First Nations, immigrants speak out at religious accommodation hearings

The Bouchard-Taylor hearings took a more positive tone Wednesday night as the hearings on religious accommodation moved to Rouyn-Noranda, in Quebec's northwestern Abitibi region.

Immigrantswho settled in asemi-remote part of Quebecpraised the tolerance of theirtownWednesday night during hearingsofaspecial provincial commission onaccommodating cultural differences.

The Bouchard-Taylor hearings took a more positive tone from previous sessions,asthe special commissionmoved to Rouyn-Noranda, acommunity inQuebec'snorthwestern Abitibi region.

The area is mostly populated by francophones and First Nations communities but has welcomed a steady stream of immigrants in the last decade.

Many of them showed up Wednesday night at a hotel ballroom to share their thoughts about religious and cultural integration. Most said they came to Quebec to escape intolerance in their native countries.

"I have no problems here," said Khadija Hamdane, who migrated to Abitibi from Morocco seven years ago. "I now live in an extraordinary town, which is welcoming and where integration happens naturally."

Others echoed her sentiments. "It was up to me to adapt to Quebec life," said Antoine Ishac, who moved to Rouyn-Noranda 25 years ago after he left Lebanon. "It was up to me to become a Quebecer."

The hearings drew several people from outlying First Nations communities, including from Kitcisakik, southeast of Val D'Or.

Speaking in Algonquin, Louisa Papatie, who travelled more than 200 kilometres to address the commission, told the hearings that she hopes First Nations aren't forgotten in the debate about what constitutes reasonable cultural and religious accommodation.

Steve Papatie, a distant relation, reminded the commission of his peoples' long-standing grievances. "We are also sovereignists" who want control of their own destiny, he said.

Before Quebec starts making special exceptions for other groups, it should improve relations with First Nations, who have lived in the province longest, Papatie said.

The hearings on cultural and religious accommodation will be held throughout Quebec over the next few months, and are headed by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, the brother of former premier Lucien Bouchard.