Bill Curry, Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 19, 2007
Federal officials have privately warned the Conservative government that Quebec’s debate over reasonable accommodation of minorities is spreading across Canada and could trigger “alarming” divisions in the country.
Internal government documents show Jason Kenney, the federal secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity, personally requested a comprehensive briefing on the issue earlier this year.
The deputy minister of Canadian heritage, Judith LaRocque, responded with a detailed analysis from the department. It outlines how the issue first appeared in court rulings on labour matters and has grown into a heated political debate that draws in issues of immigration and multiculturalism.
“There is now a sense of urgency to more clearly define and explain the principle of reasonable accommodation, as alarming shifts regarding the split between ‘them’ and ‘us’ may occur,” the briefing says. “This is of particular concern in Quebec, at a time when the government is putting programs in place to close gaps affecting minority groups.”
The document notes that while the debate is focused on Quebec, it is also taking place in the rest of Canada, “albeit on a smaller scale for now.” The paper informs Mr. Kenney that the “politicization” of the debate in Quebec suggests a “a certain split in Quebec between the French Republican model of managing religion in the public sphere and the traditional Canadian multiculturalism model.”
The briefing notes, which were obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin, surface as the Conservative government prepares legislation forcing voters to show their faces when casting ballots. The measure responds to recent controversy that current laws allow voters to wear a face-covering veil.
At the same time, Mr. Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are singing the praises of multiculturalism like never before. Mr. Kenney has twice cited a commitment to multiculturalism in the House this week to explain why the Prime Minister sent Rosh Hashanah greeting cards to Jewish Canadians.
“Most MPs [in the opposition] only do it at Christmastime, but because we believe in multiculturalism, we share holiday greetings on important festivities for all communities based on publicly available lists of information,” Mr. Kenney told the House of Commons yesterday.
The Prime Minister also gave a strong defence of reasonable accommodation in a multicultural Canada last month during an appearance at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations. His recent Throne Speech pledged to extend official bilingualism programs for minority communities.
The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that the Conservative Party has created an “ethnic outreach team” overseen by Mr. Kenney and Mr. Harper. According to an internal party document obtained by The Globe, the team targets specific ethnic voters in a bid to “replace the Liberals as the primary voice of new Canadians and ethnic minorities.”
The plan differentiates between ethnic groups, noting that only 79 per cent are viewed as “accessible” by the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois is introducing a bill to establish a “Quebec citizenship” that would require all immigrants to have an “appropriate knowledge” of the French language to be sworn in as citizens of the province. PQ Leader Pauline Marois said the Quebec Identity Act will enable the Quebec nation to fully express its historical heritage and fundamental values.
Quebeckers have been seized with the issue of reasonable accommodation as a public commission tours the province, hearing the views of citizens and experts on the sensitive subject. At times, the public forums have become heated, singling out specific minorities in a negative light. For the most part, the dominant issue has been debate over whether public displays of religion should be allowed in the workplace.
Earlier this month, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe waded into the debate, delivering a speech to university students blasting the “Canadian ideology of multiculturalism.”
Drawing clear battle lines with the Conservatives, Mr. Duceppe also called for the recognition that “Quebeckers form a francophone nation in America, not a bilingual nation.”
The Bloc’s criticism of official bilingualism is not too far from the views expressed by Mr. Harper himself in his earlier years with the Reform Party and as director of the National Citizens Coalition. The contrast between his current and former comments suggests the Prime Minister has moved a fair bit from his earlier views.
In 2001, 10 months before he returned to active politics to lead the Canadian Alliance, Mr. Harper wrote in a published column: “As a religion, bilingualism is the god that failed. It has led to no fairness, produced no unity and cost Canadian taxpayers untold millions.”
In his early days as the policy expert for the Reform Party, Mr. Harper’s writings devoted little attention to multiculturalism.
Mr. Harper was quoted at a 1991 Reform Party convention as saying bilingualism and multiculturalism are the “pet projects of a political priesthood” that don’t represent the wishes of Canadians.
Key events in debate over ‘reasonable accommodation’
A government briefing note prepared for the junior minister responsible for multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, outlines key events that have fuelled debate over “reasonable accommodation.”
March, 2006 Supreme Court rules a Sikh student can wear his kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, to school.
October, 2006 British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks out against face veils.
November, 2006 Montreal YMCA frosts its windows so that the boys at a Hasidic religious school don’t see women in their exercise clothes.
December, 2006 André Boisclair, then the Parti Québécois leader, suggests that the wooden crucifix be removed from Quebec’s National Assembly.
December, 2006 A judge in Toronto orders the removal of a Christmas tree from the lobby of an Ontario courthouse because it could offend non-Christians.
January, 2007 A Leger marketing poll says 59 per cent of Quebeckers (and 47 per cent of Canadians) consider themselves at least somewhat racist.