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Commission talks dredge up Quebeckers' ire toward minorities Add to ...

Muslims, Jews, gays, anglophones, evangelical Christians and immigrants in general. All were singled out in a negative light Monday night at the opening session of a commission into what Quebeckers think is unreasonable accommodation of minorities.

Remi Lefebre took the microphone, noting that he spent 1956 in Egypt living among Muslims.

“I endured them then and now I have to endure them again,” he said. “The only people who are making accommodations are the Québécois. … For me, I say zero accommodation.”

These and similar comments drew little concern from commissioner Gérard Bouchard, nor from the crowd, which often applauded.

Many older speakers noted that Quebeckers escaped oppressive religion during the Quiet Revolution, yet religion is creeping back into public life.

“I have to ask, why is it that in Montreal there is a hospital called the Montreal Jewish Hospital?” asked Claude Morisset.

Of the 140 citizens allowed in (several were turned away at the door), the members of visible minorities could be counted on one hand.

One of them, college professor and Rwandan refugee Irénée Rutema, scolded the crowd for straying from the positive elements of the commission's mandate. “Stop harping on immigrants,' he said. “Who here isn't an immigrant? For some it might have been 400 years ago, others 200. For me, it's 15.”

The commission was created after a mid-campaign controversy over what some felt were extreme requests from religious groups. Last night's debate represents the uncomfortable balance between two of Canada's most cherished features: an embrace of multiculturalism and respect for the distinctions between French and English Canada.

For Quebeckers, the commission asks how the province's traditional culture descended from the French settlers should mix with the new, urbanized residents who speak French but have distinct cultures of their own.

Two Quebec academics – Mr. Bouchard, a sociologist, and philosopher Charles Taylor – were named by Quebec Premier Jean Charest to lead the commission.

Although much of the province's minority population is in Montreal, most of the 17 hearings will take place outside the province's largest city. That has some fearing a state-sanctioned platform for racism.

Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said he hopes the hearings will be controlled to avoid extreme comments.

“This kind of forum will add more to Islamophobia and will fan the flames of racism within the province,” he said.

Even though the debate on reasonable accommodation now is largely focused whether Muslim women should reveal their faces when voting, the original issues did not involve Quebec Muslims.

Earlier this year, there was a heated debate in Montreal when a YMCA installed frosted windows to accommodate a request from a congregation of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Jewish community had complained that their youth were being exposed to women in exercise clothes. Another incident involved an ambulance driver who was asked to leave a cafeteria in Montreal's Jewish hospital because he was eating a ham sandwich.

Since the commission was announced earlier this year during the election campaign, the Quebec media's interest in the debate has only grown. The Montreal Gazette released a survey this week that included questions such as: “When it comes to the place of religion in Quebec society, do you accept… allowing special meals for religious minorities at the sugar shack?”

Forty-six per cent of those surveyed were completely opposed.

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

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