Kosher foods, atheism dominate immigrant hearings in Quebec

Atheism could resolve tensions between cultural and religious groups in Quebec, said a witness who spoke Tuesday at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission hearings on immigrants.

Atheism could resolve tensions between cultural and religious groups in Quebec, said a witness who spoke Tuesday at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission hearings on immigrants.

The provincialcommission, which is lookinginto the so-called reasonable accommodation of immigrants,is meeting with Quebecers in the Laurentians region this week to hear people's thoughts on cultural and religious traditions.

Mirabel resident Jocelyn Parent told the hearings that atheism — a philosophical view based on the non-existence of gods — is the only set of values that can make a pluralistic society function harmoniously.

"Faith, God and dogma are inventions that have no concrete tie to reality," he said Tuesday morning.

Rather than accommodate religions, it would be easier to get rid of them, including Catholicism, Quebec's dominant religion, Parent said.

"Monotheistic religions say God is everywhere, but I don't see him here," he argued.

A community group that helps foreigners settle in Quebec said a provincial constitution would help immigrants better integrate into the French-speaking province.

The constitution could spell out terms for gender equality and secularism, guidelines that would temper tensions that arise when there is a question about accommodating the different religious and cultural traditions that immigrants bring to Quebec, said Line Chaloux, who works with Le Coffret, a community organization.

More pressing is provincial funding for community groups that pair newly arrived families with Quebecers, Chaloux said. The Liberal government has cut funding for the program at a time when that kind of support is urgently needed. "We need that for integration. It's very important to us," she said.

Immigrants in Quebec have a hard time finding meaningful employment even if they are professionals, because the province often doesn't recognize credentials from foreign universities and the government doesn't offer training courses to help immigrants upgrade their skills, Chaloux said.

That's why so many engineers, teachers and doctors who immigrate to Quebec end up driving cabs and washing dishes in restaurants, she concluded.

The best kind of accommodation the province could make for new immigrants is to make it easier for them to work in their fields of expertise when they move to Quebec, she said.

Premier Jean Charest created the commission last winter after a protracted public debate about immigrant integration into Quebec society.

Philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard are co-chairing the commission.

On Monday, the commission heard from several Quebecers who are upset about kosher foods. Many mass-produced packaged foods available in supermarkets are kosher, which means a rabbi supervised their preparation to ensure the products meet Jewish dietary laws.

Laurentians resident Émile Dion said that makes him angry because he believes the cost of getting a rabbi's blessing raises food prices by as much as 10 per cent. "Why should I pay 10 per cent more for the Jews?" he asked during his comments, which went on for several minutes. "It forces us to eat kosher, and I don't want to," he said in French.

Midway through Monday's hearings, commission co-chair Bouchard interrupted the comments to remind the audience that only abouttwo per cent of Quebec's population is made up of Muslim and Jews.

"Do you see a certain disproportion there, between your concerns and the cause?" he asked in French.

Laurentians resident Jonathan Drouin said Quebecers need to look in the mirror to resolve their discomfort. "We aren't capable of perpetuating our own customs, and then we go complaining and blame other people for taking them away from us," he said.

His view was echoedby François Rochon, another local resident. "If you are proud of your home, you are happy to welcome others," he said.

With files from the Canadian Press