Calling out the Commission

Groups speak out against the Reasonable Accommodation Commission as it heads into its home-stretch

RIQ_2_small.jpg May Haydar and Nazila Bettache speak at the Reject Intolerance in Quebec (RIQ) press conference. Photo by Tim McSorley.

By Tim McSorley

Decried as a freak show and farce, praised as a healthy and needed debate, the Reasonable Accommodation Commission hasn’t failed to stir up emotion among both its supporters and detractors. From media pundits to the Governor General, from politicians to priests, imams and rabbis, and from school-teachers to dépanneur owners, everyone has an opinion about the public consultation called by Quebec Premier Jean Charest during the last provincial election.

While the commission has already visited 16 of the 17 cities in its planned route, scrutiny has not decreased – in fact, it is likely that the next two weeks will see another peak in interest. That’s because the commission has entered its home stretch, ending in the city that, of all Quebec municipalities, experiences what some view as reasonable accommodations on a daily basis. Tonight will see the first city-wide public forum on reasonable accommodations. Last Tuesday Côte-des-Neiges, one of the most multi-cultural communities in Canada, hosted a smaller, and very well attended, public forum. With Quebec’s most significant concentration of what is often described as ‘cultural communities’ (immigrant and religious minority communities) some see this round of hearings as the counterweight to the more racist and xenophobic comments heard during the commission’s visit to other, more homogeneously white, francophone communities.

United in anger and frustration
But while the commission will most likely see a more multicultural sea of faces during the coming days, there are continuing questions over whether the entire premise of the commission is unfounded. Coming together under the banner of Reject Intolerance in Quebec, a coalition of groups which work within immigrant and minority communities in Montreal is denouncing the racism and xenophobia they see manifesting itself at the hearings.

“We are united to express our anger and frustration with the degree that this debate has become exaggerated, to the point where the discussion has become a platform to incite racism and intolerance in public institutions and society in general,” explained RIQ spokesperson May Haydar of the Al-Hidaya Association at a press conference last week. “We are a group of diverse organizations that hope to send a clear message denouncing the racist statements both within and surrounding the commission.”

The RIQ’s main grievance is that the entire reasonable accommodation debate places minorities in a position where they must defend their place within Quebec society, rather than discussing a constructive path forward. The group believes that there will be no constructive debate until there is a recognition of the true dynamics between the ‘us’ – white, predominantly Catholic majority – and what has been termed as a homogeneous ‘them’ – the diverse minority and immigrant populations found in Quebec. Along those same lines, they are calling for the acknowledgment that Quebec and Canada are built upon the demand by European settlers for accommodation by this land’s original population. This accommodation eventually led to the colonization and marginalization of Canada’s First Nations – a situation that has never been fully redressed.

The coalition will be holding pickets and flyering outside of the commission’s hearings (tonight and Thursday at the Montreal Palais des Congrès). They are also organizing alternative public forums where they are inviting Montrealers to come and discuss ways to build a stronger, multicultural Quebec and not simply discuss the need to accommodate – or not accommodate – certain practices or groups.

Despite its opposition to the commission, the coalition is not calling for an all out boycott. Some groups within the RIQ, including Haydar’s Al-Hidaya Association, will still be presenting briefs to the commission or sending representatives to the public forums. But their goal will be to challenge the nature of the commission, rather than simply plead their case.

Towards a more inclusive debate
Farha Najah, a member of coalition participant No One is Illegal, points out that their message isn’t against public discussion, but rather the need for a public debate that is more inclusive. “It’s not that public assemblies are bad, in fact it’s the opposite. We’re saying they’re good. But the premise of the reasonable accommodations debate needs to be challenged, because that’s not the goal. The goal is to perpetuate this rhetoric of us versus them,” she explained.

Instead, she said, the Quebec government should look to the types of public discussions that grass-root and community organizations have long been organizing, pointing to the recent example of youth-based discussions in Little Burgundy on how to combat racism and to improve their community.

Najah also sees the coalition’s upcoming events as a chance to highlight some of the more contentious issues that have often been accepted at face-value. Not the least of these is the the demand by some groups, and Premier Charest’s subsequent promise, to amend the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms to place the equality of women and men above all others. Calls for this amendment have largely revolved around the belief by some that Muslim women are forced by their male counterparts into wearing the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (full-body covering and face veil). Najah, who does not wear a hijab, finds it frustrating that groups like the Conseil du statut de la femme are taking a leading stance calling for the submission of the right to religion to the rights of equality between men and women.

“It’s important to realize that women from all backgrounds have their own agency and their own struggles, just like people from different communities do, and that’s where we’re coming from: That everybody has the capability of expressing themselves.”

"Dubious premise"
RIQ is not alone in questioning the commission. A coalition of nearly 50 other associations, also predominantly Muslim and Arab organisations, has voiced their concern in recent days. Sameer Zuberi, communications director for the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, was in Montreal last week to present a workshop for individuals who planned on attending the commission. Zuberi hoped to give pointers on how to challenge some of the more contentious statements that have come out of the commission hearings. While he has been surprised by what he sees as very open and progressive comments by the commission’s two co-chairs, professor Charles Taylor and lawyer Gerald Bouchard, he shares the concern that the debate is divisive and further marginalizes minority groups.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the entire premise of reasonable accommodation is a dubious premise,” he says, explaining that the entire debate is centred around the false argument that there are constant requests for accommodations that are somehow unreasonable. While CAIR-CAN has taken a more tempered approach and not outright rejected the commission, Zuberi agrees with the sentiments being expressed by RIQ’s members. “[The] foundation that this debate really came forth from is one that is mean-spirited, bigoted and intolerant. So I think that if we are rejecting intolerance, bigotry and mean-spiritedness, then that is a sound thing to do.”

Will things change now that the commission has come to Montreal? Both Zuberi and Najah are doubtful. While there may be more immigrant or minority groups present, both point out the fundamental flaw of the commission – that of forcing minority groups to justify their existence.

“I think for sure there will be more people from immigrant, migrant, racialised backgrounds that may want to speak, and that’s fine,” said Najah. “And people, I think, may actually feel forced to speak because they are being forced to justify themselves.”

The real change will only occur once the final report of the commission is on the table and we see what actions the government will take, believes Zuberi. Both he and Najah are already disappointed, though, that the Premier has already announced plans to modify the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms without even waiting for the commission to make its final report. Instead of these make-shift and rushed efforts – including Pauline Marois’ proposed bill on making Quebec citizenship contingent on French proficiency – Zuberi sees the need for greater education.

“If the commission is to do something constructive once it is done, I’d like to see it go on a road trip educating people and engaging in dialogue,” he says. “That’s the only way we will see a real change and understanding across Quebec.”

The commission pursues its hearings the rest of this week in Montreal, with public forums tonight and Thursday night at the Palais des Congrès. Hearings resume with a provincial forum from December 10 until December 14.

For more on the RIQ and its planned events visit: http://nooneisillegal-montreal.blogspot.com.

Read the declaration issued by CAIR-CAN and other organisations here: http://montrealmuslims.ca/index.php?module=pagesetter&func=viewpub&tid=7....

For more on Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences the visit: http://www.accommodements.qc.ca.