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Quebecers no more racist than others, says co-chair of accommodation commission

MONTREAL - The crucifix in Quebec's legislature belongs in a museum as Quebecers embrace "open secularism" and reach out to minorities, says a much-hyped report looking at ethnic tensions in the province.


MONTREAL - The crucifix in Quebec's legislature belongs in a museum as Quebecers embrace "open secularism" and reach out to minorities, says a much-hyped report looking at ethnic tensions in the province.

But in what may be a harbinger of the politics to come, Premier Jean Charest immediately rejected the proposal, which is one of the major symbolic recommendations of the $5-million study he commissioned last year.

"We cannot erase our history," Charest said Thursday in pledging to keep the crucifix where it is - hanging over the Speaker's chair.

"The crucifix is about 350 years of history in Quebec that none of us are ever going to erase, and of a very strong presence, in particular of the Catholic Church.

"And that's our reality. And those who come to Quebec are joining a society where that history is now something that is part of our story."

The 300-page report into the accommodation of minorities, drafted by sociologist Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor, dives head first into anxieties that Quebec culture will be lost amid a sea of newcomers.

Alarmists, however, will be disappointed. Bouchard and Taylor throw cold water on their concerns, insisting there has been much ado about nothing.

"There is no threat to francophone Quebec," Bouchard said at a news conference in Montreal. "The situation is under control. It's not chaos, it's not a disaster."

At the same time, the co-authors say the province needs better integrating of immigrants who often feel discriminated against.

The report makes 37 "moderate" proposals to the Quebec government aimed at preserving secularism while fostering harmony and interculturalism between the francophone majority and minorities.

It calls for judges, police officers and Crown prosecutors to be banned from wearing religious symbols and for municipal councils to abandon prayers at public meetings.

Immigrants should be encouraged to settle outside of Montreal and should receive better language training to integrate into society.

The report also recommends several urgent measures, such as dealing with high unemployment among newcomers and doing more to recognize foreign credentials.

But if the goal is to improve relations with minorities, the onus falls on francophone Quebecers, the report says.

"Because of its predominant weight in institutions and collective decision-making, the majority ethnocultural group must assume foremost responsibility," reads an English version of the study.

Taylor said the findings take into consideration the fact Quebec's francophone majority is in a constant precarious state because it is a minority within North America.

Where Canada may thrive by encouraging many cultural identities equally, the report says Quebecers must opt for interculturalism - the fostering of friendly relations between groups while protecting the main language and culture.

"(Quebecers) want to accentuate the exchanges between the different cultural groups," Taylor told reporters.

"This is a set of policy goals essential in this society that have no relevance in Toronto or Vancouver."

Bouchard and Taylor spent months travelling across the province last year after debate over the accommodation of minorities reached a fever pitch with controversies making daily headlines.

A rural sugar shack, for example, received hate mail after a newspaper revealed the restaurant had removed pork from traditional dishes served during the annual maple syrup run.

The small town of Herouxville adopted bylaws banning the stoning of women and the covering of faces - despite the fact scant few visible or religious minorities had ever set foot in the place.

But the commissioners found that rumour, rather than facts, held sway in many of these cases, feeding unreasonable fears.

"The negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the field," the report says.

After examining 21 cases played up by media and politicians, only six were found to have been free of distortion.

The report says there is no indication that swarms of accommodation requests are pending and stressed that "the current situation is under control."

Charest still pledged on Thursday to force newcomers to Quebec to sign a vow to uphold the province's values.

Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont, who jumped on the cause of protecting the province's traditions during the election campaign in the spring of 2007, said the report downplays the threat to Quebec culture.

"The report is mute on the strengthening and affirming of the established culture, which corresponds to the francophone majority, the host society," he told the legislature.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois also panned the report for failing to recognize Quebec's identity crisis.

"We feel the commission's report only goes in one direction," she said. "There exists an unease about Quebec's identity which we have to deal with."

Despite the lukewarm reception the report received from political leaders, Taylor insisted he isn't worried about his proposals getting shelved.

"I really think this government is concerned," he told reporters. "I haven't got a crystal ball, but it would surprise me if they didn't worry about any of the recommendations."

In Herouxville, councillor Andre Drouin, who promoted the town's code of conduct for immigrants, said the commission didn't accomplish anything.

"It doesn't seem to have any solution to solve that problem that people say we don't want no religious accommodation," he said. "What we have asked for is no religious accommodation in our province and there are very good reasons for that."

Some 3,400 Quebecers attended the forums with hundreds of them airing views that ranged from nuanced arguments over Quebec's sociological makeup to xenophobic rants.

The entire episode left some Quebecers wondering if the province's tolerant reputation had been left in tatters, while others argued it had been healthy to confront the contentious debate head-on.

 
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