In rural Quebec, a small town surrenders to immigrants


For years, the small town in rural Quebec, Canada, has been a symbol of a deep-seated, parochial, nativist hostility to immigrants. There weren’t any there, it’s true, but the leaders of the time even created a code of conduct to leave no doubt that foreigners, with their habits and traditions, were not welcome.

And he warned: “Hérouxville does not allow women to be stoned in a public square, nor burned alive or treated like slaves. The population here celebrates Christmas and does not walk around with their faces covered — with the exception, perhaps, of Halloween”.

The regulation epitomizes the great fear gripping Canada’s only French-speaking province that foreigners “dilute” its culture. It also led to the unprecedented creation of an official commission for the consensus definition of a “reasonable reception” of ethnic minorities, which makes the current municipal stance of not only welcoming them but attending to their needs even more surprising.

“We’ve put the past behind us; now we want as many immigrants as possible,” confirmed Bernard Thompson, mayor and longtime proponent of the code.

The radical change in small-town attitude comes at a time when Canada is looking to open up even more to the outside world, a crucial strategy for economic vitality.

The federal government announced its plan to receive a record number of foreigners over the next three years, with the aim of increasing the national population by 1.45 million, currently at 39 million inhabitants. Unlike other western nations, where similar decisions divide society and encourage the rise of political extremism, in Canada the importance of immigration is consensus.

The only exception so far has been Quebec, whose politicians encourage anti-immigration based on voters’ greatest fear of losing their cultural identity. But even there, against a backdrop of shifting demographic demands and social attitudes, there are signs of change in places like Hérouxville.

In the small town, it happened, more specifically, by a combination of factors, not only including the aging of the population, the low birth rate and the great need for manpower, but also the profound changes in the opinions of the younger generations and the personal experience of people like Thompson. “The inability to respect each other’s culture, religious or otherwise, is a mistake. You have to be open.”

He is the top elected official in Mékinac, which includes Hérouxville, with its population of 1,336, and nine other towns, some of which uphold their neighbor’s code of conduct. In a radical break with that past – which virtually eliminated immigration to the area – the county attracted a record number of 60 foreigners from South America, Africa, Europe and beyond.

One of them is Habiba Hmadi, 40, who arrived a year ago from Tunisia with her husband and two children, a boy and a girl, both in elementary school. The couple speak French and Arabic at home; she is an insurance agent and he is a welder. “Staying away from the family is the hardest part, especially during Ramadan and other holidays. To tell you the truth, I had never heard of that code; we were very well received. People were calling, or even coming here, to find out if we needed something. One of the neighbors brought a huge bag of toys for the kids. I didn’t even know her, we were still moving.”

The influx was the result of a sweeping pro-immigration policy adopted by the county in 2017 – a decade after the code was passed in 2007 – when, in partnership with local businesses, officials began actively recruiting outside professionals to set up shop. in an area inhabited practically exclusively by French Quebecers, far from multiethnic centers like Montreal. In addition, they began to prepare the population for the arrival of the new inhabitants and defined programs to facilitate adaptation, including a recently expanded social center called La Maison des Familles.

Result: months ago, it won a government award, in recognition of new policies. “The arrival of these 60 people has enormously expanded our universe. They have different values ​​and traditions, which they share with us and allow us to see reality from another angle. Our desire is for them to settle down here, without necessarily changing their way of being”, declared Nadia Moreau, director of economic development for the county.

Both this message and the 2017 law represent the official repudiation of the norm that established insurmountable boundaries between residents and immigrants. If, on the one hand, it received support from some parts of the province, on the other hand, it led to Hérouxville being ridiculed and considered a stronghold of gratuitous intolerance – even winning a frame in a program on the state TV channel, Radio-Canada, showing the hardships of a couple of unsuspecting Muslims who ended up in the little town.

The main author of the norm was André Drouin, who died in 2017, who at the time of its creation was a councilor. Incidentally, he was also Thompson’s neighbor across the street, and the two met frequently to discuss the extent to which the majority of French Canadians, or québécois as they are called, should make room for foreigners and other minorities.

Thompson, administrator of Hérouxville’s official website, said he edited the initial draft, correcting spelling and grammar errors, as well as ironing out what he felt were “excessive references to Christmas trees”. But he saw the charismatic Drouin not only convince the local assembly to ratify his law unanimously, but sell the idea to the population. “Here we say that André sold refrigerators to Eskimos.”

However, having worked in the telecommunications industry for many decades in Montreal, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the most incendiary pieces of legislation. “Practically everyone in Quebec is the child of immigrants. And I love my sister’s partner, who is Muslim.”

Over time, he ended up breaking with his neighbor and, after being elected mayor, started a movement to shelve the code. “My intention was to restore the good reputation of the city; not to mention the need to attract labor, since the agricultural, forestry, industrial and service sectors of Mékinac were in crisis. The truth is that we need foreigners to survive. No It’s a matter of choice.”

Still, some politicians managed to tap into the anti-immigration sentiment of older rural voters. Like Jean Boulet – until recently the provincial Immigration Secretary, born in a small town next to Hérouxville–, who falsely stated that “80 percent of immigrants end up in Montreal, they don’t work, they don’t speak French and they don’t assimilate the values ​​of the society of Québec”.

Outside a convenience store in the small town, a man and woman who smoked spoke in favor of the code of conduct. And they confessed to being disgusted by the widely publicized stories of what happened in the “sugar huts” –establishments that serve traditional dishes of Québec cuisine, in which the famous maple syrup is produced–, which removed pork from the menu to attract customers. muslims. “We learned of some who even pray inside. Inside our sugar huts! OURS!”, vented the woman, who declined to be identified.

For Eva-Marie Nagy-Cloutier, 32, the law is nothing more than a relic of the past. “We belong to a generation that believes that you can be whatever you want and be with whoever you want,” added she, who works in HR at Pronovost, a local company that manufactures snowplow vehicles, which recruits immigrant professionals.

Like Abdelkarim Othmani, 33 years old, who left southern Tunisia almost two years ago and works night shifts at the company as a machine operator. In Ramadan this year, he was allowed to leave early for lunch so that he could break his fast in the evening. “I made friends and go to the gym to work out with my colleagues at the weekend. I love the atmosphere here. I even intend to marry my current girlfriend, who is still in Tunisia, and bring her here.” He refers to the girl as “blonde”, one of several local slang words he has incorporated into his vocabulary.

His best friend is Alex Béland-Ricard, 29, with whom he shares a ride to work daily. A true Quebecois, born in the county, he confessed to being impressed by the seriousness with which the Tunisian takes family, work and friendships. “Karim is the first immigrant I’ve met. I hope many more will come.”

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