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The Confederate Flag in East Montreal

Sightings of the confederate flag in the north raise questions about the politics of sovereignty and the intersections of race and language.
Carrie Rentschler

Issue #74, December 2005

A year ago, I moved to Montreal, Quebec after a five-year stint in Pittsburgh, PA. I got a job offer in the city, and decided, with my partner, that for the both of us, Montreal would be a great place to live and work. And it is, far more than I could have imagined. I chalk this up to Montreal’s unique multicultural urbanity and its multi-lingualism.

My day-to-day life in Montreal can be experienced at quite a remarkable remove from the U.S., politically, culturally, and linguistically, more than most other parts of Canada. While Montreal is located just 45 minutes from the Vermont/New York borders, its majority French-speaking population and its particular city culture – part European, very bohemian, and “very sexual” as several people on the street shared with me as I looked for housing -- feel nothing like the U.S., at least not the Midwestern parts of which I am most familiar. For those U.S. Americans who think that Canada is just an extension of U.S. culture, they clearly do not have the city of Montreal or the province of Quebec in mind. In fact, they likely don’t have Canada in mind, period. Canadians from Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Halifax, Vancouver and its vast rural areas would probably be equally non-plussed to hear people on weekend holiday describe Canada as just another U.S.

I live on the east side of Montreal, in the largely French and Vietnamese working class neighborhood of Hochelaga/Maissoneuve. Nestled to the south of the Olympic Park and extending west about 1.5 kilometers, Hochelaga/Maissoneuve’s walk-up housing, skating arena, depanneurs (convenience stores), city parks and industrial areas are resident to young and old working class families and hangers-about, and youngish upstarts like myself, who came to the neighborhood seeking cheaper rents and larger apartments than the ones available in swanker, hip neighborhoods. The feel and look of neighborhood life is in some ways quite different from what I’ve known before; in other ways, its unpretentious working class feel and friendly elderly step-sitters are pleasingly familiar.

Yet despite these similarities and differences, one recurrent U.S. symbol complicates Montreal’s apparent remove from a particular version of Southern white working class American politics: the confederate flag. While walking around my neighborhood or making my way to the Metro, I have several times come across a large, Lincoln-sized American car with a confederate flag appended to the license plate holder on its front bumper. East-enders, I should note, are particularly known for their love of big American cars. A number of French-language Quebec films set in East Montreal stereotypically illustrate this love of automobiles, films such as Les Boys, a hugely popular Quebec film about a men’s intramural hockey league set in east Montreal (I swear I saw one of my local strip clubs in the film). I have since heard another report from a person I know who lived in Hochelaga/Maissoneuve and saw confederate flags being flown from apartment building windows. Combined with this other report, and five separate sightings of this “rebel-flag” adorned car, I realized I had not suffered from some kind of flag hallucination. I even have a digital photograph of the car as visual evidence.

Confederate Flag Plate

Giving the driver even some slight benefit of the doubt, I thought the flag might signify for him a kind of “rebel” working class masculinity (and I presume here, perhaps with some risk, that the owners and primary drivers of these vehicles are men). Perhaps the drivers and apartment residents who fly the confederate flag are unaware of its history of appropriation in the U.S. (where for some people in the U.S and federal representatives from Alabama, who fought to mount the flag on the state capitol there, the flag signifies an only thinly veiled white pride in the South’s racial and economic history). Perhaps they don’t know its particular connotations of violent Southern white supremacy in the U.S. I think they must have some idea of the flag’s racist connotations and its relationship to pro-slavery plantation politics, since it is these connotations that give its version of white masculinity its “rebel” sensibility. The appearance of the confederate flag in Montreal, and especially on its eastside, may not signify an overt and conscious expression of masculinist white supremacy; it nonetheless carries racist connotations, be they intended or not. Looking to the driver’s state of mind, or his intentions in using this symbol, doesn’t seem like the best interpretive move for me to make. There’s something larger at work here.

I have since had several other sightings of the flag around town. One day on my way into work, I came across a road construction crew re-paving the street on which I work and noticed that the large dump truck being loaded with huge cement chunks of the former street also had a confederate flag on its front bumper. It was hard to miss, glued as it was onto the tall truck’s bumper 4 feet up from the ground, nearly at eye level for short folks such as myself. My other contact who confirmed my sightings of the flag suggested to me that the driver may be using the flag to signify his “rebel trucker” mentality, a somewhat common articulation between the flag and one version of white working class masculinity among a subgroup of long-haul truckers in the U.S. What interested me upon seeing this truck, besides my surprise, was how much I had already internalized the linguistic political geography of Montreal. I was caught off guard seeing the truck downtown, rather than on the east side of Montreal, which is not only known for its working class and still quite racially “white” French first language speakers, but also a particularly sovereigntist political bent.

It might be best, then, to understand the display of this flag as some response to the close loss of the 1995 sovereignty referendum vote in Quebec (by 1/2%), as well as the not-always-sublimated racial politics of parts of the sovereignty movement. In the lead-up to the 1995 sovereignty referendum vote, Lucien Bouchard, the former premier of Quebec and a moderate sovereigntist, mentioned in a major speech around the campaign that white Quebec francophones had a far lower birthrate than non-white populations in Quebec, a statement one might expect would have received vocal media criticism for its blatant racism. But that was not the case; Quebec media and politicians largely let Bouchard’s racist gaff slip relatively unnoticed off the radar of political discourse at the time, only later becoming the subject of critical scrutiny in the 2005 CBC documentary on the 1995 referendum, “The Breaking Point.” Perhaps the media silence that met Bouchard’s statement was an effect of how apparently well-loved Bouchard was by the media and other Quebec politicians. He was all the more beloved in the 1995 referendum fight after he barely survived a rare bacterial blood disease that cost him one of his legs, just months before the major push for the 1995 referendum vote on Quebec sovereignty. Add to this Jacques Parizeau’s statement the day after the referendum loss blaming it on the “ethnic vote” (which signifies “Jewish” in Montreal), race is deeply linked to sovereignty claims in Quebec, if not its defining feature.

Bouchard’s and Parizeau’s statements demonstrate the links between nationalist movements and racism. Nationalist movements, with their investments in cultural protectionism and their perceived need to establish boundaries between who belongs to the nation and who does not, often draw upon racist ideas and symbols in order to make their claims for the protection and recognition of their unique national cultures. Bouchard’s 1995 statement suggests pretty clearly that there is some underlying racism to at least part of the Quebec sovereignty movement. At the time of the 1995 referendum drive, First Nations leaders in Quebec, notably among the Cree, directly challenged the francophone claim to sovereignty in Quebec, based upon their own claims to land and cultural rights in the province. As they argued, why should the French make claims to sovereignty exclusive of other Quebeckers when the Cree have equally valid grounds on which to do so?

There are currently faint murmurings of another referendum attempt as a result of the Liberal party’s favoritism scandal in Quebec, unveiled through the Gomery inquiry this spring and summer. After just a year in Montreal, I may not agree with the argument for Quebec sovereignty, but I recognize sovereigntists’ interpretation of the historical, political and cultural conditions which drive the claims for a sovereign French-language nation in Canada. The basis of the desire for sovereignty lies, still, in the working class positions and deeply-felt investments in francophone culture of a great number of primary French-language Quebeckers. Quebecois sovereignty claims are partly a response, too, to the resentful and sometimes hostile disdain many Canadians have for Quebec, and the political deals it is able to make in order to preserve the loose federalism in Canada. Across the rest of Canada, Quebec and its largely Francophone population, culture and politics, are still routinely derided as outlandish, out-of-date, or simply not “good enough.” Sometimes this commentary takes jabs at the particular sounds and expressions of Quebecois French. On several occasions, I have heard anti-Quebec sentiment expressed by people I would not have expected. People have advised me not to learn French from a Quebecker, because it’s not “real French.” This claim strikes me as little more than unchecked elitism, as many dialects of Quebec French are associated with the working classes. I have especially sought out language tutors that can teach me Quebec French, so that I can better understand and speak to my neighbors, shop clerks, bus drivers, French-speaking students and my colleagues who grew up in Montreal. Learning their language will also enable me to have more meaningful, cross-social class exchanges. Knowing Quebec French idioms, linguistic shortcuts and flourishes is one of the best ways to become part of the mixed English/French culture here, to lubricate the small, daily interactions that are such a part of daily life in the city. Quebec French also loosens some of the strict class and status distinctions of Parisian French, where a speaker’s class positions bear less of a burden on the level of language here. This may also be peculiar to Montreal.

On other occasions, I have also been told not to trust what Quebeckers say about the rest of Canada (!), particularly in the realm of federal politics. This statement mirrors in a rather startling way national Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s assertion that Quebec’s broad support for gay marriage does not represent the wishes of most Canadians. Such unthinking anti-Quebec attitudes are backed up by similar statements made on prominent Canadian television shows, like the hilarious comedy “This Hour has 22 Minutes,” which runs skits in which Quebec is routinely the butt of political jokes. Such was my introduction to this well-regarded show.

My local MP, Réal Menard is an openly gay Bloc Quebecois politician, and by all accounts a community-minded, labor-oriented representative. I take great pleasure in reading Menard’s community reports and other publications on his Hochelaga/Maissoneuve booster activities, and I share many of the concerns about the constraints of social class and their articulations to Anglo/French relations in Canada, on which much of the sovereignty battle has been waged. Menard, I suspect, is a sovereigntist as well, but as I’m learning, support for sovereignty can mean different things, and people who do not support Quebec’s separation from Canada will still vote for Bloc candidates because of their positions on other political issues. The issue of sovereignty in Quebec is in no way a straightforward, pro and con issue. I recognize and consciously try to understand why the sovereigntists seek recognition as French Quebeckers. At the local level, I find myself wanting to share in the collective fellow feeling represented in my MP’s broadsides, with their multicultural portrayal of local residents and recent immigrant communities at neighborhood events. I even felt pride when Menard had some sharp words for Stephen Harper, the national leader of the Conservative party and a vocally anti-gay member of parliament. Just after gay marriage was legalized in Canada this summer, Harper claimed that Quebec’s support for queer marriage rights didn’t represent Canada as a whole, even though gay marriage was widely supported across Canada. Interestingly, Harper had just cut several deals with the Bloc Quebecois around the Gomery inquiry, a federal investigation into pay-offs the Liberal party made in Quebec to gain political support there. Making strategic deals across major political divides is something the political parties do in Canada in order to claim political territory and strategic advantage in our minority-led, parliamentary system of federal government. Harper’s dismissal of Quebec’s support for gay marriage rights showed up just how tactical and crude some of these cross-party deals are – and everyone here knows it.

I am not from Quebec, but even I take offense to other’s ignorance and disdain for Quebec and its complicated and historical political milieu – a milieu not fully defined by the French/English divide to which so much popular culture and other breezy assessments of Quebec’s place in Canadian politics and culture would have it. Montreal is a thriving, multi-cultural metropolis, with large populations of people from Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean, north African countries like Morocco and Tunisia, Chileans and Salvadorans (and a small but growing Mexican population), Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese, and yes, some Americans. The French/English divide will surely continue to be part of people’s day-to-day negotiations of this officially bilingual city and province, but it is not the only, and may not continue to be the primary social schism in Montreal.

Cast against examples of open political disdain for Quebec and its political commitments, some of the most liberal in the country, sits the portrayal of Montreal as a still linguistically-divided city. The common understanding of Montreal’s political terrain is based upon the physical urban divides in Montreal between English-speakers and French-speakers more typical of the 1960s and 1970s than today. That’s not to say they do not still exist, because they do. The east-end of town for most Montrealers does still signify the “French side” of this old dividing line, and its class-base distinctions. The west side has been known for its “Anglo” upper and middle classes (and there are still high concentrations of English first language speakers there), while the east is still known for its French first language working-class residents. Some of my colleagues who settled in Notre Dame-de-Grace (NDG for short) on the near westside of the city, tell me that a number of their French first-language neighbors moved to NDG so that their children would learn English more quickly. Clearly there is truth to the claim that Montreal remains a linguistically-divided city. People may in some ways take a more strategic approach to this divide, choosing in some cases to live on one side of this divided political geography for the education of their children, or so they might learn French more quickly (a secondary interest of mine in choosing to live on the east). The current reality of Montreal’s language divide is one of the reasons why I did not expect to find a dump truck displaying the confederate flag in the middle of downtown, and adjacent to the symbolically Anglophone McGill University. And St. Laurent street no longer represents the once stark dividing line between the French east and English west of Montreal.

In drawing attention to my sightings of the confederate flag in Montreal, it is not my intention to give the city, its eastside, or Quebec sovereigntists, a bad name. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Montreal is one of the best cities in the world, made all the better because of its multi-lingual populations, its strong and complex but largely humane political realities, its incredibly inviting “vibe” and culture, and the unabashed hyper-sociality of its residents and visitors. The eastside has been a welcoming neighborhood to me. Clerks at the local depanneurs and pizza delivery places respond to my broken but improving French with inquisitiveness and helpful encouragement, rather than derision or impatience. An older guy down the street sits in his rocking chair all day and cheerfully smiles when I walk by. These are small things, but they communicate a sense of belonging. Then again, maybe people in the neighborhood shops aren’t as convivial with the local Haitians or the anarchist, heavily tattooed punks who live next door.

The longer I live here, the more apparent it becomes that the politics of Montreal cannot be fully reduced to an English/French language divide. The multilingual young people who have grown up in this city show up how falsely binary this Anglo/French divide is today. The still dominant portrayal of divided Montreal clouds some of the other current realities of race, immigration and class in the city, of which I admittedly do not have a full grasp. As such, the Anglo/French divide still provides a compelling political narrative onto which a multitude of race and class issues are grafted – unsuccessfully, I would suggest. Many Montrealers, Quebeckers and other Canadians are quite comfortable talking about French and English schisms in the city because it is such an accepted narrative. Overall, people here seem far less open, able or willing to talk about race and immigration issues. Only a few people I know here speak of Montreal as a racially divided city. Some of them are involved in the Canadian coalition No One is Illegal, which advocates for immigrant rights from an anti-racist position. My colleague, Charmaine Nelson, an art historian who is working with others to establish black studies in Canada, suggests that the problem is partly the taken-for-granted ideology of Canadian multiculturalism, which essentially declares that racism and anti-immigrant sentiment do not exist in Canada. The declarative nature of this powerful Canadian ideology makes it really difficult to talk about the realities of racism, and the meanings and use of the confederate flag here in Montreal.

Confederate Flag

Compared to the openly hostile racial politics and immigration policies of the U.S., issues of race and immigration may seem less dire in Montreal. Montreal is a racially divided city, just not in ways most U.S. cities are. There is no “white flight” from the core to the city’s peripheries. Residents of downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods are primarily light-skinned and on average wealthier than residents living just outside of downtown. Real estate values and rents in the old city port, the center city, and around the “McGill ghetto” are some of the highest in the city. Montreal has its really wealthy, and primarily white neighborhoods and suburbs outside of the center city, to the north of Mont Royal Park (the city’s “mountain” park) in Outremont and to the west of downtown in Westmount, while pockets of other racially and ethnically distinct neighborhoods pepper particular nodes on the city map. North of the 40, on the north end of the island of Montreal, the suburban neighborhood of Ahuntsic is resident to several “visible minorities” of Caribbean, African, and Central American populations, in more concentrated numbers than the center city. “Visible minority” is the Canadian term for racial minorities, as a means of distinguishing racial minorities from linguistic ones. It’s a weird term to get used to because it so directly points to skin color and external features as markers of “visible” difference. Just north of Outremont, there is a concentrated community of Indian and Pakistani residents. Middle eastern communities have developed to the southwest of downtown and into Verdun. Many of the homeless who solicit in downtown are members of first nations peoples. But for all of the recognition of this racial geography, it is also important to note that these are not ghettoized communities in the ways U.S. cities are. Additionally, a great many of the city’s neighborhoods are racially and ethnically integrated, such as Mile End, whose residents find them to be especially vibrant and desirable places to live.

Coming from the deep and stark racial segregation of U.S. cities and towns, I admit that it is hard to get an exact read on how the racial politics of Montreal come to matter, where segregation is not the most visible marker of race. There’s a social safety net here that helps keep many of the egregious, violent racial inequalities so apparent in the U.S. at bay here. There are no ghettoized communities in Montreal. Every single person has access to public health care, which guarantees a basic level of human health and social security. The appearance of the confederate flag here suggests that issues of race and normative models of whiteness do come to matter, in ways hard to read from a U.S.-centric perspective. The flag sits at the meeting point of Quebec sovereignty struggles, the mixture of Montreal’s linguistic and class politics, and the unspoken racial and ethnic divides (it seems too strong to say “hostilities”) that surface mostly at the margins, or in unexpected places, within the broad public culture of the city – on the front bumpers of large American cars in the east end.

I see my task in decoding the meaning of the confederate flag in Montreal as part of a larger project in my political education about Montreal and Quebec. Most of my knowledge of Quebec politics prior to moving here came through the rather de-contextualized U.S. news coverage of the 1995 referendum vote. One commentator in the 2005 CBC documentary “The Breaking Point” astutely suggested that the main problem with U.S. news coverage of the referendum was the analogy it drew between Quebec’s sovereignty struggles and the U.S. civil war, the closest thing to which the U.S. news media could compare the referendum vote. To be clear, in Quebec there was no threat of military action of any kind at stake. No one was arming or threatening to arm themselves as part of the process of trying to declare sovereignty. It may have been a deeply divided struggle, but it was no war. From the view of the U.S., however, sovereigntists were portrayed as angry and slightly crazy. Such coverage did little to clarify who these separatists were, what the history of their organization into a movement was, or what their main concerns were. The issue of Quebec sovereignty and the larger set of political issues being debated within Quebec are complex. They include issues of culture, language, social welfare, labour, social class, and citizenship, among other things.

I recognize that I occupy a unique and also constrained vantage point from which to interpret the political terrain that is Montreal, Quebec. It is unique because I do not yet share in the largely taken-for-granted knowledge and history on which the political terrain of this city and province are based, and can approach the confederate flag in the context of Montreal with an inquisitiveness that comes from unfamiliarity. I am also admittedly constrained by my racial privilege and my limited French language ability. What I can say is that I feel disturbed and offended by the presence of the confederate flag here. I know what it signifies in the U.S.: white racial pride and non-white race hatred. I also know that it’s a symbol of white masculine “rebellion” for some working class men, based on a desire for recognition and pride that comes from the racial and class position these men (and some women) occupy. I’m not sure that the flag means the same thing in Montreal’s east side, by my inclination is to see it as quite closely related, even down to the ways in which the flag in the U.S. has been used to claim southern sovereignty from northern states in the union. Despite language and other key differences between Montreal and the U.S. sites where the confederate flag is displayed, the flag in Montreal suggests there are meaningful commonalities among the white working class culture of the city’s east side and the southern-identified white working class associations of the flag in the U.S.

In this essay, I have tried not to pathologize the men who adorn their cars and trucks with the confederate flag. The flag serves for me as a portal into some questions about the relationship between gender, class position, language difference, race and nationality in Montreal. The confederate flag visibly points to them as current issues, from a masculine, white working class position. I do not know if the men who put the confederate flag on their vehicles or fly them out their apartment windows have thought about the racial connotations in the choice they have made. If I can gather the courage and get over my uncertainty in speaking French (my educated guess is that these men are likely French speakers), I might want to talk to them about what the flag signifies in relation to their lives in Montreal. I may not like some or most of what I hear. I figure I won’t. But I might hear in some of what they have to say the concerns and frustrations of white working class men who try to assert their dignity through this visible and loaded display of racial difference – their normative whiteness. I may hear that the promises and potentials of Canada’s progressive multiculturalism and official bilingualism fail to adequately address issues of class inequality and their relationship to differences of race, nationality and language in the province of Quebec and in this city. In this one particular medium, the confederate flag, lay some clues to the current story of Montreal. If we look to the margins of public space in the city, up at apartment windows and down low on vehicle bumpers, we can at least take notice of the particular travels the confederate flag takes from the southern confederation of the U.S. to the present-day streets of Montreal’s east side.

Carrie Rentschler greatly enjoys bohemian Montreal. When not practicing her French, she carefully reads the style and fashion sections of the newspaper, with far more urgency than at any other point in her life. A prior contributor to Bad Subjects, Carrie currently teaches Communication Studies at McGill University.

Copyright © 2005 by Carrie Rentschler. Photo by Jonathan Sterne; Graphic: Bad Subjects. All rights reserved.