Reduced mandate of Quebec's racism inquiry 'very political' and 'unacceptable,' community groups say

Community organizations are distancing themselves from the Quebec government's consultations on systemic racism after the hearings were rebranded last week to focus on economic concerns.

Couillard government's decision to limit consultations to economic issues draws criticism

David Heurtel, Quebec's immigration minister, is overseeing the new consultations, which will focus on creating economic opportunities for immigrants and visible minorities. Community groups involved aren't happy about the change. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Community organizations are distancing themselves from the Quebec government's consultations on systemic racism after the hearings were rebranded last week to focus on economic concerns.

Some are ignoring the province's new stated mandate and proceeding with the hearings they had originally planned, while others are dropping out of the process altogether.

The head of Quebec's LGBTQ Council said the council will go forward with the hearings but won't limit its scope.

"What we really want to do is look at systemic racism," said executive director Marie-Pierre Boisvert, whose group is holding hearings with LGBTQ people of colour.

"We will put together a report. What the minister will do with that report, we don't have control over."

The province's Liberal government announced the changes to the consultations last week, in the face of political pressure and problems within Quebec's commission on human rights, the agency initially tasked with carrying out the inquiry.

Focus on 'concrete issues,' province says

When first announced this summer, the inquiry was mandated to look at issues of racism in the sectors of employment, health, education, social services and housing. In all, 31 community groups signed up to take part.

The focus now, under new Immigration Minister David Heurtel, is limited to improving economic opportunities for immigrants and visible minorities.

"We really need to focus on concrete issues and concrete solutions on how diversity, how immigration can contribute even more to this challenge that we have in Quebec," Heurtel said when announcing the changes.

However, a spokesperson for Heurtel said Thursday all the groups involved in the hearings have been told they can present what they'd originally planned at the hearings.

"All the groups were contacted last Friday and advised that they can go ahead with their presentations as planned, whether it be the themes they'd planned to address, the populations being targeted or the way they're carrying out local activities," said Émilie Simard in an email.

Next month, Heurtel and Employment Minister François Blais will tour Quebec to discuss the workforce and the economy.

The consultation also has a new name, which makes no reference to racism, as the original did. It translated to "the commission on valuing diversity and fighting against discrimination."

Ignores 'institutional reality,' group says

Diversité Artistique Montréal (DAM), another one of the community groups involved, issued a scathing statement earlier this week, denouncing the Quebec government and withdrawing from the process.

"It is unacceptable for DAM to take part in an approach that excludes the everyday and institutional reality of racism in Quebec," said the group, which promotes diversity in the arts.

For his part, Luis Miguel Cristancho, the head of Bienvenue à Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, said he will wait to see more details from the province before deciding whether to take part.

Even if the government's motives are "very political," said Cristancho, the new mandate may still fit within the framework of what his organization is trying to do: help newcomers adapt to life in Montreal.

He added, "We cannot prevent people from talking, and if the testimonies are related to other dimensions of their life, for example, health and education, that is going to be part of our report."

The Couillard government's alterations to its systemic racism consultations, coupled with the controversial religious neutrality law passed last week, have left it open to criticism from civil rights watchdogs.

In a statement, Quebec's Ligue Des Droits et Libertés suggested the government itself offered "two clear demonstrations of systemic racism."