Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Political Innovator: Yolande James, Canada

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Yolande James has been Québec’s Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities for three years. In the often-turbulent politics of Canada’s French-speaking province, few immigration ministers last that long. But James, 32, stands out for more than her survival skills: as the youngest woman, and first black woman, to serve in a high-ranking cabinet post in the province, she has helped transform Québec into a model for integrating immigrants into mainstream society.

James, a lawyer and the daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean islands of St. Lucia and St. Vincent, has spearheaded a series of reforms to streamline the often lengthy and complicated process of applying for Québec citizenship. The reforms include fast-tracking the application process for foreign university students and certifying the foreign licenses of professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, to enable them to work in the province. James explains that such programs convey both a warmer welcome to would-be immigrants and greater acceptance by Québecois themselves.

That represents a significant step forward in Québec, where immigration is closely linked to the province’s long-standing determination to protect its French culture and language. The Canadian government has recognized Québec’s special status and has allowed the province to oversee its own immigration process.

For decades, this made Québec a key destination for French-speaking immigrants. Now, increasing applications by francophones from the Caribbean and Africa add racial tension—which is why James has become a key player as Québecois grapple with new visions of their society.

In 2009, she unveiled the Valorisation Jeunesse (Youth Empowerment) program, an initiative involving Québec teens to combat negative media images of young minorities. “I don’t think [such images] are reflective of the Québec of today,” she says.  As part of this program, James worked with businesses in Montreal, where she grew up and has served as an elected member of the provincial assembly since 2004, to place 600 youths in summer jobs. She also created a program to improve relations between young people and police officers, developed a theater workshop designed to raise self esteem in the 3,000 young girls it targets, and spearheaded a ‘role models’ mentorship campaign with accomplished first- and second-generation immigrants.

More recently, she sparked controversy by supporting a bill to ban the burqa from being worn in government-sponsored French classes and bar women who wear the traditional full-body covering from receiving government services like education. The policy follows similar proposals in France. She bases her decision on respect for women’s rights.

All of James’ programs are aimed at making Québec a more equitable society, but she also has a broader vision. Her goal is to foment a new consensus that everyone benefits when new immigrants and Québec citizens share a vision for the future. “We all must start at the same place,” she says.

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