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Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec’s proposed secular charter in Montreal on Sept. 14, 2013.

RYAN REMIORZ/The Canadian Press

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

French and English Canada have long been described as two solitudes, with very different cultures. But in recent years differing approaches to multiculturalism have deepened the divide.

English Canada today embraces a casual, open acceptance of different cultural practices, while French Canada is debating a charter of values that would prohibit the prominent visible expressions of religious belief – whether it be through a turban, a hijab, a skullcap or a large cross – in the public sector.

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If you look at which immigrants, and how many, each part of Canada brings in, you can understand part of the reason for the differing approaches.

The Quebec government is primarily responsible for choosing which immigrants come into the province. The government reasonably requires that those immigrants speak French.

The problem is that most immigrants to Canada don't hail from French-speaking countries. According to a Department of Citizenship and Immigration report, the five major source countries for immigrants to Canada in 2010 were the Philippines, India, China, the United Kingdom and the United States. They accounted for almost half of all permanent residents arriving in Canada.

In Quebec, in that same year, the top five source countries were France, Morocco, Algeria, Haiti and China. All but China are French-speaking nations.

Most Moroccans and Algerians are Muslims. Arabic is the most common mother tongue of immigrants to Quebec, accounting for 26 per cent of all new arrivals. In the rest of Canada the most common mother tongue of immigrants in 2010 was Tagalog, a Filipino language.

Difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified immigrants has left Quebec with only 14 per cent of Canada's foreign-born population, according to the 2011 census, even though it has 24 per cent of Canada's population. Most immigrants flock to Toronto, Vancouver or other English-Canadian cities.

In consequence, English-Canadian cities today are among the most diverse in the world. Forty-six per cent of Toronto's population was born overseas; the figure for Vancouver is 40 per cent.

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But only 23 per cent of Montreal's population is foreign-born. And look what happens when you get outside the biggest cities. London, Ont., accounts for 1.4 per cent of Canada's population and is host to 1.3 per cent of Canada's immigrant population – about what you'd expect. Kelowna, B.C., has 0.5 per cent of the national population and 0.4 per cent of the immigrant population.

Quebec City has 2.3 per cent of Canada's population but only 0.5 per cent of its immigrant population. Trois-Rivières has 0.4 per cent of Canada's population and 0.1 per cent of its immigrants. For Saguenay, the figures are 0.5 and 0.0. As far as Statistics Canada is concerned, Saguenay has no immigrants at all.

The populations of Toronto and Vancouver are so ethnically diverse – with Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa quickly catching up – that any political leader who introduced a values charter similar to Quebec's would face swift and certain electoral defeat.

In parts of English Canada where immigrants are few and economies fragile, some people may harbour resentments toward newcomers. But in terms of electoral clout, their voices are weak.

In contrast, immigration has had little impact in Quebec outside Montreal. And many Quebeckers who worry about the preservation of their language and their culture demand that immigrants accept that culture and adapt to it.

This attitude bewilders many English-Canadians, who have gotten used to their polyglot, multi-hued, live-and-let-live cities. As a result, French Canada and English Canada are once again talking past the other in the values-charter debate, just as Quebeckers who live in Montreal and Quebeckers who live outside it are talking past each other.

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The best approach, of course, would be for everyone to accept and respect the other's point of view. But if everyone did, would there be any need for the values charter?

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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