Picketed outside by activists demanding jobs for immigrants, the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation chose a highly symbolic site to hold its first Montreal open-mike night Tuesday.
The place was a new multi-ethnic library in Côte des Neiges/Notre Dame de Grace, a borough where almost half its residents are foreign-born.
But the subject on the lips of many of the 200 participants at the raucous two-hour meeting wasn't reasonable accommodations of religions. It was the bread-and-butter issue of language and employment.
"You f--ked me up here, and you f--ked up my country, too, and all the Middle East - you didn't give me a chance," complained Iranian immigrant Reza Koochekian Jaboor, 61, who said he hasn't found decent work in 22 years here because he doesn't speak French.
"Tu t'es trompw de province!" (You chose the wrong province!), a man heckled from behind him.
The evening at the Intercultural Library on Cote des Neiges Rd. was also disrupted briefly about half an hour in, as demonstrators picketing at the entrance started pounding on the window, whose blinds were drawn.
(As the meeting wound up, the 20 young activists also came in and unfurled a banner at the front of the room, chanting: "Immigrants in, racists out!")
The window-rattling briefly muffled a short speech by Amir Khadir, an Iranian-born doctor and co-spokesperson for the Quebec Solidaire political party, who said the province's economic development should not be done "on the backs of immigrants" who are jobless.
Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James also attended the meeting but shied away from reporters, chatting instead with commissioners Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor before the meeting began.
For many in the crowd, the barrier of language - the French and English that immigrants have to know to work in the metropolis - was a constant theme. A French-Canadian man said he's disturbed that so many immigrants he sees on the bus speak English.
A Belgian immigrant said the contrary: He did a rough count at Cote Vertu métro station and saw "seven out of 10 commuters" reading Métro, the free French-language daily newspaper.
When it comes to equal-opportunity hiring, Tunisian immigrant Karim Rahmouni said, "Quebec shouldn't treat immigrants as handicapped" just because their French isn't up to snuff.
"I invite all immigrants to learn French," Pakistani immigrant Abdul Talib advised, saying that knowing the language of the majority is the best way to "integrate into the mosaic" that is Quebec and Canada generally.
Sibel Ataogul, a lawyer who immigrated here from Turkey when she was 9 years old, was applauded heartily after she proclaimed, "I learned French in eight months" and said immigrants adapt best to Quebec not by being coerced but by working hard.
Somalian refugee Farah Kulmijeh Abdil said learning French isn't an issue for him. "I'll never be Quebecois, because I'm black," he complained. "I'll always be asked, 'Where are you from?' "
Claude Dumont said he has asked Chinese immigrants in the neighbourhood why they speak English, not French. "They tell me there's not enough language training in French here," he said.
Mario Beaulieu, president of Mouvement Montreal francais, said English is the problem.
"If there's high unemployment (among immigrants), it's because they have to learn two languages, in addition to their own," he said.
In Montreal, "they can't get work if they don't understand English." And that, he said, is unacceptable.
Cote des Neiges and its sister community, Notre Dame de Grace, comprise one of Montreal's most heavily ethnic boroughs. Of a population of 172,000, more than 72,000 are immigrants; of those, 30,000 aren't Canadian citizens. The largest groups are Filipinos, Moroccans, Haitians and Chinese.
More than 40 per cent of residents speak English as their first language at home, compared with 30 per cent who speak only French and 25 per cent who speak another language.
Wednesday night, the Bouchard-Taylor commission moves to Sherbrooke for three sessions, returning to Montreal on Monday for a full week of hearings at the Palais des congres.