Editorial: Strong leadership needed to counter fear of “the other”

The incidents appear to be sporadic, but taken together represent what seems to be a disturbing pattern: actions by elected municipal officials that limit the legitimate and fundamental rights of religious freedom and freedom of expression.

The latest episode happened in Shawinigan, 40 kilometres north of Trois Rivières. The city of 50,000 has an unemployment rate of nine per cent – two per cent above the Quebec aggregate – and the population is aging and diminishing.

Shawinigan needs immigrants, and many of those are people who speak French and are from North Africa. They generally come here with energy, ambition, skills, and quite often, religious convictions that give their lives added meaning.

A small Muslim community of 60 has emerged in Shawinigan, and it recently asked city council for a minor zoning amendment so it could open a mosque in an industrial zone. Work at the factories and warehouses located there would not have been disrupted by the presence of a mosque and its activities. There has not been any issues with the community, but probably in reaction to all the headlines about jihadist violence around the world, the idea of a mosque has scared some residents, and council refused the zoning change. This means Muslims there must continue to trek to the closest mosque in Trois Rivières, not a friendly move by a city toward its newest residents. The message is clear: We don’t trust you.

In Outremont, home to several thousand Hasidic Jews, city council passed a resolution that limits to 15 days the length of time the ceremonial sukkah huts can remain standing on balconies and yards. They are erected in the fall as part of the 10-day Sukkot Festival.

The bylaw was criticized as too vague to enforce, and too restrictive, since it can conflict with Sabbath limitations on work. It was seen as discriminatory, since no such time limit is imposed on removing Christmas decorations. It was seen as imposing undue hardships on seniors and the infirm.

The chief anti-Hasidic activist on council, Céline Forget, opposed a compromise suggested by borough officials calling for a seven-days-before and seven-days-after the holiday for erecting and removing the sukkah. This is on the books in Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough. That resolution never came to a vote and the 15-day limitation remains, described as the most restrictive anywhere in the world. It is yet another successful effort by anti-Hasidic activists that make life for this growing community more stressful.

These two incidents indicate that reactionary elements, aided by the silent compliance of the majority, are determined to fight against the faith requirements of a growing and visible group of residents for whom religious practice is the essence of their daily lives.

Shawinigan leaders caved, and pro-active leadership from Outremont civic officials is shamefully absent.

What about our provincial leaders?

The PQ showed its colours with its sledge-hammer approach inherent in its failed Quebec values charter. Instead of emphasizing rights and freedoms enshrined in our charters and how they protect and enhance equality for all, the PQ imported the restrictive French laïcité model.

Instead of providing moral leadership, Premier Philippe Couillard has refused to get involved. He predicted that Shawinigan would get its mosque, but went no further. He is abdicating his responsibility by saying he understands that people “feel fearful because they see international news developments, they see the world changing, and the landscape around us human beings also is changing.” This is not good enough.

He and all parties in the National Assembly are to be commended for condemning recent acts of anti-Semitism in the spray painting of swastikas on several cars.

On the mosque issue in Shawinigan, and the growing diversity of our population as a result of immigration, we expect more than passive observations from our premier, as we do from Kathleen Weill, the immigration minister, responsible for “diversity and inclusiveness.”

There is a need for a strong statement about our values, those at the heart of western society. As Prof. Norman Cornett says, “In postmodern, multicultural/intercultural contemporary Quebec, where differing worldviews rub shoulders every day, society can establish common ground by focusing on universal values.”

The way forward is at the heart of the Bouchard-Taylor report. It’s called reasonable accommodation.

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