Don't call it racism

Quebecers, and other Canadians, should not be ashamed to be concerned about the preservation of their traditions

Accommodements et les régions

Earlier this year residents of the small Quebec town of Hérouxville declared that immigrants were welcome there regardless of their race, colour of skin, language spoken, sexual orientation or religion. When they added, however, that newcomers who came to live there should also be prepared to accept certain basic standards reflecting the traditions and culture of the townsfolk, they were branded as xenophobes and racists. Regardless of what one may think of the merits of the Hérouxville declaration, it appears to have struck a chord among many Quebecers.
The Quebec government's response to the Hérouxville declaration as well as to a number of incidents involving demands by ethnic and religious groups in Quebec for institutional changes to accommodate their specific requirements was to appoint a commission to ascertain the views of a wide range of Quebecers on these topics. The commission, co-chaired by two eminent academics, is now well into its hearings and last week received the formal presentation from the Hérouxville group along with many others.
Various surveys indicate that Canadians in general and particularly Quebecers have major misgivings about multiculturalism policy. Their concern is not about the interpretation of multiculturalism that holds that newcomers of all backgrounds are welcome and respected in this country. Most of us consider this to be an important and valuable part of what it means to be a Canadian. The concern rather is over expectations that Canada must make changes to its institutions in order to accommodate the demands of newcomers.

Until now there has been little opportunity for Canadians to discuss these issues in public. To do so risked being labelled politically incorrect at best and racist at worst. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission, however, has a mandate to encourage an open and frank examination of just how far Quebecers should be expected to go in accommodating the requirements of newcomers. And it is getting an earful. Quebecers have not been shy about expressing their concerns over what they consider to be unreasonable expectations on the part of some immigrants and groups.
Nor should they be shy. Quebec society and that of Canada in general are among the most inclusive and tolerant in the world and want to stay that way. This does not, however, mean that we do not have a sense of national identity and traditions that we consider worth preserving. The citizens of other countries -- including those from which most of our immigrants come -- certainly have an idea of who they are.
To dismiss such feelings on the part of Quebecers and Canadians in general as xenophobic and racist is therefore completely unjustified. David Lam, the distinguished former lieutenant-governor of British Columbia (who happens to be an immigrant from Hong Kong) summed the situation up well when he stated that "When a Canadian is concerned about his own way of living, this concern is not racism."
Questions about what constitutes reasonable accommodation of immigrants' demands and multiculturalism policy in general cannot, moreover, be discussed without examining the premises of our immigration policy. Without our large-scale immigration (the largest per capita in the world) these issues would not have arisen and it will be necessary therefore to look at how much and what kind of immigration is best for Quebec and for Canada.
Until now political parties have framed their policies on immigration largely around what is likely to attract the support of newcomers -- regardless of whether or not such policies are in the best interests of Canadians in general. Parties have been able to do this on the fairly safe assumption that, while members of the general population might have some reservations about where immigration policies are taking us, such concerns do not usually come into play when they decide how to vote at an election.
Thanks in large measure to the forthright if somewhat colourful declaration by the citizens of the small town of Hérouxville, however, this might be about to change.
Political parties should take note.

Martin Collacott is a former Canadian ambassador to countries in Asia and the Middle East. He is currently a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.
His brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission is available.
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Martin Collacott is a former Canadian ambassador to countries in Asia and the Middle East. He is currently a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

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