Another exotic night with Jean Charest

Wednesday, November 4, at Cegep Limoilou, local authorities and various institutions partnered with the Chamber of Commerce for the "Soirée Un monde à faire: Hommage à la diversité" ("A World to Build: Homage to diversity"). This is an annual event intended to celebrate the success on the job market of immigrants who live in the Quebec City area Premier Jean Charest; the minister of immigration, Yolande James; the minister of labour, Sam Hamad, and diplomatic representatives were among those in attendance. What started out as a promising evening soon turned into another standard misfire on the part of the organizers.

In the dimly lit cafeteria of Cegep Limoilou, about a hundred immigrants found themselves in an awkward position. They were asked to come to celebrate diversity, yet the high-profile figures were not them, but their employers, i.e. Quebecers who distinguished themselves for hiring a third or more of their staff from the immigrant community.

Apart from the officials and of the candidates for the several prizes handed out by the Camber of Commerce, no other Quebecers were present. Not even the local media.

As it is usually the case, there is no interest in immigrants finding their place in Quebec society.

This is definitely news not worth printing. For this particular evening, the great numbers of immigrants were in fact invited to watch Quebecers congratulating other Quebecers for being so open-minded! And this, for a $40 admittance price.

The soirée consisted of two parts: the cocktail and the awards ceremony. Armed with two coupons per participant, we entered the underground cafeteria and waited in line for our drink and food. It was dark and the place was totally unappealing.

Too few improvised high tables where the lucky ones could eat standing up, and three or so tables with chairs counted as the setting of this event. All this for what seemed to be over a hundred people. An hour and a half later, we were asked into the festivities' hall, where we could all sit down. And seated, we watched the disturbing show prepared for the evening.

First, the musicians chosen to brighten the event were, surprise, exotic. They had big African drums, made a lot of noise (and each official made what they thought were funny remarks about them, but were in fact downgrading, to say the least).

This musical opening contextualized, in fact, how the organizers see immigrants in general: exotic, slightly backwards, yet worthy of a place in Quebec. The second clue into the perception of immigrants by the organizers were the nominees for the prizes: restaurants and IT businesses. No grey zone there; no intellectuals, no artists, no other professions seems to be worth mentioning. The stereotype was kept alive through ethnic food: Italian, French, or Asian. Talk about diversity.

The awards ceremony itself was not much better. Each speaker thanked the army of officials and guests for half the time they were up at the microphone. Thanking the immigrants was not the goal of this ceremony. When it did occur, it was for a ten-second sentence that went unnoticed. But the bravery of the employers was praised properly.

I talked to a representative of the Chamber of Commerce about the evening they organized and told this person that I found it very confusing. What exactly was the goal of this evening? It was, and, yet, was not, about celebrating the immigrants. This approach seems schizoid to me. What were the immigrants doing there? Who were they? The "distinguished guests" the officials greeted in their speeches? The "dear friends" at the end of the long list of honourable dignitaries? Or none of the above? My guess is that they were in the latter category. They just gave consistence to this evening by being there, by being, simultaneously, visible and invisible.

Hélène Laprise, one of the candidates for a prize, director of a language school that hires over two-thirds of its teachers from among the immigrants, told me that she would have liked to have the chance to get on that stage and thank her teachers for the great job they are doing in teaching English, Portuguese, and Spanish across the city.

"I would have liked to tell those present that yes, we hire immigrants, but for me this is not as relevant as the fact that immigrants working at our school are highly qualified in many different areas, and that we still have a lot of work in front of us to see them working in the fields in which they are specialized. Having a job is not everything. The real achievement is having access to their rightful jobs. And this is not really happening."

While I would not doubt the good intentions of the organizers and of the officials present at the award ceremony, I doubt that anything will change for the better in the near future. Year after year, I get invited to events like this and the circumstances are always the same: lots of immigrants, some officials, no media, and a cafeteria.

When I shared my impressions about the event, one Quebec official confirmed that the evening was not an exception, but the rule. The one way to make sure that 20 years from now we will not see a replay of last Wednesday ceremony is to change the pattern. Let us have this annual event in a well-lit place, in a venue above the ground, somewhere downtown; not in cafeterias or other basements located far from the heart of the city.

Let us invite immigrant artists that play classical music, even opera, because we have them here, in Quebec City. Let us have a classy evening together. And Quebecers will come, and so will the media.