By Yvonne Sam (Chairman of the Rights and Freedoms Committee)
Originally Published in The Montreal Gazette, September 18, 2017
Testimony has a greater impact if one can see and hear the person testifying. The hearings are an opportunity to heighten public awareness.
The Quebec inquiry on systemic discrimination and racism has yet to begin hearings, but what’s already apparent is that the Couillard government does not want the exercise to be transparent.
When the consultation was announced in July, all Quebecers were urged to participate, with the hearings being touted as an occasion to find tangible and permanent solutions to the issues at hand. Now we learn that Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil and the Quebec Human Rights Commission have indicated that local consultations will be held behind closed doors, hidden from the eyes of the media and the citizenry, away from the public setting that was expected by the public.
According to a spokesperson for Weil, “The people who wish to be heard will be heard.”
But by whom?
Weil herself has proffered the defense that privacy will ensure that those testifying will feel open to relaying their experience.
No way! Poor say!
Systemic racism concerns the denial of political, economic and social opportunities to individuals on account of their race or ethnic background. Marginalized groups who regularly deal with discrimination, mistreatment and unfair treatment are used to not being heard and, above all, not being taken seriously, and may view testifying behind closed doors as an extension of that attitude.
Let us not forget that there are many who already have little faith in the government and its previous handling of racism and discrimination, and now are called upon to sit behind closed doors to discuss their sufferings and injustices. This is similar to the fox declaring that he is now a vegan so that he can oversee the hen house. The history of the beleaguered Human Rights Commission, mandated to oversee the hearings but currently embroiled in its own issues, speaks volumes in itself; if it had, over the years, done a better job of carrying out its functions, this public consultation may have not been needed. It seems as plain as falling rain that hearings behind closed doors must be for the benefit of the rights commission, as they are not helpful to the victims.
The decision to hold closed-door hearings may additionally be because the province is unwilling to stir up debate as was evoked by the Bouchard-Taylor hearings on reasonable accommodation a decade ago.
Certainly, testimony has a greater impact if one can see and hear the person testifying. For those who do not feel the impact of systemic discrimination and racism, and may not even know it exists, hearing testimony as relayed by media could be educational. It is challenging to see a problem or barrier if it is not within our lived experience, or to comprehend its urgency. The hearings are a good opportunity to heighten public awareness of these issues.
The second phase of the inquiry, open to the public, begins in November and features the testimony of experts and transmission of some of the issues raised by working groups that are to focus on specific areas, like education and employment. Why would only some of the issues be given priority, rather than have them all addressed?
Of further concern is the fact that the government intends to release the findings along with an action plan in the spring, just months shy of the general election scheduled for October 2018. That does not leave much time for implementation of any recommendations.
It is not too late for the government to clean the slate, for at the end of the day the objective is to have a better Quebec, where racism and discrimination would be sent into remission.
The closed doors should be opened wide, so there is nothing to hide.
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