The web page of the Mauricie municipality of Herouxville greets you with the classic image of small-town Quebec: a graceful church, white spire above grey stone. The site explains the town has grown from the parish founded in 1897 by L'abbe Joseph-Euchariste Heroux, and was known until 1981 as St. Timothee d'Herouxville.
Through its century-plus of history, this little town (pop. 1,300) has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world. Until now. Town council won more attention than it wanted, we're guessing, by adopting this month a statement of norms. "Men and women have the same worth. ... A woman can ... drive a car, sign cheques, dance, decide on her own," the document says. Further, doctors and nurses may be of the opposite sex from their patients. Boys and girls share swimming pools. We sell beef and pork in our markets. We put up Christmas trees. And we don't stone women here, or burn them alive, throw acid on them, or perform genital mutilation. We don't cover our faces, except maybe on Halloween.
This is all true enough in Herouxville, where one adopted Haitian boy seems to constitute the entire visible-minority population. But the document has made little Herouxville into a flashpoint for the whole province-wide debate over "reasonable accommodation." Just how far should Quebec society bend to the culture, and especially the religious practices, of minorities?
Significantly, most of the specific cases that have fuelled this burgeoning debate involve religion, not skin colour, spicy food or "strange" music. As we noted above, Herouxville's roots are strongly Catholic. But in the 1950s and '60s, Quebecers systematically, forcefully and decisively rejected Catholic religious authority over public life. That many Quebecers now show clear antipathy to the idea of any religion having authority over society or public life is not racist, or even necessarily regrettable.
Town councillor Andre Droiun, guiding spirit behind the document, sums up that extreme of the accommodation debate with concise elegance: "We have to make sure that the people who come here want to live like us," he told La Presse. "If Muslims who want to impose sharia law realized that here we don't stone women, they would never have come."
He is, we hasten to say, wrong. The notion other people, even our neighbours, must "live like us" sounds to most people downright tribal. Who can find a Muslim in Quebec who stones women, anyway?
Naturally, all this has buried the town under a landslide of derision, tempered with some alarm.
The other extreme in this debate, meanwhile, asserts uncritically that accommodation is good, that immigrant practices should be welcome here, that immigrants have no responsibility to become "Canadian" (or Quebecois) in any way except by obeying the law, and that in some cases the law should be altered for them.
To judge by the email, open-line shows and letters to the editor, Councillor Droiun has a fair share of public opinion on his side. Legally, his document is laughable. But he is plainly not alone in challenging the multicultural pieties we hear from more sophisticated politicians.
Herouxville is obviously well behind the multiculturalism curve for Quebec. And much of Quebec is, it might be argued, well behind Ontario or British Columbia, where visible and religious minorities have been well-established for a long time - and, in general, have found reasonable accommodation with their old-stock neighbours. In many parts of Canada, of course, "old stock" means "grandchildren of immigrants of the 1930s," or "children of immigrants of the 1950s." Many such accommodations have been made one by one over time, and so people all rub along together from day to day without undue difficulty. In Herouxville - and in much of Quebec outside Montreal - society has been much more homogenous, for longer. Now comes a sudden shock, as this province awakens to the need for immigrants and the fact these might nowadays be other than white francophone Christians.
The Education Department has commissioned a panel of experts to come up with proposals about reasonable accommodation in schools. Perhaps the government should consider a special commission on the whole subject.
Our society needs to be open to newcomers, but newcomers can in turn be expected to show openness to our society. That this is hard to quantify does not make it less desirable. Keeping religion in the private sphere, and out of public life, seems to us to be a reasonable first principle when it comes to making sure everyone is accommodated. There's a lot of work to be done on this issue.
Herouxville website: municipalite.herouxville.qc.ca. The norms are under Avis Public.