Kathleen Weil is the first minister responsible for English-speaking Quebecers in the history of the Quebec Liberal Party and she’s delivering on a promise made by Premier Philippe Couillard.
"For the first time in our history we will have civil servants dedicated to the future vitality of the English-speaking community," said the MNA for Notre-Dame-de-Grace in an exclusive interview with CTV Montreal Thursday.
The Couillard government officially launched its new secretariat for the English-speaking community Friday in Quebec City at the Morrin Centre, an English-language cultural centre.
The person chosen to oversee the new bureaucratic structure is William Floch.
“I’m very optimistic. There are really positive signs of openings and of support for this concept. I think there’s already a lot of very important work being done in some key sectors (such as) health and education,” said Floch at a news conference announcing his appointment on Friday. “It will be a matter figuring out across the sectors and ministries where we can help the most and align with community needs and priorities.”
Floch has spent two decades working for the federal government in the department of Canadian Heritage, most recently as the manager for Research and Policy Development.
The graduate of McGill and Bishops University has also managed the Official Languages Program for the Quebec region, and is a former executive director of the Townshippers' Association.
As an assistant deputy minister, Floch will act as a liaison between Weil’s ministry and other government departments.
"The mandate of the secretariat is to advise other ministries on issues regarding relations with the English-speaking community," said Weil.
The secretariat will have a start-up administrative budget of $1 million, which will be devoted to hiring seven or eight staffers and setting up office space.
Floch said he wasn’t concerned about the relatively small staff and budget.
“If you go too fast at things, sometimes you can create your own challenges so I think growing somewhat organically from small and then we’ll see how things go. I don’t think we need to be in a great rush. There are a lot of other people already working within the government structure for the English-speaking community and it’s a matter of connecting with them,” he said.
One of Weil’s main priorities is to address concerns about unemployment.
A ministry document obtained by CTV Montreal concluded "there is an observable decline in the socio-economic status of English speakers in Quebec relative to other language groups in Quebec and across Canada."
The document also notes: "On November 29, 2017, Statistics Canada will be releasing the education, labour and language of work data from the 2016 Census. It will be interested [sic] to determine what the 2011-2016 inter-censal period shows with respect to these trends."
Statistics Canada figures from the 2011 census show higher unemployment rates for English-speaking Quebecers – 9.4% compared to 6.9% for French-speaking Quebecers.
According to a 2015 Community Health and Social Services Network/CROP survey, 81.9% of English speakers do not believe they have equal access to employment in the Quebec public service.
Couillard’s change of heart
The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), a non-profit umbrella organization representing more than 50 English-language community groups across Quebec, has long lobbied for a secretariat dedicated to the province’s anglophones.
Initially, Couillard rejected the idea. But in June, he announced plans to create a new office connected to the government’s executive council.
Weil credits the organization’s persistence for helping to change the premier’s mind.
"(They) kept insisting politely we need to have a structure within government that responds to our particular needs and is able to knock on all the doors within government to find appropriate solutions to the issues that we have," Weil said.
"The premier acknowledges openly that he was wrong," she added. "He's very proud that he's listened to this advice and he really feels we're turning a corner now, and I do too."
Since the announcement, Couillard has repeatedly made direct appeals to anglophones – both inside and outside of the province.
"It is high time that English-speaking Quebecers feel truly at home," Couillard said in September speech at the National Assembly, during a visit by Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne.
He urged anglophones who have moved to Ontario to return to Quebec.
Liberals "panicking" says CAQ leader
CAQ leader Francois Legault said he believes the renewed outreach is a "marketing" effort, and an indication the Liberals are worried about losing some of their traditional support in the English community.
"For me, it's only a show," he said. "I think they see also that the English-speaking community (has) a real alternative. So they are really panicking."
Legault said he isn't convinced a secretariat will truly serve English-speaking Quebecers. Asked if he would dismantle it if the CAQ forms the next government, Legault responded that he would have to evaluate its usefulness.
"First I would like to know, what is the purpose of having this organization? Do we want to add bureaucracy? We already have too much bureaucracy," he said, adding that he wants to see concrete examples of what additional services that will be offered.