The current hysteria over Muslim immigration in Quebec – a major aspect of the secular charter debate – is partly due to the province’s own immigration policies.
Ever since Quebec gained the right to select its own immigrants, it made sure to grant privileged access to candidates already fluent in French. This made, of course, perfect sense. What happened, though, is that most French-speaking immigrants came from France’s former zone of influence, namely Arab and Muslim countries, more specifically the Maghreb, Lebanon and former French colonies like Senegal.
Until very recently, French-speaking Europeans weren’t very likely to emigrate (this only changed several years ago with the economic crisis that affected France and Southern Europe). Among the French nationals who emigrated to Quebec, a sizable proportion was made up of French people of Arab origin who felt discriminated against even though they were born and raised in France.
This accounts for the fact that Quebec has the largest proportion of Arabs in Canada relative to its population. According to Statistics Canada, the number of Quebeckers who identified themselves as Muslims in 2011 has doubled since 2001, reaching a total of more than 200,000. Like most other immigrants, they are heavily concentrated in Montreal.
Most are non-practising and do not wear religious garments, but one tends to see more women with head scarves in Montreal than, say, in Toronto or Calgary.
The nasty debate that has been going on for months about the charter’s central restriction (the banning of religious symbols in the public sector) might have pushed a number of non-devout Muslim women to cover their hair as a perfectly understandable gesture of defiance toward the government’s discriminatory move.
In any case, there’s now a choice facing Quebec. Either the society as a whole is willing to receive graciously the immigrants chosen by its own government – including veiled women – or, failing this, the selection grid now used for the selection of immigrants should be revised.
Rather than allotting the largest number of points to fluency in French, the system could rather privilege criteria such as adaptability to the culture and the job market.
Many Arab immigrants from Northern Africa, even though they are educated and speak perfect French, cannot find jobs corresponding to their qualifications. Maybe Quebec needs more skilled workers than people with university degrees who will be underemployed and frustrated.
The province already has extensive “francisation” programs, where new immigrants learn French while being initiated into the various aspects of life in Quebec. Those who are already fluent in French do not benefit from this period of adaptation and are left to their own devices. Their knowledge of French, acquired in entirely different contexts, doesn’t provide them with the codes needed to make their way into mainstream Quebec and easily integrate into the job market.
French can be learned. An immigrant from Spain, China or the Philippines can learn French in government-sponsored programs, and their children will obligatorily be enrolled in the French school system, so there would be no need to worry about the future of French in Quebec.
I don’t think the influx of Arab and Muslim immigrants is a problem in any way, but obviously, many people do. Considering the current of Islamophobia that permeates a disturbingly large segment of the province, maybe it’s time for the government to rethink its immigration policies.
Of course, the sane thing to do would be to drop the absurd secular project that inflamed prejudices and especially stigmatized devout Muslim women, but unfortunately, this is not in the cards.