Interculturism, s’il vous plaît

Imagine that the City of Toronto issued a 16-point ‘Statement of Values’ guide for new immigrants outlining what kind of behaviour is acceptable here and what is not. Now, imagine that, among the points, new immigrants would be informed that “children are our most precious good” and that there should be no “excessive punishments, corporal and sexual abuse, confinement, neglect, forced labour, humiliation, willful malnutrition”.

And what would your opinion be of a guide that informs of the importance to our way of life of punctuality, good hygiene, avoiding smells like cigarette smoke and “strong odours emanating from cooking”?

Such a guide would no doubt come under fire for being condescending or, worse, racist.  But that guide does exist and was issued last week by the City of Gatineau, Quebec, just across the bridge from Ottawa. The two cities comprise the country’s only Census Metropolitan Area to fall within two provinces.

One of the largest cities in Quebec with a population of about 250,000 – almost 10 per cent of whom are immigrants – Gatineau also houses a number of federal buildings. The influx of immigrants into Quebec is on the rise and, in Gatineau, has grown from less than six per cent 10 years to its current numbers.

Federal immigration minister, Jason Kenney, acknowledged that municipalities do have a role in keeping new immigrants informed of expectations, but expressed surprise that such language as “smelly food” was in the guide.

According to Kenney, Ottawa also plans to publish a revised federal guide for new immigrants. Two years ago, the federal Conservatives came under fire from many quarters for trying to impose a new conservative norm through aspects of its Discover Canada study guide for immigrants preparing to take the citizenship test.

We wait with anticipation for their new immigrant guide.

Not all of Gatineau’s 16 points are questionable: immigrants must learn French, for instance. They are informed that in Quebec, men and women have equal rights. Yet, since Quebec is a secular province, new immigrants are also advised that it is better not to exhibit their religion in public. So much for equal rights.

Given the numbers of people currently emigrating from Asian countries, we can see where this is headed. It is hard to ignore the pervasive after effect of the 9/11 terror attacks with the implicit condemnation of ‘Islamists’.

Not for nothing are the people of Quebec described as a “distinct society”.

Francophones have to be seen as working harder than other Canadian subcultures to maintain their distinct heritage. They fought during the 1960s to gain official recognition of bilingualism and biculturalism. And, while it resulted in an officially bilingual Canada, that fight eventually gave rise to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism under Pierre Trudeau.

Recognizing the many cultures that make up the Canadian mosaic was also a strategy for dampening the French/English cultural power struggle. Even so, French Canada has never quite gone along with the policy but has instead strongly defended its distinctness. At the same time, there is an inescapable rudeness, if not xenophobia, that is conflated with this and other similar documents and actions out of Quebec.

After the City of Hérouxville issued an immigrant code of conduct including references to “no stoning of women in public” and “no female circumcision”, the province ordered a commission in 2007 to look into reasonable accommodation of cultural and religious beliefs, which revealed a dismaying level of ignorance and intolerance.

So there is a tension between keeping Quebec French, welcoming new immigrants and accommodating multiculturalism. In line with the recommendations of the commission, Quebec prefers a policy of “interculturalism”.

It is nonsense to think that people coming from other cultures do so expecting to live as they did in their home countries. Yet, the message that Canada presents to the world is one of cultural and religious plurality. Is it less so in Quebec?

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