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It's a new Quebec service popularly known as 1-800-Accommodation – a breezy title for a help line that tackles some of the most bedeviling issues of Canadian multiculturalism.

Should a Chinese-Canadian employee be automatically entitled to a day off for Chinese New Year? Can a Muslim schoolteacher be absent every Friday afternoon to attend prayers at his mosque? And if non-Christian parents feel ill-at-ease, should a daycare take down its Christmas decorations?

It's not just Quebeckers and Human Rights Tribunals that are tackling these legal questions. Across the country, these kinds of cross-cultural dilemmas resonate in hospitals, offices and schools. On the ground these issues are defining the success of our 40-year-old national multicultural experiment.

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Though there is widespread enthusiasm for the idea of multiculturalism, its reality remains complex and at times volatile. Consider that every four years Canada accepts a million newcomers. Within two decades, nearly 30 per cent of the population will be foreign-born. Increasingly, newcomers to Canada earn less than previous generations of immigrants. Their Canadian-born children, although they typically excel in school, are, according to one study, less likely to feel a sense of belonging in Canada.

As the first generation of Canadians raised under the banner of multiculturalism graduates to positions of power, fissures are emerging in the Canadian mosaic. The proposed law to ban niqabs for those seeking public services in Quebec, the controversy surrounding the so-called honour killing of Muslim teenager Aqsa Parvez, the backlash against Tamil asylum seekers, the arrest of a Canadian-born doctor and Canadian Idol contestant in an alleged Islamist terror plot – all of these raise questions about Canada's nurturing of cultural difference. Even one of Canada's most prominent visible-minority politicians, Ujjal Dosanjh, accuses multiculturalism of allowing Sikh extremism to take root here.

Our European allies call multiculturalism a failed experiment. Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and even our Commonwealth cousin Australia have all, to differing degrees, blamed multiculturalism for separating peoples, weakening national cohesion and encouraging Islamic extremism.

The Question

Is Canada the exception?

Rather than looking to overhaul the Charter of Rights, which enshrines multiculturalism as a guiding principle, the 1-800 number might be the direct dial to the future. Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, suggested in a 2003 speech that Canada's darkest moments have been the result of attempts to break with accommodation and impose policies that hurt a minority: the destruction of aboriginal families by residential schools, the internment of national minorities during the world wars, the Chinese head tax, to name just a few. She concluded by saying Canada must strive for respect and accommodation.

"As national ambitions go, that's not bad," she said.

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Yet religious difference has become our biggest challenge. Muslims, the fastest-growing religious group in Canada, have recently met with resistance when wearing the hijab during a sporting contest and seeking a prayer room at a university. In 2005, the Ontario government slapped an outright ban on religious courts of arbitration, which had operated for years in the Christian and Jewish faiths, because of an application to launch an Islamic court. That was followed by the Quebec town of Hérouxville's crude code of conduct banning stonings and acid throwing, part of a push-back on immigration that led to the creation of the provincial government's Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation.

The Crucible

Quebec has become the crucible for a national debate over identity, values, and how far newcomers should have to go to integrate. And while it is sometimes criticized for a perceived hostility to immigrants, it is taking unusual, pre-emptive steps to avoid the kind of conflicts that make Human Rights Commissions the subject of ridicule. After the Bouchard-Taylor report was tabled, Premier Jean Charest announced steps to defuse the crisis, including the reasonable-accommodation hotline.

"Immigrating to Quebec is a privilege," he said. "And welcoming immigrants is a responsibility for all Quebeckers. Between the two, you have to know where to draw the line."

The tricky task falls to two full-time consultants and a human-rights lawyer at the rights commission's Old Montreal office. Since launching in late 2008, the service has tackled about 70 questions on matters of ethnic, linguistic and religious accommodation. A majority of them involve the province's Muslim community, which has grown rapidly as a result of a provincial policy favouring French-speaking immigrants.

Over the past two years, the service has counselled a daycare to give a Jewish employee the day off for Yom Kippur. It told a foreman he can't force his immigrant employees to speak English or French among themselves It recommended a Sikh employee remove a symbolic bracelet from his wrist while handling food.

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The suggestions are non-binding and employers can ignore the advice if they want – though if they turned to the Human Rights Commission for help in the first place, they probably did so to avoid a potential complaint down the road.

Looking Into Diversity

The advisers' efforts are a window into the complexities of the multicultural workplace.

After it received the query from a public provincial agency about giving a day off for Chinese New Year, it began seeking the line between cultural sensitivities and office morale. If it were simply a national holiday, the adviser reasoned, letting the employee take the day off might cause friction with other employees, who risked seeing it as unfair. But the advisers argued that Chinese New Year also included rituals such as honouring ancestors. So it suggested the employee get the day off, as long as it didn't cause a burden on other staff.

When a company manager asked the rights commission what to do when 10 Orthodox Christian employees all asked for the same religious holiday, the advisers suggested he find a compromise. In the end, the employer decided to go halfway: It gave the day to half the 10 staffers.

The Balance

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Not everyone sees Solomonic wisdom in the advisers' suggestions. A recommendation that a school board grant a Muslim employee Friday afternoons off to attend mosque has been criticized for putting the teacher's needs before his pupils'.

For their part, the advisers say they rely for guidance on the Canadian and Quebec charters, legal precedent, and the search for the tipping point between minority rights and a business's interests.

"We try to respect the rights of employees with the needs of their employers,"

"It's finding the right balance," said Jean-Sébastien Imbeault, a 31-year-old with a masters in sociology. One of the two advisors, he carts a copy of the Quebec charter of rights around his office. "It's not black or white, yes or no. I'll never tell an employer to accommodate or not accommodate. Between the two, there's grey."

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