Public-opinion poll findings published last weekend at a conference on immigration and integration cast a useful new light on Quebec's reasonable-accommodation debate.
The survey, by the well-regarded Léger polling firm, painted a picture of Quebecers that might surprise many Montrealers.
Compared with other Canadians, the poll found, Quebecers are an insular and parochial bunch: We have less contact with foreigners, we take fewer foreign trips, we have fewer friends overseas, we work in less-multicultural workplaces, we are more likely to think that minorities weaken our culture, and we even eat less foreign cuisine.
We haven't seen details of the findings, but common sense suggests that "insular" might not be the mot juste - these generalities do not apply very accurately, we believe, to Montreal Islanders, of any language group. But Montreal Island's 1.8 million people are only 23 per cent of Quebec's population; the whole metropolitan area includes only about 44 per cent of Quebecers. Life is very different elsewhere in the province.
There is no doubt a somewhat comparable phenomenon in other parts of Canada - Vancouver and Toronto, and to a lesser extent Calgary, Ottawa, and other cities, have plenty of immigrants and a corresponding cosmopolitan outlook; smaller centres and the countryside are less-well-informed about the outside world. But the figures in these poll results suggest that Quebec in its entirety is dramatically more inward-looking - and more isolated - than is the rest of Canada.
And what we don't know, we tend to fear.
There is no reasonable quick fix for this situation. Quebecers can't be made to travel abroad, work with immigrants, or eat molokhia. Nor is it practical to require immigrants to fan out across the province.
As we await the May 31 report of the Gérard Bouchard - Charles Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation, however, we should all take note that a certain amount of what troubles many Quebecers about newcomers appears to be the product of innocent ignorance, not malice. Other parts of Canada have opened up in many ways to newcomers, and Quebec will too. It's just that outside Montreal, the process is not very well advanced yet.