Hérouxville's Rules Raise Questions on Limits of Tolerance

It's impossible to miss the twice-a-day passage of the freight train that rips through Hérouxville, horn blaring, wheels clattering, bells ringing at the crossing: the track cuts through the main thoroughfare, and traffic stops for several long minutes. Then, after the train has vanished in a cloud of smoke and whirling snow, silence and quiet regain their rights, and the people of Hérouxville can mark the time, knowing that very little else will come to stir their peace and tranquility until the same train roars back in the opposite direction 12 hours later.

That was life for the 1,300 inhabitants of the small Mauricie village, 200 km northeast of Montreal, until, that is, they became the focus of a global controversy that touched off passionate, and often strident, reactions across the country and as far away as Turkey, Russia and Australia. "I don't know if life will ever go back to normal, if we will ever be the same again," says Nicole Jubinville, who runs a small B&B frequented mostly by European tourists seeking northern adventure on snowmobile and dog sled. "Who would have thought, a small village like here, causing a stir that goes all around the world?"

Tap Hérouxville into Google News, U.K., and you'll get 18 pages of headlines. Search for Hérouxville in the French, Italian, or Spanish media, and you'll learn how to spell "beheading" and "stoning" in as many languages. The five-page document that the Hérouxville town council adopted on Jan. 25, purporting, somewhat naively, to inform immigrants of what to expect if they choose to set up shop in this corner of QUEBEC's snowy heartland (an occurrence that has yet to happen) has become a worldwide embarrassment.

The list of community "standards," which draws on the results of a crude, 20-question opinion poll of 196 area residents, managed to offend practically everyone. Muslims felt they were slurred by advice that the only time you may mask or cover your face in Hérouxville is at Halloween. (Not to mention an express prohibition on stoning, live burning or disfiguring women with acid.) Sikhs saw a slight in the rule that children may not carry any weapons "real or fake, symbolic or not" to school, a clear reference to a high-profile court battle that gave a Montreal boy the right to carry a religious kirpan dagger to school. Jews could find echoes of a recent dust-up between a Hasidic synagogue and a neighbouring YMCA in Outremont in the proclamation that gyms in Hérouxville have windows through which you might glimpse women working out in "appropriate exercise wear." The townsfolk even included a message for born-again Christians: biology is taught in local schools.

The media had a field day. Montreal's La Presse touched off the frenzy with a front-page story on Jan. 27. "I woke up the morning after, and there were three satellite trucks parked at my door, antennas deployed, and I went: whoa, what's going on?" says Luc Paquin, whose small, brightly lit greasy spoon, Le Thimotée, across the street from the church, constitutes the village's downtown core. Hordes of reporters descended. City Hall - a part-time mayor, six part-time councillors, and a budget of $1.1 million - was swamped. Vandals, sneaking in at night, smeared buildings and signs with graffiti calling them fascists. A delegation of Muslim women - sponsored by the Canadian Islamic Congress - arrived from Montreal, bearing Middle-Eastern pastries and small gifts. The photo that made most of the papers showed a hijab-wearing visitor wagging her finger in a townswoman's face. The locals despaired. "We've pulled a fire alarm here, but everyone is calling us arsonists," says Paquin.

In Montreal, the good burghers of Hérouxville became the butt of hickster jokes on radio phone-ins and late-night talk shows. France's Libération newspaper accused them of embarking on a "xenophobic crusade." But as the furor subsides, there are signs that their ham-handed attempts to educate newcomers may have struck a deeper chord. The town claims it has received several thousand "mostly approving" emails from all over the world. Quebec Premier Jean CHAREST has created a high-profile commission of inquiry into how the province accommodates new arrivals. And all of a sudden, Canadians are talking about the previously unthinkable. Have we reached the point where we need hard and fast rules for immigrants? A code that spells out just what is expected of newcomers, and how far society is willing to go to help them feel comfortable in their new home? Just such a debate has been raging for months in Quebec. Now it shows signs of spreading to the rest of Canada. Has a country that ranks multiculturalism alongside free health care and hockey in the pantheon of its greatest achievements finally reached the limits of tolerance?

Budget meetings have a way of making the mind wander. And so it was late last fall, during one interminable number-crunching exercise that Hérouxville town council hit upon an idea that sounded like a lot more fun. "We were preparing a 10-year development plan for the city, looking for elements that could favour, or hamper growth," says André Drouin, the motor-mouthed political godfather of the immigrants' code, "when someone mentioned 'reasonable accommodations' as a potential cost factor in the future." Over the past few years, accommodations - the polite, proactive label affixed to a series of divisive skirmishes between religious groups and civil society - have become a hot topic in Quebec. Recent examples include: female inspectors prevented from road-testing Hasidic Jews seeking a driver's licence, an ambulance driver expelled from a Jewish hospital for eating a ham sandwich in a kosher part of the cafeteria, Muslim women demanding that men be barred from prenatal courses, and a father stopped from accompanying his young son to the pool during women's swimming hours.

"To me, the problem is obvious: if these people come here, and then make such outlandish demands, it must be because they were not well informed of how we do things here in the first place," says Drouin. The solution was quickly sketched out, a simple document outlining how things work - right down to the decorations on the Christmas tree - in a small, rural Quebec town. No one was trying to legislate new rules, says the councillor (municipalities don't have that sort of power anyway), they just wanted officials in Quebec City and Ottawa to include the document in their information packages for would-be immigrants. "Not everyone realized ours was a friendly gesture, a gesture of welcoming, not of rejection or exclusion," says Drouin. "If I plan to live in Saudi Arabia or Patagonia, I'll want information about what I'll find there. Immigrants should be informed of what they'll find here." The 60-year-old former military man takes pains to explain that he travelled the world before retiring in Hérouxville and can speak several languages. "I shouldn't be branded a racist just because I explain who we are," he says. Besides, says Drouin, the debate over reasonable accommodation isn't about race anyway but "the fanaticism of three or four religious groups" he refuses to name.

In the past, that sort of corrosive political discourse has always made Canadians - both inside and outside of Quebec - deeply uneasy. But there are signs that may be changing in the post-9/11 world. In Europe, there's a lengthening list of formerly open societies that have chosen to raise the drawbridge. Terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, widespread rioting in France, and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh have stoked fears that allowing immigrants - especially Muslims - to keep their own cultures has created a growing "us and them" divide. France has banned the wearing of the hijab in schools, and the Netherlands is debating whether to go even further, outlawing veils, burkas and head coverings in all public places. (The once-liberal Dutch already boast the toughest immigration rules in Europe, testing the tolerance of would-be newcomers by gauging their reaction to scenes of homosexuals kissing and nude beaches.) Norway now requires citizenship applicants to take 300 hours of language classes. And the U.K. has introduced legislation that will see all non-European workers (including Canadians) start carrying biometric ID cards next year.

Support for similar measures in Canada is by no means overwhelming, but it can be found in some surprising corners. "Multiculturalism allows people to accentuate our differences," says Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a liberal advocacy group. "It's really forcing people not to be part of a cohesive society." Fatah would like to see Canadian authorities go even further than their Dutch counterparts, educating all would-be immigrants about not just what to expect in Canada, but the values of social progress, equality and democracy they will be required to embrace here. "I'm talking about promoting this country with a passion," he says. Canadians' well-mannered reluctance to talk openly about our expectations of immigrants simply masks a growing latent anger, says Fatah. "I ask my non-Muslim friends, tell me honestly, when no one else is around, don't you say, 'Who the f--- are these guys?' "

Canada is welcoming a quarter-million new arrivals every year, most of them visible minorities, hailing from countries where English or French is not the predominant language, and practices and traditions differ greatly from daily life in Halifax, Montreal or Saskatoon. In the past, the country's largest urban centres have borne the brunt of that transformation (visible minorities now make up 43 per cent of Toronto's population, and 49 per cent of its residents were born outside of Canada) but that too is changing. In the mid-1990s, the southern Alberta community of Brooks looked like much of small-town Canada - white and Christian. Today, thanks to the voracious labour needs of one local employer - the giant Lakeside meat-packing plant - it's one of the most diverse centres in the country: 25 per cent of its 12,000 residents are visible minorities, representing every nation in Africa and speaking 76 different languages. Mayor Don Weisbeck makes it clear that Brooks is proud of its changing face. But such massive change doesn't happen smoothly. Some locals have groused about the accommodations, including curtains at the community pool so Muslim women can swim without worrying about the gaze of men. Other difficulties like the language barriers, or the arrivals' "total distrust and fear of police or any uniformed authority" (most new residents of Brooks are refugees from war-torn countries), are harder to solve. More money, support and programs to educate immigrants about the Canadian way of life are needed, says the mayor. "I don't think we should be apologetic about the fact that we want these people to learn our language, to learn our culture, and be able to work with us."

Doreen Medway, the executive director of the Global Friendship Immigration Centre, says few of the newcomers she deals with seem to understand the Canadian vision of democracy and respect for the country's diversity. She tells the tale of a potluck dinner the centre held last year to celebrate Stop Racism day. Medway had brought along tiny flags to stick in the various dishes. An attempt to plant the Ethiopian banner in a meal prepared by some arrivals from the Oromo region in the south of the country almost touched off a riot. Perhaps the flag was ill-advised - the Muslim Oromo have frequently been at odds with the Christian Amhara - but that's not the point, says Medway. "We need to instill tolerance in these people or we're going to have big problems down the road."

The pattern of immigration in Canada has always been fairly predictable. Successive waves of new arrivals have found comfort and support within their own communities, creating enclaves that allowed them to live, work and shop in their mother tongues. It's their kids and grandchildren who have mastered English or French, moved to the suburbs and become fully integrated Canadians.

But these days, there are troubling signs that the tried and true methods of assimilation may no longer be working. A recent Statistics Canada study concluded that the low-income rate ($26,800 for a family of four) among recent immigrant families is now three times higher than for those born in Canada. Unemployment and underemployment rates remain stubbornly high. The study that has caused the most consternation, however, is a recent paper by University of Toronto sociologist Jeffrey Reitz and economist Rupa Banerjee, which found the children of visible minority immigrants not only feel "less Canadian" than their white counterparts, but report more discrimination than their parents. The place where they encounter most racism? Work. "Thirty-five per cent of visible minorities report some discrimination," says Reitz. "That certainly sounds to me like the system is broken." The conditions for a debate about how we treat newcomers, he adds, and what we expect in return, are certainly falling into place.

The question is, what's really driving the agenda? Ever since Sept. 11, pollsters have been poking and prodding Canadians, seeking signs of a growing intolerance. But support for immigration - even at Canada's relatively high levels - has remained robust. We firmly reject the notion that would-be Canadians should have their religious beliefs and values screened before admittance - 68 per cent according to an Environics poll last fall. And more of us - 49 per cent - believe new arrivals should be free to maintain their religious and cultural practices, than be required to "blend in" (40 per cent). In turn, a recent CBC poll of Canada's Muslim community showed more than 80 per cent of respondents said they were broadly satisfied with their lives in this country. Seventy-three per cent were "very proud" to be Canadian; only 17 per cent thought their fellow citizens were hostile to Islam. The most frequent complaint was this country's cold weather.

Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies in Montreal, says the growing debate over accommodation is a phony one - old-time "multiculturalism bashing" masquerading as academic and political discourse. "It's as though a group of people have a set idea and are very uncomfortable about how our diversity is evolving," he says, noting polls that suggest just six per cent of Canadians are uneasy with the idea of a Muslim next-door neighbour. "I think there's a backlash among opinion leaders, but not among the general population."

And certainly it's not true to suggest that the country doesn't already have rules for immigrants. We've drawn explicit legal lines outlawing cultural practices like polygamy and female circumcision. And we do make efforts to educate arrivals about how to fit in. For example, "A Newcomer's Introduction to Canada," a pamphlet published by the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hérouxville declaration. Both agree, in similar language, that children are required to attend school, and that violence toward them is unacceptable. Both frankly raise the issue of same-sex parenting, and both note women's equality to men, although the Hérouxville code leaves nothing to the imagination, listing a woman's right to "drive a car, vote, sign cheques, dance, decide for herself, speak her piece, dress as she sees fit."

The crux of the debate, it seems, is how pointed we are willing to be with our advice, rules and guidelines. The most striking element of the current government guide is what it barely touches - social standards. Our best advice to immigrants on how to fit in? Avoid littering, learn to wait in line, and "bargaining for a better price is not common."

And whether or not we want to discuss them, accommodations for immigrants are now a daily fact of life in Canada. Peel District School Board, just west of Toronto, has one of the most diverse student bodies in the country. It was one of the first boards to allow students to wear kirpans to school, and boasts policies and procedures that are all-embracing. "We acknowledge everything from Devali to Eid to Hanukkah to Christmas," says director of communications Brian Woodland. Students are allowed to wear veils in class "because that's a statement of religious expression." If parents oppose art classes in which their child must draw people, which is common in some faiths, they alter the curriculum. "It's our understanding that we all need to change. It's not just the people who come to the school system who make the concessions," says Woodland. But there are limits. For example, the board won't let faith leaders come into the schools and lead prayer sessions. "There are times when people want accommodation to the point where the heart of the curriculum isn't left," says Woodland. "And we say no to that."

Even the immigrant communities themselves aren't so sure how far all of this should go. Professor Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, likes the idea of the blue-ribbon panel that will make recommendations on how Quebecers might better live with one another, but he balks at turning suggestions into guidelines or rules. "It brings a flashback of Nazi attitudes toward Jews, or apartheid attitudes toward blacks," he says. Since it's almost impossible to "narrowly define what are Canadian values and culture," Elmasry says, supply and demand should be the rule of thumb. If a "critical mass" of people demand only male driver's licence inspectors, then meet the need, he says. "Canada is a mosaic of minorities. We should accommodate one another."

Our checkered history suggests that Canada - a nation of immigrants - has frequently been caught up in the uncomfortable business of balancing the interests of established citizens and newer arrivals. The principle difference in recent years is that the immigrants don't automatically lose. The CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS has altered the playing field, and ushered in court decisions that have changed the face of Canada at a dizzying clip. The pendulum, however, shows signs of swinging back. The Toronto terror arrests and last summer's evacuations from Lebanon have sparked a new debate about what citizens, new and old, owe Canada. And there are many who think we've been a little too flexible, and not quite demanding enough.

Adrienne CLARKSON, Canada's former governor general, argues that there is a pressing need to better integrate newcomers into the mainstream. "We used to say that these people will become Canadians in two or three generations, but I don't think we have time for that anymore," says Clarkson, who now heads the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, an organization that promotes civic participation and integration. "It should be accomplished within five to 10 years." If Canada is going to continue to successfully absorb 250,000 people a year, Clarkson says we need more public debate and education about our national values, not less. Simply focusing on enhanced rules, or more flexible accommodation, won't do the trick. New and old Canadians will have to learn to adapt to the changing realities - everything from head scarves to same-sex marriages - just as their predecessors did in the past.

"We all have to get over the idea that these differences are important. That's basically fear," says Clarkson. This too shall pass. "Remember when we worried so much about somebody in the RCMP with a turban?" she asks. "Well, the last time I saw the Musical Ride, there were two turbans, and no one seemed to care."

See also PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION; IMMIGRATION.

Maclean's March 5, 2007