Six months after the hysteria that was Hérouxville, Quebec's two-man consultation commission is ready to hear Quebecers' views on Muslims. Formally, the exercise is known as the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, but the only difference deemed defective is that of Muslims.
Mario Dumont, leader of the once-moribund Action démocratique du Québec, understands this. Earlier this month, all but lighting a fuse under the issue of cultural clashes, he said in a La Presse interview that Quebec had reached its limits of integration.
Premier Jean Charest, more carefully, has instructed the commission to find out what the Quebec government should do "to ensure that accommodation practices conform to the values of Quebec society as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society." The commissioners, sociologist and historian Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor, two humane and very intelligent men, are to report by March 31.
The genesis of the commission was unfortunate: For reasons that remain unfathomable, tiny, immigrant-free Hérouxville passed a code of conduct denouncing the stoning of women, among other things. It was an act of provocation and the Charest government took the bait.
As a result, we will in all probability have months of listening to native-born Quebecers excoriate the very people they presumably hoped would join them in forming an economically and culturally vibrant society.
Will good things come from this exercise? We can hope. Although it seems clear enough that the focus groups would benefit from a short primer on the history of immigration before they get down to business.
In the absence of historical context, it's only too easy to assume today's immigrants can never be assimilated. Quebecers worry about Muslims. Americans have decided Hispanics are their most intractable minority, in large part because there are so many of them.
But Americans thought exactly the same thing a century ago about immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. And immigrants had arrived in massive numbers: One of every seven Americans was foreign-born in 1914.
Nor did immigrants make any effort in the beginning to integrate into mainstream American life. They lived perfectly self-contained lives, in ethnically homogenous ghettos, speaking their own languages, reading their own newspapers, eating their own food.
According to Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in the Christian Science Monitor, in a 2006 book review, this crush of immigrants "prompted warnings of social dissolution, economic collapse and rampant criminality." By 1920, many Americans were convinced immigration from southern and eastern Europe had to be stopped. Eastern European immigration, at more than 400,000 in 1919, was cut back to less than 40,000 by 1924. Today, Americans pride themselves on being a melting pot. (Other than for Hispanics, of course.)
Australia, another nation built on immigration, also heads into panic mode whenever immigration increases. Historian Roy Hay this month wrote, "At a time when some politicians want to foster fear of foreigners, and specifically Muslims, we need continually to keep in mind that we have been here before.
"Each time migration has increased - as it did in the 1850s, 1880s, 1920s and after the Second World War - the most dire predictions were made about the negative effects on Australia. The reality, in every case, was that Australia benefited from that inflow, and that the migrants did, too, and we are all richer, in economic and social terms, as a result."
Despite the fear and hostility expressed in places like Hérouxville, Canada's massive immigration program also has been "unarguably successful" economically and socially, according to Jeffrey Reitz of the University of Toronto.
Reitz issues an important caveat, however: Visible minority immigrants and their descendants feel discriminated against in mainstream Canadian society. Here is a real problem, caused by a collective failure to acknowledge the effort that these fellow Canadians have made to share and shape a culture, economy and history.
Let's hope this ends up being our starting point for the future: An acknowledgment that this country belongs to us all, to share in a spirit of mutual respect.
Quebecers could use a primer on the history of immigration
The U.S. and Australia have wrestled with, and overcome, their own crises