Quebec’s anti-racism ad campaign backfires

 —Meant to combat racism, the ads upset Quebec’s Anglophones and might unwittingly be reinforcing racial stereotypes, says Éric Blais—

Marketing campaigns tackling social issues are usually provocative. Whether they’re aimed at breaking racial stereotypes or preventing distracted driving, the ads are rarely feel-good short films. They’re meant to make viewers feel uncomfortable by dramatizing negative outcomes so they’ll reconsider their views and actions.

While advertising agencies relish the opportunity to develop public service ads, they are fraught with risks. It’s not like selling soap. These campaigns deal with social transformation, which requires more than ads to address increasingly complex and dynamic issues. As clever as they sometimes are, the ads risk being seen as superficial. Or worse, they can have the opposite of the desired effect. Like an anti-racism campaign by the Quebec Government that appears to have divided more than united.

The first-of-its-kind campaign to fight racism in Quebec was launched last week in response to one of the recommendations in a December 2020 report by the Action Group Against Racism. The four 15-second spots were created by Havas under a $1.2 million contract with the Quebec Government. Premier François Legault says he’s committed to implementing a plan to fight racism, but refuses to acknowledge systemic racism in the province.

One of the ads features the words: “In Quebec, a group of young Black people gathered in a park at night are called:” and then reveals a group of young Black people sitting on a park bench accompanied by the word “friends.” The ad ends with the text “Put an end to prejudice.” Other ads refer to a group of Arabic people in an apartment as “a family,” and a South American man covered in tattoos as “a neighbour”.

But the English versions missed one important part of the narrative. In fact, they missed the main message of the campaign: That people of different cultures are all Quebecers. In English, the young Black people gathered in the park are “friends,” but in French they’re “des amis Québecois.” The word Quebecer is absent from all English versions of the same ads. (See both ads below.)

Quebec’s anglophone community was quick to react, calling the ads discriminatory. This is how Martine St-Victor explained it in her opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette:

“Many from both solitudes were left malcontent by the word Quebecer”: its absence in English, its presence in French.

If you live in Quebec, youre a Quebecer. That should have nothing to do with language, race, creed, religion or place of birth, and living here also means were many things at once and cant be pigeonholed. Its perhaps the campaigns lack of recognition of these realities that irritated so many of us.”

This prompted Benoit Charette, the minister Responsible for the Fight Against Racism, to tweet this in French: “Following discussions with our language advisers, we did not include the term ‘Quebecers,’ as it seemed less inclusive. Today’s reactions show us that this was not the best solution.” In a subsequent tweet, he said the language in the English version would be modified, and added: “All citizens of Quebec are Quebecers, regardless of their language,” also in French.

Really? The solution was obvious all along: They are Québécois friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Using the word “Québécois” in English didn’t stop a parliamentary motion tabled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 from getting approved by the House of Commons. The English motion read: That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada. And there are countless examples of the word Québécois being used to qualify things and people from Québec, including the many tributes in the English press last month following the passing of Marie-Claire Blais, “the great Québécoise writer”.

Minister Charette’s parliamentary assistant, Christopher Skeete, added this during an interview with CTV: “We want to fight racism, and we’re serious about fighting racism in Quebec, so let’s just hopefully come back to that message which has been lost with this minor setback.”

Yes, the message was lost. But was it even the right message? One has to assume these ads were pre-tested and shown to be effective at challenging perceptions. But in their attempt to raise awareness of racial stereotyping, they might also unwittingly be reinforcing racial stereotypes.

In the late 90s, for example, an anti-racism ad by the U.K.’s Commission for Racial Equality showed the face of a black man set against a dark background, with the word “SCARED?” in large red letters and “You should be. He’s a dentist.” in smaller copy underneath. Critics complained that the image was sinister, and reinforced the negative stereotype that Black men should be feared. Even the British Dental Association complained that it was reinforcing stereotypes about dentistry.

Québécoise anti-racism advocate Margaret Wilheim summed up the effort by the Quebec government this way: “Ad campaigns are not a solution, they’re there to start a discussion perhaps.”

And the images of violent treatment of Black people by Quebec City police officers recently suggest it’s time for very serious discussions.