What is reasonable? What is not? In Quebec, this has been a major topic of discussion throughout 2006. The new buzzword that's fuelling passions is "accommodement raisonnable" (reasonable accommodation). In other words, to what extent should a society curb its rules and values to "accommodate" religious minorities?
A string of events throughout the year ignited a wave of popular irritation.
Last spring, a Montreal YMCA installed frosted windows in one of its exercise rooms to "accommodate" a neighbouring Hasidic school that wanted to prevent its teenaged male students from looking at women in workout gear. This was, I think, an unreasonable compromise: If the Hasidim want to insulate themselves from mainstream society, they're the ones who should find ways to prevent their young charges from loitering in the alley that borders the YMCA.
In the fall, the Montreal police department was accused of sexism when it advised its female officers to let a male colleague deal with Hasidic men, whose beliefs prevent them from making eye contact with women. This was, I think, reasonable: After all, the Hasidim, an extremely peaceful ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, have rare contacts with the police, and it wouldn't be the end of the world if, once or twice in her career, a female police officer had to let her male partner do the talking.
But then there's been a string of clearly unreasonable compromises. For instance, a downtown YWCA invited parents to observe their children's swimming lesson. But, because of a mix-up in the schedule, it turned out that a group of Muslim women was having a water aerobic session in another part of the pool; they demanded that all men, including the proud fathers watching their kids swimming, be excluded from the pool area. The YWCA complied.
At a local community clinic, men accompanying their spouses to prenatal classes were sent packing because Muslim women objected to their presence. The co-ed course was transferred to a clinic in another district.
These events followed a series of controversial court decisions. In March, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Sikh students can carry ceremonial daggers to class, providing they are sealed inside clothing. The decision was quasi-unanimously condemned: Aren't weapons banned from schools?
That same month, the Quebec Human Rights Commission told one of Canada's largest engineering schools to provide a prayer space for Muslim students (although it didn't grant them the right to wash their feet in the sinks of school bathrooms).
There are more and more instances of utterly unreasonable demands in the health services. Recently, at a local medical clinic, an Orthodox Jew was allowed to see the doctor instantly, bypassing patients who had been waiting for their turn, because he argued that he had to be home before the Sabbath (which starts at sunset).
There are other, more serious examples. Health practitioners have to deal with fundamentalist Muslims who refuse to let male nurses or doctors touch their wives even though they may be gravely ill and there is no available female professional in the ward. Is this reasonable? Certainly not.
Actually, it is quite telling that the multiplying demands for "accommodation" never come from moderate religious minorities. Most Jews, Muslims or Sikhs never ask for preferential treatment.
Now, the question goes beyond the issue of religious freedom. Why should a society bend its rules to accommodate the wishes of zealots who do not even reflect the values of their own communities?
According to a recent survey done by SOM for La Presse and Le Soleil, six out of 10 Quebeckers think society has gone too far down the road of accommodement raisonnable. Interestingly, this view is more prevalent among people with higher levels of education and income.
But this reaction is far from being a sign of xenophobia. On the contrary, the same survey showed that most (68.1 per cent) consider immigration to be an asset for Quebec.