OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper heaped praise on Canada's record of both accommodating and integrating immigrants, rejecting the notion that the country is facing a crisis involving newcomers who won't embrace Canadian values.
"Notwithstanding the debate in Quebec and some of the debate during the Ontario election campaign, I first of all think immigrants come to this country to belong to this country," Harper said in a lengthy answer. "I also think that the Canadian approach to this, which is a mixture of integration and accommodation, for lack of a better term, is the right approach."
The remarks, part of a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, put distance between Harper and the raging rhetoric among Quebec politicians over the limits of "reasonable accommodation" of immigrants in the province.
Premier Jean Charest launched an examination this year into the issue, prompting some to air ugly views during public forums on the place of immigrants in Quebec society. Top politicians including the Bloc Quebecois' Gilles Duceppe, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois and Action Democratique Leader Mario Dumont have all suggested new immigrants should be sent signals on the nature of Quebec values.
Harper said Canada's not perfect, but he doesn't share the same sense of alarm..
"I know there's a popularly expressed view that immigrants come here and they should change to suit the country. I think they overwhelmingly do. But I think the fact is our country also consciously changes somewhat for new immigrants and new cultures, and I think that's a successful model. I think if you look around the world for issues of immigration and cultural integration, Canada is as successful as any other country in this regard."
The prime minister also touched on racial politics in Ontario, and critics who have warned of burgeoning fundamentalism within the Islamic community. The debate flared up this month when a Muslim-Canadian was charged with the murder of his teenaged daughter, allegedly because she would not wear a traditional headscarf.
During the Ontario election in the fall, the Progressive Conservatives there stirred the debate over reasonable accommodation by proposing the province fund private schools, including religious ones. The idea cost party leader John Tory the election.
"In Ontario, there's been some concern about radical elements in the Muslim community, but these are at the margins," he said. "The fact of the matter is there aren't cultural tensions in the country, there generally is a healthy process of integration along with accommodation and if you focus on the Islamic community, yes there are extremist elements but they are small and marginal and the problems we face in this country compared with other countries are tiny."
Harper's Conservatives have been working hard over the past several years to build bridges with various ethnic communities and try to wrest away some of the support they have traditionally lent the Liberals.
Still, the Tories themselves - along with the federal opposition parties - helped fuel some of the debate around reasonable accommodation this fall as they examined federal voting rules. They all pressed the Chief Electoral Officer to use his special powers and force Canadians to show their faces when voting during a series of Quebec byelections.
There had been no previously identified problem of Muslim women asking to vote with their faces veiled, and Canadians still have the option of voting by mail with no visual verification required. Photo identification is still not a requirement in the law, either.
Harper said his cabinet has been discussing issues of Canadian identity and how to foster a sense of Canadian values.
"We probably need to have some thought about what the shared values really are, and how we strengthen those, but that said I don't see a cultural fragmentation in this country, I just don't see it."
Bruce Anderson, president of Harris-Decima Research, said Harper's approach seems to mirror how Canadians feel about the issue of racial harmony.
"Voters in Canada have tended pretty routinely in the past to saying, 'Look, we know we have a fragile consensus.' On balance, rather than blow that consensus up because we have strong opinions, we'd rather bury our strong opinions and make the fragile consenus continue to hold."