In the struggle to integrate newcomers to Canada, Quebec has distanced itself from other provinces with its hardline stand against religious face coverings, which is likely to earn it a reputation as either a far-sighted pioneer or intolerant loner. Provincial governments in the rest of the country appear leery about setting rules imiting access to public services for people who wear certain forms of religious attire, as Quebec did earlier this week.

Immigration Department officials in the province expelled a Muslim woman from government-sponsored language classes after she refused to remove her niqab, a Muslim face covering that reveals only the eyes. It was the second time the Quebec government confronted the woman, prompting Immigration Minister Yolande James to declare: “If you want to assist at (attend) our classes, if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values.” “We want to see your face.”

Not so in other parts of the country. Like Quebec, Ontario also sponsors language courses for immigrants. But unlike Quebec, newcomers to Ontario are allowed face coverings, such as a niqab, in their courses. “We are an open Ontario,” said Indira Naidoo-Harris, a spokeswoman for Ontario Citizenship and Immigration Minister Eric Hoskins. “We are committed to creating an open society where all Ontarians are respected.”

That openness, however, is hypothetical. Naidoo-Harris said her department has never been faced with a case similar to the one in Quebec. The same holds true for British Columbia, which like many other provinces doesn’t have a defined policy on face coverings in government-funded language courses.

Outside Quebec, governments seem more hesitant about regulating what people wear. “In Nova Scotia people have a right to express themselves anyway they wish around their faith,” said that province’s immigration minister, Ramona Jennex.

But inside Quebec, such sartorial matters have political consequences and are understood as part of the long-running debate over how to reasonably accommodate minorities. The issue became so heated that the Liberal government was forced to call a public inquiry on the topic in 2007. Its recommendations were largely ignored, but since the niqab story was revealed, Premier Jean Charest has faced a daily barrage of questions about his government’s commitment to protecting Quebec values.

“The issue of reasonable accommodation has been more acute in Quebec because of its history in terms of the francophone majority being a vulnerable minority,” said Morton Weinfeld, who holds the chair in Canadian-Ethnic Studies at McGill University. “It is very concerned about its cultural integrity and survival.”

Contributing to the issue is Quebec’s relative lack of ethnic diversity compared with the rest of Canada’s. According to the latest Statistics Canada report, only 16 per cent of Montreal’s population was non-white in 2006. That number was actually well below 10 per cent in other population centres, including Quebec City (two per cent) and Saguenay (one per cent). Both Vancouver and Toronto have non-white populations of more than 40 per cent.

“The niqab issue has legs because it is linked to Islamophobia,” said Weinfeld. “But such issues are not unique to Quebec.”

Given the same Statistics Canada report predicted visible minorities would account for one-third of the country’s population by 2031, Quebec’s problems could be a harbinger for the rest of Canada, Weinfeld added.

Other provinces declined to comment about the steps taken by Quebec’s immigration minister, though provincial government officials in Manitoba acknowledged they were monitoring the situation there. They could be given a taste of their options in the coming weeks, as Charest’s government has promised concrete measures to deal with accommodation issues.

It has so far been mum on the details but James provided some clues as to what they might entail. “In Quebec, we receive services with the face uncovered and we give services with the face uncovered,” she said in the legislature.

As Canada’s minority population continues to grow, other provinces will have to decide whether Quebec’s approach is the model they want to follow.

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