On the eve of African Heritage Month, Alexandre Bissonnette shot six people in a mosque. Two of the victims were Black, from Guinea, and all the men originated from Africa.
Yet in the public discourse around the shootings, Blackness and anti-Black histories in Quebec were erased from the narrative. Public vigils invoked rhetoric of a “peaceful” Canada “welcoming” to new immigrants, a revisionist history that not only ignored Canada’s long-standing violence towards Indigenous, Black, and brown people at home and abroad, but that also positioned all Muslim Canadians as grateful newcomers, receiving the benevolence of white Canadians who are the sole authors of “diversity.”
In the Halifax vigil, after multiple speeches asserting that Canada has “always” been peaceful and tolerant, and that acts of violence are un-Canadian — as we stood among the military monuments of Grand Parade, a military parade square “dating to the founding of Halifax in 1749” — the mayor drew attention to Mi’kmaq people holding signs of solidarity with Muslims, and then immediately encouraged the crowd to launch into the singing of O Canada. The crowd obliged, standing beside St. Paul’s church, for which Cornwallis ordered the original framing.
During the singing of the national anthem, asserting white Canada’s peaceful goodness and kindness while standing in a square originated by white settlers whose “founding” of Halifax was inseparable from shows of military force, we were encouraged to switch to French just in time for the lyrics in the anthem, “Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,/Il sait porter la croix!” — “For your arm knows how to bear the sword/It knows how to carry the cross!” These lyrics of holy war seem particularly inappropriate in honouring and mourning Muslims, and counter to the mythology created all night that violence — white violence — was an anomaly in Canada, and could be disavowed and disowned.
The message being sent was that Alexandre Bissonnette’s violence not only had nothing to do with Canada, it was a “lone wolf,” whose actions could be separated from long histories of Islamophobia and anti-Black violence in Canada and Quebec. White supremacy was being written as something external to Canada, and by asserting “our” goodness, Bissonnette could be safely removed from the “real” Canada.
Never mind, as I read on the bus home, that he had a long history of attacking and abusing women and immigrant groups online, and that he had continually left extreme comments: comments noticed by his friends but seemingly not reported, and written off as normal, if obnoxious.
Never mind that despite these extreme comments and violent postings he could still be represented in the media as “quiet,” a “good person,” and a chess lover, who “liked” Garfield on Facebook and was a cadet as a child — representations of humanity denied to Black shooting victims, whose social media are combed by reporters to find photos of them smoking weed, wearing bandannas, and whose criminal records, school suspensions, or minor transgressions are highlighted. Never mind this demonstration that white killers are afforded more humanity and empathy than Black or Indigenous victims.
Never mind that despite his constant harassment of others, and fixation on violent extremist white supremacist groups, those who knew him professed to be “shocked” that he would commit violence, demonstrating the ways that violent white men are normalized, tolerated, and enabled.
Never mind that despite this long history of disturbing posting, nobody apparently reported him to police or RCMP, again demonstrating how white extremism is seen as non-threatening and usual — it’s hard to imagine a Muslim with a similar posting history not already being surveilled or known to authorities, while Bissonnette’s friends claimed that he wasn’t “really racist,” “just” xenophobic.
And never mind, of course, the long history of hate crimes experienced by Muslims in Quebec, all dismissed as “isolated incidents.” All of these things show that rather than being abnormal or shocking in the Canadian climate, Bissonnette freely demonstrated his violence and extremism for months in public, and Canadians saw it, and accepted it as nothing out of the ordinary. His views and behaviour were never considered intolerable or “un-Canadian.”
The realities of Bissonnette’s homegrown extremism could be denied in favour of narratives that position white Canadians as the creators of diversity and plurality — a construction that requires not only ignoring white settler histories of genocide, exclusionary immigration policies, and racist laws that limit the participation of non-white people in full Canadian citizenship, but also requires erasing any contributions of non-white Canadians from these histories, including the presence of African Muslims in Canada’s histories of enslavement.
Sherene Razack argues:
A white settler society is one established by Europeans on non-European soil. Its origins lie in the dispossession and near extermination of Indigenous populations by the conquering Europeans. As it evolves, a white settler society continues to be structured by a racial hierarchy. In the national mythologies of such societies, it is believed that white people came first and that it is they who principally developed the land; Aboriginal people are presumed to be mostly dead or assimilated. European settlers thus become the original inhabitants, and the group most entitled to the fruits of citizenship. A quintessential feature of white settler mythologies is, therefore, the disavowal of conquest, genocide, slavery, and the exploitation of the labour of peoples of colour. In North America, it is still the case that European conquest and colonization are often denied, largely through the fantasy that North America was peacefully settled and not colonized.
Through claims to reciprocity and equality, the story produces European settlers as the bearers of civilization while simultaneously trapping Aboriginal people in the pre-modern, that is, before civilization has occurred…If Aboriginal people are consigned forever to an earlier space and time, people of colour are scripted as late arrivals, coming to the shores of North America long after much of the development has occurred. In this way, slavery, indentureship, and labour exploitation – for example, the Chinese who built the railway or the Sikhs who worked in the lumber industry in nineteenth-century Canada — are all handily forgotten…
In the narrative to preserve “normal” white Canadian goodness where responsibility for Bissonnette could be firmly rejected, Muslims have to be written in a particular way, represented as grateful newcomers, “saved” by Canada, and given a fresh start. This singular narrative casts white Canada as the generous benevolent people opening their borders and hearts, and Muslims as the thankful recipients of this goodness — in other words, white Canadians as the bearers of civilization to the world, which they generously share with brown people of the world unfortunately victimized by our own savage and violent cultures from which we need saving, a transformation that can only occur for the lucky few accepted into white countries and given the chance to gain “Canadian shared values” and “way of life.”
This imagining of universally good “Canadian” values then justifies and validates Islamophobia and racism to immigrants who insist on “not learning English,” continuing to practice their own cultural values, or continuing to socialize with each other. As with the comments on social media with the Good Robot debacle, white Canadians feel justified in vicious racism because Muslims who “don’t want to fit in” deserve it, having the nerve to reject superior Canadian ways. Ungrateful people deserve what they have coming.
Perhaps ironically, then, it is precisely the fantasy of white Canadians as uniquely and universally good that permits the presence of Bissonnette, whose rage against Muslims is only normal and fair and accepted online until he “goes too far,” in which case he is quickly disowned. I wonder how many of the posters on Good Robot’s social media condemning Muslims “stood with Muslims” later, and were “shocked” and “appalled” at this unexpected violence that has nothing to do with them at all.
That this narrative can unquestioningly exist beside stories of Canada’s warship building program, ships used to participate in the conflicts that create the abject Muslim refugees in the first place, shows the required mental gymnastics in erasing Canadian histories. Because the idea of “Muslim” becomes singular — refugee fleeing savage war-torn country to be saved by Canada — earlier histories of Muslims in Canada, or multiple identities of Muslims that also intersect with Canadian history must be ignored.
Despite Black fathers being among the dead in the mosque, there was no recognition within Black History Month/African Heritage Month statements by government officials about the historic enslavement of Black Muslims in Canada, or even acknowledgment that these shootings also impacted Black communities and spoke to anti-Black racism in Canada as well.
Assertions about Canada’s greatness not only erased these histories, but actively participated in disenfranchising Indigenous and Black attendees at vigils, whose solidarity with Muslims and empathy with Muslim communities through shared experiences of state and settler violence were not admitted into the official representations of “Canada’s” response.
As Delice Mugabo makes clear:
For example, in my own preliminary research on Black slaves in Quebec, I have found a boy, Jacques Le Ber, who lived in Montreal and originated from Guinea, a largely Muslim territory at the time. His owner was Pierre Le Ber, a merchant. Jacques was baptized at thirty-six years old in 1694 and given the name of the owner’s father. According to some records, Olivier Le Jeune, who is said to have been the first Black slave in New France, also originated from Guinea. Antoine, Archange, Jacques, Jean Boyd, Louis, and Pierre-Joseph-César were all enslaved Black men and women in Quebec who originated from Muslim-majority societies.
Of course, no public officials drew a connection between Quebec’s enslavement of people from Guinea and the shooting of two men from Guinea by a white supremacist, and what this might mean for Black History Month. Canada habitually erases the presence of enslavement in its histories, and of Black people in Canada, viewing Blackness, and therefore anti-Blackness as an American phenomenon. This willed erasure of Black people in Canada allows practices like racist police checks to thrive unnoticed by white populations (the experience of Black people being ignored as “pulling the race card.”)
At the same time as anti-Black practices are rendered invisible, Blackness is paradoxically highly visible, but mainly represented through shootings, criminality, and other threats to “peace, order, and good government.” That the victims of the mosque shootings are represented solely as Muslim, with no recognition of their Blackness also suggests the invisibility of Black victimhood — had the shooter been a Black Muslim, certainly the colour of their skin would not have gone similarly unnoticed and ignored. If a Black Muslim shot six people, the Black community would not be “off the hook,” as though Blackness didn’t matter at all.
Mugabo situates the erasure of Black Muslims in the debate over the charter in Quebec to the creation of the Black subject as “non human” in order to justify enslavement.
Muslim Blacks…are configured as almost-civilized Black people who are attempting to enter civilized religion, and thus exiting blackness and entering the category of human. As Zakiyya Jackson so poignantly argues, “There are no practices that an individual black person can take up that will settle once and for all the doubt that accompanies the assertion of a black humanity.” Here Jackson echoes the core argument in Calvin Warren’s “Onticide.”In that important work, Warren writes that we cannot speak of identity, sexuality, gender, or even orientation as it applies to the Black subject because these are categories that belong to the human, one in which the Black subject does not belong. When state and white social power intervenes on their lives, it is because their blackness, and not their religiosity, embodies violence and terror.
As the rhetoric at the vigils indicated, non-Black Muslims serve a useful narrative in the Canadian racial hierarchy that confirms the white place at the top, granting citizenship and belonging to others. For Muslims, under threat of death and terror in the communities they live in, adopting this rhetoric is a matter of survival — in asserting the singular goodness of Canada, they assert their place in Canada. The strength of these assertions is precisely conditioned not by the goodness Muslims experience in Canada, but because of the fear of violent threat from their neighbours: the less good Canada is to Muslims, the more they must assert their appreciation of Canada in order protect themselves.
Therefore we get the irony of Muslims needing protection against terroristic violence, but that very protection is being used to demonstrate Canada’s goodness. At the same time, Muslim communities must accept police presence which doubles as surveillance: the threat by white terrorists thus justifies increased policing of Muslims. Despite the violence coming from white communities, and the majority of terroristic and mass shootings being committed by white men, the solution is never to increase surveillance or policing in white communities.
In the extreme, we see this dynamic in the arrest of Mohamed Belkhadir, who despite being arrested, smeared internationally as a suspect, and held by police, must assert he “isn’t holding a grudge.”
Police violations are not only justified, but must be welcomed as the price of “safety,” despite those same police forces actively participating in the criminalization of Muslims. Police presence in mosques and communities caused by white terrorism can then be used to surveil Muslims and gather more information on their communities, while white male extremists frolic freely online, dismissed only as “trolls.”
These confirmations of Canada’s goodness can then be deployed against Black and Indigenous Canadians, whose protests against our own violent oppressions in this country can be invalidated (and even criminalized.) The “good immigrant” figure is used to break solidarities between communities of colour, allowing white Canadians to blame the oppression and poverty experienced by Indigenous and Black Canadians as laziness, unlike those immigrants who cheerfully work 20 hours a day scrubbing toilets and are grateful to do it for a place in Canada. This figure of the hard-working immigrant (ignoring the exploitation of migrant labour and other labour abuses) is used to deny structural oppression and generational deprivation of Indigenous and Black communities, spreading the myth that if only they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they would no longer be oppressed.
In the racial hierarchy, Black people are maintained at the bottom and excluded from the human by the strategic granting of whiteness and white-proximity to other groups. In Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White, he argues that whiteness is granted in return for complicity in state violence towards Black people. The Irish, colonized by England, and taken as indentured servants, initially took common cause with Africans in America, participating in collective rebellions against their masters.
As Eric Williams observes, racism is created in order to convince poor white people that they have more in common with the white master than with the African worker. Whiteness is awarded to those who participate in and facilitate the oppression of Africans. The promise of “becoming white” is thus held out to “good immigrants” who, supposedly, if they work hard, don’t complain, speak English, and are grateful to Canada, will be treated as more human and granted a place higher in the racial hierarchy.
Black histories must be erased, because they counter this triumphant colonial narrative. The inability to recognize two of the Muslim victims as Black is thus intimately tied to the purpose and complexities of Black History/African Heritage Month in Canada. While assertion of Black history is an inherently resistant act — making a claim for a Black presence in Canada that is consistently denied — the co-optation of Black History Month by governments and corporations ensures that the month doesn’t become a platform for Black rebellion. Black History Month therefore safely sticks to an official script of “canonized” Black saints emptied of their revolutionary content, drumming, dancing, food, and fashion. Discussions of racism, state violence, anti-Blackness, etc. are not allowed in spaces dominated by government officials and police chiefs who claim the seats at the front of the room.
This year, on Facebook, for example, I saw the celebration of a Black History Month police vehicle, decorated with images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Viola Desmond, among others. That both of these figures were arrested and imprisoned, and that their histories stand as a rebuke to racist policing and the role of the police in enforcing injustice, seems lost in this incoherent tribute. A quick Google search naturally reveals a number of racist incidents by the same police force “honouring” Black history on their van.
As Ajamu Nangwaya asserts:
Black History Month has since become more about cultural puffery than the politics of emancipation.
Trade unions, school boards, corporations and even government agencies are, for the most part, comfortable with the current toothless, non-challenging thrust of this month.
Essentially, they have been allowed to co-opt it and channel its potential for radical consciousness-raising and political involvement into celebrating “Black firsts” and “Black notables.”
Further, it serves as a platform to sell the virtues of integrating Africans into this racist, sexist and capitalist optical illusion that is the Canadian dream.
One of the things that we have observed about the forces of exploitation is their wily manipulation and transformation of acts of resistance into harmless and empty symbols. That state of affairs is not possible without the participation of the oppressed.
Norman (Otis) Richmond, a Toronto-based journalist, is one of the main advocates in Canada for renaming of “Black History Month” as “African Liberation Month.”
…African Liberation Month would assert the name of the people whose struggle is being affirmed, while clearly communicating to the people that the mission of this celebration is the cultivation of a culture of resistance and liberation.
Let’s make the commitment to consistently use African Liberation Month and not the other outdated name. It has exceeded its best-before date so we ought to send it to the “Museum of Outdated Social Contraptions.”
Of equal importance is doing the work to make African liberation and social transformation central issues on our activism agenda in Canada and beyond.
African Liberation Month should offer us a time to educate ourselves not only on Black history, but on Black history as it informs our oppression and resistance today. Understanding the mosque shootings within the context of histories of enslavement in Canada, white settler narratives, fantasies of Canada, the process of racialization and racial hierarchies, and justifications for state violence help advance the cause of organizing against these structures. That the Blackness of victims was erased in official state narratives speaks to the inability to see Black people as victims, and the deep anti-Blackness buried in the way Canada imagines itself.
“Passing the torch” means nothing if we don’t also understand the way we need to burn these mythologies down.
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