How is the controversial charter of values going over in the Quebec heartland?

HÉROUXVILLE, QUE. — The Globe and Mail

Jacques Gingras outside the Resto-Gare: ‘If we want to be a land of welcome and live with others who have different ways, we should let it go.’ (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Along the road that led Quebec to its new charter of values, one stop surely must have been Hérouxville. Six years ago, the tiny village set out to write its own rules for how immigrants should fit in, and gained global notoriety in the process.

Hérouxville adopted a peculiar code of conduct that forbade women from being stoned alive or burned with acid, along with other measures intended for newcomers. One would expect the Hérouxvillois today might embrace the Parti Québécois government’s charter and its dos-and-don’ts for religious minorities in public life. Yet a visit today to the outpost north of Shawinigan in the Mauricie region may hold some surprises for the PQ.

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Yes, some in town are ready to sign on to the charter, which they see as a protector of their Québécois identity. But the proposal’s centrepiece, a ban on religious headgear for public servants, produces the same deep divisions here that have been tearing the rest of Quebec apart.

Hérouxville may be a byword for intolerance and fear of others. But when it comes to excluding a woman in a hijab from the province’s hospitals and classrooms, the town shows a distinct openness of mind.

“If a woman wants to wear a veil, that’s her business. People should have freedom,” Marie Vaugeois says from behind the counter at the Dépanneur Vaugeois, a busy convenience store on the highway that leads into town. “This whole debate is divisive and people want peace. We have so many more important issues to deal with, like health care and our seniors. It’s ridiculous.”

Town councillor Jean-Claude Mailloux supports guidelines for religious accommodation. He can rhyme off incidents that stirred an uproar, such as the Montreal YMCA that glazed its windows at the request of a neighbouring ultra-Orthodox Jewish school so that women doing their workouts would be out of view. “These are things that hurt your average Quebecker. We’re chez nous. They should learn to respect our rules.”

But he sees no reason to ban anyone from public-service jobs because they want to wear a veil, turban or kippa. “We’re in the countryside and, it’s true, we’re not used to head scarves. But if you’re a good nurse, that’s what counts. It’s not a turban or veil that says whether you’re competent, it’s what’s underneath.”

The view from Hérouxville matters to the outcome of the wrenching charter debate. The government of Premier Pauline Marois is counting on the PQ’s traditional francophone base outside Montreal to build support for the contentious proposal and help the party secure a majority government.

Hérouxville is no different from many small communities outside Quebec’s urban centres. The number of non-whites in the village of 1,340 can be counted on one hand (on three fingers, to be exact, including a 14-year-old boy adopted from Haiti years ago). Dozens of families can trace their lineage to the pioneers who carved the village out of the Mauricie woods more than a century ago. The silver spire of the Saint-Timothée church remains the dominant landmark in town.

But the population is aging, young people are leaving to study in Montreal and Quebec City, and the elementary school has seen its numbers drop over the decades.

A new survey shows the biggest supporters of the PQ charter fall into a category the CROP polling firm calls “pure laine Catholics.” They live outside metropolitan Montreal and, even if they no longer go to mass, the church remains a major cultural touchstone.

“They’re not necessarily religious, but Quebec’s heritage is important to them,” says Youri Rivest of CROP. “They feel like their religious heritage is being let go. And that means letting go of what you are, and what built Quebec.”

Fuelling the unease is the fact their abandonment of religious practice coincides with the arrival of some minorities who are openly devout.

To some, the charter of values is a kind of protective blanket for their identity.

“Immigrants are welcome to come to Quebec, but when they come, they have to adapt to our ways,” says France Vaugeois, owner of the dépanneur and cousin of Marie.

“We need rules or soon enough we won’t feel chez nous,” she says. “It will become like the Conquest of 1759, when the British ran everything and the little Québécois were exploited. In the long term, where will our roots be if we’re invaded by other religions?”

At the Resto Gare eatery beside the railway tracks, owner Linda Bédard thinks a charter will send a signal to newcomers to adapt to Quebeckers’ ways. “They should live according to our customs. We can’t lose our pride of being Québécois. But if we continue this way, there won’t be a Quebec. We’re going to become a minority.”

It’s a similar view voiced by gas jockey Pierre Brunet at the local Gaz Max. “I’m for accommodating minorities, but you need guidelines. People want a neutral state. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid that Quebec will become like Montreal. We don’t want to lose being Québécois.”

Jacques Gingras has an insider’s view of Hérouxville, having spent 31 years as manager at the Caisse Desjardins, one of its major institutions. Now retired, he thinks the PQ charter could find traction in town.

“In the regions, we’re more attached to our roots and our traditions. It’s a small community. The idea of foreigners can be frightening. It’s the unknown,” says Mr. Gingras, who heads the local historical society.

“When people don’t know any foreigners, and someone comes in with new ways, they can get nervous.” The charter “reassures them that they’ll get respect.”

Still, Mr. Gingras personally thinks the religious headgear ban goes too far. “I don’t see how [a head covering] prevents me from getting professional service. If we want to be a land of welcome and live with others who have different ways, we should let it go. It’s a question of mutual respect.”

Despite the 180 kilometres that separate them, the gulf between Hérouxville and Montreal may not be as great as it seems. For the past few summers, Camp Val Notre-Dame, a family retreat originally run by a religious order, has been welcoming to town the very outsiders who appeared to stir so much fear in 2007.

Camp director Gilles Brûlé has had an agreement with the Muslim Association of Canada that has seen dozens of Muslim families from the city come here for a holiday. They canoe, build bonfires and go bicycling in town. As a gesture of accommodation, Mr. Brûlé serves them halal food and creates a prayer space in the camp gym.

When Hérouxville created its code of conduct, Mr. Brûlé says, he was neither for nor against it. Today, confronted with a charter whose values include banning religious headgear, he is squarely on the side of more, not less, tolerance.

“The more I’ve gotten to know these people,” he says of his Muslim guests, “the more I appreciate them. Why do I care what they wear on their heads? They can still be excellent at their jobs. Whether it’s an army cadet with a beret, a Muslim with a veil or a cancer patient with a wig, it doesn’t matter, as long as I can see their face and talk to them.”

Mr. Brûlé isn’t a fan of the charter. “I don’t want a law that hurts some citizens,” he says in his office, which looks out on low-slung wooden chalets surrounded by thick forest. “In the end, laws should be there to unite, not divide nationalities.”

Welcome to Hérouxville, Madame Marois. The terrain might be a little trickier to navigate than you expected.

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