On a day when the Marois government was accused of “sabotaging” the economy and stunting Quebec’s mining industry, it announced a multimillion-dollar plan to help the poor and blasted Ottawa’s “total disregard” of the crisis afflicting the province’s Inuit communities.
With the prospect of a fall election firmly discarded last weekend by Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois, her minority government was struggling to keep control of the political agenda under a flurry of attacks by opposition party and industry leaders.
On Wednesday, the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec killed the government’s proposed Mining Act by refusing to adopt the bill in second reading. The move was a viewed as a major victory by the province’s mining industry, which lobbied hard to repeal several provisions in the bill that threatened to weaken profit margins.
“In its current form [the bill] would have greatly hindered the mining development in Quebec,” said Josée Méthot, president and director general of the Quebec Mining Association.
The government and environmental groups accused the opposition of being “irresponsible” in refusing to pursue debate on the bill.
At the same time, the aluminum industry pursued its own offensive to derail government plans to eliminate current preferential hydro-electricity rates offered to the industry. A report by QMI news agency stated that U.S.-based Alcoa Inc. was threatening to close three aluminum plants in the province and eliminate 3,300 high-paying jobs if the PQ government refused to back down on plans to substantially increase hydro rates.
“When are you going to stop sabotaging the economy?” asked Liberal House leader Jean-Marc Fournier in the National Assembly.
Placed on the defensive, Ms. Marois insisted the rate changes were proposed by the Liberals in the 2010-2011 provincial budget and suggested that current negotiations with Alcoa will lead to a new arrangement that will satisfy the company’s demands and protect jobs.
As her government faced repeated charges that it was mismanaging the economy with anti-business policies, Ms. Marois unveiled a three-year, $320-million plan to help welfare recipients, immigrants and community groups as part of a new government campaign against poverty.
Last year, the government came under attack for abandoning its social democratic roots after introducing a $19-million-a-year cutback in welfare payments mainly to older recipients and couples with young children as part of the plan to eliminate the deficit.
On Wednesday, Ms. Marois said social assistance will increase by $50 a month over the next three years, wiping out the cutback and offering some reprieve to welfare recipients. Immigrants will receive special assistance to learn French and integrate into the workforce. More than half of the new funding will go to supporting community groups who help deal with the needs of the poor.
“We want to clearly demonstrate over again that our hearts are in the right place and that we want to take care of our people,” Ms. Marois said during a news conference. “We are demonstrating today that we are the party that has chosen social solidarity, that we are indeed a progressive and social democratic party.”
That was also part of the message delivered by the PQ government as it backed efforts by the province’s Inuit to press Ottawa to abide by its treaty responsibilities and solve the housing crisis that has plagued Northern Quebec communities for decades.
In several Inuit communities, families with as many as 15 people share small two-bedroom houses. According to reports the housing shortage has left Inuit communities struggling with health and social problem not unlike those found in some third-world countries. Tuberculosis rates have reached anywhere between ten to twenty times the national average. Sexual abuse, drop-out rates, alcoholism are running rampant with 60-per cent of children growing-up in overcrowded homes.
“It’s not just for housing that we’re requesting it (government aid), it’s our children, our people in the region that have to live,” said Jobie Tukkiapik, president of Makivik Corporation , which administrates government funding received under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.