Premier appoints Benoit Charette, environment minister, to lead fight against racism

·4 min read
Premier appoints Benoit Charette, environment minister, to lead fight against racism
Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette, shown here announcing the province’s green plan in Nov. 2020, said he wants to get to work on the 25 recommendations made by the anti-racism committee formed by the Quebec government last spring. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette, shown here announcing the province’s green plan in Nov. 2020, said he wants to get to work on the 25 recommendations made by the anti-racism committee formed by the Quebec government last spring. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In addition to leading the province's fight against climate change, Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette is now being asked to lead the charge against racism.

Premier François Legault's announcement Wednesday of the appointment of Charette, who is white, immediately drew scrutiny.

But Charette was firm in his belief that being white should not disqualify him from the position, which was created following a recommendation from the anti-racism committee formed by the government last spring.

"It's a mandate to fight racism, so someone's skin colour should not be the reason to exclude that person," Charette said, highlighting that he has deep ties with different communities in the province, and is sensitive to their struggles.

Charette, whose wife is of Haitian origin, noted that he has lived in several countries, and his experiences abroad have convinced him that Quebec has the tools needed to fight racism, including its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

"We can't deny that people from minority groups, and Indigenous people, are too often exposed to profiling, to disparities in how they are treated, notably in matters of housing, in matters of employment," said Charette.

But he denied that racism in Quebec is systemic, even saying the use of the term can be detrimental.

"What bothers me with the expression, there are many elements to this, it gives a false sense of security, [allowing some] to lay blame on others," he said. "If we base ourselves solely on a concept that is very vague, and not well defined, it takes away a bit of the responsibility that we have."

Those remarks echoed past responses by the premier, whose repeated denials of systemic racism in Quebec have frustrated many in the province's Black and Indigenous communities.

'I think many communities, people of colour, have been very distrustful towards this government because of its systematic denial of systemic racism.' - Fo Niemi, Centre for Research Action on Race Relations

Charette said he wants to work at implementing the 25 recommendations put forth by the committee, and promised significant progress between now and the end of the CAQ government's mandate.

Some of the committee's other recommendations include creating a province-wide campaign to raise awareness about racism, as well as training for police and government employees.

The new provincial role mirrors what was done in the City of Montreal, which appointed its first anti-racism commissioner last month.

When he announced the recommendations of Quebec's taskforce against racism, Quebec Junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant said he has been a victim of police racial profiling.
When he announced the recommendations of Quebec's taskforce against racism, Quebec Junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant said he has been a victim of police racial profiling.

'He's the best person to fight against racism,' premier says

Legault was also asked several times why the task of fighting racism in Quebec was given to Charette instead of the Black members of his cabinet, Nadine Girault and Lionel Carmant.

Girault serves both as the province's minister of immigration and the minister of international relations. Carmant is the province's junior health minister, and oversees its youth protection agency. The two also co-chaired last spring's anti-racism committee.

"It's not like they have nothing to do," the premier said, before praising the man who ultimately got the position.

"I've known him for many years, and I know it's a very important subject for him, so I think, again, he's the best person to fight against racism."

WATCH | Montreal's first anti-racism commissioner discusses the challenges ahead

Local civil rights organizations greeted the appointment with trepidation. Fo Niemi, director of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, said in an interview he was pleased to see the Legault government implement a recommendation from its committee.

But he believes Charette is facing a significant hurdle of his own party's making.

"I think many communities, people of colour, have been very distrustful towards this government because of its systematic denial of systemic racism," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Marisa Berry Méndez, a coordinator with Amnesty International.

"To not acknowledge systemic racism not only will stand in his way in terms of taking action ... but also in terms of being seen as credible or legitimate by the communities that are impacted," Méndez said.