This year will be remembered as the “keep a six-foot distance, wear a mask, and cough in your elbow” year. By the time we win the battle against it, the Covid-19 pandemic will have left quite a scar on all strata of our lives, including the book industry. Though the situation is problematic for many publishers around the world, in Quebec, the publishing industry is seeing signs of hope. While we are not out of trouble by any means, we can see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Though the pandemic brings many concerns, it was just one of several important crises that the Quebec book industry faced this summer. The other two were sexual harassment and abuse and a lack of diversity.
As has been common with the #MeToo movement around the world, the Quebec book industry was also implicated in a number of deplorable situations involving harassment and sexual violence. It started at the beginning of July when a private Facebook group was created to allow women and gender-minority people working in the book ecosystem to share experiences of harassment, sexual or psychological. It was designed to be a safe and private space where people could find support and discuss issues they were or are facing within the industry.
The information shared confidentially in the group helped spark some soul-searching at the Association Nationale des Éditeurs de Livres (our trade association), about how to address these problems and, hopefully, transform the industry and move it away from its boys-club mentality. An ad hoc committee of women publishers was created, the Committee for a Publishing Environment Free from Sexual Violence and Harassment, which will effectively replace an older committee created in 2017. This new permanent committee will be looking at, among other things, reforming the ANEL members’ code of ethics, implementing training for all publishers’ staff, providing best practices for ANEL members to address harassment complaints, and establishing a permanent mediation committee that can be called upon when necessary. Karine Vachon, currently ANEL’s deputy director and soon to be its executive director, says, “ANEL wants to help bring about a culture of change, which will have a lasting impact on the entire book ecosystem.”
June 7 saw thousands of Montrealers, like millions of other people in major cities all around the world, protest against racism after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The fact that Quebequers were protesting that day shouldn’t surprise anyone: most people around the world consider Canada a tolerant and non-oppressive country, and it often comes in at or near the top of global rankings for freedom, safety, health, and equality. Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister of Canada (and father of the present prime minister), declared that Canada should aspire to being a “cultural mosaic,” one in which all cultures—indigenous, local, and immigrant—enrich the overall picture of the country.
Quebec, however, for a variety of reasons, including being a minority linguistic group in North America, remains very white. Though it boasts a strong cultural identity in the film, music, and, of course, book industries, one quickly notices that there is very little representation of marginalized groups. The book industry is no exception: marginalized groups are clearly underrepresented among authors, illustrators, and employees. Even more important, illustrated books for children tend to offer a very Caucasian representation of normality. How must Black and Indigenous children feel when all the examples they see in books are of white children?
This summer a group of children’s publishers took note of the situation and decided to do something about it. First, an open letter was published in local newspapers and on social media. The letter pointed out the obvious fact that Quebec’s children’s book industry offers a very white perspective on our society and asserted that the industry would work on changing that. Meetings were organized to outline the problem and to start to offer a few ideas, and members of the group reached out to associations that deal with issues of diversity to see how we could work together. As the group works on the challenges specifically related to children’s publishing, it has made a formal recommendation that ANEL create an ad hoc committee to pursue diversity with all players in the industry.
Sexual violence and lack of diversity in the industry are certainly not new issues. They are, unfortunately, still very real and very damaging for too many people. However, one could ask, why now? Why the need for real progress on these two issues while we are trying to deal with this new reality the virus has laid in our path?
Véronique Fontaine, vice president of ANEL’s board of directors, offers what I think is a perfect answer to this question: “The Covid-19 pandemic tested everyone’s limits, those of organizations, of course, but also our personal limits as individuals. It was in the natural order of things that we would see, with new eyes, humanity tired, exhausted, and revolted by too much injustice. We don’t have control over the pandemic, but we certainly do have the power to speak out about unacceptable behavior and the need for real change.”
Though change is inevitable, progress is optional, and this progress can only happen with the effort of those who want to see a more inclusive and tolerant world. In these times of crisis, the role played by publishing associations like ANEL is essential to ensure that things don’t just change, but that they progress.
Simon de Jocas is the president of Éditions Les 400 Coups and president of Québec Édition.