Canada: a nation of bigots?
It's clear that our national renown for tolerance is breaking down
MARTIN PATRIQUIN | October 22, 2007 |
Claude Bazinet, a tall man with a wild wisp of white hair, stood on nervous legs and, to a packed room with television cameras rolling, spewed forth his feelings on the immigrants coming to his native Quebec. He spoke of Quebec's tiny Hasidic Jewish population who have "built houses on our land" and surrounded them with fences; he castigated those new arrivals who, because of their skin colour, were favoured by his former employer; he suggested the Muslim faith was endangering Christmas.
"We receive them here, we feed them, we house them, we give them an education, and they don't integrate at all," Bazinet said into the microphone. "What do they do to accommodate? Nothing." As he sat down, many in the audience winced. But many others clapped.
Bazinet, a former Bell Canada employee who grew up in Montreal, is one of roughly 340 people who have spoken their mind so far at Quebec's hearings on "reasonable accommodations," a travelling commission chaired by two academics attempting to gauge the province's feelings on immigrants and Quebec society. Premier Jean Charest called it into action last February during an election campaign dominated by issues of immigration and Quebec identity, and in the wake of an embarrassing controversy over the town of Hérouxville's infamous bylaws, the early versions of which outlawed stoning and female circumcision. The commission has been dismissed, sometimes by those testifying before it, as a puff of political expediency. But it has proven to be more revealing, even disturbing than that.
Comments like Claude Bazinet's have come with some frequency. "When I'm in Montreal, I don't feel at home when I see these veiled women on Côte-des-Neiges and Côte-St-Catherine," said Micheline Bélanger at the hearings in Rimouski. "I feel like I'm in Saudi Arabia, and I shouldn't. This is my country." Retiree Aimé Dion used his turn to speak at the hearing's stop in St. Jerome to denounce what he saw as an overrepresentation of kosher items in the aisles of his local grocery store. "When I eat, I want quality, not the benediction of a rabbi," he exclaimed.
By now, the commissioners -- sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor -- must be used to these tirades. By the time they wrap up in November they'll have sat through 17 sessions, listened to nearly 1,000 witnesses, and been presented with upwards of 120 briefs on the subject. Not all opinions will be of the sort uttered by Bazinet, Bélanger and Dion. They've heard from people wholeheartedly accepting of immigrants, and from those who see immigration as a demographic necessity. They've heard from those who profess to welcome immigrants, but worry the public accommodation of religious rights threatens Quebec's much vaunted "secular society." And they've heard from those who believe society should be secular, so long as it respects the province's Catholic "roots." In Joliette, Bouchard acknowledged the difficulty of resolving the mass of competing opinions. "We ourselves sometimes worry the commission might be useless," he said.
Perhaps. But the hearings have at least demonstrated how utterly conflicted Quebecers are on the question of how accommodating they should be to newcomers, and to cultural and religious minorities.
And Quebecers aren't the only ones. The past few months have seen a number of high-profile incidents echoing the sorts of sentiments heard in Quebec. In Vancouver on Sept. 13, über-manager Bruce Allen, who represents the likes of Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé and who will be co-producing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics, didn't mince words: Canada, he declared on his popular radio show, has "rules." "If you're immigrating to this country and you don't like the rules that are in place, then you have the right to choose not to live here," he said. If immigrants don't like it, "We don't need you here. You have another place to go. It's called home. See ya." The comments, which Allen prefaced with an apparent admonition of "immigrant bashing," sparked hundreds of complaints, but Allen refused to apologize, leaving his old friend, the former mayor and current senator Larry Campbell, to come to his defence. "This accusation of racism is wrong," he told one reporter. "I know him and I know he's not a racist."
In the town of Georgina, Ont., police have been investigating incidents of "nipper tipping," the ugly term for assaults on Asians in the quiet cottage-country area around Lake Simcoe. At once horrified and apologetic about what is going on, Georgina Mayor Robert Grossi said his town isn't unique. "You can drill down into any community and find the same thing," he told the National Post. In Mississauga, Ont., an Islamic high school was vandalized twice in August. Arsonists torched the private Abraar School in Ottawa late last month on the first day of Ramadan. And in Calgary last month, three potential jurors in a murder trial of an alleged Muslim hit man were excused after they admitted they may be biased against the accused because of his religion.