MONTREAL -- In the 1960s, French-Canadian activists protested the economic dominance of the English-speaking minority in this city, identifying their cause with the struggles against colonialism in the Third World and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the most popular radical tract of that era, rebellious French-Canadian youth bitterly described themselves as "the white niggers of North America."
Over the course of a generation, the battles sharply diminished the influence of the English-speaking minority. The former campus protesters are now in leading positions in politics, business and journalism, and they are feeling the pinch of the shoe being on the other foot. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Arabs who have recently immigrated to Montreal are now accusing this new elite of racism.
The charge stings. It is not just that Montreal has always prided itself on avoiding the kind of racial strife that has plagued many U.S. cities. The allegation is all the more difficult for French-speaking Montrealers to accept because many of them still have a minority mentality based on their anomalous position for three centuries on the English-speaking North American continent.
There are deep worries that the growing numbers of new immigrants in the city will dilute French culture. But French Canadians also recognize that increased immigration is essential if Quebec is to retain its position in Canada, because the birth rate of French Canadians ranks among the lowest in the western world. Demographers forecast that there will be a decline in the population of the province by the year 2000 if present trends continue.
What had been a somewhat philosophical public discussion was transformed into an issue of urgent concern when a city police officer shot and killed Anthony Griffin, an unarmed 19-year-old black youth, even though he allegedly had heeded the officer's order to halt. The incident occurred outside the police station house where race relations courses are conducted for Montreal officers.
Officials later acknowledged that the officer involved had been accused six years ago of excessive force and uttering racial slurs when he arrested another man. The department then had paid a $2,000 out-of-court settlement but decided not to discipline the officer.
In the stormy aftermath of the recent shooting, some blacks carried picket signs comparing Montreal to South Africa. The officer has been charged with manslaughter, and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has appointed a commission to examine charges that racism and incidents of brutality are widespread on the 4,500-member city police force. Only 18 police officers are clearly identifiable members of minority groups.
There are many other new social problems.
Although only about three in five Montrealers are French Canadians, they hold the vast majority of civil service jobs in this metropolitan area of about 2.9 million, which has caused resentment among other groups. There has been much talk but little action about affirmative action programs for minorities.
The schools are another troubled arena. A decade ago, the nationalist Parti Quebecois government enacted a law requiring the children of all immigrants to attend French schools. They did not, however, create any special programs to help them become fluent in the language.
A recent survey by the Montreal Gazette found that a large majority of immigrant children lag behind in their studies. When teachers slow the pace of classes to accommodate them, French-Canadian parents sometimes withdraw their children and enroll them in schools with a majority of French speakers.
Minority groups also complain about the way they are depicted, when at all, in the press. Although crime is hardly the exclusive province of any ethnic group in the city, the ethnic origin of new immigrants charged with crimes is often pointedly noted in the newspapers.
"Another Chauffeur Attacked by Two Blacks" was the headline of one article. Another report said, "The altercation began when four persons of Salvadoran origin bothered the others."
Those two examples were among several cited in the December issue of the magazine of the predominantly French-speaking Quebec Federation of Journalists, published to coincide with the organization's annual conference. The theme of the meeting was "Journalism and Racism."
A survey by the federation found that the French-language media here employ very few non-French Canadians. The only minority group members among the 110 employes of Radio Canada, the French public broadcasting network, were one Jew and one Portuguese.
The English-language Canadian Broadcasting Corp. television network unit here has four blacks, two Chinese, an Egyptian, a native Indian, six Jews, a Serb and an Italian. The Journal de Montreal, the daily newspaper with the largest circulation, employs no minorities, according to the survey.
Jean Pelletier, economics columnist for the Journal de Montreal and outgoing president of the federation, pressed for the discussion on racism after he became concerned last year at innuendos in stories about the arrival of Asian refugees.
Pelletier said there was strong resistance, with opponents arguing, "Let's stop whipping ourselves. The English reporters will come and accuse us of being racists, and they are the racists."
In the late 1960s, when well-to-do Haitian doctors, intellectuals and other professionals began to flee the repression of the Duvalier dictatorship, Montreal opened its arms.
Phillipe Fils-aime, a Haitian who came here in that influx, recalled how on visits to the home of his French-Canadian girlfriend in the late 1960s, members of her family would ask if they could touch his kinky hair.
"I was exotic and cute," he said. "They were so nice. They would tell their friends, 'He is black but he is civilized. He talks French like a Frenchman.' "
The welcome began to sour when working class exiles from Haiti began to immigrate in the mid-1970s, swelling the numbers to the current level of about 35,000.
According to a parliamentary committee investigating racism in Canada in the early 1980s, many Montrealers telephoning for taxis would specify that the driver not be Haitian.
If the problems faced by Haitians have a familiar racial dimension, there appears to be a different reason for the problems encountered by other groups, such as Greeks (who number more than 46,000), Italians (157,270) and Chinese, Vietnamese and South Asians (about 60,000). Demographer Jacques Henripin complained that many come and quickly leave, and that as soon as the legal requirement for many immigrant children to attend French schools ends at grade 11, large numbers switch to English schools.
The journalists at the conference earlier this month heard speeches by Harlem Desir, the head of the Paris-based SOS-Racisme, who talked about the group he founded to counter the anti-immigrant French National Front Party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Howard Simons, curator of the Nieman Foundation, who spoke about the efforts of U.S. newspapers to recruit and promote members of minority groups.
"In the United States we were late and inadequate," said Simons, a former managing editor of The Washington Post. "We are still inadequate . . . . Canadians always have wanted to be different. Here is your great opportunity. You can get ahead of the minority challenge and stay there if you begin now."
The journalists decided to start by electing two blacks and one Canadian Indian to their 10-member governing board. A Chinese woman and a Jewish reporter also were chosen by the group to be among the six members of the federation represented on the Quebec Press Council, which rules on complaints about biased or inaccurate reporting.
Gerald LeBlanc, a columnist for Montreal's La Presse newspaper, one of those who had previously worried about "cultural dilution," wrote after the meeting that the federation was at an "ethnic turning point."
"The most surprising thing," he said, "is that this veritable revolution only normalizes matters: the composition of the federation board in effect corresponds to the real face of Montreal and the former composition left aside a great part of the family."