Quebec's toxic identity debate

This collective folly confirms the identity debate is out of hand.

Un noir tableau peint aux couleurs de Fo Niemi, Jean Charest et B'nai Brith... Oui, c'est effrayant !...

Across Canada, people of goodwill are cringing as Quebec's identity debate turns toxic. Premier Jean Charest served blunt notice this week that politicians are "fanning the flames of intolerance" toward cultural and religious minorities, and promoting a "siege mentality." That may sound alarmist to those who have not followed the debate. But Charest had reason to speak out. And not a minute too soon.
Consider Quebec's two opposition leaders. Mario Dumont of the Action Démocratique party argues that Quebec is "pretty much at capacity, in terms of intake," and wants to block increases in immigration. Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, for her part, wants to bar newcomers who do not speak French from running for public office.
This unwelcome mat is drawing attention. "People in the rest of Canada, in the United States and in France are wondering what's going on in Quebec, where we've earned a reputation for openness and tolerance," says Charest. He's right. The optics are terrible.
And they are getting worse. After fighting an election in which "reasonable accommodation" of cultural and religious groups was a hot button, Charest invited a spasm of anti-immigrant fearmongering by naming two academics to tour the province sounding people out on just how far Quebec should go to make minorities feel welcome. The answer for many Quebecers is, not very far.
At public hearings, commissioners Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor have presided over a festival of fear, bigotry and ignorance.
"In 100 years I don't think there will be many Québécois left," one man fretted, mourning the implausible extinction of Quebec's Catholic, francophone identity. Another complained about the cost of providing Jewish kosher foods in shops. There were calls to ban Muslim head scarves and Sikh ceremonial daggers. And to thwart immigrants from "taking over" Montreal neighbourhoods by forcing them to settle in the back country. One city councillor invoked the spectre of women being stoned in the streets.
An anxious teacher suggested Christians might soon have to "wear yellow crosses," as Jews wore yellow stars under the Nazis.
It even got to the absurd point this week where a lawyer complained that Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu – a Finn who struggled to learn English – was showing "contempt" by not addressing the fans in French, which he has yet to master.
Understandably, minorities in Quebec have been "spooked" by this "open, unchallenged intolerance" and "explicit racism," says Fo Niemi, co-founder of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations.
Their concern was underlined by a Léger Marketing poll that reported 56 per cent of Quebecers want minorities to abandon their cultural practices. Elsewhere in Canada, 20 per cent hold that obnoxious view.
Sadly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have not been above mining these seams of intolerance. They have tabled a bill forcing Muslim women to unveil their faces to vote, absent any evidence that fraud-by-veil is a problem. Worse, this needless targeting of a minority was abetted by the federal opposition parties.
This collective folly confirms the identity debate is out of hand.
Canada has welcomed 7 million immigrants over the past 40 years, vastly enriching our society. We are a more productive, cosmopolitan nation as a result. And what "accommodations" have Canadians been asked to make? Getting used to Sikh Mounties wearing turbans, seeing a few graceful mosques and temples sprout in vacant fields or parking lots. Accepting that some pious Muslim women cover their heads, as nuns once did, and still do.
This is not to deny that strains can arise in any society that undergoes rapid transformation. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has drawn lines against allowing Muslim sharia law in the family arbitration process, and against more publicly funded religious schools. Canadians do not shrink from debating "reasonable accommodation" when the need arises or from affirming collective values. At the same time, we will not tolerate preaching hatred in the name of religion.
Canada needs more immigrants, not fewer, and we should welcome them with open minds and hearts, in the same generous Confederation spirit that "accommodated" Protestants and Catholics, English and French, when our nation was founded. Ontario took in 125,000 immigrants last year, far more than the 45,000 who went to Quebec, without the same unhealthy anxiety about "us" and "them."
During the hearings this week commissioner Bouchard felt moved to point out that Quebec's future lies in "tolerance and sharing," not walling itself off from newcomers and the world. Wise words. They cannot be repeated too often, in Quebec – or across this country.
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