Quebec premier sets up 'action group' to combat racism while still insisting it's not systemic

Quebec Premier François Legault is setting up a group to look at ways to counter racism across provincial services, ranging from policing to the education system, even while maintaining there is no evidence of systemic racism in the province.

In face of growing pressure, Legault assembles group to address discrimination in province

Quebec Premier François Legault arrives at a news conference with Nadine Girault, minister of international relations, and Lionel Carmant, the junior minister for health and social services. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier François Legault is setting up a group to look at ways to counter racism across provincial services, ranging from policing to the education system, even while maintaining there is no evidence of systemic racism in the province.

Legault said the group's mandate will be to "identify the actions that we can take against racism in sectors where there are problems." A report is due next fall. 

"We were all touched by what happened in the United States. We don't want to import the climate of confrontation," Legault said Monday, in reference to the protests following the killing of George Floyd.

But there has also been pressure on Legault at home, to both acknowledge the existence of systemic racism and take concrete steps to counter the discrimination faced by minorities.

Those concerns emerged again Monday, as a chorus of advocacy groups took issue with Legault's choice of words and also the composition of his team to combat racism. Made up of MNAs, it will include two former police officers and no Indigenous people.

Legault said the group will consult with Indigenous people and groups. And he again said he doesn't believe systemic racism exists in the province, despite a number of reports that have stated otherwise.

"There's a consensus on two things in Quebec: first, the vast majority of Quebecers are not racists. Two, there is racism in Quebec. So we must act against racism by working together," he said.

By contrast, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Monday she would introduce a motion to acknowledge systemic racism and take steps to counter the problems in her city, following a new report on the subject by the city's office of public consultations.

Quebec's "action group" will be led by Nadine Girault and Lionel Carmant, two members of Legault's cabinet and both visible minorities themselves.

A number of journalists pressed Legault to better define the ways he distinguishes between racism and systemic racism, but the premier maintained his position.

One proposed a hypothetical situation: imagine a white person, a Black person and an Indigenous person in the same socioeconomic category — would they all have the same opportunity?

There's more than one answer, Legault said. It would also be different if you grew up in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue or Westmount, a reference to two of Montreal's more affluent municipalities.

Critics quick to dismiss plan

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, which is fighting the Legault government's secularism law banning religious symbols worn by some public workers, was among those quick to pan the premier's commitment.

"The reality is that you cannot have a credible anti-racism working group created by someone who mere days before talked about the fact that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec," said Stephen Brown, a board member of the organization.

"Furthermore, you cannot have a credible anti-racism working group while Bill 21, a law that legislates second-class citizenship and causes irreparable harm to the citizens of Quebec who are Muslim, Sikh or Jewish, remains on the books."

A protester at a Montreal demonstration against Quebec's religious neutrality law holds a sign that reads, 'For religious neutrality, against discrimination.' (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Balarama Holness, a community activist whose work helped force the City of Montreal to launch public consultations into systemic racism last year, said Legault "has only to look in the mirror to see how his administration exercises systemic discrimination."

"Systemic racism is not the fault of one or two people," he said. "It's laws, protocols and practices with a disproportionate effect on racialized people and others. François Legault legislated discrimination with Law 21 on secularism."

On Sunday, protesters gathered outside Legault's Montreal office to mark one year since the law's passing. The law is still being challenged in court.

Legault rejected the idea that the law could be seen as a form of discrimination against religious minorities. 

"For me, secularism is not racism. That's it, that's all."

Premier should look at MMIWG report, advocate says

To Mary Jane Hannaburg, of Quebec Native Women, the premier's announcement was like pouring salt on an open wound, especially with him consistently denying the existence of systemic racism in the province. 

She said if Legault really wants to make a difference, he needs to start by looking at the 21 Quebec-specific calls for justice that came out of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

"We've seen working groups from various levels looking at various tasks and various issues," said Hannaburg. 

"A track record of allowing people to speak on our behalf and do things on our behalf — that's not working. We know that's not working." 

Hannaburg said Indigenous membership is essential to "legitimize" the group, "if they wanted to have integrity."