KEVIN DOUGHERTY -
Premier Jean Charest named two highly respected academics yesterday to head a study into the reasonable accommodation of the traditions of newcomers to Quebec.
Charles Taylor, a McGill University philosophy professor emeritus, and Gerard Bouchard, a historian, sociologist and brother of former premier Lucien Bouchard, will have one year to prepare their report.
In recent weeks, the adoption of a code of values by the elected council of Herouxville, a tiny community with few, if any, immigrants, has dominated headlines.
The code bans the stoning and burning of women, genital excision, religious head coverings and the carrying of ceremonial knives.
Mario Dumont, leader of the Action democratique du Quebec, is among those who have argued that measures to satisfy newcomers go against the values of mainstream Quebecers.
Charest said after meeting with his caucus yesterday that the debate over reasonable accommodation "is critical for the future of Quebec" - and it has "taken a bad turn."
The 45,000 immigrants whom Quebec welcomes every year have a responsibility to integrate into Quebec society, Charest said.
"These newcomers, like those before them, come to Quebec to share our success, to live freely and to build a new life," the premier said.
"They are welcome. We need what they have to offer Quebec. They come to enrich Quebec with their knowledge and culture."
Charest said some recent decisions touted as reasonable accommodation were the opposite. He cited the frosting of windows at a YMCA to meet the objections of Hasidic men who don't want to see women in form-fitting exercise wear.
The premier also mentioned the practice of using male police officers rather than their female counterparts in dealing with Hasidic men, and the case of a man who was asked to leave a swimming pool so Islamic women could swim.
"Expelling an ambulance driver from the cafeteria of a Jewish hospital is not seeking compromise," Charest said, referring to a driver who was asked to leave the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal because he was eating non-kosher spaghetti in an area that was designated for kosher-food consumption.
"These are not reasonable accommodations," Charest said. "These are arrangements contrary to the values of our nation."
The Societe d'assurance automobile du Quebec had a practice of assigning male employees to give driving tests to Hasidic men. Charest said Immigration Minister Lise Theriault was speaking for the government when she said the practice is contrary to the equality of women and men.
"This is not an acceptable practice," Charest said. "We are an open society."
The premier would not offer examples of what is reasonable accommodation, saying this would be decided "case by case" and that the commission would provide general principles as a guide.
"The Quebec nation has values, solid values, including the equality of women and men; the primacy of French; the separation between the state and religion," Charest said in a prepared statement. "These values are fundamental. They cannot be the object of any accommodation. They cannot be subordinated to any other principle."
Dumont appears to have made gains in at least one opinion poll after denouncing unreasonable accommodations - but Charest suggested the commission was not named to short-circuit his political rival.
"This is not a partisan issue," the premier said, adding that the commission will do its work "in a spirit of respect and dialogue."
Dumont said yesterday the persistence of the ADQ forced Charest to react - but that the premier was treating the issue like a "hot potato."
"When the issue is too hot, he passes it to a commission," Dumont said.
Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair applauded the premier's decision to name the commission, saying he has been calling for months for action to refocus the debate on respect for individuals.
Boisclair added that the equality of women and men, rooted in Quebec's Charter of Rights, is a non-negotiable principle for all Quebecers - "whether they came with Samuel de Champlain or with Transat."
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