Thursday, October 25, 2007

On the one hand...

the Taylor-Bouchard commission hearings have been a train wreck-- a juicy opportunity for the most bigoted elements in Quebec society to get a live televised audience for their views. And the sense that they've been a train wreck is only compounded when Professors Bouchard and Taylor step out of information-gathering mode and into exasperated argument with the citizens they're supposed to be listening to.

On the other hand... they're right, and for that matter they're right to be exasperated, and it's cheering to have them express it.

Bouchard was talking to local retiree Henri Pepin, who had come to tell the commissioners publicly what he and many other Quebecers: that rising numbers of Muslims and other immigrants are swamping Quebec.

"In 100 years, I don't think there will be many Quebecois left," P├ępin said.

"That, sir, is just a fairy tale," Bouchard retorted. "You're raising these fears for nothing."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you say we're raising these fears for nothing," Pepin replied "But just wait until what's happening in France happens here."

Bouchard had heard enough, and spelled out how Quebec can avoid the strife that France - an officially secular state - has gone through with its millions of Muslim immigrants from the former colonies in the Maghreb.

In Quebec, "we have a duty to make sure that all immigrants become as integrated as possible in our society, that they share our fundamental values," Bouchard said.

"And the way to do that, sometimes, is to perhaps grant them an accommodation, to make their life easier, so that they stay in our milieu, in our 'bouillon de culture', that they submit to the lifestyle that is our own, and that they can more easily assimilate our fundamental values."

Assimilate - it was the first time either co-chairman had mentioned the term as something they wish for immigrants and minorities. "If you give them the means to go into the margins, they'll never have the opportunity to assimilate our fundamental values," Bouchard continued.

"It's a fact that you should keep in mind," he told Pepin, one of 11 people to address the commission today. "It's more complicated than you say."

Bouchard also chastised another speaker, a young engineer named Luc Lafreniere, who said Quebec should force new immigrants - especially those with special religious demands like devout Muslims - to settle in the regions rather than allow them to "take possession" of some Montreal neighbourhoods.

"That's a way to target Muslims," Bouchard replied. "All the time - it's Muslims, Muslims, Muslims."

To another speaker, a man who described himself as a "psycho-educator" and talked disdainfully of "multiculturalism a la Canadian" (pronounced in English), Taylor was dismissive.

"I don't think you've ever read the original texts of Canadian multiculturalism policy," he told Jacques Lamothe. "Never was it written that people who come here can apply their customs without making any changes to them."

Near the start of today's hearing, Bouchard made what he called "a kind of declaration" : He and Taylor has spent all last night in a private focus group with local residents - something they've been doing quietly in every city on their tour.

The focus groups are a "third way" - after the open-mike nights and daytime presentation of briefs - for the commissioners to hear how the "silent majority," people who don't attend hearings, really feel abut the issues, spokesman Sylvain Leclerc later explained.

But last night's meeting - with about 20 immigrants and refugees, mostly Colombians and others Latinos - impressed Taylor and Bouchard no end. It was a welcome antidote to two days of hearings dominated by the question of Herouxville, the Mauricie village whose controversial "code of life" aimed at religious immigrants grabbed headlines.

The people in the focus group sent the commissioners a different message entirely.

"We were extremely impressed by this spectacle of people who left everything behind, who arrived here completely destitute with the families and children, who didn't even speak French, who couldn't find work in their profession, who experienced xenophobia first-hand, and who showed extraordinary courage in rebuilding their lives," Bouchard said.

"In sum, theirs is a reality all Quebecers should know about, but which unfortunately is quite misunderstood."

If that reality was better known, "it would put an end to a lot of stereotypes," he added.

"It's a great misery that that reality is not better known."

Taylor agreed. The focus group, he said, "opened our eyes to aspects of life here that are being ignored by the population at large."

And, as if stabbing right at the heart of Herouxville, the commissioners concluded with an observation: that the immigrants they met didn't succeed here in a vacuum - they were helped by many local families and volunteers, every step of the way.

"It's true," Bouchard said, "there's a lot of compassion in Quebec - very true."