IN the wake of a controversial Quebec law preventing public servants from wearing religious symbols at work, Premier Brian Pallister is encouraging French-speaking civil servants to head west to work in a more welcoming environment.
Pallister said Manitoba’s civil service is lacking in bilingual employees in a variety of sectors: health care, social services, education, information technology, engineering, agriculture and finance.
His office couldn’t say how many workers are needed. A spokesperson said by email Thursday the number is "to be determined on an ongoing basis, based on vacancies and identified needs."
The premier is planning a new recruitment campaign that will start next week, writing letters to professional associations, colleges and other agencies in Quebec about job opportunities in Manitoba.
"We need to offer government services bilingually, and we have a shortage in a number of categories. So we’re looking and we think it’s timely to ask, and we think labour should be mobile in a healthy and functioning economy," Pallister said.
"So if folks are feeling at all threatened by Bill 21 in Quebec, we have a place they can land where they don’t need to feel afraid."
Quebec’s Bill 21 forbids teachers, judges and police officers from wearing hijabs, turbans and kippas, but will allow headscarves that are not worn for a religious reason. The legislation, introduced last month, is already facing a court challenge in Quebec from civil rights groups.
While medical workers are exempt from restrictions on what they can wear, Pallister acknowledged he is also looking to recruit nurses to Manitoba, noting some qualified folks may feel uncomfortable with Quebec’s new legislation and consider moving.
"We think that there may be people in Quebec right now who want to come to a province where we don’t have clothing police (and) where their freedoms will be respected and their rights will be respected," the premier said.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson was encouraged to hear Pallister talking about recruitment considering a current provincial shortage of nurses.
She also cautioned him to address current issues with staff in the health-care system before bringing more bodies into the fray.
"If the premier is serious about bringing more nurses into the system, he should start by listening to the nurses that are already here, and addressing the serious issues in the current system, including excessive workload and overtime," Jackson said by email.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew took a different tact, wondering why Pallister was talking about bolstering the civil service at all after three years spent trimming its numbers.
According to the Manitoba Civil Service Commission annual report, there were 13,721 civil servants as of March 31. That compares with 14,162 on the same date the previous year, and 14,876 in 2016, just a few weeks before the PCs were elected. The Tories have said they wanted to trim the civil service by 1,200 employees in the first three years of their term in office.
"The (Quebec recruitment) strategy is at odds with what Pallister’s doing at home here in Manitoba. I’ll say at the outset: I think the Quebec law is a terrible law. I definitely don’t support it. But why is the premier trying to recruit civil servants from Quebec when he’s cutting civil service jobs at home?" Kinew said.
"When have you ever heard about Brian Pallister investing in public services? When he needs attention, I guess."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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