 years since our son was born, and we’re multiple variants into the pandemic having only been able to send our son to daycare for a handful of weeks of his life. With no work, school, or any command of the French language, my ability to socialize and organically make friends during this pandemic has also been limited, to say the least. As an Ethiopian (me) and an Ethiopian-Rwandan (my husband), my husband and I both come from very large families. I don’t mean large nuclear families—I mean the kind of family that is so large that it encompasses cousins, cousins’ cousins, distant relatives, childhood friends, children of our parents’ childhood friends, neighbors, people we randomly came across while visiting someone for coffee and claimed as family, and many whom we can’t quite identify our connection to but are family nonetheless. We come from loud and social families that visit unannounced, gather regularly, and find every excuse to eat together. So, there is an element of my transition to Quebec that is especially difficult because of our physical isolation from our “village” but there is also an added layer of loneliness that is difficult to explain and goes far beyond that; it is racial and state-sanctioned linguistic barriers to creating a new “village” in order to make a home here in a way that makes sense for us.

Invisibility of a Visible Minority  

It is especially difficult to navigate Quebec without French, as a visible minority. Biased people already assume I am unintelligent because of my race, and my lack of command of the French language simply re-affirms their beliefs. It’s as though I, consequently, become unworthy of their time and energy, which leaves me feeling unseen, invisible. For me, this was magnified as an expecting mother during a pandemic. Early in 2021, I had a miscarriage a couple of months into my second pregnancy. It is not an easy thing to go through no matter the circumstances but I was very fortunate to be in a country with universal healthcare. I have had pleasant experiences in another Montreal hospital before but this particular experience was far from pleasant and it happened at a time I needed pleasantness the most. The way I was treated was only made worse by the pandemic as my husband couldn’t accompany me in the hospital for any part of the process. During my first emergency room visit, I waited for almost a full day before they ran tests. A few hours later, the on-call doctor—a White man—came to my exam room doorway (he never came in) and was walking backwards to leave while telling me “things seem okay but you should see an obstetrician.” That was the extent of his consult. It made me feel like he didn’t think I was capable of comprehending any further detail. I had a million questions about what they found and he was surprised that I had the vocabulary to ask about specifics. When I went back to see an obstetrician, not a single sign in the hospital was in English and not a single staff person I ran into spoke English either. A custodian had to use Google translate on my phone to figure out what I was trying to say and help me reach my appointment, albeit late. When I got there, the receptionist rolled her eyes at me for being late and gave me a French form to fill out (she did not have an English version). The obstetrician seeing me was also White and seemed to have no interest in me as a person (she made no eye contact, she extended no greeting, nothing). After silently examining me, she told me that I had an incomplete miscarriage, all while never taking her eyes off her screen. I began crying and she proceeded to quietly clean her hands and wipe the gel from my belly, still not making eye contact. There were no words of comfort from her, no goodbye—just an instruction to take medication to complete the miscarriage. I ended up needing a second round of meds because the first dose was too low, which landed me in the emergency room for a procedure to remove the fetal tissue from my uterus. Once again, I was at the mercy of an apathetic White doctor surrounded by nurses who spoke little to no English. I lost a baby and none of my doctors acknowledged my pain—they saw a patient to treat but not a person to care for. I felt invisible at a time when I most needed to be seen. A few months later, my husband and I decided to move to a different area in Montreal.

Protesters calling for justice for Joyce Echequan, an indigenous mother of 7 who died in 2020 in a Montreal hospital soon after video-recording healthcare staff yelling racist remarks at her. Joyce is considered by many as “Quebec’s George Floyd”. Photo: CBC (2021)

My husband speaks French, has lived in Montreal for decades, and is successfully working in big tech. Yet, he is also faced with a wide but different array of microaggressions because of his gender and because he deals with much more privileged White Quebeckers that have the means to get away with a lot more discrimination. As a Black man, my husband has to differently navigate the way his gender might influence how his race is perceived. Most recently, we were screening potential tenants to rent out a part of our property and my husband had our toddler accompany him to meetings in order to mitigate any threat stereotyping (preconceived notions of him as being dangerous that the potential tenants may harbor as a result of his combined race and gender). My husband wanted our tenants to see him as a father so that they would not find him threatening simply because he is a Black man. Our economic privilege has not sheltered our family from racism; it has merely exposed us to different manifestations of it. Just last year, when we were looking to move homes within Montreal, we were met with appraisers who underestimated the value of the home we were selling. Our real estate agent would later tell us that the same appraisers gave a similar property nearby, which had White owners but was in worse condition, a much higher appraisal (by the way, discrimination in home appraisals is a common reality in the US as well, but many Black homeowners in the US are actually over-assessed and end up paying much higher property taxes than their White counterparts). After that, we had to find ways to avoid being present when appraisers and evaluators visited our property, and this entailed depending on our White real estate agents and White tenants to let in appraisers in our absence. We had to literally make ourselves invisible in order to make sure we were “visible” to the system.

Dreams for My Daughter

Canada’s best-kept secret is not just its haunting past, but its ability to maintain a welcoming facade while harboring so many ongoing atrocities. The word “Quebec” comes from an Algonquin word meaning “it narrows” (in reference to the narrowing of the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City) but I worry that what is really narrowing is the province’s capacity to understand and embrace its growing diversity. Quebec’s linguistic nationalism opens the door to discriminatory practices by not acknowledging many already marginalized groups. The Quebec motto is ‘Je me souviens’, which means ‘I remember’. It is not really known what it is that we are remembering but perhaps we should remember the indigenous people whose land we are on and the immigrants who continue to build the province and nation at large. Perhaps we should work to let Quebecker children grow up to remember that embracing everyone does not threaten their province’s heritage (French or otherwise).

So, how do I become an agent of change in a province that renders me invisible? I can’t even join the game, let alone have skin in it. For instance, while I always planned to learn French (when the pandemic and motherhood allows), if Bill 96 passes, I will be required to learn it in 6 months and if Premier Legault makes good on his election promises, I’ll have to pass a French-language test to remain in the province. So, my husband and I have decided that we will leave the province to settle elsewhere in Canada in the hopes of finding our new “village.” Unfortunately, we are not the only ones forced to make decisions like this—and with good reason. At a time when Quebec is struggling with a shrinking labor pool amidst a pandemic, much of which can be addressed by skilled foreign immigrants, Legault’s government is choosing to mobilize its funds and resources to force French onto its indigenous and immigrant populations and prioritize his nationalist politics. My husband and I are now expecting our second child. Thankfully, this pregnancy is going well and it’s a girl. We don’t want her to grow up invisible; we want her to be visible because she, like all children, is worthy of being seen.

One thought on “(In)visibility in a new land

  1. this is gorgeous!

    Susan E. Eaton Professor of Practice Director, The Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy The Heller School for Social Policy and Management (she series) Faculty Affiliate, Department of Educational Studies Brandeis University

    Check out our recent publications:

    – Next Generation Commemoration: Philanthropy’s Past, Present and Future Role s – The Index Explosion: A Curated List of Social Sector Rankings and Indexes – Civic Engagement and People with Disabilities (In collaboration with the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy) – Inhabiting Change: Roles for Funders in Reducing and Redressing Housing Segregation


    [image: Front Cover] [image: Integration Nation]

    On Tue, Mar 1, 2022 at 9:08 PM School Diversity Notebook wrote:

    > Peter, Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State posted: ” This > post is written by Maraki Shimelis Kebede, an education researcher > currently based in Montreal, Canada. Maraki received her Ph.D. from the > Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State University, where she > studied the experiences of minori” >


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