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History Made; A First For Quebec: Black Haiti-born Human Rights Lawyer Appointed Quebec Human Rights Commission Head

Tamara Thermitus, Head of the Quebec Human Rights Commission, "has also failed to publicly respond to the many, and overwhelming, allegations that concern her". Photo courtesy of the Canadian Race Relations Foundations.

History Made; A First For Quebec: Black Haiti-born Human Rights Lawyer Appointed Quebec Human Rights Commission Head

By Yvonne Sam
PRIDE Columnist

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 — It’s been a long time coming but a change has finally come. The seemingly impossible became possible and right smack bang during Black History Month, almost like a long awaited gift to Quebec Blacks.

Tamara Thermitus, anti-discrimination lawyer of Haitian origin, after receiving the unanimous support of members of the National Assembly was named head of the Quebec Human Rights Commission, earlier this month.

Her appointment was not exactly a slam dunk as it may now seemingly appear, for last fall her appointment was challenged by opposition parties claiming that she was too “multiculturalist” and much too close for comfort to Dominique Anglade, Liberal Economy, Science and Innovation Minister who also shares the same roots.

Her nomination initially put forward by the Liberals, was subsequently blocked by the Parti Quebecois, followed by The Coalition Avenir Quebec, the second opposition party at the National Assembly.

Quebec’s Human Rights Commission is specifically mandated to ensure that Québec’s laws, by-laws, standards and institutional practices, both public and private, comply with the Charter, which prohibits discrimination based on “race,” colour, ethnic or national origin and religion in the exercise of human rights and freedoms.

From the outset the Commission has been structured and continues to function to produce the results that are primarily advantageous to the Commission and the Commission alone.

Human rights are addressed in a racially skewed manner, and systemic racism has always been present. With the appointment of Mme. Thermitus, it is hoped that  a significant and beneficial change is within reach.

Since its inception in 1976 the Commission lacked both Anglophone and minority representation, Thermitus would be the second woman and the first Black to oversee the organization— a situation that up until today bears reflective testimony to the underrepresentation of Black Quebecers in decision making bodies.

Tamara Thermitus was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,  and moved to Sept-Îles in Quebec with her family in 1967.

Tamara Thermitus was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and moved to Sept-Îles in Quebec with her family in 1967.

While the appointment is truly symbolic for Blacks and the Haitian community in Quebec, Blacks should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency.

There remains an urgent and ongoing need for public education to ensure that there is better awareness regarding the value of diversity to society as a whole.

Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard, stated that the current appointment of Thermitus sends a very strong signal about the place that people coming from diversity must occupy in the society. While these are strong and reassuring words they would be better if adhered to.

In September 2016 Parti Quebecois leadership candidate Jean-François Lisée pointed out the presence of systemic racism in Quebec, and called on the government to spring into action rather than hold public consultations.

In response Premier Philippe Couillard’s government said it would soon announce a plan to look into the issue. Since the creation in 1990 of the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, the Human Rights Commission has never brought a case of systemic racism before the tribunal.

The first court decision on systemic racism in Quebec was issued only in 2013 by the Superior Court.

In order to cultivate an arena of legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, Premier Philippe Couillard was repeatedly called upon when filling existing vacancies to give thoughtful and deliberate consideration to racial and linguistic diversity.

At that time there was an unprecedented absence of Black or Anglophone commissioners in the current composition, which only served to further impair the decision making process.

Black Quebecers were forced to deal with a phenomenon more dangerous than, or as equally volatile as, the atomic bomb, housed under the guise of the Human Rights Commission.

In a world where perception can be as important as reality, it is critically important that visible minorities believe that the deck is evenly stacked, and that they have as much of a chance of being judged by someone who looks like them, as someone else.

The current appointment will go a long way towards allaying any fear and improving chances of a satisfactory resolution.

With the appointment of Tamara Thermitus as head of the Quebec Human Rights Commission, have Black Quebecers seen the last of the past, and the heralding of a new cast? Or would this appointment be seen as a mere sop to Cerberus? Only Time would tell.

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