By Supriya Dwivedi
I moved to Toronto from Montreal in the spring of 2013. The city was just coming to grips with the possibility that Rob Ford was abusing crack cocaine, and everybody I met had an opinion on the mayor, civic affairs, and the state of Toronto. Nuance was out the window: Ford was either the root of all conservative evil or an everyman’s hero just trying to stick up for the little guy. My own opinion was one of muted bewilderment. It was very hard for this newcomer to grasp how someone with Mayor Ford’s history and record was elected with 47 per cent of the vote.
It was refreshing to meet so many people who were engaged in spirited political discussion and committed to making their city a better place. The dissimilarity to Montreal in this regard was quite striking. Before the Charbonneau Commission over allegedly corrupt awarding of public construction contracts made it possible for Montrealers to speak openly about collusion around dinner tables and water coolers, few people found municipal politics worthy of much attention.
There was another aspect of life here that was quite unlike Montreal. From my very first day living in Toronto, the city’s diversity has been patently clear. The couples and groups around me at movie theatres and restaurants were rarely racially or ethnically homogenous. It was nice to live and work in a place where I didn’t have to explain that I needed to take a couple of days off for my sister’s wedding: everybody already knew what an Indian wedding entailed.
When I spoke about this difference, I was usually met with a look of pity, followed by comments along the lines of how awful living in Quebec must have been for my family. After all, everyone knows that Quebec, even Montreal, is a racist, and intolerant cesspool. Get this: I actually did not grow up in Montreal, but in the town of Granby, about an hour east of the city in rural Quebec. Sometimes telling people this elicits audible gasps. People look at me as if I said I had grown up in Ferguson, Missouri.
One of the greatest misconceptions regarding Quebec made by Torontonians – and let’s be honest, the Rest Of Canada– is that Quebecers are by and large an intolerant people. The data, however, indicates otherwise: racist attitudes are no more prevalent in Quebecthan in the rest of the country. Statistics Canada’s own figures indicate that racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes are more commonplace in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and British Columbia than in Quebec. Even during the the debate over the Parti Québécois’ Charter of Quebec Values (and its egregious suggestions as to what people should do about their hijabs or kippahs), pollsters found again and again that the attitudes within the rest of Canada towards religious accommodation were only slightly more open than in Quebec. (Which makes much more sense when you factor in Quebec’s practice of interculturalism and the French notion of laïcité, i.e. public secularity.)
There was not a single day in my life growing up in Granby that I was faced with racism; ignorant comments about language, sure, but never racist. But the first time I went canvassing for former Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki, a voter referred to me as a “paki” and mayoral candidate Olivia Chow as a “chink.” Over the course of several months canvassing and talking to voters after debates or all candidate meetings, I heard my fair share of racial slurs. I am dismayed to imagine what Ms. Chow has had to bear.
Initially, I was stunned into speechlessness that racial epithets were being used to describe me in 2014 Toronto. Over time, however, the casual racism became a part of campaign life, along with sleep deprivation and stress eating. Perhaps the oddest part of all this is the fact that many of those who referred to me as one of the “coloureds” weren’t actually doing so in contempt. More than once I was asked why I wasn’t working for Rob Ford. “He’s the only one that cares about the coloureds." Being referred to as a coloured person by middle aged Caucasian men while they touted Rob Ford’s white saviour complex as evidence of his commitment to racialized people was not exactly how I had envisioned campaigning in the fourth largest city in North America.
No, my sample size of one doesn’t result in hard conclusions on the comparative sociological underpinning of race relations in Canada’s urban centres. But having lived in both Montreal and Toronto, this is how I see it: At least Montrealers wholeheartedly acknowledge that the city, and Quebec, are constantly fraught with linguistic tension. In Toronto, lip-service pride in our multicultural heritage hasn’t changed the monochromatic makeup of the media, opinion leaders, judiciary or, of course, City Council. Perhaps it’s about time Torontonians realized that we’re not the accepting, diverse utopia that we pretend to be.