Montreal·Analysis

How can Quebec heal wounds caused by emotional debate over religious symbols?

Michel Jacques had his view of Muslims changed when he arranged a meeting with some in his small Quebec town. Some say these kinds of exchanges will save the province after the tensions raised by a controversial bill banning religious symbols for public employees, which passed Sunday night.

An unemployed 55-year-old from the Beauce may have come up with the solution

In the eyes of many, the religious symbols law will marginalize religious minorities, especially Muslim women who wear the hijab. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In the Beauce, a low-lying valley south of Quebec City, there once was a man who didn't like Muslims.

He thought they wanted to impose Shariah law, and that they wanted to convert everyone they met, and that they were terrorists.

But one day, this man — let's call him Michel Jacques, because, well, that's his name — came to a realization: "Gosh darn, I'm starting to hate them," he said to himself, and then later to a Radio-Canada program. 

"But that doesn't make sense, my boy. You don't even know them."

So Jacques, an unemployed 55-year-old former tech worker, posted a query on a Facebook page frequented by local residents of his town. Were there any Muslims around willing to meet up and answer a few questions, he asked.

Sure enough there were. In fact, the response to his call was overwhelming; Muslims from as far away as Montreal and Ottawa were willing to make the trip.

Brought a list of questions

Jacques chose from a handful of the responses to his post, and with a few other friends who had similar questions as he did, sat down with the Muslims earlier this month in a community centre. He brought doughnuts and coffee and a list of things he wanted to talk about.

"I discovered that they're not all terrorists," Jacques said. "They're people just like me."

Michel Jacques (middle, black shirt) sat down with a group of Muslims earlier this month in a community centre in the Beauce, south of Quebec City. (Submitted by Michel Jacques)

After the event, Jacques created a Facebook page — Musul-Beauce — where Muslim-Quebecers have been answering polite questions about their religion.

You read correctly: A Facebook page hosting respectful dialogue about Islam.  

Jacques's story has been making the rounds in Quebec. A Quebec City radio station wants to host a similar event there, as do residents in Saguenay and Montreal.

It's been seized upon as a rare bright spot in what has otherwise been a dismal few months, or years, for social relations in Quebec.

'Explosive tension in the province'

Late Sunday night, the Coalition Avenir Québec government passed a bill that will bar public-school teachers, government lawyers, police officers and judges from wearing religious symbols while at work.

The restrictions are necessary, the government says, to safeguard Quebec's secular society.

But in the eyes of many, the law will marginalize religious minorities, especially Muslim women who wear the hijab and for whom teaching is a popular career choice.

In the provincial capital, debate around the bill was intense and characterized by inflammatory rhetoric.

During legislative hearings last month, a supporter of the bill testified that women who wear their hijab at work are "fundamentalists." Another warned MNAs of an onslaught of teen marriages and female circumcision if the legislation didn't move forward.

Things haven't been any more pleasant outside the ornate halls of the National Assembly.

After Samira Laounir testified against Bill 21 at last month's legislative hearings, her Twitter feed was inundated with hateful comments. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

A Muslim women's organization in Montreal reported in May there had been a sharp increase in Islamophobic incidents after the bill was tabled.

Several Muslim women have told CBC Montreal about being spat upon, harassed or denied public services in recent weeks. All said they felt the religious symbols legislation had given people licence to express intolerance.

"It's very dangerous what we're living through at the moment in Quebec. There is an explosive tension in the province," said Samira Laouni, who runs a non-profit group that promotes inter-cultural dialogue.

After Laouni, who wears a headscarf, testified against Bill 21 at last month's legislative hearings, her Twitter feed was inundated with hateful comments.

"Go back home," she was told. Laouni has lived in Quebec for more than 20 years and owns a home in a Montreal suburb.

But Laouni was heartened when she heard of Jacques's event in the Beauce. She held it out as an informal example of interculturalism, Quebec's alternative to the official multiculturalism practised elsewhere in Canada.

"That's what will save Quebec," she said.

Whither interculturalism? 

Interculturalism differs from multiculturalism by holding out a common culture that newcomers are encouraged to accept alongside their other identities.

As such, it's seen as a better model for integrating immigrants in Quebec, given the existential uncertainty that comes with being the lone francophone province in Canada.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is derided in the province for doing little to push immigrants to embrace a Quebecois identity.

The religious symbols law 'will worsen an already strained relationship the francophone majority and ethnocultural minorities,' said Gérard Bouchard. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

In 2008, sociologist Gerard Bouchard co-authored a landmark report with philosopher Charles Taylor on the anxieties caused by the cultural practices of minorities in Quebec.

One of their central recommendations? Do more to foster interculturalism, such as funding cultural exchange programs or promoting dialogue between different groups to fight stereotypes.

But in the years since his report was released, Bouchard has watched in dismay as this key conclusion, along with many others, has been ignored by successive provincial governments.

Instead, Liberal, Parti Québécois and now CAQ governments have preferred legislating restrictions on various forms of religious dress. That has only further undermined social relations in the province by singling out minorities, Bouchard said.

"We absolutely have to [put] programs in place, something concrete, to try to repair the tensions that currently exist," he said in a recent interview. "It's a serious situation right now."

The new law on religious symbols is a step in the wrong direction, Bouchard added: "It will worsen an already strained relationship between the francophone majority and ethnocultural minorities."

Keeping a good thing going

The CAQ government has, so far, said little publicly about whether it considers interculturalism programs a priority.

Laouni's organization, Communication pour l'ouverture et le rapprochement interculturel, had its provincial funding cut this year. Without that money, Laouni will be unable to travel around the province conducting workshops on stereotypes, or preparing teachers for teaching in diverse settings.

Similar groups have also seen their funding cut in recent months, Laouni said, despite the government sitting on record surpluses.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was asked Sunday what the government will do to improve the cultural relationships that have been damaged in recent months. He said the bill doesn't target particular religions. ( Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

"What's the CAQ's policy on interculturalism? I have no idea," she said. "They haven't really shown an interest."

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was asked on Sunday what the government was going to do to improve the cultural relationships that have been damaged in recent months.

He repeated an answer that he's given several times before, saying simply his legislation doesn't target particular religions.

In the Beauce, meanwhile, Jacques is struggling to keep up with the requests for his help setting up events similar to the one he hosted earlier this month.

He considered creating a non-profit organization in order to apply for government funding. But, he said, he was counselled against it.

"I was told the government is against my project and that I would never get money," he said. "I don't understand why. I don't know why there are political parties against us having better relationships with Muslims."

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