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Black Montreal theatre performer files defamation suit after puppet called racist

January 11, 2024
The Canadian Press

By Jacob Serebrin in Montreal

A Black Montreal theatre performer has filed a lawsuit against an anti-racism activist who he says falsely associated him with racism against Black people.

Franck Sylvestre agues in the suit filed at the Montreal courthouse on Wednesday that Alain Babineau made unreasonable claims about a puppet in a theatre piece Sylvestre created for children, damaging his career.

Babineau “unreasonably associated the plaintiff and his puppet with racism, with the submission of Black people to white people and even white supremacism and the dehumanization of Black people,” the lawsuit reads. The criticism was an attack on Sylvestre’s reputation, it adds, and an attempt “to expose him to the hatred and contempt of the public in general and the Black community in particular.”

At a news conference last February, Babineau, the racial profiling and public safety director at civil rights group The Red Coalition, called for performances of the theatre piece to be cancelled, arguing that the puppet was an example of anti-Black racism and reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows — performances intended to mock Black people.


In a series of posts later that day on the X platform, then known as Twitter, Babineau suggested the play was a “drop of systemic racism” and made comments that the lawsuit alleges suggested Sylvestre was a “sellout” in the service of white people.

Sylvestre’s lawyer, Guillaume Rousseau said the puppet is based on his client’s own appearance and that there’s nothing racist about the show.

He said it is not defamatory to describe actual racist comments as racist, but associating “someone who is clearly not racist, with a show that is clearly not racist” with racism is defamatory.

“It’s an issue of freedom of artistic expression,” Rousseau said in an interview Wednesday. “If every representation of a Black person that doesn’t please Mr. Babineau and others becomes blackface, becomes the subject of calls for censorship, that limits my client’s freedom of artistic expression and, potentially, that of other artists.”

Rousseau said performances of the show, “L’incroyable secret de barbe noire” — French for The Incredible Secret of Blackbeard — were cancelled because of the racism allegations, and while one performance in a Montreal suburb last year was allowed to go ahead, it was removed from the municipality’s official programming for Black History Month.

“That affected him a lot,” Rousseau said. “He’s proud of being a Black artist, he’s proud to talk about Martinique, about his origins and the puppet in question is a bit of a hero, so for him it’s very positive, it’s for living together, and to see it interpreted in an unreasonable manner, as if it was racist, that affected him in particular.”

The lawsuit, which seeks $26,600 in damages, also alleges that Sylvestre’s career as a children’s performer has been threatened because he is now unfairly seen as “controversial” and presenters won’t book him.

In a statement Wednesday, The Red Coalition maintained that the puppet’s appearance is racist and could offend people.

“Anti-Black imageries have historically stereotyped Black people as grotesque, dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, cowardly, superstitious, and overly cheerful,” the group wrote in the statement attributed to its board of directors. “The Red Coalition’s legal team is prepared to vigorously defend against the lawsuit, which they deem frivolous.”

Babineau declined to comment on the suit earlier on Wednesday.

In response to a September cease and desist letter from Sylvestre’s lawyer — which made similar allegations to the lawsuit — Babineau said he stood by his comments and wrote that if Sylvestre took legal action against him, he would contest it.

“I will continue to fight with determination for all causes that I think are just, including the fight against anti-Black racism in Canada,” he wrote at the time.

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