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A woman wears a hijab while draped with a Quebec flag during a demonstration to protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21 in Montreal, on June 17, 2019.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Amira Elghawaby is a writer and human-rights advocate based in Ottawa.

What’s wrong with asking immigrants whether they believe that men and women should be treated equally before the law, among a host of other questions meant to check for compatibility with democratic principles? Especially considering that if someone incorrectly answers a question, there are several more opportunities to try again and eventually, most will likely settle in and live happily ever after.

Quebec’s “values test” on new immigrants, which begins Jan. 1, may seem harmless, but many racialized, immigrant community members don’t live happily ever after in Quebec – not when xenophobia and Islamophobia permeate people’s lives, often to devastating impact. These types of policies, and the accompanying rhetoric, create an unwelcome atmosphere that has already led some people to leave.

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Earlier this fall, Quebec’s Human Rights Commission called on the provincial government to acknowledge the serious extent of Islamophobia and discrimination and to do more to address the phenomenon. The commission interviewed members of minority communities and discovered hate and racism had caused people all sorts of significant harm. The political climate was a contributing factor.

“Many respondents referred to the damaging effects of the 2013 societal debate surrounding the ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ and its repercussions on the general climate of hostility toward Muslims,” the findings read. “The respondents who wear hijab experienced a marked increase in discrimination and acts of hate during that period.”

A new values test will further reinforce a divisive narrative in the minds of Quebeckers. The Bloc Québécois, closely aligned with its provincial counterpart, the Coalition Avenir Québec, didn’t shy away from telling voters to elect candidates who “resemble” them as a way to stand up for Quebec culture and identity. It proved to be a winning strategy.

These persistent trends put minority communities at risk of continuing harassment, violence and discrimination. An atypical number of visibly Muslim women reported being targeted earlier this year. The rise coincided with the contentious debate preceding the passage of Bill 21, legislation that prevents people wearing religious clothing from serving in particular public-sector professions, contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The irony is that now new immigrants seeking to live and work in Quebec will reportedly be tested on their familiarity with human-rights ideals, notwithstanding guarantees of freedom of religion and expression that once applied to everyone.

It’s far too easy to chalk up this latest move as one more example of Quebec’s cultural insecurities, manifesting themselves in how the government treats immigrants. Where are the realists who understand the province’s significant labour shortage and who should want to attract the best and brightest?

Canada’s multicultural policy has long been based on the presumption that immigrants want to contribute fully and positively to the social and economic fabric of the country while maintaining – even celebrating – their cultures.

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This decades-old legal framework has helped make Canada a beacon of diversity and inclusion, despite constant criticism from those sympathetic to right-wing populist forces who scapegoat immigrants for their economic woes. Yet, Quebec was never fully on board with the policy; the BQ’s electoral platform included a promise to seek an exemption from the Multiculturalism Act altogether.

Quebec’s approach instead views potential immigrants with suspicion, imposing a reverse onus to prove they do not come with attitudes at odds with the province’s imaginary, superior character.

After all, patriarchy and misogyny aren’t limited to any one culture or world view, no matter how self-righteous the CAQ wants to portray itself or the province.

Furthermore, Quebeckers do not have a lock on fully understanding democratic principles themselves. If they did, Bill 21 would not have received widespread support, as it’s blatantly contrary to notions of freedom that Canadians have valiantly fought for and been rightfully proud of.

We now know that hostility and fear mongering about Muslims led a young, disturbed man to massacre six Quebec Muslims in their place of worship nearly three years ago. For a brief moment after the tragedy, it felt as though Quebeckers finally understood the ramifications of the constant framing of Muslims as a threat to the province.

Yet, divisive narratives are simply too hard to resist when politicians want support, attracting those who painfully recall the Roman Catholic Church’s grip on Quebec society prior to the Quiet Revolution and those who continue to fear the loss of their own cultural identity today.

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This dangerous type of politics can’t end soon enough for more than one million immigrants and visible minorities living in Quebec, and the tens of thousands more from around the world who simply want to one day live and prosper in the province.

But will it ever end?

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