Herouxville. Some experts blame chain ownership

Media stir up storm over 'accommodation'

The Quebec town of Herouxville is at the centre of a controversy over its position on the reasonable accommodation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

Hérouxville - l'étincelle

JEFF HEINRICH, The Gazette - Martin Moreira should feel at home in multi-ethnic Quebec.
After all, he grew up here. Son of a Uruguayan and a Bretonne who brought the family over from France when he was 5, Moreira spent his formative years in far-flung Baie Comeau before settling in Montreal as a musician and photographer.
But these days, with almost daily coverage in the Quebec media of the "reasonable accommodation" debate, Moreira - like many other "foreigners" who have found their place in the province's increasingly diverse ethnic mosaic - feels revolted.
"It shocks me how simplistically the issues are being presented," said Moreira, 28.
"I'm all for reasonable accommodation, because it's all about dealing with things as they come up, case-by-case. But the way it's being handled in the media, you get the impression that the way Quebecers feel about it, they're racist, when in fact they're quite the opposite," he said.
"They don't feel superior at all. They're just irritated by some things, like anyone is."
Since last fall, those irritants have been getting a steady airing by Quebec's big media chains: Quebecor Media (TVA, the Journal de Montreal, Canoe.com, and others), Gesca (La Presse, Le Soleil and others), Radio-Canada and TQS.
In what experts describe as a veritable media war, each has been trying to trump the other with "revelations" of special treatment for some religious minorities - Jews and Muslims, mostly - by government-funded institutions.
Hospitals, CLSCs, the police, schools, sports and recreation facilities and driver-licensing centres - all are on the hook for arrangements they've made with minorities to get them to use their services.
Among the better-known examples: providing male examiners for Hasidic men when they take their driving test; offering unisex pre-natal classes for conservative Muslim, Sikh and Hindu women who don't want men present; and giving extra paid holidays to Jewish and Muslim daycare workers in public schools.
Isolated cases? Perhaps, but the barrage of coverage has given the opposite impression: of a province under siege by "immigrants" with "unreasonable" demands to have the rules bent to fit their needs, media experts say.
"There's a kind of public psychosis that's been created, and it's false," said Universite d'Ottawa communications professor Marc-Francois Bernier, 48, a former political reporter for Quebecor's Journal de Quebec, the tabloid daily in Quebec City.
"The only people who have put this issue on the table are the media," he said. Accommodating minorities "is not something that is in the realm of most people's experience. They've never been affected by it."
Fuelling the debate, Quebecor's outlets published a provocative and much-criticized poll on Quebec "racism" last month. In it, 59 per cent of Quebecers were said to describe themselves as "racist" - even though the term was never defined.
And last weekend, a new development: Herouxville.
The remote town near Shawinigan made international headlines by publishing a list of "norms" its council said define their way of life and provide a lesson to prospective immigrants: men and women have equal rights, children cannot carry weapons in school, boys and girls are allowed to swim together, and more.
The declaration struck a well-worn nerve - at least in the newsrooms of Quebec's information media. Less clear is the impact it had on the attitudes of the province's 7.6 million people.
Far from provoking a soul-searching by Quebec's French-speaking majority, the debate over Herouxville and what led up to it may have had a more negative effect: it broke a taboo on openly criticizing "les ethnies" (the ethnics).
"What I deplore is how this subject has been so overstated and in such an irresponsible way," said Jean Robillard, a former National Bank PR man who now teaches communications at TELUQ, the distance-learning arm of the Universite de Montreal a Quebec.
"This is a completely media-constructed phenomenon," he said.
"The way the media have stirred up this debate, Quebecers have been left with the feeling they're threatened in some way."
He and other experts point especially to the misuse of the term "reasonable accommodation" itself.
A legal concept derived from U.S. labour law, it was at first a way to make employers cater to employees with special needs - the physically disabled, for example. It has since evolved into a new meaning here: making arrangements with religious minorities so they can keep their traditions in public life.
Well-known examples in Canada, legislated by the Supreme Court, include allowing Sikh officers in the RCMP to wear their turbans on the job, or Sikh schoolchildren to wear their ceremonial daggers - hidden and under wraps - to school. In Quebec, the province's Human Rights Commission has also said Muslim girls have the right to wear the hijab head-covering in class.
Most of the examples in the last few months haven't been "accommodations" at all, but rather, case-by-case deals with select groups allowing them not to conform to standard practices when there is no health or safety risk, experts say.
If the media onslaught is having an impact, it's because Quebecers sense they're at a crossroads in their history, as 40 years of steady secularization of its institutions are now challenged by religious demands from new immigrant groups, said observer Michel Venne.
A former Le Devoir columnist, Venne is founder of the Institut du Nouveau Monde, a Montreal think tank that is holding a province-wide series of forums today on the future of Quebec culture, including what to do with religious minorities.
"In the 1960s, we decided as a society that we would be secular - in a way, we privatized religion," Venne said from Rimouski, one of nine cities hosting the forums.
"But now, a certain number of groups, mostly stemming from immigration, want their religion to be seen in open society. They want their symbols to be allowed in public. And that's a shock for Quebecers, and they're starting to try to find ways to negotiate an understanding."

That process isn't helped by the current frenzy in the media, Venne added.
"It's not healthy - it makes people panic instead of taking the time to discuss things calmly," he said. The Quebecor poll, in particular, he said, "was exploited by the media - it was an orgy."
As he sees it, "Quebecor tried to capitalize in a grotesque way on an important and sensitive debate. They pretended to moderate the debate, but in reality all they did was turn it into show business, and that's where the problem lies."
"This is such BS," said Quebecor executive vice-president Luc Lavoie, a former TVA national reporter who is the company's spokesperson.
"The condescending, snobbish crap that comes from anybody else is just that - it's crap," he said, denying Quebecor is exploiting the story.
Reasonable accommodation has been " the topic of the last season - it's a fact of life, it's what everyone has been talking about," he said.
To others, one thing is clear: there wouldn't be such a buzz around the issue if news in Quebec wasn't concentrated in the hands of a few big and diverse companies like Quebecor.
And with competing chains ratcheting up the news, it makes one issue seem more dominant than it is in real life, said Jean-Francois Dumas, president of Influence Communication, a Montreal tracking firm.
"We call it 'diffuse paternity.' A few years ago if you came out with a big scoop, you could put it on your front page for two or three days and the rest of the media would follow you and cite you as the source," Dumas said.
"But in the last two years or so, there's been a new tendency," he said. "One outlet comes out with its scoop, its competitor builds on that with revelations of its own, and in the end the story doesn't belong to anyone anymore but becomes a kind of collective creation."
Media convergence just makes it happen more, he said.
"The same information evolves through a number of media and gets not only very diffuse but also very confusing. It's open war now between the different media networks, and with 24-hour news, there's a snowball effect: a continuous multiplication of explosions of news, and because of that the news can last for months."
At some point, though, "the media are going to tire themselves out and there'll be an appeal for calm - but I'm skeptical it will last. The role of journalists is to inform, but for the media owners, it's a business - they have to be competitive and deliver the news faster and faster."
Bernier, the Universite d'Ottawa professor, agrees.
"When the Quebecor machine decided to take the subject (of reasonable accommodation) and decided to bombard us with it on TV, on the Internet, on the radio and in the newspapers, it made people feel there was something urgent to deal with, that there was a big problem to solve - when, in fact, there wasn't," he said.
"Where is the problem in Herouxville? Only in what they see in the media."
It isn't over yet, he predicted.
"The media will always find more examples (of special arrangements for select groups). Out of 7 million people, they'll find at least one example every day, easily," he said.
"After a while, though, it's got to stop, because it's no longer news."
jheinrich@ thegazette.canwest.com

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