Friday, February 09, 2007

Racist "Reasonable Accommodation" Anxieties: A Short Summary

The brief version will suffice for right now – what follows is “catch up” for all of you who do not live in Quebec, and so may not know what this deal about Herouxville, “reasonable accommodation” and such is all about. Those of you who do live here will probably find nothing new or particularly interesting in what follows... i’ll try to do better soon.

Here we go:

Over the past few months the media and certain politicians have instigated a “debate” about the threat immigrants are posing to “traditional” “real” Quebec culture.

A series of incidents in which certain non-Quebecois and non-Catholics have requested that things be done differently to accommodate their cultural preferences and religious traditions have been framed as a generalized us vs. them issue of “immigrants asking too much from the host society.”

The issues are of the kind familiar around the world. Hasidic Jews asked that frosted windows be put in at a YWCA in front of their synagogue, so that their men not be “distracted” by women working out in spandex. Muslims attending pre-natal classes requesting that the classes be made “women only”. Sikh children wanting to wear the kirpan to school. A Jewish hospital telling an ambulance driver he could not eat his non-kosher spaghetti in their cafeteria (to do so means that religious Jews can no longer use the cafeteria). Some daycare workers complain that their Muslim and Jewish co-workers get vacation pay on their religious holidays. (see here for a complete chronology.)

Worth mentioning: the above is a list of requests – despite inaccurate media coverage to the contrary, these requests were not all granted.

While the question was being constructed primarily by the media, in mid-January Mario Dumont of the right-wing ADQ political party made a point of staking out an anti-immigrant position (garnering words of praise from conservative nationalists like Gilles Rheaume). Defining Quebec as a European society with values based on its religious past, Dumont was rewarded with a bump in support (24%, a seven-point increase since last spring and the ADQ's highest level of support in nearly two years) when he attacked the Liberal government for “being on its knees” before immigrant communities, and called on unspecified measures to reinforce Quebec’s national identity and protect its traditional values.

Then a little over a week ago, the city council of a village called Herouxville entered the fray, effectively pushing the discourse much further to the right.

The city council passed a wonderfully brilliant – and horribly racist – resolution “welcoming newcomers to our community” but spelling out a few rules. Things like “we consider that killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive are not part of our standards of life” and “men and women play... hockey together, don’t be surprised this is normal for us.” As well as gems like “The only time you may mask or cover your face is during Halloween, this is a religious traditional custom at the end of October celebrating all Saints Day,” and “the lifestyle that [immigrants] left behind in their birth country cannot be brought here with them and they would have to adapt to their new social identity.”

While the intention behind the Herouxville resolution was clearly to state that racialized communities should not be catered to in Quebec as a whole – there are in fact no immigrant communities, or even Muslim or Jewish individuals, in the village of 1,000 – its disingenuous tone (“we would like to invite, without discrimination, in the future, all people... that would like to move to this territory”) and smart choice of examples (i.e. the murder of women) garnered it instant media attention from around the world.

Overnight, the town became something of a symbol for that broad current of anti-establishment nativism which is always just beneath the surface in Canada. People have written in to the newspaper saying we should rename the town “Hero-ville”, and similar resolutions have been passed by other villages in the area, as well as the city of Trois Rivières (one of the whitest cities in Canada, with only 1% people of colour).

With a provincial election looming, and white francophone Quebecois by far the largest voting bloc, positions taken at this point are unlikely to be good, and could have lasting consequences. Certainly, anxieties about immigration and multiculturalism are going to be in the news for a while to come, and will certainly be exploited by all sections of the political establishment. Racialized communities and ethnic minorities are faced with an increasingly hostile climate.

In this context the provincial Liberal government’s decision to launch a commission to look at the question of “reasonable accommodation” is really just more bad news. Charles Taylor and Gerard Bouchard – two white men, one anglophone and one francophone, ostensibly representing the “traditional” Quebec power structure – are to have a year to examine the question, hold pubic and private hearings, and come up with some kind of “solution.”

This public commission is very much a ploy on the part of the political establishment to defuse the quickly rising temperature of white racism, or at least manage it, getting it under control. But the very terms of the debate – putting the requests and demands of immigrants on a different level than those coming from other sections of society – are intrinsically racist, and in the end this ploy could very well backfire, providing a year-long soapbox for the likes of Dumont, or worst.

Which, again, is something that the political establishment can deal with as long as they have a handle on it. The economic future of Quebec as a whole, and the well-being of the Quebecois middle classes in particular, are directly reliant on maintaining immigration to this province. Not only to meet the labour requirements of the official economy, but also to fulfill the labour of social reproduction which for previous generations was carried out by super-exploited women – mothers, wives, nuns and (for the wealthy) “domestic servants.”

Barring some cultural counter-revolution, there will be no question of stopping people from immigrating to Quebec – to do so would require the reproletarianization of sections of the new Quebecois middle classes. What is at stake – and what the currently rising nativist movement has its sites on – is the degree of freedom and social power that the new immigrant proletariat will enjoy, or (conversely) the degree of oppression and exploitation it will be forced to suffer.

Within this dangerous situation, the only real strategy for those of us fighting for a better world must be reject the racist underpinnings of this false “debate”. Unfortunately, large sections of the Quebecois left-wing, trade union and feminist movements remain sympathetic to – if not plain out enmeshed with – the nationalist project, and many of the so-called “cultural communities” are similarly tied to the Liberal party. These ties can only hamper any real solidarity from the former, or resistance from the latter.


See also No One Is Illegal (Montreal) on Racist "Reasonable Accomodation" Debate.

For more background on Quebec, people may find last year’s posting Quebecistan? I wish... and my subsequent exchange with a comrade from NEFAC (More on the Quebec Nation) to be of interest.


  1. Thanks for your excellent elucidating summary! Now I better comprehend the situation. Makes me wonder, though, where Canada is heading...

    Keep up the good work! And thanks for putting in a link to my site -- where I've been having an ongoing (for several days now) 'discussion' with many Israel supporters, after I'd posted the CAIA info about Israeli Apartheid Week actions next week at U of T.

    My pro-Palestinian postings are drawing the ire of many zionists/supporters, and I was quite surprised at the venom spewed by many of them. Some comments were so bad that I deleted them. But I was rather disappointed that there were not more pro-Palestinian commenters. Don't they read our blogs? Or does this merely show that even so-called 'progressives' are afraid to voice opinions contradictory to Israel's policies for fear of being labelled anti-semitic? Or is the Israeli lobby so strong that they unite at even the smallest 'perceived' attack or questioning of Israel's policies? I have many Jewish friends who question those policies too!

    I guess it's a combination of the last two. Look what they are doing to former president Jimmy Carter since his new book "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid" came out. The zionist-controlled corporate msm is flaying him alive!

    Re the Palestinians: The CAIA-MCPJ-OCAP get-together last Sunday was great! We had some interesting speakers -- including a guy from Montreal whose name I can't recall now. The real-life experiences they told about families /friends living under Israeli occupation were terrible! How come people fail to understand the Palestinians' plight? Why is it ok to criticise other governments but not the Israelis?

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know and needed to share my disgust/sadness/disappointment at all this, with someone who understands...

    Keep up the good work!

    in solidarity & peace,

  2. Hey k.,

    Seem's you are leaving a huge section of the problem out of you summary. The current backlash focus on accomodation for religious reasons. Populist and reactionarie use the situation to push a racist, anti-immigration agenda, that's for sure. But at the same time it's a classic 3 way fight situation. The left have been silent on this and I think it's a really big mistake. I've been thinking about it for a while and the only good way out I see is a push for a radicalisation and deepening of the secularisation (laïcité) of Quebec society. That is, we can refuse religion in the public sphere if, and only if, we destroy the last vestige of catholic priviledge (ex.: if we refuse to accomodate muslim with a room to pray, then we must close down the "chapelle"). The line to crush the populists while at the same time "accomodating" a majority who is not at ease with religion in the public sphere should look like this according to me.

  3. For a good take on reasonable accommodation visit and please leave a comment