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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Political courage needed on accommodation

Quebecers strongly oppose almost any cultural or religious accommodation of immigrants and other minority Quebecers, according to survey findings published yesterday in La Presse. The findings are a sobering measure of the size of the problem Quebec faces and a clear indication that some political courage is going to be needed.

The poll results are dramatic: A hijab on the soccer pitch? 70 per cent of respondents are against. Turbans for Sikh Mounties? Nearly 80 per cent against. The kirpan? Female-only swimming? Male-only driving testers for Hasidic Jews? No, no, and no, by large margins.

People of common sense and goodwill can certainly disagree on many of these issues. But in Quebec's current happy social context these strikingly one-sided results - if not the entire debate - seem to us somewhat irrational.

Immigrants, by and large, integrate into our society rapidly and well. To Quebec's credit, newcomers are not parked in homogeneous ghettos. In our red-hot economy there is opportunity for all, removing the economic-fear component from the equation. You don't hear many, if any, claims that visible minorities are "coming here to steal our jobs."

So why all this opposition? One figure offers a hint: 58 per cent object to providing prayer spaces in public buildings. That's far fewer naysayers than on most such issues.

This leads us to suspect that the less visible a practice, the more acceptable it's deemed. Praying to Allah or anyone else is bothersome to fewer old-stock Quebecers if done in private; but Heaven (so to speak) help the 13-year-old girl who wears a scarf to play soccer. Even the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, an organization dedicated to social equality, is campaigning to forbid public-sector employees from displaying any overt signs of culture or religion.

It's doing this in the name of a secular state, but the subtext is far different. If an SAAQ clerk or a teacher is barred by law from wearing a hijab, a turban or a kippa, what is the message? What is retained - by adults and kids - is that there's something wrong with these symbols - and, by extension, their wearers.

There is some good news in the survey. Younger Quebecers revealed themselves to be far more accommodating than their elders. That openness bodes well for the long term.

In the meantime, it will be the duty of elected politicians to make sure that the smooth integration of these immigrants - and their acceptance - continues. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission and the water-cooler discussions it has engendered have revealed, for better or for worse, some unexpectedly deep pools of cultural insecurity, or at least anxiety, among established populations.

Premier Jean Charest has been steadfast so far, in his public comments, in supporting an open and modern society. He'll need to keep doing that, and it won't be easy.

As for opposition leader Mario Dumont, so close to taking power, and for Pauline Marois, considered by many to be the best potential premier, they could continue to profit politically by talking about the narrow "nous."

But before they do, they need to ask themselves: what kind of society will we have if we try to jam everyone into the same mould? [Link]

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