NAOMI LAKRITZ, CanWest News Service - If an us-vs.-them mentality is growing in Canada toward minorities, it's us who created it, not them. The xenophobia marinating in that slimy little euphemism of "reasonable accommodation" is a symptom of what's wrong with our mindset, not theirs.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, the idea arose that minorities were offended by Christmas and other overt displays of majority Canadian culture. This did not come from minority Canadians, but from self-proclaimed progressive middle-class whites. These people thought it was the height of liberalism to declare their own cultural and religious traditions offensive to others and to fight to have those traditions hidden away, much as the Victorians covered the legs on their pianos in the cause of prudery. Schools rushed to rip down Remembrance Day displays of white crosses.
Christmas was relabelled a "winter festival," venomous battles were fought over public displays of creches featuring - ironically - the infant who grew up to be the ultimate preacher of brotherly love, and spruce trees festooned with glass balls, tinsel and angels were renamed Holiday Season Trees.
In all that time, scarcely any member of a minority was quoted as claiming to be offended by any majority Canadian ritual. In fact, people who said they were Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims wrote letters to the editor stating not only were they bewildered that all this was being done on their behalf, but that they didn't mind being wished a Merry Christmas and always returned the greeting. (Once back, when I received a Christmas card from Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai, I could joke with colleagues when a Hindu MP sends a Jewish person Christmas greetings, we have reached the acme of multiculturalism).
The same crusaders who misread Pierre Trudeau's vision of multiculturalism, and who thought it meant minority traditions had to be elevated at the expense of their own squelched one, enthusiastically organized festivals for other cultures and prattled ceaselessly about "tolerance."
Until one day, in this post-9/11 era, the sight of a peasant skirt whirling in a folk dance at a festival began to take on sinister connotations. Just how much were we going to put up with from these people?
So we began zeroing in on the very traditions we had once avidly promoted. A woman wearing a headscarf was suddenly no longer a proud Muslim enjoying the freedom of religion this country offered her, but an oppressed soul to be liberated. She must be stripped of this symbol of oppression by others who, treating her in the same white-man-knows-what's-best-for-you manner, once scorned as the domain of right-wing bigots, took it upon themselves to decide what was best for her.
What has surfaced here in Canada since 9/11, and what has led to the ominous talk about "reasonable accommodation," is a variation on the same xenophobic theme that saw Japanese- and Ukrainian-Canadians carted off to internment camps during the two world wars.
It's fear, pure and simple. Fear of The Other is spawned when someone of a certain religion, skin colour or culture commits some heinous and hostile act.
Then, heretofore "tolerant" folks in Canada begin looking askance at their fellow citizens of that religion, colour or culture. Ignorance - the kind of ignorance that sees a Muslim who fled persecution and mass murder in Srebrenica as no different from a Muslim with links to Al-Qa'ida - feeds that fear of The Other.
To avoid making it look like they're singling out Muslims as a direct result of 9/11, the "reasonable" accommodators have clumsily targeted all minorities.
Well, not all, and that's what makes their stance so transparently racist. If they perceive the tendency of ethnic groups to cluster together in neighbourhoods as a threat, why have they never shown any concern about suburbs such as Montreal North and neighbouring St. Leonard? Peopled by Italian immigrants - many of whom in the older generation speak neither French nor English, but only the regional dialect of their town in Italy.
Italians are a minority, but no one claims their women are oppressed by bocce and black dresses. Why? Because this is all about Muslims, not about Europeans.
These Muslims are the same people they were when we stashed the creche in the closet and talked up Ramadan while playing down Remembrance Day. They are citizens, neighbours, co-workers - everyday folk going about their lives like any other Canadians. We conjured up the new catchphrase "reasonable accommodation" out of mindless fear. They didn't change for the worse. We did.
Calgary Herald Online extra: To listen to The Gazette editorial board's discussion with Dr. Brian Day, president of the Canadian Medical Association, and other CMA officials, please go to: montrealgazette.com/features/editorialboard
Politically correct liberals sparked the accommodation debate
But after 9/11, our fear of The Other took over and our tolerance vanished