Bourassa-Sauvé MNA, Rita de Santis was the first Italian-born woman to be named to the Quebec cabinet.
In January 2016, she was charged with making the Quebec government more transparent. However, as an outspoken minister responsible for access to information, protection of personal information and reform of democratic institutions, de Santis was often criticized and even ridiculed for her frank comments in the media.
In a cabinet shuffle in October 2017, de Santis was removed from cabinet. Now, in an exclusive sit-down interview with Global’s Raquel Fletcher, de Santis is characteristically frank in her discussion about being “attacked” in the media, her passion for politics and what new projects she has on the horizon.
RF: When you were sworn in as a cabinet minister in January 2016, you used your whole name. You said, “I’m extremely proud of my heritage: where I come from, where my parents are from, what my history has been for a long time before I actually came into this world.” What did that moment mean for you? And what did it mean for the Italian community in Montreal?
RdS: The Italian community was very happy and proud that I should be named minister. I used my complete name because I had been unable to bring my parents to Quebec City – everything happened so quickly, and I knew they would be watching and I wanted them to be part of that ceremony. I don’t generally say Rita Lucia Casanova de Santis, but I said it so that it would touch my mom’s heart because she is a Casanova. And also I said it because I wanted to affirm my origins. For too long a time, it’s always the mafia, collusion, corruption. Every time people talk about those subjects, they seem to want to associate the Italian community with it. Well, I object. I wanted to stand up and say, ‘We’re very much part of this community. We have contributed to its history and please respect us as such.’
EXTENDED INTERVIEW: MNA Rita de Santis on losing cabinet position
RF: Do you think the cabinet represents the Italian community well now that you’re not there?
RdS: You have to understand that my preoccupation has not only been including the community of Italian origin – that’s how I talk about us because we’re all Quebecers of some origin or other.
RF: We saw how important standing up for diversity was for you in 2013 when you came to the National Assembly wearing a large cross to protest the Parti Quebecois’ Charter of Values. What is your reaction now to the push back on the government’s religious neutrality law, Bill 62?
RdS: The premise behind Bill 62 is something I think that we can all agree with. I think all of us want to be able to identify and communicate effectively with the person who’s there in front of us. So we all agree with the principle. The application of that principle becomes a little more complex. And I believe that with the rules of application that will become more public and more understood, the confusion which exists right now will hopefully evaporate.
RF: Are you concerned that it’s targeting a small minority of Muslim women as opposed to promoting religious neutrality of the state?
RdS: I don’t see how it’s targeting a small group of women…Women will still be able to publicly cover their faces. There’s nothing that says they cannot do that when they walk down the street, so those rights are not being taken away from anyone. No one is telling them how they should dress or should not dress, we’re simply saying that for purposes of communication and security, at certain moments we should be able to identify each other.
RF: You have always been known as a politician who is outspoken, perhaps, speaks her mind, is honest. But as minister, at certain points, you were forced to apologize for things that you’ve said. Do you regret anything that you might have said?
RdS: I don’t regret what I said because I think I have always spoken to what, to me, is true. What I do regret is when I tried to translate something into French, that came out wrong the wrong way.
I recall when I was told that I could never succeed because I had an Italian accent at the time. And I said educators should never tell a child something like that. People like that – in English in my mind, it was ‘hanged, quartered and fried.’ Hanged, quartered and fried, if I said that in English, you would look at me and understand that I was not proposing anything that was violent, okay? And when the words came out in French, I was up against a wall in my mind and the words came out wrong.
I have never, ever been in favour of violence in any form and to be associated with those words and that perception hurts me deeply because that’s not who I am. Now on other occasions, I might have said things like, ‘peanuts,’ but was I so wrong? And am I to be crucified for saying things like that?
RF: Do you regret how you were criticized in the media or how some of those comments were misinterpreted?
RdS: I only look forward, I don’t look back. And there’s so much to be done. I look at the mandate which I had, which was access to information, protection of personal information, reform of democratic institutions. Now for most people all of that is not very sexy. There’s not money that you hand out to anyone. There’s no blood.
So it all appears to be terribly theoretical and not terribly important on a day-to-day basis – how wrong people are. We live in a democracy and a democracy is an institution that is extremely vulnerable and fragile.
We need to have a space where people can talk frankly, like where I can say ‘peanuts’ and no one’s going to attack me, but we need that space and so there’s a certain confidentiality that you need to retain in order for important decisions to be made.
RF: Are you disappointed then that you were removed from cabinet in the middle of that mandate?
RdS: Of course I’m disappointed. If I were not disappointed, then I wouldn’t be Rita and I wouldn’t be human. And I hope and I understand that Mrs. Veil wants to pursue that and I hope that she does that with the same amount of passion and determination.
What we’re asking is… that the administration understands what transparency means and not be afraid of it. You can’t say, ‘Gotcha, gotcha gotcha.’ And you can’t attack me when I make an innocent mistake, or a mistake because unless you know someone who’s perfect, I don’t. We all make mistakes and if we’re going to be transparent, we need to be transparent about our mistakes as well, but they shouldn’t be used to crucify us.
RF: Do you hope to return to cabinet either in this portfolio or another portfolio or do you have other ambitions in the works?
RdS: Whether you return to cabinet or not is a political decision.
I don’t believe in these huge revolutions…In my riding, I’m extremely happy because I’ve been able, either directly, or through the people who work with me, to make a little difference in the lives of a few people. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.