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Forum dredges up Quebeckers' ire toward minorities

Muslims, Jews, gays, anglophones, evangelical Christians and immigrants in general. All were singled out in a negative light 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.

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Many older speakers noted 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?" Claude Morisset asked.

Of the 140 citizens allowed in (several were turned away at the door), 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.

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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.

Near the end of the two hours of comments, two speakers called for a more open definition of Québécois.

Baudoin Allard noted his family roots date back to 1666, but because his mother is from France, his accent makes it difficult to fit in. "I think Quebec is at a fundamental crossroads," he said.

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Jasmine St. Laurent expressed similar concern regarding the definition of Québécois.

"We hear that to be Québécois, you have to be white, Judeo-Christian," she said.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Bouchard praised the level of debate and noted the province's Catholic past still inspires strong positive and negative feelings.

"We praise you for the quality of your debate, the richness of your debate, the open, frank, civil, democratic character of the debate," he said. Even though the debate on reasonable accommodation now is largely focused on 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.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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