Monday, September 10, 2007

Immigrants welcome - as long as they conform

Most Quebecers against open expression of non-Christian religion

Support for a "code of conduct" for minorities is one of the paradoxes found in our poll about issues related to reasonable accommodation. Part 3 in a five-day series, Identities.

Quebecers think of themselves as tolerant, open-minded people. They think immigration is a good thing and that minorities have a strong role to play in society.

But beneath the surface, many fear the changes that immigrants and other minorities bring - especially non-Christian ones, according to a wide-ranging poll commissioned by The Gazette of attitudes over the reasonable accommodation debate.

There's also a paradox: Some of the very same Quebecers who say we are strengthened by cultural and religious diversity also say immigrants should be more like the majority.

Seven out of 10 Quebecers say Quebec society has been enriched by diversity, that immigrants should have as much say in the future of Quebec as anyone, and that minorities should be given a chance to take part in public decisions, the Lger Marketing poll of 1,001 Quebecers found in late August.

The flip side of the picture was less encouraging.

One in three people polled said Quebec society is under threat by the arrival of non-Christian immigrants, two out of five said Quebec society is changing too fast because of the minorities living here, and more than half said immigrants should abandon their customs and traditions and be more like the majority, the poll found.

An even higher proportion - 58 per cent - said Quebec should adopt a "code of conduct" for minorities to follow when it comes to practising their religion and culture - the kind of code the village of Hrouxville did last year that stirred up a storm of controversy.

The poll reveals a passive double standard: a large majority of Quebecers disapproves of open expressions of religion, unless it's Christian.

"There's a large reservoir of guilt among French Canadians about the rapid rejection of Catholicism during the Quiet Revolution - that's a fact," said

sociologist Morton Weinfeld, who runs McGill University's Canadian ethnic studies program.

"And an easy way to assuage that guilt is by symbols - it's what I call religion-lite," Weinfeld said.

"People say, 'We don't have to go to church, we don't have to follow the dictates of the church, but we're very comfortable with all the visual imagery around us that reminds us of our heritage and reinforces our identity.'"

On specific issues, the poll found that Quebecers on the whole are against non-Christian accommodations:

They don't think Jews or Muslims should get time off work to pray (72 per cent are against).

They don't think religious minorities should get special meals at a traditional cabane sucre (69 per cent).

They don't want the government to subsidize religious schools (67 per cent).

They don't want Muslim women to walk around with their faces covered (63 per cent).

They don't want Muslim teachers to cover their hair with a

hijab (61 per cent);

They don't want Muslim girls to wear the hijab in school (61 per cent).

And they don't want prayer rooms in colleges and universities (59 per cent).

About the only thing they are willing to concede is hijabs in public. Two in three - 66 per cent - think it's OK for Muslim women to dress like that.

But when it comes to the most common expression of the Catholic religion - the crucifix that's displayed seemingly everywhere in Quebec, in schools, in nursing homes, in the National Assembly, Quebecers are happy it's there. About six out of 10 - 59 per cent - approve of keeping crucifixes on the walls of public schools.

"Quebecers widely agree that diversity enriches Quebec society but they're much less at ease when this diversity is expressed through religious symbols coming from outside Catholicism," said Lger research vice-president Christian Bourque, who oversaw the survey.

Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, analyzed the Lger data for The Gazette. Co-relating people's answers to the poll question, Jedwab found that even those who say they're most open to religious and cultural diversity draw the line at public displays like hijabs, while approving of crucifixes in school.

For example, of the people who totally agree that diversity enriches society, only 22 per cent completely accept Muslim girls wearing hijabs in school. And of those who have no problem with crucifixes in schools, only 25 per cent would allow hijabs to be worn there, either by students or teachers.

The most worrisome part of the poll is that a majority of Quebecers appear to favour some kind of "code of conduct" for minorities, Weinfeld said.

"It's troubling, because there's an action component to it - people want the government to regulate the problem. That attitude reflects a certain kind of tatisme in Quebec, which may include telling minorities how to live. It's objectionable, it's unconstitutional and it violates the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms)."