The author is a pediatric emergency physician and associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at McGill University. He is involved in the Soignons la justice sociale collective and wrote the award-winning book No more aboriginal children torn away. To end Canadian medical colonialism (Lux publisher, 2021).
My parents immigrated to Quebec in the 1970s from South Asia, a region heavily affected by British colonialism. I grew up in a modest home in a predominantly white working-class neighborhood. In principle, but also for lack of means to do otherwise, I attended public schools on the South Shore before pursuing medical studies in Montreal.
When I started school in the 1980s, my parents enrolled me in an English-speaking school, which allowed them to communicate well with the school staff. Since we lived in Quebec, it was essential for my parents that their children speak French, so I was enrolled in the “immersion program”. Many other immigrant parents shared their point of view.
My primary classes were held entirely in French and were made up of 20 to 30 children, mostly allophones whose parents had migrated from all over the world. I keep from my teachers (who mostly had surnames like Bourassa, Gravel and Nadeau) the memory of a clear impression of “benevolence”. Rarely have I felt that I was being treated unfairly because of my parents’ country of origin, my name, the languages I spoke, or the color of my skin.
It was after school that the stress mounted. I had to walk past another elementary school. I had friendly ties with several of the French-speaking children who frequented it (we played street hockey together in the evenings). However, there was an old rivalry between our respective schools (including for linguistic reasons) in which, like many others, I did not want to take part. As a child, I did not understand the origins of the conflicts, which occasionally took violent turns, with knives and chains.
Anxiety and the fear of being harassed or hurt sometimes forced me to take long detours to avoid crossing paths with bullies. At the time, almost all of the children in this school were white. When young people of color like me walked past their yard, they were easily associated with the English school. Our skin color became synonymous with our spoken language.
Even though I was fluent in French, they still yelled at me, “Go back home!” when no white English speaker was told. It was very disconcerting: I was born in Montreal and had spent my entire childhood on the South Shore. Where was I supposed to go? It was the only “home” I knew.
What message are we sending?
When I look back on those painful childhood experiences, I don’t blame the bullies who terrorized me because they saw me as “the Other.” I know that children often model their behavior on that of adults.
Some adults with political and economic power, however, seem to thrive on creating social conditions that allow xenophobia to proliferate, including normalizing verbal, physical and structural violence against migrants, especially those who are racialized and precarious.
These days, I often wonder how the children who have migrated here interpret the message that many politicians send them.
How does a migrant child feel when she hears an opposition leader say that immigration contributes to the “rise of extremes”? Or when a minister wants to close the road — “Roxham, basta! “, repeats Christine Fréchette – who made it possible to go to a safe place in Quebec?
What sense of belonging is conveyed to these children when a minister roughly states that “80% of immigrants go to Montreal, do not work, do not speak French or do not adhere to the values of Quebec society”? Or when the Prime Minister claims that welcoming more immigrants would be “suicidal” for the Quebec nation?
What message is conveyed to the children of the victims of the Quebec mosque massacre — the six Quebec Muslims killed were also African migrants — when the premier of Quebec does not participate in the commemoration event?
More generally, what is the impact on all Quebec children — racialized or not, migrants or not — of a dominant xenophobic discourse in which “the Other” is portrayed as a threat or a scapegoat? What will be the social impact for future generations?
Beyond words and gestures, there are also policies of exclusion that harm the development of these children and, as a result, all of us as a society.
Do more, do better
Remember that it is only since 2017 – after years of mobilization – that children living in Quebec can attend school, regardless of their immigration status. Despite this, dozens, if not hundreds of migrant children are confined for long weeks in hotels run by the federal government in Montreal without access to educational services.
Another example: since 2018, the successive governments of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) and the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) have blocked access to subsidized childcare services for families seeking asylum, thus exacerbating their precariousness, and this , despite a decision by a Superior Court judge saying that these families cannot be excluded from this financial assistance.
As an emergency pediatrician, I have witnessed the repercussions of harmful healthcare policies that cause suffering for many uninsured migrant children. Even if Bill 83 made, in 2021, most of these children living in Quebec eligible for the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec (RAMQ), too many of these migrant children fall through the cracks of the net because of unnecessary administrative obstacles and delays.
Yet we know that policies can adapt. Stephan Reichhold, Executive Director of the Round Table of Organizations Serving Refugees and Immigrants (TCRI), explains to me that Quebec’s exceptional measures have enabled young Ukrainian nationals to have quick access to education and at the RAMQ. This demonstrates that bureaucracy and policies can be effective when deemed necessary.
Children who are subjected to exclusionary policies in education and health care already carry a heavy baggage of trauma related to perilous migratory journeys, family separations and threats of detention and deportation that will mark them for life. So do we only have a selective empathy for toddlers?
Saturday: no one is illegal.