Chantal Hébert: Fight against discrimination begins in the streets

I’ve never competed for a position against a non-white colleague. Had that happened at some point over the 45 years I’ve spent in journalism, it’s very likely the dice would have been loaded in my favour.

But my career was built at a different time, absent the competition that has in recent decades arisen out of a more diverse Canada, when I found the dice were indeed loaded, but not in my favour. My experience does not even come close to that of a person of colour. But it does show something about the way bias works, both overt and, more insidiously, unconscious.

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It was at Queen’s Park in the late 1970s that I first cut my teeth as a political correspondent. I was to be part of a female duo of correspondents — the first of its kind at Radio-Canada.

That was deemed curious enough for the network’s internal newsletter to publish an article headlined “Two women at Queen’s Park.” The two of us might as well have been a pair of pandas on loan to a zoo!

Upon arriving in the press gallery, a colleague asked whether we felt embarrassed that the nascent drive to appoint more women to on-camera roles had given us an edge on male applicants.

The question spoke volumes about the then-dominant mindset about the place of women in politics and the media, as did our lack of surprise at the suggestion.

That same mindset was prevalent on Parliament Hill when I landed in the Radio-Canada bureau there in the mid-1980s. That was compounded by the widespread perception that francophone journalists — even though they were more universally bilingual than their anglophone counterparts — were “national” reporters in name only.

For a number of years, almost every question that was put to me on most English-language panels included the word “Quebec.” It was as if someone whose first language was not English would have little of interest to contribute about anything else in the political life of the country.

Twenty years ago, it was unheard of for a major English-language newspaper to appoint someone who hailed from the francophone side of the media divide as a national columnist.

When John Honderich, the Toronto Star’s publisher at the time, offered me the position, my initial answer was that I did not think people like him offered jobs like that to people like me.

Shortly after I took on the role of columnist, one otherwise well-meaning editor suggested that my new position would provide me with a great educational opportunity.

At that point I’d been a journalist for more than 20 years on radio, television and print. I presumed she meant I was about to discover Toronto’s self-assumed sense it is the centre of Canada’s thinking universe. Having been raised from adolescence to adulthood in Ontario’s capital, I was already well aware that Toronto did not lack a sense of its own importance.

Some of those early Toronto years were stormy political ones. Back in 1970, at the time of the October Crisis, it was not always a good idea to speak French in as public a venue as a city bus or a shopping mall.

Back then, my parents drove Peugeots. In a city where French cars were few, theirs seemed to attract an uncommon amount of police attention. On the occasion of one such stop, the officer instructed my mother to “get some French air in her tires.”

Just as there are — to this day — some Canadians who have never accepted the linguistic duality of the federation, there will always be those who see the country’s diversity as something to be kept down.

Racism and discrimination will never be totally eradicated. One only needs to peruse social media to see that those feelings are alive and well in some Canadian quarters.

But in my experience, which again does not come anywhere near that of a person of colour, the overt kind is not always the more lethal.

The assumptions that stem from unconscious biases do more to perpetuate systemic discrimination than the posts of the losers who self-validate by exhibiting their ignorance and their prejudices.

Like viruses, those assumptions tend to endure in enclosed spaces — hence the notion that governments and politicians will light the way to a fairer society is one that probably should be tempered with a dose of realism.

Those who toil in the political universe — be they actual players or journalistic watchers — like to think of themselves as being on the vanguard of social progress. The reality, over the past decades, has been that political institutions routinely tend to lag behind societal change.

It is not by accident that it was not in the House of Commons but on the streets of Canada — over the demonstrations of anti-racism solidarity of the past week — that the country’s political heart was found to still be beating strongly, post-lockdown. And that, on balance, is an encouraging sign.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist for the Toronto Star.

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