Julius Grey makes a fascinating point about the "reasonable-accommodation" debate in this week's issue of Voir. The civil-liberties lawyer says people who resist making room for unusual cultural practices are unwittingly acting against their own interests.
Grey says if individuals can gain access to schools, universities, the civil service and other public institutions while, say, wearing a skull cap, a kirpan or a scarf, they'll feel more at ease in Quebec society and identify with it. Reasonable accommodation, thus, acts as a "soft tool" for integrating newcomers into mainstream society.
(At the same time, however, the human rights advocate opposes accommodating practices that might impede integration - such as the wearing of a veil, since facelessness hinders rapport with the wider world.)
Opponents of reasonable accommodation, Grey further suggests, are shooting themselves in the foot. By not wanting to permit cultural practices that rub them the wrong way, they encourage among immigrants a sentiment of exclusion. The result: ghettoization, the very thing those same critics fear.
Grey implies public institutions ought to be integrating forces. People in much of North America would see this insight as self-evident. Yet it eludes many people in Quebec, particularly those who oversee our institutions.
Although Grey does not mention it, these institutions often act in ways that run against the interest of the majority. It's another way mainstream society shoots itself in the foot.
You can see this most vividly in hiring practices. The workforces of most provincial and municipal institutions are job bastions for white francophones. Although politicians over the past 20 years have announced earnest initiatives to recruit a more diverse public workforce, the results are meagre.
Here are the latest figures.
Of Quebec's 58,000 civil servants, only 2.9 per cent are members of visible-minority groups and ethnic minorities whose mother tongue is neither French nor English. (Quebec does not distinguish between the two categories.) That's less diversity than any other province or U.S. state that gets significant immigration, says Fo Niemi of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations.
One-fifth of Montreal Island's population belongs to visible minorities. Yet such groups make up only 6.1 per cent of the city of Montreal's 25,000 workers.
Police exemplify the problem: Only 5.2 per cent of its men and women are from visible minorities. That's less than one third the level in Toronto's police department (16.3 per cent). This visible-minority sub-category includes people of Middle Eastern background, the group whose cultural practices have set off the controversy over reasonable accommodation. (It also includes blacks, Latinos and Asians.)
As for the fire department, to call its record a disgrace would be euphemistic. Of 2,300 firefighters, nine are from visible minorities - a quarter of one per cent.
Little political pressure exists for energetic reform. The white francophone majority won't cede its hammerlock on jobs. But that's not in the long-term interest of society as a whole.
A wise society would make its institutions welcoming to all elements of the population. Such openness would allow newcomers to see themselves reflected in the pillars of society and to feel they have stake in it. What's more, it would let the institutions themselves see that people with unorthodox ways are not threats. It would be a way for a society to immunize itself against the sort of silly paranoia now sweeping much of Quebec.
Incidentally, by "institutions," I don't just mean big solemn employers. I'm also thinking of low-level things like recreation leagues. If cities were to energetically recruit immigrants' kids into municipal hockey leagues, the sport could become, to use Grey's expression, an ideal "soft tool" for integration.
Is it a mere coincidence that the corner of North America with arguably the sorriest record for integration just happens to be the corner most in a tizzy over newcomers' "failure" to fit in? I don't think so.
The real failure belongs to a host society too myopic to see where its own self-interest lies.
We would be wise to open up to newcomers
With jobs and more opportunities, outsiders would integrate quickly