Graeme Hamilton - HEROUXVILLE, Que. - Nine months ago, when this tiny village in central Quebec adopted a code of conduct that banned the stoning of women and informed newcomers "at the end of every year we decorate a tree with balls and tinsel and some lights," there were snickers from some quarters.
"They don't laugh anymore," Herouxville resident Bernard Thompson said yesterday.
With its code, the town of 1,300 prompted the creation of a travelling commission headed by two Quebec intellectuals and triggered a debate that continues to dominate Quebec politics.
Andre Drouin, the Herouxville town councillor who drafted the code of conduct, was basking yesterday in the spotlight the commission once again shone on his town. He told a visitor to meet him in front of the village church. "There's only one church, by the way," he added. "No mosque. No temple."
Last week, the separatist Parti Quebecois became the latest provincial party to stake its claim as the truest defender of the "Quebec identity."
In a bill tabled in the Nation-al Assembly, thePQproposes to require newcomers to Quebec, both from within Canada and abroad, to display "an appropriate knowledge of French" before they would be allowed to run in provincial, municipal or school board elections or contribute to political parties.
"We want to give a basis for the Quebec nation to affirm itself and flourish," PQ leader Pauline Marois said. "This is our response to the malaise that has resided in Quebecers for some time."
The commission studying the accommodation of minorities, headed by Charles Taylor and Gerald Bouchard, touched down last night in Trois-Rivieres, a half-hour's drive south of Herouxville.
Mr. Drouin is convinced that the debate he helped provoke will spread across Canada, as people question the success of Canada's multicultural model. "Otherwise, Canada will end up in a big mess," he said.
The written brief he and Mr. Thompson will present to the commission today is available in six languages, he said, to satisfy interest in Europe. "Could it be that we were right in the beginning?" Mr. Drouin asked.
Mr. Drouin and his entourage from Herouxville sat front and centre at last night's hearing of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, and their code of conduct was a major preoccupation of the roughly 200 participants.
Jean-Pierre Trepanier of Trois-Rivieres accused Quebecers of being timid for letting the practices of a tiny minority of Muslims and Orthodox Jews upset them. "Why is there such a fuss?" he asked. "Sometimes I am ashamed to be a Quebecer, especially when I hear stupidity like that coming from Herouxville."
Others said Herouxville had provided an important service. "Immigrants have an obligation to integrate into the society welcoming them, but the society has to know what its values are," said Jean Cermakian, a geography professor at Universite du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres. He credited the people of Herouxville for taking a stab at setting out Quebec's common values.
The recent actions of Quebec's three main political parties suggest Herouxville was not so out of step with the political mainstream.
The PQ bill would modify Quebec's charter of rights to specify that "the fundamental values of the Quebec nation," including the predominance of French, the equality of men and women, and the secular nature of public institutions, must be taken into account when ruling on individual rights.
The PQ is the third party in the National Assembly, and its bill is given little chance of passing. Still, critics have assailed the party for seeking to create two classes of Canadian citizens, since the language requirement would not apply to people already living in Quebec.
Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal race-relations group CRARR, said the PQ proposals "confirm that certain political parties are conceding to the winds of intolerance blowing in Quebec," calling the proposals "very dangerous for our pluralist democracy."
Yesterday in the National Assembly, Jean Charest, the Liberal Premier, denounced Ms. Marois' proposal as unconstitutional. "Before tabling a bill, you check its legality, its constitutionality. We're not here to run tests," he said.
However, it is not just the PQ that has sought to cash in on the debate over reasonable accommodation. Mr. Charest has been rattled by the rise of Mario Dumont's Action Democratique du Quebec, which reduced the Liberals to a minority in the March election.
After initially dismissing Herouxville as an anomaly, he created the Bouchard-Taylor commission in February. Then this month, with the commission midway through its hearings, Mr. Charest announced that his government intends to give equality of the sexes priority over other rights guaranteed in Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
His announcement came the same day a poll published in La Presse found that a large majority of Quebecers oppose accommodating religious minorities. For example, 70% opposed allowing Muslim girls to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, while playing soccer and 65% did not think the hijab should be allowed in schools.
Mr. Dumont was the first to tap into Quebec's identity crisis last year when he suggested public authorities were going too far in accommodating religious minorities.
While Mr. Charest and then-PQ leader Andre Boisclair downplayed the Herouxville initiative, Mr. Dumont called it "a heartfelt cry" and made the issue central to his election campaign. More recently he has said Quebec needs to cap its immigration levels because it is not successfully integrating new arrivals.
Did Herouxville get the last laugh on multiculturalism?
They don't laugh anymore'