Exploiting ethnic tensions

Suddenly, reasonable accommodation with religious minorities is under attack in Quebec

Accommodements raisonnables

What did Andre Boisclair have in mind when he said last weekend some things need to be "swept" from the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms?
"Are there things in the Charter I would sweep out," the Parti Quebecois leader said to reporters. "The answer is yes."
He indicated he was thinking about protection for ethnic and religious minorities.
"When you read the Charter and you see the way it treats the integration of immigrants, I sometimes have the impression that we're looking at a vision of multiculturalism that isn't my vision of things."
And Boisclair isn't the only one who's suddenly feeling pressure from Mario Dumont, who has moved quickly to exploit ethnic tensions that surfaced recently and to pose as the defender of majority values against attack by religious and ethnic minorities.
Premier Jean Charest is also on the defensive. Yesterday morning, he told a television interviewer that for the majority, "recognizing the other doesn't mean effacing oneself before the other," and that immigrants should "enrich our culture and not subtract from it."
With an election due next year, Quebec politics has suddenly entered an ugly phase.
Reports in competing media of recent conflicts between the values of religious minorities and those of the majority have made "reasonable accommodation" an explosive issue.
The expression is from an unpopular Supreme Court ruling this year striking down an absolute ban on the wearing in school of the kirpan, a dagger-like symbol worn by baptized Sikhs.
Two weeks ago, members of a YMCA in Montreal's Mile End district protested against the installation of frosted windows so Hasidic boys at a neighbouring synagogue couldn't see women in revealing exercise clothes.
In another incident involving Hasidic communities, Montreal police suggested female officers should let male partners interview male Hasidim who for religious reasons would not speak to a woman.
And a local community services centre, the CLSC Park Extension, excluded men from pre-natal classes because of objections from Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
After the last incident, Dumont landed on the front page of Le Journal de Montreal, which has led the coverage of the conflicts, by saying "reasonable accommodation" had gone too far.
The majority had the right to defend its values against "abuses of the Charter," he said. "Quebec police didn't go kidnap anybody and force them to come to Quebec."
Desperate to attract attention to his moribund party and sensing widespread resentment among francophone voters, Dumont hammered away on the issue in a round of interviews and through a weekend convention of the ADQ.
He was joined by ADQ founder Jean Allaire, "We greeted these people with open arms," he told reporters at the convention, "but a certain number of fundamentalists of thought and religion are trying to impose their way of living and seeing things on us."
A poll in September by the Ekos firm for La Presse and the Toronto Star showed Quebecers were twice as likely as other Canadians to oppose the wearing of a Jewish man's skullcap, a Sikh man's turban or a Muslim woman's headscarf by their children's teacher.
Some attribute this to Quebec's being more secular. But an earlier poll, done in 2002 by CROP for Radio-Canada, showed young Quebecers were only slightly more than half as likely as their counterparts in other provinces to agree that the crucifix should be banned from schools.
This suggests the problem isn't religion - it's other people's religion.
Other Western societies, including English Canada, have had to face - and are still facing - similar issues, as the sources of their immigration have diversified. And some French-speaking commentators were quick to condemn Dumont for going beyond populism to demagogy.
But Dumont wasn't speaking for them. He was speaking for people for whom Quebec is changing too much, too fast.

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