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Racism and reasonable accommodation inQuebec: The debate is a farce

The debate is a farce

Hayder (with Hallal): "Very intrusive, very discriminatory"
Photo: Stefan Christoff

Muslim community leaders decry fallout from increasingly divisive reasonable accommodation dialogue

Islamic identity in Quebec rests at the centre of the current storm of debate surrounding reasonable accommodation as the rights of Muslim minorities in the province to publicly practise religious customs are under attack in a state-sponsored commission.

Startling many Canadians is the overt racism towards non-dominant cultures in Quebec, expressed repeatedly in hearings initiated by the Liberal minority government of Jean Charest on the eve of the last provincial elections. Québécois from the rural regions of the province are delivering a social discourse that is shaking the contested conception of Canada as a multiculturally tolerant society.

"The only way to return peace and harmony in Quebec is to ban religious accommodation," announced a woman participating in the state commission in Gatineau in October. Dominant symbols of Christianity in the province aren’t up for discussion in the hearings, as the giant cross on Mount Royal continues to shine nightly in the sky.

Muslim community groups throughout the city are organizing their response to the current debate surrounding reasonable accommodation in the lead-up to the public hearings in Montreal, scheduled for Nov. 27 in French and Nov. 29 in English.

The civil rights of Muslim women within Islamic practices are being fiercely discussed throughout Quebec, often by non-Muslims in the rural regions of the province who have never encountered a Muslim face-to-face.

"I think that the motivation was not really to have a real debate or dialogue around issues that people don’t understand or are not comfortable with – they want to apply their own view of women’s liberty, so I find this very intrusive, very discriminatory," explains May Hayder of Montreal’s Al-Hidaya Association.

In the context of Quebec’s discussion on reasonable accommodation, the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, a provincial body that advises the government on issues relating to women, appealed to Charest’s Liberals to force public employees to remove visible religious symbols within workspaces.

Apart from large Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Jewish yarmulkes, targeted symbols include the common headscarf which conceals the hair and neck of Muslim women, arguing its abolition would ensure equality between men and women in Quebec.

"Freedom of religion must be limited, intrinsically, by the right to equality between women and men," explains Christiane Pelchat, the president of the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, in a statement during which she described equality between the sexes as a "hallmark of the Quebec identity."

According to the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, Islamic symbols such as the headscarf send "a message of the submission of a woman, which should not be conveyed to young children as part of a secular education, which is required to promote equality between men and women."

The targeting of Islamic symbols in the context of reasonable accommodation is pushing increasing numbers within Montreal’s Muslim community to feel isolated from the broader society.

"How do you want to liberate a woman by imposing on her a certain way of life that she herself doesn’t agree on?" asks Hayder. "I don’t see this as liberation. I see this as oppression, actually. If for any reason Muslim women feel that things are being imposed on them within their community or faith, we live in a democratic society in which freedom is cherished and where they have the freedom to liberate themselves."

Lost in the current debate is also a recognition that a Muslim community and Islamic customs have existed in Montreal since the late 1800s, when both Christian and Muslim migrants from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine first established communities here.

"A Muslim community first established itself in Quebec more than 100 years ago. People from the Middle East have had an impact on the formation of Quebec society for generations," explains Hesham Hallal of the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montréal, one of Montreal’s largest Muslim community centres.

"For now this discussion on reasonable accommodation is not a debate. For a real debate to happen it needs to occur on a basis of equality. However, today we are witnessing a discourse rooted in a majority against a minority discourse," continues Hallal.

According to Mostafa Henaway of the Immigrant Workers’ Centre in Côte-des-Neiges, the current discussion on reasonable accommodation has nothing to do with building a secular society in Quebec.

"Harper’s Conservatives and the ADQ in Quebec are targeting the religious elements of the Muslim community to push a conservative and pro-war agenda in this province," explains Henaway. "This debate has nothing to do with secular politics, or creating a secular society. Real secularism would allow people to express their individual religion and spirituality, not in conflict with the rest of society, which is the opposite of the current discussion on reasonable accommodation."

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  7 comments

  • by Pierre Bouchard - November 15, 2007, 9:01 am

    Quebec Council on the Status of Women are a pack of bigots

  • by Steve Boudrias - November 15, 2007, 1:58 pm

    So, mister Christoff, this Bouchard-Taylor is not really a debate ?

    Wow ! How can you get to this superb conclusion ? Oh, sorry, you have made a long text full of disconnected arguments to make your point.

    It is ok with me. But the truth is that you are not facing the reality, sir.

    There is a debate. There is an exchange between the two intellectuals that runs the so-called “freak show” and, yes, it is true : White French Christian people feel free to express their feelings about what they see on the news.

    Sorry if we are acting on the microphone like a majority in Québec.

    Sorry if a couple of realistic rules coming from out of town is freaking you out, buddy.

    Sorry if those people are saying : here, we are not going to tolerate lapidation, ok ?

    Sorry if we are opening the microphone to hear the whole population of the Belle Province (and not just White French Christian).

    Sorry if we are so reasonnable that we have nominated two of the best intellectual in Québec to reprent both sides at the commission.

    Sorry the actual Prime Minester (a Liberal, a man that is leading the political group that all of you, anglo-allophone people are going to vote for at the next election) is doing such a great job that he did not take part of this commission by sending one of his own minister.

    Sorry if you cannot realize that you are so comfortable here, as a minority, that you cannot remember that Fatima Houda-Pépin had to rise up at the Assemblée Nationale a couple of years ago to protect us ALL from being cut in a sharia based juridiction in the province (because in Ontario, they were this close >.< to create two different classes of women).

    Sorry if my english is better than your french.

    Sorry if you have the balls, as an arab community, to go and “see” the population of Héroulxville without having the same hospitality to bring them back to your home or inside your so welcoming mosquée.

    Sorry if I am telling you that you are full of sh…

  • by Robert Greig - November 15, 2007, 9:10 pm

    Let’s get something straight here. There is a huge difference between freedom, democracy, reasonable accomodation and societal dictators called Secularists.

    They are the religious cult of the irreligious elite. It is time for these sick God-bashers to SHUT-UP!

    I agree that religious groups should not impose their rules on society. At jobs where there is a dress code, immigrant SEIKHS from India sould not be in any law enforcement agency. If they want to work for the RCMP, their turbins and daggers have to go. If they expected to come to this country where I was born and grew up in, I expect immigrants to become a part of CANADIAN CULTURE.

    Whether the Secular cult, Atheists or other religions like it or not, Christians are in North America. Our fore-fathers left the DARK-AGES behind. We don’t need the DARK-AGES Secular dictators, or the foreigners to drag their MULTI-CULTURAL baggage here.

    As far as I’m concerned immigrants are welcome to my country, although I was rejected by the Australian government for being physically disabled. When I was in other countries for twenty years, I never imposed my culture on them.

    Therefore, this part of the world is for CHRISTIANS and for DISABLED PEOPLE!

  • by Aalya Ahmad - November 19, 2007, 8:34 pm

    First of all, M. Steve Boudrias, your angry, inaccurate post is barely coherent and riddled with jarring gallicisms, so please don’t make the ridiculous claim that “my english is better than your french” because you are not writing English, sir.

    Such posts as the above confirm the ignorant self-righteousness and arrogance that characterize much of the discourse surrounding this public discussion. However, I am glad to see this racism exposed. It is much better than what I call the “nicitating eyelid” of PC-masked racism in Ontario where I lived for a long time. There, it is deeply unfashionable to be a racist, so the racists are slippery and difficult to confront. At least the good people of Herouxville are open about their ignorance and the dialogue can at least be attempted.

    It’s much easier to stand up to and educate about racism when it is brought out in the open. So whatever the Bouchard-Taylor public hearings may be, I don’t agree that they are a farce. I’m glad the Muslim communities of Quebec are getting a chance to have their say.

  • by Edward Ruthazer - November 27, 2007, 8:44 am

    As a foreigner living in Quebec, I find the very concept of reasonable accommodation to be absurd. Quebeckers pride themselves on having a culture that is tolerant and egalitarian. Equality based on sexual orientation, sex or race is undeniable here and the people of Quebec should be proud of this. How is it then that the religious beliefs and cultural values of immigrants are treated with such disdain? Is freedom simply the right to live, to physically exist, or is it the right to think for oneself? To decide for oneself how one wants to live one’s life? The answer is obvious.
    So I find it particularly strange when Quebeckers protest how immigrants choose to live their own lives. Reasonable accommodation is not about demanding that the people of Quebec change their own lifestyles, alter their own dress, speak a different language…It is about simply accepting that other people may choose not to adopt your lifestyle, your dress, and perhaps even your language. They do this to their own detriment as it hurts their ability to fully enjoy what this society offers, but THE CHOICE IS THEIRS TO MAKE.
    Quit your whining about how your are being oppressed by these foreigners who have decided not to emulate you 100% and get back to living your own lives already. You are correct to feel national pride, but you gain nothing by taking that away from others.

  • by K Li - December 11, 2007, 4:39 am

    I live in a province in which Quebec-born, foreign-”educated” politicians who can publicly use terms such as “les yeux brides” (translated: slanted eyes) to label people of Asian origin, and STILL have consensus from their opponents that it’s a commonly (hence justifiably) used remark.

    There’s a reason why Quebec is coined the American South of Canada. Unless there’s a significant population that agrees with me that we live in a province that exhibits consistently racist tendencies, we’ll never shake off that label.

  • by Jane Ahmed - December 17, 2007, 3:29 pm

    The Muslim headscarf (hijab, al-amira, shayla, khimar and chador) is a symbol of oppression of women. PERIOD.

    The Berka and niqab are shackles.

    These headscarf is an affront to Canadian freedoms and as offensive as a person hoisting a Nazi flag in a public forum. It is the antithesis of what Canadians have fought and died for in the wars and as peace keepers. It is counter to democracy and the Canadian/Quebec way of life and Culture. At its base level, it represent the mindset of Marc Lépine (Gamil Gharbi) who murdered fourteen women and wounded ten women at the École Polytechnique. In fact, the headscarf is far WORSE than an offensive cartoon.

    The expression of religious belief CANNOT EVER supersede the fundamental right of equality to male and female persons guaranteed under the Canadian Charter.

    BAN THE HIJAB, AL-AMIRA, SHAAYLA, KHIMAR, CHADOR BERKA AND NIQAB IN QUEBEC SCHOOLS. OUTLAW THE BERKA AND NIQAB ACROSS QUEBEC.

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