Immigrants would be easier to absorb in a sovereign Quebec, commission hears
The Globe and Mail
November 27, 2007
MONTREAL — Quebeckers need more immigrants to survive, but only sovereignty will give them the security they need to best absorb them, Quebec's commission on accommodating minorities heard yesterday.
After touring the province to a drumbeat of fears and anxiety over immigration, the commission arrived in Montreal – its final stop, and the place where the debate started.
Some speakers offered views at odds with those in rural Quebec. They said the furor over a few incidents has obscured how successfully Quebec has integrated newcomers, and the real problem is populist politicians and some media outlets that have inflamed passions.
But Louis Bernard, a long-time Quebec mandarin and former Parti Quois leadership candidate, said that absorbing newcomers would be easier once French is strengthened and Quebeckers feel secure about their identity. And that can't be done within a bilingual Canada.
“It would be a lot easier for us to be a French country. It would let us be more open,” he said, adding that Quebec's Bill 101 has gone as far as it can go, and immigrants are still free to address federal immigration officials or the courts in English.
Gard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the two academics heading the high-profile commission, decided to end their hearings in Montreal, home to the 70 per cent of immigrants to the province. Their timetable has given the floor for three months to repeated expressions of intolerance in more homogeneous regions of the province.
Those voices have spurred something of a backlash in recent weeks, with critics questioning whether the government-struck commission has given a podium to xenophobic views.
In fact, experts say, Quebec francophones have had remarkable success integrating immigrants, especially considering that they have been doing so only since about the 1970s, said political scientist Louis Balthazar.
With no violence, no street demonstrations and no major incidents involving minorities, Prof. Balthazar wrote in his brief that he finds the problem over minorities is a “virtual” one, “fed by a majority of people who live far from the reality of immigration and ethnic diversity.”
His views were echoed by sociologist Victor Armony, who said the controversy has left a false impression that minorities are obtaining rights and powers at the expense of a francophone majority that has become “the victim.”
Still, one speaker said schools in Montreal are struggling over how to deal with demands by religious minorities. A teachers' representative for a major Montreal school board said the Supreme Court ruling allowing a Sikh boy to wear his kirpan to school in Montreal has left teachers grappling over how to deal with new accommodation requests.
“We have to find a balance between freedom of conscience and the fundamental democratic values of Quebec society,” said Nicole Frascadore, a teachers union official in the district where the kirpan issue flared.
She said the kirpan ruling continues to be a sore point. “People saw it as a privilege. Everyone thinks it's legitimate to defend their beliefs and their loved ones, but no one has the right to use a weapon to do so in Quebec,” Ms. Frascadore said. “It's a dagger, and all knives are totally banned at school.”
The Bouchard-Taylor commission will hold five days of hearings and four open-mike nights this week in Montreal – one night reserved exclusively for anglophones – then has scheduled week-long hearings for provincial organizations such as political parties and interest groups next month.