New racism in 'reasonable accommodation'

December 15, 2011

Montreal -- It seems history has once again repeated itself. The recent introduction of a 'statement of values' by one of Quebec's biggest cities, Gatineau, harkens back to the 2007 outbreak of race anxiety when the village of Hérouxville drafted its own code of conduct for newcomers.

The intolerance and racism unleashed by the Hérouxville charter and its subsequent reasonable accommodation controversies, which coloured the 2007 provincial election, saw ethnic minorities painted as a threat to Québécois society.

Yet research from Concordia University, published in the Canadian edition of the Global Media Journal, says those flames have been smoldering since the Quiet Revolution. The hostilities were merely stoked by politicians and media eager to trumpet new instances of ethnic hostility to "reasonable Québécois" norm.

According to Alan Wong, a doctoral candidate in Concordia's Special Individualized Programs, the Quiet Revolution solidified an idea that Quebec was a society bound by democratic values, language and culture. "The 'reasonable accommodation' debates, as they happened in the province, maintain this façade of a unified collective Québécois identity. Those identities presumed not to correlate with that value system are therefore different, 'other,' and not of Quebec," says Wong.

There were a number of events in 2006-07 that led to 'reasonable accommodation' dominating the public discourse. A young Sikh was permitted to wear a ceremonial dagger to his classes. The École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) was ordered by the Quebec Human Rights Commission to provide prayer space for Muslim students. Some female members of a Montreal YMCA objected to the decision to install frosted windows out of consideration for the members of the Orthodox Jewish community from a nearby synagogue.

At some point, politicians took notice. Mario Dumont, former leader of the provincial Action démocratique du Québec party, adopted the slogan of "Nos valeurs communes," which he pledged to defend. Liberal leader and Quebec Premier Jean Charest, as well as then Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair, made similar statements. All three agreed that, in Charest's words, "recognizing the other doesn't mean effacing oneself before the other."

Wong says media were happy to push the narrative of "unreasonable" immigrants insisting on special privileges to the detriment of Québécois values -- a practice that has been dubbed "The New Racism." Coverage from newspapers reinforced the idea of majority culture values as being "reasonable" and immigrants, particularly non-white immigrants, as being "unreasonable". Special accommodations requested by non-majority yet white groups went unreported by media.

"The press privileged white voices and their perspectives on 'others', and favoured their absence when it suited the overall narrative," says Wong.

Although Wong sees some signs of improvement since 2007 -- the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation being a positive development -- he says much of the assumptions of the discourse of that year have become normal. In addition to alienating already marginalized immigrant and minority groups, this represents a lost opportunity.

"This debate diverted attention away from more significant issues, such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment -- issues that affect the everyday lives of the disenfranchised in Quebec," Wong says. "Immigrants have been harmed in multiple ways by this debate -- directly, through the new racism, and indirectly through neglect of life-and-death issues."
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