The Couillard government is defending its decision to conduct much of its inquiry into systemic racism behind closed doors, saying that privacy will ensure those testifying will feel open to relaying their experience.

"The people who wish to be heard will be heard," Émilie Tremblay-Potvin, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil, said in a statement explaining the move.

The province committed to holding an inquiry after a petition put forward by anti-racism activists gained traction last year.

Systemic racism refers to the exclusion of individuals from political, economic and social opportunities because of their race or ethnic background.

According to a 2012 study by the Quebec Human Rights Commission, job candidates with a French-Canadian last name were 60 per cent more likely to be invited for a job interview than applicants with a last name of Arab, Latin American or African origin.

Public access limited

The inquiry, overseen by the Quebec Human Rights Commission, is set to start this month with consultations across the province led by community organizations.

Only those who wish to be testify will be allowed to attend. The media and the general public will not be permitted.

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The province has faced criticism for keeping some of the inquiry closed to the public and media. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

While those meetings are underway, four working groups will focus on different areas where discrimination is a concern: work and employment, health, education, and social services and housing.

A second phase, beginning in November, will be open to the public.

It will feature the testimony of experts and relay some of the issues raised by the working groups.

The government is expected to release findings and an action plan next spring, only months before the Oct. 1, 2018 election. 

That plan, Tremblay-Potvin said, has been in place since the beginning. 

Hope for 'mature conversation'

But Emilie Nicolas, an anti-racism activist who helped draft the petition, only found out through a media report last week that much of the proceedings would be closed to the public.

Nicolas, president of Quebec Inclusif, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak she is disappointed.

Emilie Nicolas

Emilie Nicolas was among those who pressed for a commission into systemic racism in Quebec.

She believes the province is reluctant to stir up debate, as the Bouchard-Taylor hearings into reasonable accommodation did a decade ago.

"Basically, there's very little trust that citizens can express themselves and have a mature conversation in Quebec," said Nicolas.

"That, for me, is non-logic, and it's what the Liberal government has been doing since it got in power. I don't think what we need right now is more of the same."

Nicolas said she's concerned about the increased visibility of the far right in Quebec and what she perceives as the growing acceptability of their stated positions in the mainstream media. 

Nicolas acknowledged confidentiality would encourage people from "racialized groups" to share their experience openly about living in Quebec.

However, she said she had envisioned a setup more like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools, which took a "victim-centred" approach and made confidentiality an option for those who testified.

Is it necessary?

The Couillard government's political foes and commentators on both the left and right have argued that the inquiry is unnecessary — with some contending there isn't a systemic problem and others saying that stirring up racist sentiment ahead of a provincial election is unwise. 

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Members of the far-right group La Meute held a rally in Quebec City last month. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

In launching the inquiry, Weil said last June the "fight against racism and discrimination is a continual priority in open, inclusive and democratic societies like Quebec."

The Opposition Parti Québécois has accused the Couillard government of avoiding taking concrete action to address the problem.

"You can choose to defend people, and you can choose to help people. They choose just to talk," said Carole Poirier, the PQ whip and MNA for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, after the inquiry was announced.

With files from Daybreak's Cecilia MacArthur