NATIONAL

WHOSE FREEDOMS?

For once, a Quebec debate on minorities isn’t about language

BENOIT AUBIN December 4 2006
NATIONAL

WHOSE FREEDOMS?

For once, a Quebec debate on minorities isn’t about language

BENOIT AUBIN December 4 2006

WHOSE FREEDOMS?

NATIONAL

For once, a Quebec debate on minorities isn’t about language

BENOIT AUBIN

Nobody saw it coming, and nobody really wanted it to happen, but Quebec is now engulfed in an uneasy debate over “reasonable accommodation”— code for what concessions religious minorities should be expected to make when they choose to live in this distinct, er, nation.

With the media stirring the pot, and a provincial election on the horizon, the debate spilled into the political arena this week. Mario Dumont, head of the struggling Action démocratique du Québec, opened fire, blaming Premier Jean Charest and Opposition Leader André Boisclair for “lacking the backbone to stand for the principles over which Quebecers are not prepared to make concessions.” A piqued Boisclair shot back that Dumont sounded “worse than the oldest Republican conservative in the U.S.A.” But then Boisclair mused: “Maybe we are ripe for a debate on the [provincial] charter of rights, to dust it up.”

The novelty is that the current debate was not triggered by language, as has been the case in the past, but by the status of women. It started earlier this month after a woman launched a petition to remove frosted windows that had been installed in the gym of a YMCA in Montreal. The windows were paid for by members of an observant Hasidic community whose synagogue is located across the back alley, and who didn’t want their members and children to see women

exercising. Some gym users took offence because “Quebec is a secular society; we shouldn’t have to hide [to accommodate] a religious group,” the woman who launched the petition said.

That episode triggered a media hunt for other instances of religious groups pushing for such “accommodations.” Stories emerged of a community health centre in the ParkExtension area that bars husbands from maternity classes to accommodate Muslim and Sikh women. An Orthodox Jew was allowed to jump the queue in a Laval clinic so he could be treated in time to make it back home before sunset last Friday. A newsletter for Montreal police officers recommended that female officers call in to a male col-

league in the eventuality that Orthodox Jews refuse to be interviewed by a woman.

Many observers and experts are worried about overreaction to trivial matters that obscure larger questions. “There is a rush to the high horses on every banal case that creates an inflation of the currency of principles and rights that is useful to no one,” says Daniel Weinstock, a teacher at the Université de Montréal’s ethnic research centre. Such a debate over reasonable accommodation would probably be out of place in Toronto or Vancouver, he says, “because they have become actual melting pots. In Montreal, there still is an identifiable majority.” The Canadian-style multicultural mosaic is a hard sell in Quebec— where francophones prefer the French republican approach: a secular society in which ethnic or religious communities have no official status and citizens are expected to integrate individually.

Pressed last week to say which are these “non-negotiable values” that all citizens should share in Quebec, both Boisclair and Dumont mentioned freedom and equality, and “primacy of French and equality of men and women.”

They said nothing about the right to be seen while exercising.

THERE IS A RUSH TO THE HIGH HORSES ON EVERY BANAL CASE. THAT’S USEFUL TO NO ONE.’