Quebec promises to ease rules around volunteering after public outcry

Martin Thibert, mayor of a small Quebec town by the U.S. border, was almost finished painting the interior of his kids' public school with the help of a group of volunteers when an inspector showed up.

The provincial construction inspector told the gathering of parents, grandparents and teachers that painting a school for free, and without the proper licence, is illegal in Quebec.

She then demanded the names and IDs of all 10 people in the room.

"At first I refused but then she threatened to call the provincial police,'' said Thibert, mayor of Saint-Sebastien.

"My wife went home to get my ID because she didn't want me getting arrested over painting a school.''

The March episode made headlines around the province and highlighted the tight hold of unions over Quebec's complex bureaucracy, which politicians and economists say inflates the cost of construction projects and hinders civic engagement.

In response, the government announced earlier this month it would soon loosen the rules in order to allow volunteering on some construction work, a decision criticized by Quebec's major labour federation.

The story was also a wake-up call to the pitiful state of many public schools across the province and renewed debate over the role of citizens and government regarding the delivery and financing of public services.

"There is an evolution in Quebecers' thinking, but it's slow,'' said Marc Picard, a member of the National Assembly for the Coalition for Quebec's Future. 

"And unfortunately the unions aren't keeping up.''

"People in our society see that things aren't going well. We have rules governing everything. We pay more and more in taxes and our services are not better.''

Data from the provincial government released in mid-April revealed that in one Montreal school board alone, about 90 per cent of buildings were listed in "bad'' or "very bad'' condition. 

The data indicated hundreds of school buildings across the province are in poor condition.

Thibert said the elementary school in Saint-Sebastien, a community of fewer than 1,000 people about 60 kilometres south of Montreal, hadn't been painted in 33 years and that money from the board wasn't forthcoming.

So the mayor took the initiative, bought roughly $3,500 worth of paint and scheduled about 30 people a day to help bring some new colour to the school.

After he was caught painting, the school was forced to hire professionals to complete the work at $94 an hour.

"The guys didn't want to charge us,'' Thibert said. ``But the union called them and forced them to charge full price.''

Painting the entire school at the union rates would cost the school board roughly $120,000, Thibert said.

These high costs, coupled with union rules and bureaucracy, are making it increasingly difficult for small towns to pay for construction work without the help of volunteers.

"We're at the mercy of the laws,'' he said. ``Ask any mayor of the towns across the province. Work that should cost $30,000 often ends up costing $70,000. It's our reality and it needs to change.''

Germain Belzile, an economist at HEC Montreal business school and senior researcher at the right-leaning Montreal Economic Institute, says union rules regulating construction in Quebec are 
"byzantine'' and ``affect the social fabric of our society.''

Quebec, for instance, has 26 categories of construction work for which people must be certified, and union membership is mandatory.

Ontario, in comparison, only requires tradespeople in fewer than 10 construction domains to be certified.

"People get pleasure when they give and help other people,'' Belzile said. 

"When parents help paint a school its a way to participate in their kids' education.''

He said current laws are hindering Quebecers' desire to engage more in their communities and to rely less on government.

Left-leaning media columnists and provincial politicians argued parents shouldn't have to paint their kids' schools because government has the responsibility to maintain public education infrastructure.

But Quebec is more than $200 billion in debt, taxes are high, and the health-care sector is also chronically underfunded, Belzile said.

Thibert said volunteering is "in the DNA'' of people in small towns across Quebec.

"It's through volunteering that we manage to survive,'' he said. 

"Paying over $90 an hour for someone who has barely been painting for three years, in 2017, it just doesn't make sense.''

The FTQ-Construction federation, which came out against proposed changes to volunteering rules, did not return a request for comment.