Ugly incident of bigotry in Quebec mall underscores nasty side of values debate

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
Ugly incident of bigotry in Quebec mall underscores nasty side of values debate
Ugly incident of bigotry in Quebec mall underscores nasty side of values debate

If you want more evidence of what the Parti Quebecois' proposed values charter can do to the tone of debate over cultural diversity in the province, look no further than the experience of Badia Senouci.

The Algerian immigrant and her family were shopping at a mall in the Quebec City suburb of Ste-Foy a couple of weeks ago when she was accosted by a woman who demanded she take off her hijab, the headscarf worn by some devote Muslim women, and that she change her religion.

"She told me, 'Madame, change your religion," Senouci said, according to CBC News.

After Senouci argued that in Canada she was free to practice her religion, the woman said the government would soon be forcing her to take off her hijab.

The confrontation escalated into an apparent assault when the woman spit in the face of Senouci's teenage son when he stepped in to ask her to stop harassing his mother.

[ Related: Quebec Muslim Badia Senouci told: 'change your religion' ]

A tussle ensued that apparently involved the teen and Senouci's husband, Abadelmalek Mansouri. The woman fell, later claiming to police that the two men were responsible. However Mansouri said police released him after reviewing security video footage of the incident, CBC News reported.

The Canadian Press reported Senouci has lived in Quebec City for 14 years without facing overt discrimination. In an account in La Presse, she blamed Quebec Premier Pauline Marois' plans to embed state secularization in a so-called charter of values for the incident.

The most contentious element of the proposal involves barring public-sector workers from wearing "ostentatious" symbols of their religion, including hijabs, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps or Christian crucifixes considered overly large. Small crosses and Stars of David would be OK.

Polls suggest the values charter is supported by a large swath of Quebecers, especially among francophones outside Montreal, but fresh poll results released this week indicate it's dropping as the issue gets hashed out.

Undoubtedly the feelings the woman expressed to Senouci and her family live just beneath the surface with some in Quebec, and probably the rest of Canada.

But has the PQ's charter and the rationale behind it given Quebecers like the Ste-Foy woman permission to express their bigotry?

[ Related: New poll suggests divisions, softening support for Quebec values charter ]

“I see this tension and these hateful glances directed towards us," Senouci, who operates a home day-care, told La Presse.

Shortly after elements of the values charter were leaked last month, someone dubbed what they claimed was pig's blood on a commercial building used as a mosque in Chicoutimi, Que. The Canadian Press reported the vandal sent a letter to Radio-Canada warning Muslims to "assimilate or go home."

But the tension over so-called "reasonable accommodation" of minority religions and cultures within Quebec have simmered for years.

The village of Herouxville became a focal point and laughingstock after posting rules for immigrants who might want to live in the community of 1,200, such as no female circumcision and no stoning of women in public.

A blue-ribbon commission recommended in 2008 that the government prepare a white paper on secularism and that it do more to promote "interculturalism," with more funding for diversity programs.

It also recommended some public officials that embody the authority of the state such as judges, prosecutors, police, prison guards and the leaders of the National Assembly be barred from wearing religious symbols. But other government employees, such as teachers, health professionals and public servants, should be allowed to display marks of their faith.

[ Related: Chicoutimi, Que., mosque vandalized as debate over religious symbols heats up ]

The commission did little to calm the waters. Earlier this year, the Quebec Soccer Federation was forced to reverse its controversial ban on players wearing turbans or other religious headgear on orders from FIFA, the sport's world governing body, according to CBC News.

Two years ago, a young skinhead was convicted of assaulting several people in Montreal in 2008, according to CTV News. He was part of a group of teens randomly attacking young men who looked Arabic.

“When we came here, it was for our children," Senouci said after the Ste-Foy incident. "We wanted a true free country. We had seen the advertisements of Canada [that] spoke of a society of law where there was no racism . Now I have questions.”

Mansouri, a computer scientist at the Quebec Transport Ministry, said he's considering taking his family out of the province out of fear Muslims will be subject to more such attacks.

“It’s as if we were guilty, [but] we have been the victims!” said Mansouri, who lodged a complaint with police over the incident.