Canada's Renown for Tolerance Is Breaking Down | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canada's Renown for Tolerance Is Breaking Down

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 22, 2007. Partner content is not updated.

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.

Canada's Renown for Tolerance Is Breaking Down

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.

It would be tempting to dismiss all of it as an aberration, but Governor General Michaëlle JEAN, for one, hopes people don't. She believes the entire country would benefit from Quebec-style hearings, and from recognizing that expressions of bigotry will inevitably emerge. "Racism is a problem in every society," Jean recently told the CanWest newspaper chain. "It has to do with ignorance. It has to do with misunderstandings and it is something we must always be vigilant about. Sometimes, of course, there are disturbing things that come out from that dialogue. But I think it is worth having it instead of pretending that it's all fine."

Since it was enshrined as official policy in 1971, MULTICULTURALISM has been worn by Canadians as a badge of honour even as its consequences have remained happily abstract. But if tolerance has long been one of the touchstones of Canadian identity, there is reason to believe our cherished multicultural tapestry is fraying.

Beyond the incendiary comments, the issue revolves around this question of "reasonable accommodations" of cultural and religious minorities, and where the limits should be drawn. Just how fraught the matter is became clear in this month's Ontario election campaign, when Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory found himself pounded in the polls when he advocated extending public funding to faith-based schools. For most Ontarians, this was one accommodation too far.

The response should perhaps have been expected. Consider a recent SES poll on reasonable accommodations conducted for the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy. When asked if they agreed with the following statement - "it is reasonable to accommodate religious and cultural minorities" - a mere 18 per cent said yes. How many thought immigrants should "adapt fully to culture in Canada"? Fifty-three per cent. When it came to accommodating religious and cultural minorities in public places, such as schools, hospitals and government buildings, 37 per cent thought there should be no accommodation at all, with smaller portions accepting some accommodation but only six per cent advocating full accommodation. The numbers were even more striking for accommodation in the workplace, with 45 per cent saying there should be none, and just four per cent agreeing with full accommodation.

"By significant majorities in Canada as a whole, and by overwhelming majorities in Quebec, Canadians and Quebecers declare limits to reasonable accommodation," reads the poll synopsis.

The geographic breakdowns were indeed stark. A full 77 per cent of Quebecers thought immigrants should fully adapt (just five per cent said it was reasonable to accommodate), and in Ontario 49 per cent agreed (with just 22 per cent saying accommodation was reasonable). Perhaps suprisingly, given their relative provincial images, support for accommodation was highest in the Atlantic provinces, Alberta and the Prairies.

On the other hand, geographic breakdowns don't tell the whole story, suggests Victor Piché, a Université de Montréal sociologist and a senior adviser for the human rights group Action Canada for Population and Development. "Rather, income and education are better indicators of acceptance than province of residence."

Well, sort of. The SES poll does suggest those with less education, as well as older Canadians, tended to be less accommodating. Only 17 per cent of Canadians aged 55 to 64 thought it was reasonable to accommodate, compared with 24 per cent of those aged 25 to 34. And as for education, just 24 per cent of those with a university education saw accommodation as reasonable, while 50 per cent said immigrants should integrate. This is higher than the 9.6 per cent with a high-school education or less who saw accommodation as reasonable, but it hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement.

Nor does income seem to have much to do with the degree of tolerance. Canada's middle class, the SES poll indicates, is least at ease with the idea of accommodating religious and cultural minorities: roughly 64 per cent of those earning between $40,000 and $49,999 a year believe it is up to immigrants to fully adapt to Canadian culture, a full 18 percentage points higher than among those earning less than $25,000, and 8.7 percentage points higher than those earning between $50,000 and $74,999. (The numbers drop off again among those earning $75,000 or more.)

In fact, a Léger Marketing study released last January found 47 per cent of Canadians outside of Quebec consider themselves at least somewhat racist. (In Quebec, the number is 59 per cent.) Another countrywide poll, this one from the Association for Canadian Studies, suggests Canadians believe conflict between Christians and Muslims will eventually overshadow the country's long-standing (if relatively benign) quarrel between the English and French.

Until very recently, says Nik Nanos, author of the SES poll, it was easy to defend multiculturalism because it didn't mean much to most Canadians' lives. "The issue is a little bit like the environment. Everyone is for the environment until you get into the details. Canadians are psychologically on board in having a cultural mosaic in our country. But when the rubber hits the road, there are concerns that people have as to the degree of accommodation. When someone comes to Canada, do we accommodate them, or do they accommodate us?"

Of course, religion, and the accommodation of religious minorities and customs, is the flashpoint at the moment. The issue has been on the boil in Quebec for decades, re-emerging in 2006 with a Supreme Court of Canada decision allowing a young Sikh student from Quebec to wear his ceremonial dagger to school. The decision effectively mirrored an earlier agreement between school administrators and the boy's parents, before lawyers became involved, but it remains a source of resentment, and is constantly referenced during the commission hearings.

But even before the hearings began there were signs of a growing belief among Quebecers that secularism has been sacrificed at multiculturalism's altar. Last winter, after the Hérouxville affair, a sugar-shack owner outside of Montreal received numerous threats when, in an effort to attract Muslim clients, he dared to remove pork from certain helpings of his pea soup and baked beans. In February, Quebec's human rights commission awarded ambulance driver Yvon Verreault $10,000 after he was asked to leave a kosher dining hall at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital because he had been eating a lunch of spaghetti with non-kosher sauce from his Tupperware container. (This last incident had newspaper columnists writing themselves into a lather about the demise of Quebec's secularism - with a few notable exceptions. "Are Francophones, who form 88 per cent of the Quebec population and control its institutions, so fragile that their identity is threatened because pork is prohibited in a kosher cafeteria in a Jewish hospital?" wrote La Presse's Lysiane Gagnon.)

The list goes on: Hasidic leaders in Montreal ask a local YMCA to frost its windows to prevent young Hasids from gazing upon the female form. The YMCA agrees, only to backtrack once the news gets out. A soccer referee, himself Muslim, says a young girl can't play while wearing her hijab. Discrimination, howled team management; choking hazard, said the Quebec Soccer Federation. Most famously, the province's collective temper flared when Canada's chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand ruled there was nothing in the law preventing Muslim women from voting in by-elections there (or in federal elections, for that matter) while wearing a veil. All three federal leaders expressed consternation; Mayrand says he was enforcing a law Parliament had approved. Besides, the law was meant to accommodate not veiled women but write-in voters, who by definition cannot show their faces. So why all the fuss?

French Quebecers have had a difficult relationship with multiculturalism long before the current, often pungent, headlines. Many Quebec federalists and sovereigntists alike believe multiculturalism, with its emphasis on racial and cultural identity, is a threat to the French language. Former premier Bernard LANDRY, among many others, has long denied the multicultural fact in Quebec, preferring instead the "intercultural" model emphasizing the dominance of the French language. Since the Quiet Revolution and the slackening of the Catholic Church's influence, many Quebecers have become knee-jerk secularists, quick to abhor any sort of religious meddling in society. The outcry over these incidents, they argue, is not evidence of intolerance, but comes from a simple desire for a secular society.

Except, of course, when this isn't the case at all. One of former PQ leader André Boisclair's many gaffes was to forcefully suggest the cross staring down over the National Assembly was archaic and should be removed; he had to backpedal after the ensuing uproar. And last week, the Quebec Council on the Status of Women proclaimed that in the name of a secular, egalitarian state, all public employees should remove their hijabs, yarmulkes and other religious symbols. The council made an exception, though, for the cross, when worn around the neck. Religious or not, Quebecers remain attached to their Catholic roots; even in Montreal, often regarded as a cesspool of vice and godlessness by those who don't live there, a giant, illuminated cross dominates the skyline. In Quebec, it seems secularism often extends only as far as the nearest crucifix.

And if Christianity is the exception to the rule, the target of the rule is more often than not Islam. This is true outside of Quebec, too; when Canadians talk about religious minorities, inevitably the conversation turns to Muslims. The good people of Hérouxville weren't thinking of Hindu Canadians when they established "rules" for incoming immigrants (should they ever arrive; there is exactly one immigrant family in the town of roughly 1,350 souls). Chief among the irritants, it seems, is the wearing of the hijab. Dozens of speakers at the reasonable accommodation hearings have teed off on the head coverings - often mistaking them for the more restrictive niqabs or burkas - by suggesting they represent the subjugation of women, or even the spectre of an advancing Muslim theocracy on Canadian shores. To several Canadian Muslim organizations, the silence on the part of womens' advocacy groups has been deafening. "Where are the feminists who talk about freedom of choice?" says Shahina Siddiqui, a director with the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It seems you only have freedom of choice if it's on their terms." The backlash against head coverings and the Muslim faith in general has been so overwhelming that Gérard Bouchard has himself wondered out loud if respondents are perhaps overreacting. After all, Muslims constitute only 1.4 per cent of Quebec's population.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is strong enough that instances of hate crimes against Muslims are up significantly, at least according to a recent report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Commissioner Barb Hall cited "an enormous increase" in these types of attacks, many of which followed the Toronto-area arrest in June 2006 of 14 men and four youths for allegedly planning several terrorists attacks. In Edmonton, vandals weren't content with the usual breaking of windows and the throwing of eggs at the Canadian Islamic Centre; last fall, they left bits of pork scattered on the centre's doorstep.

"Sometimes when we look at what causes hate-motivated crimes to occur, it's definitely a reaction to things that are reported in the media or get attention," says Det.-Sgt. Steve Irwin, head of the Hate Crimes Unit with the Toronto police. "There are significant dates." For instance, a mosque in Toronto had its windows smashed and the front door was broken after the arrests of the terror suspects last year. "It seems unusual that you would have a mosque damaged coincidentally," says Irwin. "It's disappointing sometimes how quickly people point fingers or blame certain groups. And you sit there and say, 'Where did that come from? What part of thinking have you stopped doing?' "

The trend is evident on university campuses, too. A recent Canadian Federation of Students report, written from the findings of 17 college university hearings held across Ontario, documented dozens of instances of vandalism and assault targeting Muslim students, including one incident at Queen's University in which students set fire to a Muslim Students' Association banner on the last night of Ramadan. According to the report, the University of Western Ontario wouldn't accommodate Muslim students taking an introductory drawing course involving the sketching of nude models. The students asked for an alternate assignment, but the university senate allegedly gave them an ultimatum: sketch the naked people or fail the course. "Failings in accommodating Muslim students were present, in some form or another, in all facets of campus life," reads the report.

And why Muslims? One reason is simple demographics: between 1991 and 2001, when the last statistics were available, Canada's Muslim population doubled, making ISLAM the fifth biggest religious faith in the country and the second biggest in every major Canadian city save for Vancouver.

Then there's fear. "If it weren't for Islam, this wouldn't be a debate," says professor Peter Beyer, who teaches classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa. "This is part of that post-9/11 anxiety that reflects itself in certain groups much more than others. It used to be that the people who got themselves in the most trouble were the Sikhs back in the 1980s and early 1990s. That doesn't seem to be that much of an issue anymore.

"There has been a kind of a fear that what's happening in Europe is to some degree happening here - an idea that somehow when you have terrorist events, assassinations, riots in the suburbs of Paris, that that's an indication that we potentially have a problem here as well. And of course the Europeans are in many cases responding quite strongly and negatively to the whole idea of immigration and multiplicity, or diversity, ever since those events. And the most recent one in Great Britain with those failed car bombs. We fear that 'our Muslims' are going to be as violent as theirs."

The preoccupation with Islam, Beyer says, has effectively dragged other religions into the fray. "The incidents that involve Muslims and Islam are the core ones without which the other ones wouldn't be nearly the hot-button issue that they might be." Take away Islam, Beyer suggests, and suddenly those grocery aisles stocked with matzos don't seem to be as big a deal.

Tarek Fatah goes further. The founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, who is no stranger to death threats, suggests Islam's radical fringe in Canada has purposefully whipped up anxiety about Muslims in Canada, allowing "political Islamists" who run the mosques and religious schools to convince their brethren in Pakistan and Iran of the West's animosity towards Islam. "It was a very concerted effort to provoke this backlash. It helps in the Islamist domains overseas," Fatah says. "People are not speaking about it, and everyone is careful, but the elephant in the room isn't Islam but political Islam. It is a political agenda very carefully wrapped in religion." That the reasonable accommodations debate is raging in Quebec is no coincidence, Fatah says. "In Quebec, all three political parties have recognized that angst and told the Islamists, 'You don't work for us, go to hell.' "

Though it hasn't attracted nearly the media attention (and doesn't suffer the same preoccupation over language issues), English Canada feels similarly threatened about immigration's effect on its culture, says religion and culture professor John Stackhouse. Accommodation is a popular sentiment, he argues, until people see it as a threat to what they consider core Canadian values. Up until now, "It's been easy to simply give them a share of the multicultural tax pie for them to do various things that they wanted to do. But when they get to a critical mass, they say, 'Maybe we'd like to run our own court system, or maybe we'd like to run our own school,' " says Stackhouse, of British Columbia's Regent College.

Few people know this better these days than John Tory. In a move apparently designed to appeal to Ontario's ethnic vote, traditionally held by the Liberals, the Conservative leader said his government would extend public funding to religious schools. Tory claimed he was only allowing a privilege already held by Ontario's Catholic schools. Certainly, doing so would have righted what a 1999 United Nations report pegged as an inherently discriminatory practice.

Under Tory's plan, funding would be contingent on adhering to provincial educational norms, ostensibly ensuring all students, whether or not they attended religious schools, would learn a standardized curriculum - which isn't the case right now. This seemingly innocuous (and arguably sensible) pledge, made at the beginning of an election campaign strewn with similarly lofty promises, became Tory's albatross. Outraged by what they saw as an affront to the Canadian belief that secularism, not religion, ought to rule the day in the province's school system, Ontarians pilloried Tory throughout the campaign to the point where he had to backtrack, à la Boisclair, from the idea entirely - only to then alienate those voters advocating for religious-based schools.

Ironically enough, Tory might have learned a lesson from opponent Dalton McGUINTY, who has himself butted up against the secular sensibilities of his electorate. In 1991, partly to relieve clogged divorce court dockets, the province modified its Arbitration Act to allow for "faith-based arbitration." Few people knew, or much cared, about the arrangement until 2004, when the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice now famously lobbied to establish an arbitration panel based on sharia, or Islamic law. McGuinty, who only heightened the public's anxiety by taking 18 months to make a decision, turfed the idea - but not before Quebec's National Assembly passed a motion blocking sharia law from Quebec courts.

Quebec's hearings on reasonable accommodations have often resembled motley free-for-alls, in which participants only have to show up in order to have a captive audience and the ear of two of the province's weightier intellectuals. The sometimes hateful overindulgences have been legion. As unseemly as it may get, however, some version of Quebec's very public debate will have to take place across the country; immigration's demographic weight makes it inevitable. "In Quebec specifically, and in the rest of Canada eventually, there is going to be a broader discussion on what Canada is," says pollster Nik Nanos. If the polls, not to mention the litany of anti-immigrant aggression, are any indication, this discussion won't be pleasant. We may be loath to admit it, but a lot of us have some Claude Bazinet in us.

Maclean's October 22, 2007