You have to feel a little sorry for the good folk of Hérouxville, Que. Ever since they hit the headlines with their bold statement that stoning women will not be tolerated in their town, they've been turned into a national joke. They are mocked in editorial cartoons and tut-tutted by the pundits, who delight in pointing out that Hérouxville's fear of immigrants is entirely uninformed by any actual contact with them. They have been deplored by politicians and condescendingly profiled in all the major media. They have been denounced by Muslim groups, who are threatening to take them to the Human Rights Commission.
Town councillor André Drouin was so foolish that he went on CBC Radio's As It Happens, where he was treated with the same polite incredulity that would be accorded someone from Redneck, Alta., who was sure the Earth was created in 4004 B.C. "Are you not concerned about being accused of being a racist?" he was asked.
But then something funny happened. A lot of people agreed with him.
"André Drouin clearly said what so many Canadians believe: Welcome to Canada and OUR wonderful way of life," one CBC listener wrote in. Even though the program's audience is solidly small-l liberal, almost all of the respondents sided with Hérouxville. The town itself has been inundated by messages of support.
The Declaration of Hérouxville has struck a nerve, and it's one the elites would be foolish to ignore. The vast majority of Canadians believe that in spite of our official policy of multiculturalism, it's up to newcomers to fit in. In one typical poll taken in 2005, 69 per cent said they wanted immigrants to integrate into Canada, while only 20 per cent said they should maintain their own identity and culture.
Yet people are increasingly uneasy that newcomers aren't fitting in. Toronto is ringed by ethnic enclaves where people can live and work entirely in their native languages. Many second-generation kids feel estranged from the broader culture.
Come to think of it, what is the broader culture? In Toronto, where half the kids in high school now come from outside Canada, the absorptive capacity of the system is being severely tested. No politician dares to ask aloud if we're bringing in more people than the system can bear. But ordinary people are asking, and with good reason.
Many people - 60 per cent of us, according to one poll - also feel that efforts to accommodate religious minorities have gone too far. Should Muslim women be able to demand that men be barred from entering the pool area in the Y while the women are swimming? Should Hassidic men be permitted to demand that only men should administer their driving tests, or to insist that the local Y install frosted windows so that their eyes aren't assaulted by the sight of women in Spandex? Are universities obliged to provide prayer spaces for their students? Is the health-care system obliged to supply female health practitioners to Muslim women whose husbands don't want male health-care workers touching their wives? Most of us would probably say no. But some public institutions are bending over backward to say yes, and some human rights commissions are ordering them to.
Just outside Toronto we're having our own little cultural kerfuffle. A man is trying to build a mosque in Newmarket, and some of the neighbours are upset. The mosque, they say, is not the problem. It's the man, Zafar Bangash, who is well known for his strong political views. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the theocratic regime in Iran. Mr. Bangash calls it Islamophobia. A local pastor wants to bring in the Human Rights
Commission, in hopes of promoting mutual tolerance and understanding.
If only the Human Rights Commission could impose social cohesion, our problems would be gone. But social cohesion is exactly what's at risk, and that's why people are getting a bit anxious. How do we turn newcomers into Canadians? And what if we fail? Those are the real challenges the rubes of Hérouxville are trying in their clumsy way to address. They are serious ones. And to pretend they aren't would be a very big mistake.