Not particularly accommodating
Quebec voters are making fear of visible minorities a hot issue
MARTIN PATRIQUIN | September 24, 2007 |
Within a matter of moments, the conference room became sweaty and overstuffed. Some young but mostly old people clamoured for a seat and a view of the stage. Rules were laid out, microphones distributed, and the barrage commenced in earnest. "Us Quebecers don't have our place anymore," said one Gatineau resident. Declared another: "We don't know our own rules and we let ourselves be pushed around by immigrants who seem to know better."
One woman told of her shock and dismay after seeing two veiled women at a local shopping centre with five children in tow. "I don't have any problem with these people, but what are we becoming?" Added Rémi Lefebvre: "In Egypt, I lived among Muslims. I endured them, and it looks like I'll have to endure them again." Cheers and applause ensued. A few speakers railed against les Anglais, with one suggesting new arrivals should be compelled to attend CEGEP in French. Others opined on the importance of respect and secularism in Quebec society; others still on how we respect too much. The few visible minorities in attendance spoke as well -- and mostly shook their heads at what they were hearing.
If this was an exercise in gauging how far the province should go in accommodating its immigrants, it seems the Quebec government is in for quite an earful. Spearheaded by Jean Charest during the last election, in part to capitalize on Mario Dumont's championing of the hot-button immigration issue, the commission headed by historian Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor will tour 17 regions of the province to soundboard Quebecers' feelings on the touchy subject.
It's of little surprise that nearly half the audience of 140 in Gatineau, site of the first forum, rose to speak: simply put, Quebecers are obsessed with the topic. "Reasonable accommodation" first popped up in the mid-1980s as a policy-wonk term to describe the integration of the mentally and physically handicapped into the workplace. For many in Quebec, at least, it has since become a code phrase to describe the threat immigrants pose to their way of life. And if the tone and veracity of the speeches were any indication, the commission's mandate of examining how immigrants should be integrated into Quebec society threatens to become a treatise on the very future of immigration in the province in general.
Earlier this year, the community of Herouxville put its phantom immigrant hordes on notice: the town, its council proclaimed, would not tolerate the stoning or circumcision of females. More recently, the idea that veiled Muslim women might be able to vote in Quebec's upcoming three by-elections without showing their faces unleashed frothy headlines; when Benjamin Rubin, a star forward with the Gatineau Olympiques, refused to play several key matches because they fell on a Jewish holiday, the uproar was instantaneous. "I think the Jews will end up forcing the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to reschedule all their matches on Fridays and Saturdays," wrote one blogger on a popular NHL site. "We have to accommodate them, after all."(In fact, Rubin and the Olympiques came to an agreement, and he will only miss a handful of games.)
Pauline Marois recently suggested re-appropriating the term "nous"("us")when referring to Quebecers -- to some an echo of remarks in former premier Jacques Parizeau's "money and ethnic votes" speech following the 1995 referendum. Though she said the term should be inclusive, she failed to mention exactly who constituted the inevitable "them." It isn't likely anyone in Charlevoix, where Marois is hoping to gain a seat in the National Assembly: with just 85 immigrants in a population of about 30,000, the district is overwhelmingly white and French. And therein lies the problem, according to Robert Mayrand. The director of SITO, a Gatineau-based job-placing service for immigrants, Mayrand believes white Quebecers are hardly exposed to different cultures. This is particularly true for those living outside of Montreal, home to roughly 90 per cent of the province's immigrants.
Gatineau, it seems, is an exception. The amalgamated city region counts some 20,000 immigrants in a population of about 242,000, and Mayrand says it is "very open to immigrants" for good reason: 79 per cent of the 300 who used SITO's services last year had at least a college education, in a city where the high school dropout rate is 37 per cent. "But if you go 15 km in any direction, you can feel the difference," says Mayrand. "There are people who think like Herouxville. They say, 'We will take immigrants if they are white and speak French.' "
Job placement for immigrants, meanwhile, is especially difficult in the province, according to a recent Statistics Canada study. The unemployment rate of recent arrivals to Quebec stands at 17.8 per cent -- nearly triple that of Manitoba and six percentage points higher than the Canadian average. Part of the problem lies with the province's professional orders, Mayrand says, which often fail to recognize degrees and training from other countries. Mostly, though, it is Quebec's powerful and comparatively wealthy postwar population that sees immigration as a threat to its culture rather than an economic necessity. "Reasonable accommodations are a baby-boomer phenomenon," said Mayrand, a boomer himself. "The boomers took all the places and made a very comfortable and egoist place for themselves, with nice houses, secure jobs and pensions. And the presence of immigrants is making them feel out of place."
Josiane Oscar would wholeheartedly agree. The self-described "citizen of the world, resident of Gatineau" used her allotted two minutes(and more)to decry what she'd heard from her fellow Quebecers during the three often stifling hours of hearings. "We talk like immigrants come here to steal our jobs and to bother us, and that we as Quebecers shouldn't allow this," said Oscar. "I feel there is a malaise at the heart of Quebec society. If we as a society are so sure of our own values, the values of others shouldn't be so shocking to us."
It wasn't the first contrarian opinion of the night. Earlier, Ian Michon, a twentysomething student from Gatineau, said he couldn't understand what all the fuss is about. "Maybe I've been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I've never once felt imposed upon by any immigrant," he said. Given the overwhelming number of white faces in the crowd -- and in Quebec outside of Montreal as a whole -- it's a wonder more of Michon's fellow citizens don't feel the same way.