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Canada's veiled immigration problems

The case of a Muslim student removed from class for wearing a veil hints at the difficulty of integration.

In virtually all cases where governments react strongly against the veil, Western values are proclaimed to justify whatever measures are taken. The Quebec minister responsible for the status of women, Christine St-Pierre, described the niqab and burka as “ambulatory prisons” that violate a woman's right to equality. In France, the veil is also seen as an affront to secularism, considered the essence of French identity.

Some obvious questions are rarely asked: Why should citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds accept values that have failed to ease social and racial inequality in Western countries? Why should religious symbols be banned and brand-labeled clothing tolerated? If laws that oblige people to dress according to religious dictates are considered outrageous, how can those that oblige people not to do so in Western societies be admirable?

What’s clear is that the veil — a divisive issue among Muslims themselves — is worn by a miniscule number of women in Western countries. Estimates in France place the number at 1,900, among a Muslim population of about 5 million. In Canada, you can walk the streets of downtown Toronto — the most multicultural city in the country — without spotting one for weeks.

Yet, a veiled face has become the poster image of “the other.” For those who buy into the “clash of civilization” argument, it also symbolizes Muslim hordes at the gates.

Tony Judt, the British-born historian living in New York, recently noted a paradox of globalization: as borders fall to the mass movement of goods and people, local citizens, fearful and uncertain, increasingly look to their leaders for protection. The politics of identity become, as Judt puts it, “a flimsy cover for political exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment – and a blatant ploy to deflect economic anxiety onto minority targets.”

Canada has had its share of shameful politics. Once upon a time in Toronto, signs banned “dogs or Jews” on beaches, and vagrancy laws were passed to prevent Italian immigrants from hanging out on sidewalks to chat.

The modern political record is far less blemished. If nothing else, there is strength in numbers. In the 2006 census, 43 percent of Toronto's population was non-white; in Vancouver the figure was 42 percent; in Calgary, 22 percent; in Edmonton, 17 percent and in Montreal, 16 percent.

A study last week by Statistics Canada estimated that by 2031, roughly two out of every three residents of metropolitan Toronto will belong to a visible minority — an increase from 2.3 million people in 2006 to 5.6 million.

Relations between the Quebec government and immigrants get the most attention. As a linguistic minority in North America, Quebec society is driven by a desire to preserve the French language. In the 1970s, laws were passed that oblige the children of immigrants to attend French language schools.