Commentary | Quebec must treat all Quebeckers equally

The notion of “reasonable accommodation” is supposed to protect the rights of minority groups. Rather than protecting them, however, “reasonable accommodation” perpetuates a privileged notion of who is Canadian or Quebecois and who gets to shape Canadian and Quebecois culture: hosts accommodate guests. The phrase originates from a court decision in the case Central Okanagan School District No. 23 v. Renaud. The court ruled that employers must accommodate the religious beliefs of their workers, and while the idea has been expanded to cover other minorities’ rights as well, it implies – through terminology and through its real-world applications – that newcomers and those who differ from the majority are somehow unreasonable.

The phrase has been used in justifications of the expulsion of Egyptian-born Naïma Atef Amed from her government-sponsored French class at CEGEP St. Laurent. Amed wears a niqab – a veil covering the whole face except the eyes. She and her instructor had come up with an agreement so she could remain in class without compromising her modesty. For example, Amed performed an oral presentation facing the wall, rather than removing her veil in front of men. Despite these successful accommodations, the Immigration Ministry refused to allow the woman to attend class in a niqab. They expelled her when she refused to remove it.

Last week, Amed lodged a complaint with Quebec’s human rights commission, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. She also enroled in another government-sponsored French class at a different publicly-funded centre in Montreal, which allowed her to wear a niqab. Tuesday, the Immigration Ministry was informed of her enrolment and again intervened: it gave Amed the choice of leaving the class or removing her niqab.

“It is a question of common sense,” said Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James. Like the term “reasonable accommodation,” James’ rhetoric suggests that Western culture is inherently rational, and that Western mores – specifically, those of French-Canadian Quebeckers – are the only legitimate source of Quebecois culture.

Premier Jean Charest and Deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeau agreed that people receiving public services must have their faces uncovered. According to their logic, it would be unreasonable to make government services available to a public that includes Muslim women who choose to wear religious coverings. As James said, “Values must be respected.” The idea that leaving one’s face uncovered is a fundamental value of Quebec culture is absurd.

Over and over again in Quebec, reasonable accommodation has been used to defend Islamophobia. Opposition to Muslim women’s head- and face-coverings is underscored by a sexist assumption that these individuals couldn’t possibly have chosen to wear such garments, and therefore, must be oppressed by their religion. Just like people of colour are targeted because they visibly differ from the white majority, the niqab and the burqa are targeted because they are visible symbols of otherness.

French Canada has long struggled against domination by English Canada. We must consider the xenophobia present in today’s discussions of reasonable accommodation in the light of that history of oppression. But regardless of where one is born, a Quebecker is someone who lives in Quebec – whether they’ve been here for one or for 15 generations is irrelevant.

Quebec’s anxieties about otherness have long been language-related and directed toward anglophone political institutions. New immigrants to the province, who learn French in large numbers due to language laws, must be valued for their preservation of French language, not reviled for diversifying French-Canadian culture. Culture is constantly evolving. By keeping French alive, newcomers to Quebec are creating and strengthening Quebecois culture. The irony of Amed’s expulsion is that she was taking French classes.

Amed must be allowed to learn French and wear her niqab. The Immigration Ministry and the Quebec government need to stop targeting Muslim women and treating their legitimate requests as unreasonable. Governmental bodies and regulations should not target individuals or communities for their private choices when these decisions have no bearing on anyone but themselves. The government and society at large need to appreciate all residents of Quebec, and recognize that they deserve equal participation in determining the province’s values and traditions. Newcomers to Quebec and other minorities can no longer be treated as threat.