The good people of Hérouxville, Que., are feeling triumphant, and why shouldn't they? What their town council started last winter with its provocative code of conduct for minorities - no stoning or burning of women - helped reshape provincial politics in Quebec. Party leaders in Ottawa, one of whom is the Prime Minister of Canada, have pandered to them.
Intolerance is in the air. For the two nationalist parties in Quebec, no defence of the francophone identity can be too extreme. At special hearings on the "reasonable accommodation" of minorities in Quebec, members of the public have vented about the Muslims and the Jews. In Ottawa, the issue of Muslim women wearing face veils when they vote made it into the Throne Speech. Yesterday, the Harper government introduced a bill to force such women to show their faces at the polls.
The intolerance needs to be answered. Canada is not a country of them and us. It has a strong record of integration and social peace. Hérouxville is not defending Canadian traditions but attacking them.
A commission set up by Premier Jean Charest during the last election - to protect him from the passions set swirling by Hérouxville - is now travelling the province. Unavoidably, it has given a platform to intolerance. One speaker this week suggested Muslims be forced to live in outlying regions rather than be permitted to "take possession" of Montreal neighbourhoods. Hérouxville councillor André Drouin warned that immigrants were about to flood into Quebec because of global warming. He predicted that women will be stoned unless Quebec acts.
Be like us and we will accept you as our equals. That is the tenor of Hérouxville's 14-page written submission to the commission. While the authors claim that being like them is to "interiorize" religious observance, they have no problem with the Christian cross at the heart of the Quebec flag or with public celebrations of Christmas; those are part of the province's "patrimony." But little from other religions is similarly protected. No employee is entitled to a leave of absence for religious reasons; the implication is that non-Christian holidays can't be taken as a day off. Even vegetarianism is against the code. This is the bullying of the insular and narrow.
Being like us means asking for no religious accommodations. The paper says Christians were allowed by God to work on their Sabbath and make other compromises; and so, presumably, should non-Christians. "After many years of observance of God's order to fast during Lent, we had to give up this religious practice to have sufficient energy to work and study hard. Then again, by the grace of God and his sense of accommodations, we were able to avoid the promise of roasting in Hell after death." These are the strange verities that political leaders now wish to exploit.
Not every accommodation makes sense for Canada. The vulnerable need to be protected. Sikh children should not be exempted from bicycle helmet laws so they can wear turbans. Genital mutilation is always criminally wrong. Ontario was right to reject the creation of more publicly funded faith-based schools and the use of sharia law in family arbitration hearings. Government policy should not accentuate differences. An increasingly diverse Canada needs common rallying points.
But at its core, Canada is accommodating. An office building without a wheelchair ramp by its nature bars the disabled. The law forces it to build the ramp as an accommodation. Women until recently could not protect their jobs when they went off to have babies; the law now forces employers to make that accommodation. Those who practise religions whose Sabbath is not on Sunday are now entitled to a day off on their Sabbath, if taking it is not an undue hardship for their employer. All these accommodations have the same purpose: to make room for all to participate fully in society.
In any event, the debate has gone beyond accommodation to basic rights. The Quebec Council on the Status of Women wants individuals barred from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. Does a Sikh man wearing a turban somehow violate the rights of others? This is an insult to the country's pluralistic tradition, itself rooted in the accommodation made between English and French at the nation's founding.
Hérouxville is old Quebec, old Canada. The town of 1,300 people is almost entirely homogeneous. It has no mosque, no synagogue. When Mario Dumont, leader of the Action Démocratique du Québec, gave a cheer for Hérouxville, his party leapt from five seats to 41. The Parti Québécois, led at the time by the urbane André Boisclair, fell to third place. Now urbane is gone; the village is all. The PQ under Pauline Marois made a breathtaking attempt last week to steal back the identity issue from the ADQ. It proposed a citizenship bill that would take away political rights from anyone who comes to Quebec from outside the province, or from abroad, and who doesn't speak French well. In Ottawa, when the Chief Electoral Officer declared that the federal voting law did not require women to take off their veils during three recent by-elections in Quebec, he was attacked by the four major federal party leaders, who willfully distorted the Elections Act. Shamefully, they fed the dangerous notion of them and us.
Hérouxville's intolerance, if it were to spread, would lead Canada to the very problem that the town fears - the ghetto-like suburbs and riots of France. Canada may never change Hérouxville, but Hérouxville must not be permitted to change Canada.