Bill 96, systemic racism take the spotlight at Quebec debate on Indigenous issues

Despite the intention behind Tuesday night's Indigenous-specific debate, AFNQL regional chief says he didn't hear enough concrete commitments from the four political parties that participated in it.

Representatives from 4 of the main political parties adressed key issues

Representatives of four main provincial political parties took part in a debate about Indigenous issues. Seated from left to right: Alexis Gagné-Lebrun (PQ), Gregory Kelley (PLQ), Ian Lafrenière (CAQ) and Manon Massé (QS). (Gabrielle Paul/Radio-Canada)

With less than two weeks before Quebecers head to the polls on Oct. 3, representatives from four of the province's main political parties participated in a debate about issues affecting Indigenous people, in hopes of getting their votes.

Organized by the Assembly of First Nations Quebec Labrador (AFNQL), representatives from the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the Parti Québécois (PQ), Québec Solidaire (QS) and the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) took part in the bilingual exchange at HEC Montréal Tuesday night, spending almost two hours answering questions from members of Indigenous communities. 

The Conservative Party of Quebec (PCQ) did not take part. 

Moderated by Cree lawyer Marie-Ève ​​Bordeleau, the debate focused on topics like language, housing, health and education and governance and self-identity. It did not see candidates go head-to-head on topics but they could respond to what others were saying.

Ghislain Picard, head of the AFNQL, said he organized the debate as a way for the parties to engage with Indigenous voters and let them see where they stand on issues that matter to them. 

"I feel that it was important that we create the space ... otherwise nobody is going to speak about our issues," he said.

In 2018, voter participation in the northern Quebec riding of Ungava was just over 30 per cent — less than half what it was in the rest of the province. 

Picard said the debate was intended to help change.

Opposing views

During Tuesday's debate, all representatives agreed on the importance of doing better for Indigenous people, but opposing views surfaced on systemic racism and Bill 96 — Quebec's controversial new French-language law.

Asked whether the different parties acknowledge systemic racism, QS co-spokesperson Manon Massé and PLQ incumbent Greg Kelley — both critics for Indigenous Affairs for their respective parties — said yes. 

"There is systemic racism in Quebec and the list of examples is long," said Kelley. "I think it is important that we quickly do adopt Joyce's Principle,"

Joyce's Principle is a series of measures drafted by Indigenous leaders after the death of Joyce Echaquan,  an Indigenous woman who filmed nurses mocking her as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital.

The PQ candidate for the Saint-Hyacinthe riding, Alexis Gagné-Lebrun, said his party acknowledges the existence of "institutional racism," referring to racist laws and policies. 

Meanwhile, outgoing CAQ Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière touted his party's track record, without addressing systemic racism itself. 

"We did not wait, we did not sit on our hands. We made several changes on the ground," he said, saying his party wrote a guide for cultural safety and provided diversity training for health-care personnel. 

He acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done but said the CAQ "made good progress."

Hours before the debate, CAQ leader and incumbent premier François Legault apologized for offending Echaquan's husband. 

In response to criticism of his refusal to recognize systemic racism, Legault said during the leaders' first televised debate last week that the racism situation at the hospital where she died "is resolved." 

The CAQ government has not adopted Joyce's Principle. 

The politicians were also asked about Bill 96. Indigenous leaders and communities have been asking for exemptions from it to protect their youth and preserve their languages. 

The PQ's Gagné-Lebrun and the CAQ's Lafrenière said there are ways to help Indigenous people succeed under the law but did not say there would be exemptions for them.

Kelley said the Liberals would grant those exemptions and repeal the section of the law that pertains to Indigenous people. 

Nothing new, says regional chief

Far from a heated debate, the exchange allowed the four parties present to make their commitments to Indigenous people known. 

For Kelley, it was about restoring respect and nation-to-nation relationships. On the PQ side, Gagné-Lebrun spoke of a desire for continuity with what the PQ has done in the past, pointing to the Paix des Braves agreement. 

Massé said QS wants to establish equality and work hand in hand with Indigenous people, while Lafrenière said the CAQ will continue to build residences for Indigenous students, improve the health system and "provide answers to families who are looking for their missing children."

Close up on the face of a man.
Ghislain Picard says although he didn't here much new from the parties during the debate, he hopes the issues brought forth will remain in the foreground of the Quebec election campaign. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

But regional Chief Picard said these commitments are mostly the same spiel Indigenous people have been hearing for years.

"We certainly witnessed tonight really not much new in terms of the positioning of the parties," said Picard following the debate.

"Tonight, everyone has talked about the nation-to-nation relationship, but there is no one to exercise it," he added.

He said the CAQ government, which holds a commanding lead in the polls, is the only party not in favour of a special legislature committee, "where nations would be able to sit down with the elected officials [in the National Assembly] and tell them "this is who we are and this is what we want." 

"I didn't hear that from the outgoing government," he said. 

Picard said he hopes the issues brought up Tuesday "will not be a way to put our conscience to rest for the span of a two-hour debate and move on," he said.

"We've seen that too often."

With files from CBC's Sharon Yonan-Renold, Susan Bell and Betsy Longchap