Couillard sidesteps discrimination at diversity forum, focuses on 'jobs, jobs, jobs'

The Quebec government held a one-day diversity and anti-discrimination forum today, as community groups launched parallel consultations that aim to go further in exploring systemic racism.

Quebec government's event, focused on jobs, is watered-down version of axed inquiry into systemic racism

Premier Philippe Couillard and Immigration Minister David Heurtel said the priority of the day's forum was discussing employment opportunities for immigrants. (Radio-Canada)

   Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has announced a number of new initiatives aimed at helping immigrants integrate into the workforce, calling the a one-day diversity and anti-discrimination forum a "productive day."

In his opening remarks at the forum, Couillard did not mention the words discrimination or racism, speaking instead of problems businesses are having finding employees.

The forum, which focused on job opportunities, employment and training and on "concrete" solutions to solve economic issues facing immigrants, was a watered-down version of the systemic racism inquiry the Couillard government committed to earlier this year.

Couillard said the change in focus and tone comes straight from the citizens who were consulted by his government leading up to Tuesday's event.

"This is the signal we received from immigrants," he said. "We want jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. That was the near-unanimous answer."

Among the new "significant" measures announced Tuesday, Couillard promised increased, predictable funding for organizations that help immigrants, especially in the regions.

He also spoke about improving financial aid to companies to help with recruitment and training, improving programs to recognize competencies and access to professional orders, creating a strategy to retain temporary foreign workers and creating a program for immigrant entrepreneurs who want to start their own companies.

Couillard said more details will be presented in the budget in spring.

Citizen-led consultations in parallel 

Meanwhile, a citizen-led coalition announced a plan to hold its own racism and discrimination consultations, saying the government's model doesn't touch on a vast array of experiences of systemic racism in the province.

Immigration Minister David Heurtel said he will look at the coalition's findings seriously.

"If these groups want to work on specific issues regarding racism, good for them. Good for us, actually."

The coalition announced its intention to hold parallel consultations that will go further in exploring the systemic racism at a news conference early Tuesday in Montreal. 

"We want a process that's organized by racialized communities for racialized communities and for people who have experienced racism and systemic discrimination to talk about their experiences," Mei Chu, representing a group called Progressive Chinese of Quebec, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

The fact that the consultations will be citizen-led means they will be focused on problems at hand, not on gaining votes or playing to the electorate, said Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec, another group participating in the consultations.
A number of groups are taking part in a independent consultation into systemic racism. Details on the exact timeline those consultations will follow have yet to be released. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

"We don't care if people are racist. What we care about is the fact that the [National Assembly] today, if we talk about political institutions, is almost entirely white. What we care about is that public institutions or private institutions, the second that you go a bit higher in the hierarchy, everyone is white." 

Few racialized participants at forum

Some people at the province's diversity forum in Quebec City expressed frustration with the event's organization.

Samaa Elibyari with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women told CBC there was not enough discussion of discrimination and its impact.

"We're not addressing the problem head-on. We're talking about employment, and there's nothing wrong with that, but we're skirting the issue here."

Elibyari said most of the participants at the table were white, while people of colour from the community groups represented were mainly sidelined as observers.

"We would have liked to have had more participation from the ethnic groups," she said.

Representatives from government, trade groups and work-placement organizations, as well as unions and CEGEPs, took part in the government-sponsored forum.

When asked to comment on the fact that most of the forum's participants are majority white, Heurtel said: "What we brought together are the key social economic players, including unions, chambers of commerce, specialists in francization." 
David Heurtel, Quebec's immigration minister, is overseeing the new consultations, which will focus on creating economic opportunities for immigrants and visible minorities. He said he has no problem with community group-led initiative to hold consultations that aim to go further in exploring the problem of systemic racism. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Bowing to political pressure?

The province's inquiry into systemic racism was to be wide-ranging, looking at issues of racism in the sectors of employment, health, education, social services and housing.

The change in scope came in October, as some Liberals, including Couillard, began publicly musing that political backlash against the consultations contributed to the party's dismal results in a byelection in the Quebec City area.

The Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec both called for the work to be abandoned, saying it amounted to putting Quebec society on trial.

Heurtel announced the focus of the much-anticipated consultations would be shifting to improving economic opportunities for immigrants and visible minorities — a move that was panned by some community organizations that were slated to participate in the inquiry.

Some of those groups have already gone on to hold their own consultations on systemic racism.

​"We will put together a report. What the minister will do with that report, we don't have control over," said the head of Quebec's LGBTQ council, Marie-Pierre Boisvert, whose group decided in late October to proceed with planned hearings with LGBTQ people of colour.

With files from Angelica Montgomery, Jaela Bernstien and CBC Montreal's Daybreak