"Taxi-driver Arieh Perecowicz settles with the City of Montreal which has adopted a directive preventing taxi inspectors from issuing tickets to taxi drivers [who carry] religious objects in their cabs."
Arieh Perecowicz press release, March 24, 2011
What does a 30-month old story about the courtroom success of a Montreal cab-driver have to do with Canada's immigration policies, or with legislation being proposed by Quebec premier Pauline Marois? On the surface, it seems a stretch to connect those dots, but let's see what you think.
When I first took up the story of Arieh Perecowicz in my November 2009 story, Defend the Rights Our Soldiers Died For, he was challenging several fines he had been assessed for carrying mementoes in his taxi.
The items were important reminders of his country, his family and his faith: a Canadian flag and a photo of his family; a Remembrance Day poppy, two mezuzahs and a Star of David.
Small tokens, most were attached to the frame of his cab; none posed a safety risk to his passengers. Their only threat, it seems, was to City of Montreal taxi inspectors.
When the out-of-court settlement was reached, Perecowicz was ecstatic.
"The City has gone a long way in recognizing the risk to our fundamental freedoms if such practices continued," he said.
He was "relieved and happy" to put the experience behind him and considered the settlement to be "a victory for all Quebecers."
Unfortunately for that optimism, the terms of the settlement were lost on Montreal's bureaucrats. On May 22, 2012, they cited Perecowicz for infractions on virtually the same grounds; the case will be heard on Nov. 22.
Meanwhile, Parti Québécois Premier Marois decided to build up her own head of steam on the subject. The rationale for her assault on Quebecers' freedoms is that the Charter of Values developed by her minister, Bernard Drainville, will unify Quebec's identity.
Reaction to date suggests that what began life as a Charter of Secularism has had the opposite effect.
Opposition from all sides has been created by draft legislation that would see turbans, veils and the very type of symbols Perecowicz carried in his taxi banned from all public institutions. The provincewide discussion has become so divisive some Quebecers believe it could topple Marois' vulnerable minority government.
From the outside looking in, there are many questions to be answered: Did Marois commission the legislation in ignorance of the reasons for settlement of Perecowicz' court case? Or was she, perhaps, retaliating against his success? Was the move intended, as some chatter would have it, to divert Quebecers' attention away from the state of the provincial coffers and/or to gain votes? Whatever the answers, recent North American and international events have shown how serious the consequences of her political gamesmanship could be - and not just for Quebec.
How did we get to this point? In Feb. 1991, then prime minister Brian Mulroney and his immigration minister, Barbara McDougall, concluded an agreement with Quebec to provide that ever-petulant province "with new means" by which it could "preserve its demographic importance in Canada" (parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/researchpublications/bp252-e.htm). The intent was also to "ensure the integration of immigrants in Quebec in a manner that respects [its] distinct identity."
For its part, Quebec decided that one way of preserving its demographics was to encourage immigration from Frenchspeaking parts of the world, including Africa.
As far as I could determine, a person's religion still is not an official basis for acceptance or rejection of an application for citizenship - in any province, including Quebec.
There are many flaws in Canada's immigration and refugee system but the time to discuss the rules for would-be citizens is during respectful discussions in Parliament and, most importantly, during an individual's application process - preferably in the country of origin.
Marois' attempt to change the rules is not only insulting, it paves the way for a continuation of the embarrassing type of public apologies we have seen far too often in this country.
Will Catholic nuns be ticketed for wearing habits? When the occasion arises, will an elected member of the Quebec assembly be told to remove his/her "symbol" even though a large cross still adorns the legislature? In 2013, it should come as no surprise to Marois that some Muslim Canadians and other landed immigrants have begun to organize their opposition to her proposed charter.
What is the point of saying "Welcome to Canada" to women wearing hijabs, or to men wearing turbans or yarmulkes when they first arrive, only to decide years later that their symbols are inappropriate in a public workplace?
With few exceptions and despite the waves of immigration from all parts of the world, Canadians have managed a peaceful coexistence.
Change is always difficult to take. But if we are not to fall prey to the type of senseless sectarian violence that occurred in Nairobi, we have work to do - work that deserves rational, nonpartisan government effort and mutual courtesy from everyone concerned.
In the depth of the al-Qaida fuelled crisis in his country, President Uhuru Kenyatta quietly but firmly rallied his distraught and beleaguered people: "Kenya is a multicultural society. We believe our diversity is our strength."
Madame Marois could do worse than take those words to heart; the safety of our country may depend on them. email@example.com
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