Nine months ago, when this tiny village in central Quebec adopted a code of conduct that banned the stoning of women and informed newcomers “at the end of every year we decorate a tree with balls and tinsel and some lights,” there were snickers from some quarters.
“They don’t laugh anymore,” Herouxville resident Bernard Thompson said yesterday.
With its code, the town of 1,300 prompted the creation of a travelling commission headed by two Quebec intellectuals and triggered a debate that continues to dominate Quebec politics.
Andre Drouin, the Herouxville town councillor who drafted the code of conduct, was basking yesterday in the spotlight the commission once again shone on his town. He told a visitor to meet him in front of the village church. “There’s only one church, by the way,” he added. “No mosque. No temple.”
Last week, the separatist Parti Quebecois became the latest provincial party to stake its claim as the truest defender of the “Quebec identity.” In a bill tabled in the National Assembly, the PQ proposes to require newcomers to Quebec, both from within Canada and abroad, to display “an appropriate knowledge of French” before they would be allowed to run in provincial, municipal or school-board elections or contribute to political parties.
“We want to give a basis for the Quebec nation to affirm itself and flourish,” PQ leader Pauline Marois said. “This is our response to the malaise that has resided in Quebecers for some time.”
The commission studying the accommodation of minorities, headed by Charles Taylor and Gerald Bouchard, touched down last night in Trois-Rivieres, a half-hour’s drive south of Herouxville.
Mr. Drouin is convinced that the debate he helped provoke will spread across Canada, as people question the success of Canada’s multicultural model. “Otherwise, Canada will end up in a big mess,” he said.
The written brief he and Mr. Thompson will present to the commission today is available in six languages, he said, to satisfy interest in Europe. “Could it be that we were right in the beginning?” Mr. Drouin asked.
The recent actions of Quebec’s three main political parties suggest Herouxville was not so out of step with the political mainstream.
The PQ bill would modify Quebec’s charter of rights to specify that “the fundamental values of the Quebec nation,” including the predominance of French, the equality of men and women, and the secular nature of public institutions, must be taken into account when ruling on individual rights.
The PQ is the third party in the National Assembly, and its bill is given little chance of passing. Still, critics have assailed the party for seeking to create two classes of Canadian citizens, since the language requirement would not apply to people already living in Quebec.
Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal race-relations group CRARR, said the PQ proposals “confirm that certain political parties are conceding to the winds of intolerance blowing in Quebec,” calling the proposals “very dangerous for our pluralist democracy.”
Yesterday in the National Assembly, Jean Charest, the Liberal Premier, denounced Ms. Marois’ proposal as unconstitutional.
“Before tabling a bill, you check its legality, its constitutionality. We’re not here to run tests,” he said.
However, it is not just the PQ that has sought to cash in on the debate over reasonable accommodation. Mr. Charest has been rattled by the rise of Mario Dumont’s Action Democratique du Quebec, which reduced the Liberals to a minority in the March election.
After initially dismissing Herouxville as an anomaly, he created the Bouchard-Taylor commission in February. Then this month, with the commission midway through its hearings, Mr. Charest announced that his government intends to give equality of the sexes priority over other rights guaranteed in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
His announcement came the same day a poll published in La Presse found that a large majority of Quebecers oppose accommodating religious minorities. For example, 70% opposed allowing Muslim girls to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf, while playing soccer and 65% did not think the hijab should be allowed in schools.
Mr. Dumont was the first to tap into Quebec’s identity crisis last year when he suggested public authorities were going too far in accommodating religious minorities. While Mr. Charest and then-PQ leader Andre Boisclair downplayed the Herouxville initiative, Mr. Dumont called it “a heartfelt cry” and made the issue central to his election campaign. More recently he has said Quebec needs to cap its immigration levels because it is not successfully integrating new arrivals.
There was the woman who feared that Quebec would be overrun by Muslims. There were anecdotes about Muslims unwilling to integrate. Mentions of massacres in Muslim countries.
For an area where Muslims make up less than 0.7 per cent of the local population, Islam repeatedly came up as a source of anxiety last night as the public commission looking at religious accommodations stopped in the Mauricie area, midway between Montreal and Quebec City.
It was in this region that the village of Hérouxville made headlines last year with its “code of conduct” warning prospective newcomers that practices such as wearing face veils or stoning women would not be tolerated.
While the code was decried by pundits as a mean-spirited caricature of Islam, its initiators say they have been flooded with supportive mail from across Quebec.
On the one hand last night, there were people like Jean-Pierre Trépanier, who made the first remarks at the open-mike forum attended by more than 180 people.
“I am ashamed to be a Quebecker when I hear the stupidities and inanities such as those of Hérouxville,” Mr. Trépanier said.
But most who followed him had gripes against minorities.
“When someone imposes something on you, it’s up to them to stop imposing it if it bothers you,” said André Drouin, a Hérouxville municipal councillor who was behind the code.
Mr. Drouin and Bernard Thompson, another originator of the Hérouxville code, are presenting a brief today where they will argue that no accommodations should be granted to religious minorities.
“If they’re not happy and they’re unsatisfied, let them go back to their country and make it better,” Jacques Landry said to applause, as he thanked the people of Hérouxville.
Jacques Deschesnes complained about a relative treated at a Jewish hospital who couldn’t mix milk and meat when she ate lunch.
Andréa Richard had fears for the future, warning of an Islamic onslaught.
“Would you like to see your grandchildren become Muslims? Would you like to see your granddaughters wear the veil?” she told the commission’s co-chairs, academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor.
“I am not racist but . . .” began Denise Béland as she explained her fears that the hard-earned equality of sexes here is foreign to newcomers.
“I say ‘tolerance zero,’” said André Plamondon, talking about “those people.”
“Only with the Muslims do we have problems,” said Paul Garneau, talking about religious massacres in Algeria or Iraq. The co-chairs sometimes had to step in. One woman complained that Christian minorities are disappearing in Turkey. Mr. Taylor told her that non-Muslims were protected under the Ottomans and their persecution took place under secular governments.
Jacqueline Guillemette, a local woman who converted to Islam, concluded the evening with a call for mutual concessions and tolerance.
“There’s a lot of ignorance,” Ms. Guillemette said afterward in an interview. “They should look at regular [Muslims], not the fundamentalists.”
One woman stopped and told her it was sad that Ms. Guillemette had to wear a headscarf. “Lady, the Holy Virgin wore a veil too,” Ms. Guillemette replied.
The commission, which has until now travelled mostly in outlying areas, has heard mostly from white francophones, with some calling for more tolerance for minorities. For example, Stéphane Gendron, an outspoken radio host, called the people behind Hérouxville’s code “twits” and “a national shame.”
He said Quebeckers have no business expecting immigrants to integrate quickly when it took three generations for French-Canadians who moved to New England to fit in.
The co-chairs are to issue their recommendations next spring.