Quebec Culture Lessons for Immigrants Questioned

Andrew Chung, Toronto Star, December 30, 2009

They came from places like Cameroon, Algeria and Iran, so when the instructor began to talk about homosexuality, illegal in their home countries, some squirming in the seats might have been expected.

“We’re open to diversity,” explained the instructor, Anne Martin, a slim woman with an easy smile, referencing everyone from youth punks to the handicapped to different cultural groups.

“And also to homosexuality,” she added, this time looking serious, her reading glasses perched at the end of her nose. Gays enjoy the same rights as anyone else, she said. “It’s also proof of our diversity.”

No one batted an eyelash. The 30 men and women, freshly arrived on Canadian soil, seemed to already understand the liberal nature of the place to which they had decided to immigrate.

One Algerian man even told Martin, with a wry grin, that he heard the hierarchy of rights in Quebec goes like this: children first, then women, then dogs . . . then men.

So the question arises: What is the point of the exercise in which they’re now forced to participate?

The Toronto Star is the first media organization to be granted access to Quebec’s new, obligatory seminar for newly arrived immigrants, designed to inform them of the province’s “common values.”

It’s an adjunct to an even more controversial protocol: those applying to come to Quebec must now, as part of the application process, sign a declaration agreeing to abide by its values.

Critics call the new requirements politically expedient and a superficial attempt at integration. But it’s a made-in-Quebec solution to a fiery debate over the accommodations native Quebecers should make toward those who are new–and different.

A Star analysis of a number of key areas of integration, from finding a job, to the representation of minorities in major institutions, to the attitudes of the dominant group, shows that among the provinces that receive the most immigrants, newcomers to Quebec have chosen the most challenging one in which to try to integrate.

The immigrants interviewed by the Star at the seminar took it as a given they were to live with the values of their new home. The seminar was for the most part viewed through that prism.

Some questioned its necessity, however.

“It’s like a child learning the rules of life,” said Fatiha Belouchi, “as in, ‘We order you to behave like this, and not as you are.’

“Where is our identity? We are also educated, clean, competent, honest people.”

Not that she disagreed with the values espoused. The businesswoman, who left Morocco, said: “What attracted me the most is that (Canada) is a country of rights.”

Adi Suriawan, 32, an architect and native of Indonesia, said the seminar was a good idea. “Since you want to live here, you must respect or at least know the values in the community, even if you don’t agree.”

Here are the values Quebec now insists newcomers accept: Speaking French is a necessity; Quebec is free and democratic; it’s secular; it’s pluralist; it’s based on the rule of law; men and women are equal; and exercising one’s rights must be done with respect for others.

If most didn’t mind the seminar, the signing of a declaration “accepting to respect these values” left some troubled. This group will not need to sign it, since they began the immigration application process before February 2009, when the policy came into force.

Still, they were skeptical. “Can it be used against you?” Suriawan asked. (It cannot.) “So then,” he added, “what difference does it make if I sign or don’t sign?”

One woman from Algiers, who asked that her name not be used, seemed taken aback. “It bothers me. We respect the values of Quebecers. Why do I need to do that?”

“It’s a bit heavy,” echoed a woman named Hind, from Iran.

In late 2006, stories began to emerge in Quebec about religious minorities demanding certain accommodations of their religious beliefs, such as requests by Orthodox Jews that the windows of a sports club be covered because women were exercising inside, or by Muslim parents to pull children out of music classes because they felt they contravened the Qur’an. The tone in some media was one of slight panic.

The small town of Herouxville, which had no minorities to speak of, adopted a “code of life” for immigrants that prohibited, among other things, killing women by “burning” or “stoning” them.

Capitalizing on the perceived threat to Quebec’s values, the province’s right-wing party, the Action démocratique du Québec, nearly toppled Premier Jean Charest’s Liberals in the 2007 election.

The Bouchard-Taylor commission was set up to conduct months of public hearings and make recommendations in a bid to calm troubled waters. While the commission emphasized the need to adapt, Charest’s immediate response was to broach the idea of a declaration for immigrants to sign.

Today, the debate still churns with new controversies. The latest examples? Concern over the idea of someone demanding a certain gender of driver’s licence examiner, or the recent case of a man who refused to be served by a hijab-wearing civil servant.

Scholars point to Quebec’s history in explaining why these questions raise so much more ire here than in other parts of Canada. They cite, for example, the iron-clad grip the Catholic church had on all aspects of life before the Quiet Revolution, the relative strength of the feminist movement in decades past, and the fact that the Quebec population has long been quite homogenous.

Quebecers, particularly francophones, consistently reveal themselves in polls to be more demanding that immigrants bend to the values of the majority.

Most of the immigrants attending the early December values seminar at CITI, a jobs and settlement agency, had no idea about all this.

Some were preoccupied with finding an apartment. One Iranian woman recounted how she and her husband and small children were living in a dowdy motel in north Montreal where people smoke, drink, and party with their doors open. Another man, from Morocco, said he had been unable over the last month and a half to find a doctor for his child and was thinking of returning home.

Finding work was a major issue. The same Moroccan man was running out of money and had to ask his sister in France to wire him cash to keep going. As it happens, the week of seminars dealt mostly with how to find jobs.

But on the morning on which the first lesson was Quebec’s values, the instructor made special mention of certain things, with an eye to the conservative cultures in certain countries: On gender equality, for instance, it was highlighted that women can sign contracts without authorization of their husbands.

But the seminar lasted only an hour and a half, making it impossible to go too deeply into subjects. So, the complex was made simplistic. On diversity, people were reminded that everyone is different, “just like hair colour.”

The facile nature of the seminar raises the question of whether the exercise is useful, or just an attempt to appease “pure laine” Quebecers uneasy with increasing immigration.

Daniel Weinstock, University of Montreal ethics philosopher and member of the advisory committee to the Bouchard-Taylor commission, said it’s the latter, particularly since the initiative was announced just before the last provincial election campaign.

It’s absurd, Weinstock said, “to expect that you can, through some kind of declaration or an hour-and-a-half course, do anything serious by way of integration of immigrants into our values. It was an electoral calculation. It has no weight or substance.”

He said the message it sends is patronizing. “It’s saying, ‘I, as an immigrant, may be tempted to live by my tribal, benighted ways.’ If I were an immigrant, I think I’d be quite insulted.”

Weinstock said that real integration comes from getting a job, enrolling the kids at school, and interacting with the community.

In an interview, Immigration and Cultural Communities Minister Yolande James, the first black cabinet minister in Quebec history, said she will “continue to defend the declaration.”

She repeated the stance she took in announcing the policy, that immigrating to Quebec “is not a right, it’s a privilege” and that just as Quebec chooses the people it will accept, so too does that person have a choice to make.

“The person who wants to join Quebec society should be well informed of Quebec values.”

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