Quebec balked at investigating systemic racism, but some groups went ahead anyway. Here's what they found

Community groups detailed cases of prejudice and offered up solutions in reports prepared for the Quebec government's inquiry into systemic racism. But the Couillard government is limiting its focus to employment.

Couillard government limited its inquiry to labour-market integration after outcry

Montrealers are seen here holding signs last year in support of a motion condemning Islamophobia in Canada. Examinations of racism have proven to be politically fraught. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

A young Quebecer, the only Muslim at his workplace, is harassed by colleagues, labelled a terrorist and blamed for bombings around the world.

A woman originally from Latin America is denied service at the doctor's office because an administrator claimed she couldn't understand her Spanish accent.

A black teenager says his fellow high school students don't want to be paired up with him because of the colour of his skin — not necessarily because of their own prejudice, but because they believe the teacher won't give their group a good mark.

These are among the stories, big and small, documented in more than a dozen reports prepared for the Quebec government's promised examination of systemic racism —  a concept that refers to the exclusion of individuals from political, economic and social opportunities because of their race or ethnic background.

That examination, however, never happened, at least not in the format outlined last summer.

When first announced, in response to a petition signed by thousands of Quebecers, 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.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard speaks at a news conference at the end of a forum on diversity and anti-discrimination, Tuesday, December 5, 2017 in Quebec City. Quebec Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Minister David Heurtel, left, looks on. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

But, faced with criticism from commentators in the media, the opposition in Quebec City and members of their own party, the Couillard Liberals deemed the project too politically dangerous.

Such an investigation, critics argued, would paint all Quebecers as racist and amount to putting Quebec society on trial. 

And so, last fall, the province scaled back the scope of their inquiry to focus on how to create better economic opportunities for immigrants and visible minorities.

Several community groups went forward with their own investigations of systemic racism anyway, while others dropped out in protest.

Employment the focus, Couillard says

A total of 22 organizations prepared reports after holding panels and conducting interviews with their members.

Their reports, posted on the Quebec government website, detail examples of systemic racism in the education, health and employment sectors. Together they offer a snapshot of the discrimination faced by minorities in the province on a daily basis.

The organizations also proposed concrete solutions, ranging from ensuring community groups have the resources to help people launch legal challenges against their employers, to school programs geared at fostering greater awareness of racism among teachers and students.

It's unclear how the government will use the reports.

Together the reports offer a snapshot of the discrimination faced by minorities in the province on a daily basis. (Amru Salahuddien/Getty Images)

Immigration Minister David Heurtel's office did not return a request for comment.

When asked last week when the government was planning to release its own findings, Premier Philippe Couillard sidestepped the question, saying the inquiry has been "transformed into work on labour, access for immigrants to the labour force, recognition of competencies and all of this."

"When David Heurtel went around to the various communities, they told him, 'Don't speak too much about racism, we know it exists. Speak to us about how we can be full-fledged citizens, how we can access employment,'" Couillard said Friday.

Beyond jobs

Mohamed Soulami, head of Actions interculturelles, a community group based in Sherbrooke, said jobs aren't the only thing to consider when it comes to the integration of minorities.

Employment, he said, is like water for fish — it's necessary, but doesn't ensure their survival. He said the xenophobia faced by minorities, particularly in rural areas, can make it difficult to access services and opportunities in education.

His group's report found that more than 70 per cent of immigrants left the Eastern Townships between 1986 and 2016. 

Soulami said the integration of immigrants will be a key issue in the years to come, as the province seeks to address a growing labour shortage.

Efforts to look into systemic racism, though, tend to be politically fraught.

At the federal level, the Trudeau government has been criticized, as well, for its plans for anti-racism consultations.

Even anti-racism advocates cautioned the government to be careful with how they frame the dialogue to ensure it focuses on solutions, rather than sparking contentious debate.

As controversy swirled, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, who will oversee the federal anti-racism consultations, said last month the government wants to "find real solutions to real problems," particularly on fundamental rights, access to justice and jobs.

Similarly, when announcing the changes to the provincial consultations last fall, Heurtel said the mandate would focus on "concrete issues and concrete solutions."

Heurtel gave the consultations a new name, which makes no reference to racism, as had the original. Its name now translated to "the commission on valuing diversity and fighting against discrimination."

Mohamed Soulami, head of Actions interculturelles in Sherbrooke, said the xenophobia faced by minorities, particularly in rural areas, can make it difficult to access services and opportunities in education. (Radio-Canada)

Lessons learned

Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, said even if the province lets the reports on systemic racism gather dust, there is value in having done the work.

"I believe it was the right decision to proceed because at the end we came up with many testimonies proving what we've been saying for years," he said, stressing the testimonials in his report provide evidence of systemic racism.

"People can deny, and politically people can deny it, but when it comes to reality, it is there."

Just a day prior to the interview, he said, he received three separate complaints involving government workers.

For his part, Luis Miguel Cristancho, director of Bienvenue à Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, said conducting the inquiry allowed his organization to gather valuable information that will inform future initiatives.

"It gave us a start," he said, adding that it's a shame the inquiry became "so politicized."

The ideas include a picnic with community members and police officers as a way to build trust and, potentially, a Humans of NDG photo exhibit, inspired by the popular Humans of New York series, as a way to help people get to know their neighbours.

With files from Sarah Leavitt