Montreal

Quebec government's economic relaunch plan blasted at National Assembly hearings

Premier François Legault said he's willing to extend the current parliamentary session and work with opposition parties to improve Bill 61, after the economic kick-start plan was roasted by various groups at National Assembly hearings Tuesday.

Corruption watchdog, environmental groups and First Nations leaders all pan Bill 61 as 'hastily prepared'

Roadwork resumed on Highway 389 on Quebec's North Shore in mid-May. The CAQ government hopes to kick-start the economy by fast-tracking more than 200 infrastructure projects, however, critics warn awarding contracts without tender and other provisions of Bill 61 pose their own dangers. (Alexie André Belisle/Radio-Canada)

Environmental and anti-corruption groups, along with First Nations, ripped into Bill 61, the CAQ government's blueprint for relaunching Quebec's economy, at National Assembly committee hearings Tuesday.

The bill is a stimulus package that would allow the government to bypass some of the normal rules for major infrastructure projects in order to kick-start the economy.

Among other things, the bill would allow for accelerated environmental reviews, the awarding of contracts without tender and the fast-tracking of government expropriation of property.

The government had hoped to pass Bill 61 by the end of this week, but Premier François Legault told reporters Tuesday he's willing to extend the parliamentary session and work with opposition parties to make changes.

Bill would give government 'exorbitant power'

Radio-Canada obtained a copy of a brief to be presented Tuesday evening by a committee of academics mandated to follow up on the recommendations of the Charbonneau commission, which in 2015 reported on corruption in the awarding of public construction contracts. 

A committee mandated to follow up on the recommendations of Justice France Charbonneau, right, seen here in 2013, said in its brief Tuesday that Bill 61 could reopen the door to corruption, collusion and embezzlement. (CBC)

The committee pulled no punches, saying Bill 61 would grant the government "exorbitant power," essentially paving the way for a return to the bad old days of widespread corruption in Quebec.

"Bill 61 creates conditions extremely favourable to the emergence of corruption, collusion and embezzlement," the committee said in its brief.

"It goes against all good practices of sound management of public procurement."

Legault brushed off those concerns, noting the minister of justice, Sonia Lebel, was the chief prosecutor for the Charbonneau commission, and calling Treasury Board President Christian Dubé "a very straight guy."

"I'm willing to amend the bill in order to reassure everybody. We want to have competition and give contracts at the lowest cost possible," Legault said.

'Worrisome danger' for First Nations

On Tuesday morning, Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of First Nations' regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, told the committee the bill was prepared without any consultation with First Nations.

Ghislain Picard, the Quebec regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, called Bill 61 'hastily prepared' and said for First Nations, the legislation raises major concerns about protection of their land and the environment.

"The land and its resources are the source of the cultural identity of First Nations, and to give the government the power to disregard rules intended to protect that land and its resources is a major and legitimate source of concern," said Picard.

He said Indigenous leaders across the province are worried Bill 61 could allow the government to acquire unceded First Nations' land without permission.

He also said the bill could threaten ecosystems and wildlife.

"We have before us a hastily prepared bill, with severe gaps in the balance between powers and responsibilities, and with very little accountability," Picard said.

"This represents a worrisome danger for the rights and interests of the First Nations."

Dubé told Picard he understood those concerns and promised his government would try to address them.

Environmental concerns

Environmental groups also laid into the bill, saying accelerating environmental review processes could further threaten vulnerable wetlands and endangered species.

Dubé pointed out the bill allows for financial compensation to relocate species that might be threatened by infrastructure projects.

"We have to stop thinking that you always have to have compensation. We must stop thinking that we must always move species," Sylvain Perron, an analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, responded.

 "We should focus on letting the species stay where they are and forcing the projects to bypass them," Perron told the committee.

"This plan is an opportunity to align infrastructure development objectives with climate objectives," said Équiterre's Marc-André Viau.

"We need to prevent the population we just protected from the pandemic from being made vulnerable to the climate crisis," he said.

Dubé said he believed the bill struck the right balance between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

The hearings continue Wednesday, when the Barreau du Québec and the province's auditor general are scheduled to appear.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal. You can reach him at stephen.j.rukavina@cbc.ca

With files from Cathy Senay and Radio-Canada's Mathieu Dion

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