Cablegate: Mosaic Under Pressure (Part 2 of 2): Politicians Enter The

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R 231926Z MAR 07





Ref: Montreal 132, 06 Montreal 1202

E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Mosaic under pressure (part 2 of 2): Politicians Enter the
fray in Quebec's debate over reasonable accommodation

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1. (SBU) This is the second part of our examination of the debate
over "reasonable accommodation," the political catch-all term for
the building tension between Quebec's identity as a "secular"
society and the perceived need to shape its rules and values to
"accommodate" religious or cultural considerations. The debate has
become more than a social and cultural phenomenon, and politicians
across the ideological spectrum are positioning themselves vis-`-vis
this issue, which is likely to remain important long after Quebec's
March 26 election day. Mario Dumont, head of the Action
Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), was the first to grab this political
hot potato, with an open letter to the Quebec public that cited
examples of "unreasonable accommodation." Premier Charest and the
Quebec Liberal Party, and Andre Boisclair, head of the Parti
Quebecois (PQ) soon followed suit with their own vision of what can
be considered "reasonable" in Quebec's multicultural society.

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"Reasonable" accommodation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
--------------------------------------------- ------

2. (SBU) In mid-February, the McGill Institute for the Study of
Canada took advantage of its planned conference on the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms' 25th anniversary to organize a
public forum on reasonable accommodation, which CBC Radio hosted and
aired. The panel included Rabbi Ronnie Fine, Sarah Elgazzar, a
Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations representative,
journalist Laura-Julie Perreault, and Julius Grey, a constitutional
lawyer and civil liberties advocate. Other religious leaders and PQ,
ADQ, and Liberal party representatives participated and asked to
defend their positions.

3. (SBU) The panelists pointed out Francophone insecurities as a
minority group, "pure laine" or old-stock Quebecois attitudes
causing isolation of immigrants, the general publicQs lack of
knowledge of minorities, distorted views of rural Quebeckers, and an
irresponsible media competing to find the next alleged instance of
reasonable accommodation, while paying little heed to more practical
issues, such as underemployment among immigrants. Grey concluded the
problem is multiculturalism, which has discouraged integration of
immigrants. As the McGill Institute summarized: "Although he said he
is in favor of integration, Grey noted that reasonable accommodation
is a legal right under the charter and 'a refusal of reasonable
accommodation is a refusal of equality a form of exclusion,' which
could have a practical effect like denial of employment. Reasonable
accommodation is not about 'silly' demands like getting rid of the
word Christmas or Christmas trees, he said. Real inclusion is
economic. Your origin should not be a prediction of your wealth.
Grey noted that he himself is an immigrant who came to Canada from
Poland in 1957 at age nine." Grey, who was the lawyer advocating for
the young sikh boysQ right to wear the kirpan at school, reiterated
the same arguments to CG, Country PAO, and post PAO during a private

4. (SBU) The Quebec Council on Intercultural Relations, whose
mission is to study the integration of cultural communities in the
province and make policy recommendations to the Quebec government,
attributes the tension over the issue of reasonable accommodation
fundamentally to the simple fact that more groups are sharing the
same space and bumping into each other more frequently. Ironically,
however, much of the tension over the definition of reasonable
accommodation has originated in places, like Herouxville (a small,
rural town in Quebec whose elected council developed a "code of
conduct" for immigrants--see reftel), which have few to no
immigrants. According to this view, Quebec is simply catching up to
other parts of the Western world on the issue, citing similar
multicultural societiesQ growing pains and debates in France and the
Netherlands. Meanwhile, Quebec's Catholic bishops told the media
that confusion between culture and religion is what is fuelling the
current debate on the way Quebecers welcome immigrants and integrate
them in society, and challenged other religious groups to clearly
define their identity and distinguish between strictly religious
customs and cultural ones.

Liberal, PQ, and ADQ candidates chime in

5. (SBU) Mario Dumont, head of the political party Action
Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), hit on underlying anxieties and struck
a chord with Qold stockQ Quebeckers, and some say simultaneously
gained unprecedented popularity for his party, when he wrote an open
letter to the Quebec public on reasonable accommodation in January,
stating that Quebec should quit bending over backwards to
accommodate minorities. Dumont cited one example of what he

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considered "unreasonable accommodation" - the exclusion of
fathers-to-be from prenatal classes at one Montreal-area community
center in order to accommodate the presence of Muslim, Hindu, and
Sikh expectant mothers (which actually turned out to be urban myth,
though few have corrected the record) and challenged Quebeckers to
more clearly define a "frame of reference" for Quebec's values and
the lengths Quebeckers should go to when accommodating immigrants.
One Montrealer wrote to La Presse: "We're tired of empty political
shells who have no firm positionFor us, Mario Dumont is a breath of
fresh air." Although Dumont's political rivals strongly dislike him,
and his statements about the need to limit accommodations for
immigrants have proved immensely controversial in Montreal, they
have won him some support in Quebec's rural regions and among urban
dwellers who fear their own rights have been encroached upon through
concessions to newcomers to the province.

6. (SBU) Premier Charest and the Liberal party in Quebec have sought
to turn down the volume on this to remind Quebeckers that reasonable
accommodation for religious minorities is no different in principle
than accommodations for physically handicapped persons. He also
noted, however, that "The Quebec nation has values, solid values,
including the equality of women and men; the primacy of French; the
separation between the state and religion. These values are
fundamental. They cannot be the object of any accommodation. They
cannot be subordinated to any other principle."

7. (SBU) In response to the public furor and media frenzy
surrounding the code of conduct for immigrants drawn up by the
elected council of the tiny town of Herouxville (see reftel),
Premier Charest created a one-year commission to study reasonable
accommodation in Quebec, headed by Charles Taylor, a McGill
University professor emeritus of philosophy and Gerard Bouchard, an
historian and sociologist. For many, the high caliber academics
chosen was evidence enough that Charest recognizes the seriousness
and political importance of reasonable accommodation as an issue for
Quebeckers. Others, like well-respected Association for Canadian
Studies Director Dr. Jack Jedwab, surmised that Charest's decision
to set up the Commission was so he would not have to deal with
reasonable accommodation during the electoral campaign.

8. (SBU) Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities Lise
Theriault made a concerted effort to explain what is, and what is
not, reasonable accommodation. Minister Theriault deemed most of
the high profile cases gracing press reports in recent weeks (ref A)
to be "unreasonable," especially those having to do with equality
between men and women, such as recent cases involving policewomen,
female ER doctors and drivers' license examiners being replaced by
male counterparts to accommodate the wishes of members of religious
minorities, the frosting of YMCA gym windows, the practice of using
only male police officers in dealing with Hasidic Jewish men, and as
well as the case of a man who was asked to leave a swimming pool so
Muslim women could swim (a topic treated with sympathetic humor in a
recent episode of CBC TV's new sitcom, "Little Mosque on the
Prairie"). When confronted during a television interview with the
issue of a crucifix that still hangs in the National Assembly,
(making it difficult for immigrants to truly believe religion and
the state are separate in Quebec, according to the hosts), Theriault
replied that the crucifix represents the 400-year history of the
building of the province, a history Quebeckers need not deny to
welcome immigrants. Her TV program hosts pounced on this response as
contradictory and shaky.

9. (SBU) Meanwhile, Andre Boisclair, head of the Parti Quebecois
(PQ), has publicly blamed Charest for pandering to Quebecers who
balk at adjustments made for immigrants and chimed in to advocate
that the cross decorating the National Assembly since 1936 should be
removed in the interests of removing all religious symbols from
public space. Despite Quebec's identity as a "secular" province,
Boisclair's suggestion proved immensely unpopular; he eventually
retracted it after realizing that he had misjudged Quebeckers'
desire to break ranks with tradition and religious symbolism.
Boisclair tried to argue that it cannot be reasonable accommodation,
if it has nothing to do with public services: "In a diverse society,
religious symbols have no place in public space." Issues as
seemingly mundane as the composition of traditional Quebec pea soup
came into play on the campaign trail, when Boisclair was asked to
comment on the decision by a sugar shack owner ("cabane a sucre" or
sugar shack is a Quebec institution serving foods like meat pie and
baked beans during maple sugar season) to offer a special batch of
pea soup without ham and pork products so that his Muslim clientele
could experience this beloved Quebec tradition. Boisclair, after
insisting that the State has no place getting involved with a
decision by a private company to accommodate a minority request, did
note that "someone who is running a cabane a sucre and is not
serving ham will have a real tough time in life."


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10. (SBU) The political dimension of the "reasonable accommodation"
debate might be attributed to political opportunism on the part of
candidates who view the topic as a fickle, easily manipulated
election issue. Regardless of who wins the election, the deeper
tensions underlying this debate represent demographic and political
trends that characterize Quebec's mosaic under pressure, and are
likely to remain a hot political topic.

© Scoop Media

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