A grieving couple from Montreal's West Island has long been pushing for stricter drunk driving regulations in Quebec in memory of their daughter.
So, when given an opportunity to speak one-on-one with the transport minister back in October, they took it.
"We were desperate," said Elizabeth Rivera, speaking alongside her spouse, Antoine Bittar, in a video call from Quebec City.
But there was one caveat. They were told by a government official that, in order to get face time with Geneviève Guilbault, they'd have to pay $100 each for admission to a Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) fundraising cocktail.
Once there, they were told they'd get about two minutes each with the minister, recounted Rivera.
"I didn't agree," she said. "I told Antoine, 'I don't want to do this.' But we do everything together, and he convinced me."
So they joined the cocktail, had their two minutes each and left feeling discouraged and unsupported. Guilbault remained stoic, unsympathetic and really had nothing to say in support of the cause, Rivera said.
"Honestly, when I left the place, I was really disappointed," she said. "And I found it unacceptable that we were asked to pay $200 to meet the minister."
Her 26-year-old daughter was a passenger in a car with a drunk driver when she died in 2017. A couple of years later, Rivera joined the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Nowadays, she is the president and, along with her husband, is leading the charge to lower the allowable blood-alcohol content for drivers.
They also want to see more frequent police roadblocks to check if drivers are sober, Bittar added.
Guilbault defends herself after committee hearing
On Thursday afternoon, the two made a statement during a National Assembly committee hearing as part of the special consultations surrounding Bill 48 — a new road safety bill, introduced in the fall.
In the course of speaking, their experience on Oct. 12 came up. They said the CAQ's Marilyne Picard, who represents the Soulanges riding, advised them to attend the pricey cocktail.
"It was at a restaurant. There was a fundraising event. We were told: 'You buy the tickets and you meet the minister; you get two minutes each,'" said Rivera.
Minister of Transport and Sustainable Mobility Geneviève Guilbault says people don't have to pay to meet with her. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)
Guilbault, who remained impassive during the couple's testimony Thursday, defended herself after the session. She said it was not true that people have to pay to meet her.
"They had already obtained meetings with my colleague," she said.
"If needed, I would have met with them without any problem. As I often say, since we've been talking about this, I meet with the vast majority of people who request meetings. Otherwise, my office meets with them, because schedules are busy. But in no case does a person need to pay $100 to talk to me."
Later Thursday, Picard took to Facebook to say she had heard the couple's testimony. She said she had been working with them for months, and that her family had been through a similar tragedy — a shared experience that brought them together. She said a member of her team recommended attending the cocktail to meet with the transport minister.
"It was an error in judgment, and I sincerely apologize on behalf of myself and my team," she said. "I make policy to help people, with a particular sensitivity for those who are or have faced heavy ordeal. This is the meaning of my commitment, and it will remain so."
Friday, CAQ director general Brigitte Legault said the party is offering to reimburse the $200 Bittar and Rivera paid to attend the cocktail.
"We will respect their choice, whatever it may be," Brigitte Legault said in a statement. "We are sorry for this turn of events."
Bittar said that although a refund was not the couple's priority, once he and Rivera receive the money, they will donate it to MADD Montreal.
Fundraising controversy unfolds
This news comes at a time when the financing practices of the CAQ have been drawing controversy since legislators returned to the National Assembly last week.
The controversy stems from reports published by Radio-Canada and La Presse Canadienne that say MNAs invited mayors and voters to attend $100 cocktails to meet ministers from the Legault government and advance their issues.
The National Assembly's commissioner for ethics and professional conduct, Ariane Mignolet, has since opened two investigations into Sylvain Lévesque, MNA for Vanier–Les Rivières, and Louis-Charles Thouin, MNA for Rousseau.
However, she declined to investigate Yves Montigny, MNA for René-Lévesque, and Gilles Bélanger, MNA for Orford, despite complaints filed by Québec Solidaire.
Premier François Legault has since announced that the CAQ will no longer accept individual contributions. His party had proposed last summer to raise the donation limit from $100 to $200 per year, a proposal supported by the three other parties represented in the National Assembly.
At a news conference Thursday morning, Legault explained that it was MNAs from his party who convinced him to abandon public financing reform.
Meanwhile, Bittar and Rivera are continuing their push to lower the legal blood-alcohol level for driving from 0.08 per cent to 0.05 per cent. They argued that the effectiveness of such a measure has been proven in other provinces.
The Quebec Liberal Party supports this idea and intends to introduce a bill to that effect.