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Public consultation on racism to be held mostly in private

Public consultation on racism to be held mostly in private
Public consultation on racism to be held mostly in private

Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of AMAL-Québec, is concerned that most testimony during Quebec's public consultations on systemic racism and discrimination will be closed to the public and the media. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

With less than a month to go before its expected start date, potential participants are questioning whether Quebec’s inquiry into systemic racism will be as transparent and open as the government promised.

Announced in July, the public consultation is supposed to explore systemic discrimination and racism in Quebec. The hearings were presented as an opportunity to find “concrete and lasting solutions” to these issues by inviting all Quebecers to take part.

But the Quebec Human Rights Commission, which is overseeing the hearings, has now confirmed most of the testimony will take place behind closed doors and not in the public setting many had expected.

“It’s as if we’re hiding the problem we’re trying to solve,” said Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec (AMAL-Québec) on Tuesday. “The idea of a public consultation is not to make it private.”

Bouazzi said the association, which is hoping to be one of the roughly 20 non-profit organizations chosen to participate, had requested in the first place that some of the hearings be held behind closed doors. But he said the idea was for this to be an option only for those who were afraid to speak publicly for fear of reprisals.

Holding all of the testimony in private, he said, is counterproductive.

“Unemployment, policing, housing, a lack of diversity … We know all of the issues,” he said. “But it’s important to put faces to these problems so people can actually relate to the people who are living them every day.”

Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil defended the plan Tuesday, saying that keeping testimony behind closed doors will help protect the privacy of those taking part.

“Where people want to testify or explain situations of racism or discrimination (it was felt) that it was better if that was private and that there was no media there,” Weil told reporters.

“I don’t want to say too much because it is the Human Rights Commission that is leading this exercise. They thought that formula was very important because they understand these issues very well and not everybody wants to personally talk about their experiences of discrimination in front of a camera.”

No official start date has been set for the hearings, but when they were announced in July, the commission said they would begin in September and last throughout the fall.

A call for proposals published by Quebec’s Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness said the participating organizations would be announced by Sept. 1 and consultations would start on Sept. 29. But the list of participants had not been published as of Tuesday. 

Bouazzi said he has yet to hear if AMAL-Québec has been chosen to participate — “the first milestone and we’re already late,” — and doesn’t understand why officials aren’t being more transparent about the situation. 

In an interview Tuesday, an official with the commission said it is still working with the goal of starting the hearings in September and does not expect there to be any delays.

As for the hearings being held behind closed doors, the commission official said a website will soon be created where the general public can fill out questionnaires and submit briefs. A summary of the responses will be presented at a public forum in November.

Weil also stressed that some of the commission’s proceedings will be held in public.

“At the end of it all, all the work that will have been done, all the expertise that will come to the table, will be brought together at a public forum where the media will be present,” she said. “So it is a public consultation.”

Andy Riga of the Montreal Gazette contributed to this report.

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