The battle of Herouxville, it seems, is quickly taking on the proportions of a war.
Last month, apropos of nothing in partic ular, the leadership of the Quebec village promulgated a set of controversial social "standards" for foreign immigrants, declaring in favour of the equality and public integration of the sexes, and warning that Muslims and others cannot necessarily expect to have their religious practices accommodated in schools, hospitals, or workplaces. The gesture, made in a place which does not have a single Muslim resident, was largely without practical effect. But the whole point was to act before a problem arose, the mayor and his council say. And evidently the town was not merely speaking for itself. The Herouxville declaration has found supporters and detractors all over Quebec, attracted the attention of journalists from Fox News and France's right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper, and become a leading issue in provincial election preliminaries, with ADQ leader Mario Dumont praising the town's "cry from the heart." (Mr. Dumont, whose political future was all but dismissed mere months ago, is now performing well in early polls -- perhaps partly because he had made the best use of the opportunity for populism presented by the declaration.)
There is much that can be criticized about the Herouxville declaration -- in partic ular, that it strikes a patronizing, nativist tone by presuming that newcomers need to be lectured to about basic Canadian social standards. Yet most critics have chosen to ignore the preamble to the document, which contains a message of human brotherhood, inviting "all people from outside our [municipality] that would like to move to this territory ? without regard to race or to the colour of skin, mother tongue spoken, sexual orientation, religion, or any other form of beliefs." It requires a wilful misreading of the council's words to interpret them as a message of bigotry. The idea being advanced here is that certain shared premises regarding public behaviour allow us to consort and trade in an environment of trust, and transcend base sectarian or ethnic strife. That is a legitimate idea, not easily dismissed.
That said, perhaps the town's civic representatives might have succeeded more convincingly in establishing their liberal bona fides if they'd skipped the condescending instructional material about dietary habits. It is not really the place of government, or even "society," to tell people that "they don't need to know where [their meat] came from or who killed it." Why should anyone in Herouxville -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- care whether some neighbours choose food that is kosher or halal (or vegetarian or organic, for that matter). Is it really so very long since Roman Catholics commonly observed their own quirky, culturally distinctive rules of diet?
We are also wondering why it is necessary to remind people that "killing women in public beatings or burning them alive are not part of our standards of life." Yes, many Muslim societies in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Africa and even some notorious European immigrant enclaves treat women in appalling ways. But immigrants to Canada generally know that this is a very different place: Practices such as honour killings, female genital mutilation and polygamy are extraordinarily rare on our shores. And when isolated instances are made public, they are typically a matter for criminal prosecution and journalistic scandal. Herouxville's declaration might be shocking to some in Quetta and Riyadh. But in Canada, it is merely a statement of the obvious. While we agree it is disingenuous for a Muslim immigrant to come to Canada and agitate for the right to wear a veil in an identity document, or to live under sharia law, or to enjoy a veto over the publication of certain cartoons, it is equally disingenuous for the citizens of Herouxville to behave as though they are under immediate threat of a ban on music in public places or an outburst of iconoclasm against cross-shaped gravemarkers.
As demonstrated by the violence and poisonous race relations that beset Paris's Muslim cites and some of England's poor northern towns, the relationship between Muslim immigrants and society-at-large is a high stakes project, one that should be managed without theatrics and grand gestures subject to misinterpretation. It is also important not to go overboard in browbeating newcomers into adopting every one of our habits: The sustaining premise of a liberal democratic society is the determination to let one's neighbour live as he pleases. This liberal premise cannot, on its own, solve the conflicts that arise in settings like public schools and hospitals, and in those locales we have no choice but to occasionally make reference to a set of common social principles. Quarrels are inevitable. But we should not get so caught up them that we end up policing ourselves, in truly un-Canadian fashion, for cultural purity and conformity.