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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Quebec to open up debate on integration of immigrants in the province

In Quebec it's called "reasonable accommodation" when it comes to accepting the cultural practices of immigrants - and the debate on the thorny issue is about to be thrown wide open.

Quebecers of all origins will have the chance in public hearings this fall to speak their minds about how immigrants should fit into the province.

Philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard will chair the proceedings in 17 Quebec communities and are encouraging old-stock francophones, immigrants and anglophones to speak out on the subject.

"We have to cover the shaky ground that we have neglected, hidden and pushed aside for years," Bouchard, the brother of former premier Lucien Bouchard, said Tuesday.

"For better or for worse, we're going to deliberately navigate this shaky ground. We'll see if we survive or not, but we're convinced that it's what we now have to do"

Details of the hearings were announced against the backdrop of a public spat between Premier Jean Charest and Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont over the number of immigrants needed in the province.

Charest has accused the ADQ leader of being narrow-minded on the issue.

Quebec currently accepts about 46,000 immigrants a year and Charest has been talking about a significant increase in that number.

The hearings on the so-called reasonable accommodations will begin in early September and run until Nov. 30.

Charest announced the hearings last winter after a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious public debate on the integration of immigrants into the province, a French-speaking minority in North America that considers itself a progressive, secular society.

The controversy was fuelled by various events, including a small town's decision to set up a code of conduct for immigrants, as well as the banning of hijabs from sports competitions such as taekwondo and soccer.

During this year's provincial election campaign, Quebec's chief returning officer received threats and was forced to overturn a ruling that allowed women to vote while wearing a niqab, a more extensive face-covering than the hijab.

A Montreal community health centre came under fire for holding women-only pre-natal classes to make Muslim, Sikh or Hindu women feel more comfortable.

Bouchard said while birthrates are low in many industrialized western societies, Quebecers are worried about their survival and their collective identity.

"Everybody knows there are immigrants in Quebec, everybody knows there are different cultures, and so forth, but it's like all of a sudden a big part of French-Canadian Quebecers have just really become aware of it," he said.

Dumont said Quebec needs more immigrants for economic reasons but must ensure "harmonious integration."

The ADQ leader criticized Charest for wanting to increase the number of immigrants when the Liberal government has cut funding for integrating newcomers into the French language and culture.

"We're a linguistic minority...and immigrants need francization," Dumont said. "It's quite a challenge."

Meanwhile, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois said Tuesday she believes Quebec should have total control over immigration instead of the partial control it now has.

Marois said immigrants must know that French is the common language in Quebec.

"Now they come into Canada and from their point of view it's a bilingual country but when they come to Quebec, you know, the common language is French and that is important." [Link]

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