Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée challenged the Liberal government on Wednesday to be as diligent in cracking down on discrimination in employment as it was on the illegal sale of cigarettes to minors.
However, the PQ’s plan to identify and sanction employers who discriminate against visible minorities — a plan that could include government inspectors and heavy fines slapped against firms found in the wrong — received a lukewarm reception from Premier Philippe Couillard. And the premier’s response came during a National Assembly question period that made it clear the air of political collegiality that followed the Jan. 29 Quebec City mosque attack is over.
“Why is it more important to fight against tobacco than against racism?” Lisée asked reporters before the start of question period. “There are employers … who engage in discrimination and we could very well send inspectors who could pass themselves off as job seekers to show this discrimination, much in the same way the Health Ministry sent young women who looked as if they were in their 20s but were in fact 17 to catch dépanneurs selling alcohol or cigarettes (to minors).”
During question period, Lisée raised the issue with Couillard, offering to supply amendments to Bill 98, proposed Liberal legislation that would broaden the recognition of professional qualifications held by immigrants in an effort to reduce the level of unemployment among newcomers to Quebec.
“I think we have to be careful,” Couillard said. “Particularly with employers, we have to make sure that what we’re doing is realistic and falls within Quebec’s legal framework.”
Lisée’s exchange with the premier followed a start to question period on Wednesday that took a nasty turn within minutes of beginning.
The PQ leader began the session by noting that despite a softening of the tone of the political debate that followed last month’s murderous attack on a Quebec City mosque, the premier had on Tuesday made remarks that suggested anyone who disagreed with him would normalizing “xenophobic speech.”
That led Couillard, in an apparent reference to the PQ’s attempt to create a charter of “Quebec values,” to reply that “turning an issue around is well known tactic and I don’t want to recall the unfortunate events (the PQ) caused.”
Roars of disapproval from the official opposition kept Couillard from finishing his sentence, but the premier had said enough for even National Assembly speaker Jacques Chagnon to ask Couillard exactly what he meant. However PQ house leader Pascal Berubé rose to say he understood exactly what the premier had said: “He accused the Parti Québécois of being the source of this intolerance and that is unforgivable. I would ask him to change his tone the same way he has asked Quebecers to change theirs.”