'There's room for us': Rising number of black MNAs at Quebec's National Assembly
When Dr. Lionel Carmant returned to the Montreal Children’s Hospital earlier this week to give a speech for Black History Month, it was a homecoming of sorts. It is where the pediatric neurologist completed part of his training in the 1990s.
“Coming back here today, it really hits home - and the house has been quite improved over the years,” he said with a laugh, as he stood in front of the crowd gathered in the P.K. Subban Atrium.
Carmant has since moved on to another “house”: Quebec's National Assembly. He’s now the CAQ government’s junior health minister, one of 125 men and women elected last fall. Up until the October 1, 2018 general election, there were just five black MNAs in the entire history of the National Assembly.
Now, there are five black MNAs in the legislature at the same time.
It’s a sign of the changing times in Quebec politics, and for Liberal MNA and former deputy premier Dominique Anglade, it’s a welcome change.
“It's always important to get a good representation of what society generally is, and that's why this year - both in terms of black people, and in terms of women as well - we see progress. So that makes me happy and more positive about the future,” said Anglade.
Being elected was a surreal experience for CAQ MNA Christopher Skeete, the son of a French-Canadian mother and a Trinidadian father.
“For me, growing up, the idea of having a black president of the United States would have been something I never would have thought I would see in my lifetime, let alone myself getting elected to the National Assembly,” he said, adding that he is particularly proud of the fact there are two black ministers in the current government.
“I think we're making great strides. So the message I would say to youth is, "Stop thinking about it. Just go. Just push those barriers," Skeete said.
Nadine Girault, of Haitian origin, is also a first-time MNA and the minister of international relations and la Francophonie. She says the black community’s response to her budding political career has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It really feels for them like we can take our place and there's room for us, so it's very rewarding. It's a privilege,” said Girault.
Now that she has a seat at the table, she’s hoping others will follow in her footsteps.
“I think it's on two sides. We have to do more to attract, yes, but black people also have to get involved,” she said. “There were very nice, young black women as candidates, and I look forward to seeing them come back in the next election – because they all said that they're coming back (…) I'm sure that with time, and from one election to the other, we're going to see more and more black people.”
Liberal MNA and former Montreal city council speaker Frantz Benjamin said he feels a responsibility to spread knowledge about the historical black presence in Quebec, including the stories of slaves in New France.
“The story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, it is not only my story. It is the story of all of Quebec society,” said Benjamin.
“Now it is our duty as a member of the National Assembly - but especially the duty of the government - to make sure that at the educational level, more has to be done.”
To mark Black History Month this year, the Quebec government announced it will rename a bridge on Highway 50 in the Outaouais in honour of Jean Alfred, Quebec’s first black MNA. Alfred was elected under the Parti Quebecois banner in 1976, when the party came to power for the first time under Rene Levesque.