Posted on March 17, 2011

Mayor Plans to Bring Town Back to Life by Attracting Muslims

Graeme Hamilton, National Post, March 16, 2011

The textile mills here have closed, the population is shrinking, but Mayor Stéphane Gendron is not abandoning hope. Elected in 2003 under the slogan, “Let’s bring this town back to life!” Mr. Gendron has a new plan to revitalize his community of about 2,600 people–build a mosque and establish a Halal slaughterhouse in a town with hardly any Muslim residents.

At a time when Quebec’s growing Muslim population feels targeted by the ongoing debate over the integration of religious minorities, Mr. Gendron is laying out the welcome mat.

On Monday, the municipal council passed a bylaw offering a one-year property tax holiday for people born outside Quebec who move to Huntingdon. On Friday, he will address congregants of a Montreal mosque following prayers to sell them on the charms of his town. In the spring, he is planning a bus tour for Montreal Muslims interested in a change of scenery.

“Somebody told me that these people have to change their names to get an interview for a job. Just because [employers say] ‘Oh an Arab, dangerous.’ It’s sad,” Mr. Gendron said. “We’re trying to turn the tide, to change the view that it’s dangerous. We’re doing this for population [growth] and for principle.”

The initiative comes as Quebec Muslims still feel the sting of the 2007 debate over Hérouxville’s “life code.” The small town in Quebec’s Mauricie region introduced a code informing newcomers that, among other things, Quebecers do not stone women and they only cover their faces at Halloween.

Mr. Gendron said the incident left the impression that all of rural Quebec was suspicious of Muslims. “Hérouxville did a lot of damage to the regions,” he said. But he sees his bilingual town, about 60 kilometres southwest of Montreal, as a world removed from Hérouxville.

“Here it’s a different story. The town was based on immigration from the start–the British, Scottish, Irish French, Germans, Jewish. They all lived together for 200 years,” he said. “There’s a tradition of tolerance, I think.”

Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, called the Huntingdon initiative very positive. “We certainly do appreciate that it is quite a contrast with Hérouxville,” he said. “It’s the anti-Hérouxville.” Mr. Elmenyawi said council members plan to visit Huntingdon this spring “to have a look and see what exactly are the resources in the town and the possibilities that are there.”

Quebec’s most important source of immigrants is the largely Muslim region of North Africa. Quebec has favoured such countries as Algeria and Morocco because their residents are French-speaking. A 2009 study by researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke found that unemployment rates among immigrants from the two countries were more than double the provincial average. For those immigrants who had been in Quebec five years or less, unemployment was more than four times higher than the provincial average.

Mr. Elmenyawi said the Huntingdon plan would only work if there were work available. “The mayor says there is no discrimination and that people will be treated equally,” he said. “That might encourage many people to go look for a job when they have not been able to find a job here because they were Muslims, they have Muslim names or they came from a specific country.”

Residents interviewed had no objection to Muslims arriving in their town but some questioned Mr. Gendron’s seriousness. The mayor has earned himself a reputation as something of a publicity hound since taking office. One of his first initiatives was an unsuccessful attempt to impose a curfew on the town’s teenagers, whom he blamed for a vandalism spree.

“Sometimes our mayor feels the need for attention,” said Maurice Pilon, a former town councillor. “I’m very open to new arrivals. We’ve already got four churches and a fifth religion wouldn’t bother me in the least.” But he wonders how long newcomers would last in a town that is not bursting with employment opportunities. “We can’t mislead these people,” he said.

Mr. Gendron is optimistic that there will be jobs. He said many of those lost in the textile industry were replaced by new employers producing frozen french fries and car parts. And he notes that many people in his town commute to Montreal for work.

Discussions to establish a mosque are preliminary, but he hopes that when his term ends in 2013–and he says it will be his last–Friday prayers will be part of Huntingdon’s routine.