Quebec: Minister breaks age, colour and language barriers
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Minister breaks age, colour and language barriers
*KEVIN DOUGHERTY * The Gazette
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Yolande James, the youngest cabinet minister in Quebec history, begins her
typical day with a 5:30 a.m. workout in the National Assembly's third-floor
gym. Few of her 124 colleagues in the legislature use the fitness centre, at
any hour. Then again, the 29-year-old Montrealer has travelled an unusual
path to get here.
She is the first black woman elected to the National Assembly, the first
black minister, and the only anglophone minister in Premier Jean Charest's
new cabinet (though Charest's mother tongue is also English). As minister of
immigration and cultural communities, she will have to handle some of the
thorniest issues facing the government. "I think discipline is one of the
keys to success," said James, who watches all-news channels on TV while she
exercises. "It also allows me to see what's going on in the world."
Until now, James has been little known to most voters outside her West
Island riding of Nelligan, which she has represented since 2004. That began
to change last week. In her first news conference as a minister, she
unveiled a plan to help foreign-trained doctors, nurses and other health
professionals negotiate the snakes and ladders of entering Quebec's
In the fall, James plans to unveil an action plan on racism. "It's going to
be the only one in Canada," she said in her sparse office in the Rene
Levesque wing of the government's Complexe G. As an MNA, James worked with
Lise Theriault, the previous immigration and cultural communities minister,
to develop the policy to counter racism. Charest dropped Theriault and four
other Montreal-area ministers after his government was reduced to minority
status this spring. The others lost in the post-election shuffle included
Montreal's two anglophone ministers, Lawrence Bergman in D'Arcy-McGee and
Jacques-Cartier's Geoffrey Kelley.
The shakeup riled some voters, who argue that the Liberals have ignored
their loyal anglophone supporters. As a result, James's performance is
likely to face even greater scrutiny. James is "a very young and neophyte
member" of the National Assembly, said Allen Nutik of the new Affiliation
Quebec Party. "If this is the status of the cabinet minister who represents
all of the people who voted Liberal, then you know what? We need new
representatives." James says she works with Kelley, Bergman and
Notre-Dame-de-Grace MNA Russell Copeman in the Liberal caucus. "We work as a
team," she said, noting that the Quebec Liberal Party is the only party in
the National Assembly with anglophone MNAs.
James discovered politics - and the Quebec Liberal Party - during the 1995
referendum campaign. "It was my moment of enlightenment, if I can say that.
I've been in politics since I was 17." In that 12-year span, James finished
her CEGEP program at Vanier College, earned a degree in civil law from the
Universite de Montreal and one in common law from Queen's University in
Kingston, Ont. All the while, she was active in the Liberal youth wing,
serving as political attache to Nelligan MNA Russell Williams from 1998
until 2003, when she articled as a lawyer and passed the bar exams. She
gained her practical law experience with the provincial Health Department.
James worked briefly for Health Minister Philippe Couillard before winning a
Sept. 20, 2004, by-election in Nelligan, after Williams stepped down.She was
26 and the first black woman elected to the National Assembly. (The first
black man was Jean Alfred, elected Parti Quebecois MNA for Papineau in 1976.
In Viau in the March 26 election, Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg became Quebec's
third black MNA.)
James's father came to Montreal from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia in
the 1960s to study at Concordia, then called Sir George Williams University.
Her mother, a foreign student from the island of St. Vincent, studied at
McGill University. James and her sister, Francine, 31, who recently obtained
her Ph.D in neuroscience from McGill, went to St. Lucia once as children.
"We were foreigners there," James recounted."I was born and raised on the
West Island. I describe myself as a proud Montrealer, Quebecer and
Her parents wanted their two daughters to fit in to Quebec, choosing names -
Yolande and Francine - "that are very bilingual" and sending the girls to
French primary school before they went on to Pierrefonds Comprehensive High
School in English. "They wanted us to develop our potential fully in
Quebec," she said. While James was studying law at the Universite de
Montreal, she was also active in the Liberal youth wing.
"That's what I did for fun," she said. "Without me knowing why, it was
probably preparing me for what was coming." After articling in the health
department, James was working as a political aide to Couillard when Williams
resigned as MNA for Nelligan riding. "It happened very fast. I didn't plan
for it. It was something that I didn't take lightly,'' she said.
When Charest asked James to join his cabinet, the premier reminded her that
at 28 he became the youngest federal minister in Canadian history. James
edged out Andre Boisclair by about three months as Quebec's youngest
minister. James rejects suggestions that she might be too young for the job.
"People often talk about my age and the fact that I'm young," she said. "I'm
proud of that - I think that's a good thing.
"The people of my constituency gave me a chance to represent them (in 2004),
and they reiterated that confidence on March 26," she said. The
merger-demerger issue was important in the 2004 by-election when James was
first elected by a majority of 53 per cent - well below Williams's 78 per
cent in the 2003 general election.
While Nelligan is viewed as an anglo stronghold, in fact, 43 per cent of
residents give French as their first language, 35 per cent English, and 23
per cent tell census takers their first language is Italian, Arabic, Greek,
Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish or other languages. "If you look at the
Nelligan riding in particular, it's one of the most bilingual ridings in all
of Quebec and linguistic peace is something very important," James said.
"People are proud to say, if not for themselves, their children, that they
speak both languages well or, in some cases, like me, at the same time."
In Nelligan, James lives 15 minutes away from her parents, and on weekends
she goes home for her mother's Caribbean macaroni pie and chicken. "That
always makes me feel so good," the young minister said.
"I don't have any spare time."
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