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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Much ado about not much

Multiculturalism debated in Quebec

QUEBEC and the defence of cultural traditions have long, and not always happily, been linked in the minds of Canada's English-speaking majority. Now Quebeckers are themselves seeing things from a majority point of view, bridling, in this context, at the claims of immigrants in their French-speaking province. An official commission, however, thinks the complaints are overdone.

Back in 2006 several unrelated incidents led some Quebeckers to think that too much was being asked of them in welcoming immigrants, and too little of the newcomers themselves. A Sikh boy went to court and won the right to wear a ceremonial dagger to school. A gym bowed to a request from Hasidic Jews to frost over windows so the Lycra-clad bodies of women working out wouldn't be visible to their nearby congregation. A man was asked to leave a pool so that a group of Muslim women could swim in private.

These cases were seized upon by a declining Montreal tabloid and by Mario Dumont, the popular young leader of an upstart conservative party. To defuse the issue, Jean Charest, Quebec's Liberal premier, set up the commission and asked two prominent intellectuals—Gérard Bouchard, a pro-independence sociologist, and Charles Taylor, a federalist philosopher—to chair it. This worked politically: Mr Charest scraped back for a second term, though Mr Dumont's party catapulted from four to 41 seats in the provincial parliament, becoming the main opposition.

After a year in which it held endless town meetings and received 900 written submissions, some inflammatory, the commission reported this month. Its conclusions were nuanced and moderate. The crisis was one of “perception”, in which the media had grossly distorted the controversial incidents, the chairmen said. To soothe both sides they made a long list of recommendations. They urge speedier recognition of foreign qualifications to make it easier for immigrants to get jobs (of more interest than cultural accommodation to most). They want the government to coax more of the 45,000-odd immigrants who come to the province each year to settle outside Montreal, in the rural regions where misgivings about migration are highest. And more should be done to ensure that migrants quickly learn French—and more Quebeckers learn English.

The report pleased immigrant organisations but not the original grumblers. They want more stress on making immigrants integrate and conform. “Does it mean that in our daycares, our primary schools and in all milieus we will have to hide our Christmas trees and Easter bunnies in the closet?” asked one of Mr Dumont's aides of a proposal that the Quebec government produce an annual calendar showing holidays of all faiths. No, is the answer. Mr Charest is enjoying a rare spell of popularity, and seems to have no intention of jeopardising it. Even before the report was released, he rejected its symbolic proposal to reinforce Quebec's secular image by removing the crucifix over the speaker's chair in the provincial legislature. [Link]

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