By Martin Patriquin
February 28, 2017
“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
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
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-centre 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
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
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
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.