Saturday, October 20, 2007

Vox pop

From The Gazette:

Hearings a Pandora's box of bigotry, groups say
Jeff Heinrich, The Gazette

Before they had even begun, Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard worried that the cross-Quebec series of open-mike hearings they were about to embark on would become a Pandora's box of bigotry, to be pried open live and unfiltered on national TV.

Now - six weeks after the 17-city "reasonable accommodation" road show got under way and derogatory remarks against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other religious minorities started flying - it seems that Quebecers think the chairmen were right to worry.

In a new poll, 62 per cent - rising to 74 per cent in central Quebec, scene of the Herouxville controversy - said the commission should have done something from the outset to prevent racist and anti-Semitic statements from being expressed.

And 40 per cent of non-francophones polled said those views are so objectionable that the hearings should no longer be carried live on Radio-Canada.

The concern echoes that of Quebec's Jewish community leaders, who told a national Jewish newspaper last week they fear the commission has become a forum for intolerance.

"A soapbox for venting racism and a beat-the-immigrant festival" - that's how Steven Slimovitch, national legal counsel for B'nai Brith Canada, described the proceedings to the Canadian Jewish News.

The proof was nowhere more evident than Sept. 24 in St. Jerome, north of Montreal, when speaker after speaker took the open mike to vent their frustration with Jews: their money, their kosher labels on foods, their cottages in the Laurentians.

The vitriol was "very painful," Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron told the Canadian Jewish News. The hearings, he said, had become "a magnet for some of the most extreme and dangerous voices in Quebec."

Bouchard and Taylor - who only once have cut a speaker off for making xenophobic remarks, and often engage in open debate with people who say they don't like Muslims or other "fanatics" - should intervene more when comments "go beyond the pale," Poupko said.

Do other Quebecers agree? Not quite.

The Leger Marketing poll, carried out for the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, suggests that Quebecers are split on how well the chairmen are handling the proceedings.

Fifty-four per cent said Taylor and Bouchard have moderated the forums "in an efficient way" - an approval rating that, paradoxically, rises to 57 per cent for non-francophones. Only 16 per cent thought they were doing an excellent job.

Overall, 69 per cent said the hearings are worthwhile despite the racism and anti-Semitism that has shown through. Only one-third of Quebecers think the hearings are "a mistake."

Two-thirds of Quebecers think the hearings are a good way to "send an important message about the limits" of accommodations of immigrants and religious minorities - not the freedom they provide.

A large majority - 71 per cent - also say the hearings show how much Quebecers "value cultural diversity" - just not religious diversity.

Sixty per cent feel the hearings "will generate an important critique of the place of immigrants in Quebec" and will "help to better define what Quebec's identity is."

However, many people think the commission is blind to some of the province's oldest and long-established minorities: anglophones and aboriginals.

Two-thirds said they want to hear more anglos and First Nations people come forth and address the commission - and an even higher proportion of non-anglophones agreed.

Overall, 70 per cent said the hearings are a "healthy" way for opinions to be aired in public, although only half think those opinions reflect what most Quebecers believe.

"Clearly, most Quebecers hold a positive view of the hearings," said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies.

"The commission has not lost credibility. People are concerned about the anti-Semitism and racist remarks, but they feel the deliberations are sufficiently important that we should look beyond them."