“Where is it written in the criminal code that I don’t have the right to leave someone a pig’s head? Is it Islamophobic? Well, no, it’s just an anodyne gesture.”
So said the Quebec City radio host Éric Duhaime last summer, two days after a pig’s head was left on the doorstep of the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec, the city’s largest mosque. The severed bloodied head was wrapped in cellophane and festooned with ribbons.
The culprits were never caught, though Mr. Duhaime was quick to come to their defense. The infraction, he said on air, was only a “bad joke,” comparing it to the times when, as a teenager, he would order pizzas to be delivered late at night to his neighbor’s house. Just over seven months later, a gunman entered that mosque and killed six men as they finished Sunday night prayers.
The blame for the shooting should not be laid on Mr. Duhaime and other radio hosts like him who gush with anti-Muslim sentiment. Quebec’s 243,000 Muslims face far greater problems than a few radio personalities.
But the trivialization of anti-Muslim crime and the outright demonization of Muslims, so common on Quebec City’s airwaves, contribute to a poisonous political climate for Muslims across the province.
Quebec’s political class has been embroiled in a decade-long obsession over the place for the province’s religious minorities in society. Because the discussion has focused largely on the Muslim veil, the effect has been further social and economic shunning of Muslims.
Quebec’s National Assembly is debating a bill that would compel much of the public service work force to keep their faces uncovered. The bill, which will probably be approved, comes just over three years after the previous Parti Québécois government tried to pass the Quebec Charter of Values, a more restrictive law that would have banned the wearing of all religious symbols by anyone drawing a provincial government paycheck.
This debate has only grown more intense. Seemingly inconsequential requests — as when, in 2007, a Muslim group asked for pork-free baked beans and a prayer room for a private retreat at one of Quebec’s many “sugar shacks,” where maple syrup is made and feasted upon — have been taken as assaults on Quebec’s vaunted secularism. More recently, the right-of-center Coalition Avenir Québec party said it would seek to ban the “burkini,” the body covering swimsuit worn by some Muslim women, from Quebec beaches. (The party eventually backed down, admitting that such a ban would be difficult to enforce.)
Though the values charter didn’t pass, it left scars on the province’s social landscape. The Quebec philosopher Charles Taylor, in a letter to La Presse, recently blamed the bill and the ensuing public debate for “the proliferation of assaults, particularly against Muslims wearing the veil, assaults that went from hate speech to acts of violence in some cases.”
On paper, at least, the Muslims here are well suited for Quebec. Many of them are from North Africa, and are well versed in French, Quebec’s official language. They tend to be well educated and have large families — a boon for a province with a low birthrate and an aging population.
Yet integrating into society has remained a stubborn problem. Quebec has the highest unemployment rate among recent immigrants to the country, just over 15 percent, nearly four percentage points higher than the national average, according to census data.
There are several reasons behind this high unemployment rate. Roughly 75 percent of Quebec’s immigrant population settles in Montreal, an already competitive job market. The province’s unions and professional organizations have been particularly reluctant to credit job experience at foreign companies, or even to recognize degrees earned at foreign universities. One of the mosque shooting victims, Aboubaker Thabti, was trained as a pharmacist in his native Tunisia. A married father of two, he was working at a chicken slaughterhouse at the time of his death.
The province’s government has promised that remedies are on the way. Last year, the governing Liberals introduced a bill that would streamline the recognition of foreign university degrees and compel professional organizations to more readily accept applicants from non-Canadian institutions. Other provinces have instituted such measures, with varying degrees of success. In Ontario, where most of the country’s immigrants settle, there are still far too many professionals driving cabs and delivering food.
Then there is the thorny issue of who, exactly, is a Quebecer. In the job market, there remains a preference for what is known as “pure laine” Quebecers. The expression — literally “pure wool” — denotes anyone with a Québécois last name and the appropriate skin tone.
“Unfortunately, you’re more likely to get a good job if your name is Lachance than if it’s Hamad,” said Tania Longpré, a researcher and French teacher in Montreal. “The key to integration is the ability to contribute to the economy. Quebec only loses when its professionals are forced to cut chickens.”
Mr. Duhaime, the radio host, has remained largely unrepentant in the wake of the mosque shooting, at one point blaming envious rivals for taking his words out of context. Others have been more contrite.
Sylvain Bouchard, a popular morning radio man, said that he’d failed in his duty to invite members of the city’s Muslim community to his show. “Muslims here are pacifist,” he said.
It was an unexpected show of regret in a medium known for its hot takes and big egos. If only words were the cause, and not just a symptom, of the problem.
Martin Patriquin is a freelance writer.