Gabrielle Bouchard (Image: Fédération des femmes du Québec)

The Quebec political and feminist scene has been turbulent, of late. To be fair, this is true of the last few years. Debates about policy, politics, and ideology get at the heart of society’s values, but also stir up divisions. Today, disagreements put us on either the “right” or the “wrong” side — enemies are determined quickly and treated as immutable, whether we are on the right, the left, or in the feminist movement.

Long recognized as a flagship group for women’s rights in Quebec and internationally, the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) is not what it used to be, and regularly sparks controversy.

In the last decade, the FFQ has seen numerous resignations from members on account of political conflicts and lack of open, democratic processes within the organization. The difficulty in recruiting the last president shows the job was no longer attractive to many people. The previous president left her post quickly, due to internal conflicts, and only Bouchard applied to replace her. Without competition, he was elected by acclamation in the fall of 2017.

Bouchard was controversial even before he took over as head of the FFQ. In 2015, the Commission des Institutions held consultations and public hearings with the aim of drafting the Regulation on the Change of Name and Other Civil Status Qualifications for Transsexual or Transgender Persons. Bouchard represented Concordia University’s Centre for Gender Advocacy at the hearings, during which he said we should abolish the sexes one day, and that there shouldn’t be any mention of the words “man” or “woman” in Quebec’s civil records.

Since Bouchard took over as president, not a week goes by without him or the organization being in the news. However, not for the reasons one would expect from an organization claiming to be feminist. For example, in June, he tweeted that vasectomies should be mandatory for 18-year-old men, and in the fall, he encouraged non-Muslim women to veil themselves in support of an MP who was refused access to the Salon Bleu of the National Assembly because she was wearing jeans and a hoodie, saying the hijab “is badass.” Bouchard regularly makes disparaging statements about feminists, and uses the slur “TERF” to attack women who disagree with his ideology surrounding gender identity.

For me, Bouchard’s behaviour and commentary has always been unacceptable. But for many members of the public, politicians, and the media, it took recent events for them to finally put their foot down.

On January 22, Marylène Lévesque, a young woman working in the sex industry in Quebec City, was killed by an ex-prisoner who was found guilty of murdering his partner 15 years ago, but was on day parole, despite remaining a danger to women. Eustachio Gallese had been allowed to seek the services of women in prostitution as part of a parole “strategy.” While feminists who fight exploitation in the sex trade (abolitionists) and society as a whole were shocked and disturbed by this, Bouchard tweeted, sarcastically, “Heterosexual relationships are really violent. Plus, most relationships are based on religion. Maybe it’s time to have a conversation about banning and abolishing them.’’

Bouchard was mocking abolitionists in the tweet, arguing that prostitution was not a factor in this young woman’s death, and claiming we may as well ban heterosexuality if we are going to argue against the sex trade. The comment about “religion” was an attempt to poke at women who support Quebec’s law on secularism, and paint these feminists as hypocritical.

The media and the public made a big deal of Bouchard’s tweet, and it appeared this was the last straw. The FFQ disassociated itself from his comments, while a number of politicians, journalists, and members of the general public called for his resignation and for the Quebec government to pull funding from the organization. (The FFQ is largely subsidized by the federal government, providing the organization with up to $500,000 a year.) Since, both the FFQ and Bouchard have been silent.

A day before tweeting about Lévesque, Bouchard had published another odious tweet, targeting abolitionists. There has been renewed contempt for abolitionists in Quebec recently, on the part of those who support the “free choice” of johns to purchase sexual services, in connection with the advent of the Special Commission on the Sexual Exploitation of Minors, launched in November 2019. Montreal has a reputation for being a hub for the sexual exploitation of teenage girls, and the commission was launched in order to delve into the vulnerability of children to sex trafficking in Quebec. During the commission hearings, most interveners denounced the sexual exploitation of young people, spoke of the need to target sex buyers, and emphasized raising awareness and sex education for youth.

But two groups distinguished themselves during the hearings, to the point of having to be called to order due to their active disregard for other intervenors: Stella, an advocacy group for “sex workers,” whose director, Sandra Wesley, is also on the FFQ’s Board of Directors; and Piamp, an intervention project for underage victims of the sex trade. Both groups went through their usual rhetoric, arguing that women in prostitution are consenting, empowered, and benefit from working in the industry. It was even argued that tackling the exploitation of minors is, 1) A false problem, because exploitation is not the norm, and 2) A form of paternalism, because young people know what they are doing and are the experts in their lives.

On January 27th, in response to the hearing, Bouchard tweeted:

“Abolitionists are collaborators:

– in police crackdowns

– in marginalization

– in justifying dehumanization

– in victimizing women in the industry”

That same day, Bouchard was interviewed on Québec Réveille about the “appropriation of women’s experiences in the sex industry.” He used the opportunity to attack La CLES (La concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle), an organization fighting the sex trade and supporting exited women, and abolitionists more broadly. “La Cles said Lévesque’s murder is proof that we must abolish prostitution… This way of thinking ensures women can’t work safely,” Bouchard told the host. Essentially, he argued that criminalizing pimps and johns stigmatizes women in the industry, which, in turn, causes men who buy sex to inflict violence on prostituted women. Bouchard also claimed that La CLES was using the woman’s death for political purposes, rather than having actual concern for female victims of male violence. Bouchard added that sex work lobbyists should attend Lévesque’s memorial on January 30, as he was worried the event would be monopolized by abolitionists.

Speaking of political purposes, Bouchard and Stella both chose to blame feminists for the young woman’s death, rather than the killer himself, claiming abolitionists hate women in prostitution. One would think those advocating “intersectionality” would understand the multitude of oppressive systems that lead women into prostitution (poor, marginalized, Indigenous, or racialized women are overrepresented in the trade), but apparently they do not.

After years of pretending to listen to and value the perspectives of sex industry advocates and abolitionists equally, and to differentiate between “agency” and “exploitation,” FFQ’s members voted to support the full decriminalization of the industry in 2018. Following this General Assembly (I will spare readers the details of the FFQ’s lack of internal democracy, something that has been known for some 10 years, and the ways the organization dismisses and silences those they don’t wish to hear from), two major groups — the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) and La CLES — left the FFQ, taking thousands of disgruntled members with them.

Every time Bouchard causes controversy, the media wonders what this man is doing heading up a women’s group. Bouchard claims concern for marginalized women, which is valid. However, he does so with great disdain for “non-oppressed” women: those he calls “cis,” as well as white or heterosexual women — 80 per cent of women in Quebec, in other words. He promotes inclusion and tolerance by excluding and being intolerant (in a very provocative way, at that). One would expect a little more reserve from someone in his position, especially since he claims to speak for all women. In truth, Bouchard is only defending himself and his clique.

His self-described “intersectional” approach does nothing to promote solidarity among women, which should be the FFQ’s basic mandate, but instead divides women. Many Quebec women no longer feel represented. PDF Québec (Pour les droits des femmes du Québec) was created after many unsatisfied women left the FFQ in 2009, and is appealing to a growing number of feminists due to its universalist approach.

Although much work remains to be done, Quebec society’s view of sexual exploitation has evolved a great deal in recent years. Being an abolitionist is no longer seen as a flaw. However, the FFQ and other “sex positive’’ organizations continue their smear campaign against abolitionists without much pushback. Society criticizes the FFQ when it attacks men, heterosexuals, and motherhood, but rarely when it attacks abolitionists or women who challenge gender identity ideology. Maybe those organizations claiming to be interested in “diversity” and “inclusion” aren’t so “diverse” and “inclusive” after all.

Elaine Grisé holds an M.A. in Sexology and Feminist Studies. She is a sex industry and gender abolitionist from Montreal.

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