Canada's veiled immigration problems

TORONTO, Canada — In Europe and parts of North America, the image of a Muslim woman with a veiled face is increasingly the trigger for anxious debates about national identity.

In France, where the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools has already been banned, politicians are poised to outlaw the veil in public buildings and public transport. In Italy, cabinet ministers have vowed to do the same. And in Britain — where the embrace of multiculturalism is considered the polar opposite of France’s policy of assimilation — a top cabinet minister, Jack Straw, has spoken out firmly against the wearing of the niqab or burqa on British soil.

No surprise, then, that the issue hit the headlines last week in Canada, sparked by an incident in the largely French-speaking province of Quebec.

Naema Ahmed, a 29-year-old Egyptian, was attending a government-sponsored class in Montreal for immigrants who want to learn French. In the middle of writing an exam, she was pulled out of class by a provincial official, who gave her a stark choice — remove the veil or leave the class. Ahmed left.

Months earlier, Ahmed had been thrown out of another French class for the same reason.

“I feel like the government is following me everywhere,” Ahmed told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

There are no laws in Quebec that ban women from covering their faces with a veil. But in backing the actions of bureaucrats, Quebec’s immigration minister, Yolande James, made one up on the spot.

“There is no ambiguity on this question: If you want to [attend] our classes, if you want to integrate in Quebec society, here our values are that we want to see your face,” James said, adding that legislation to deal with similar incidents would soon be introduced.

The paradox, of course, is that Ahmed wanted to integrate by learning French. But the government, by banning her from classes, is pushing her to the margins of Quebec society.

“I'll just stay in my house,” Ahmed said. “This will solve the problem.”

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.

Quebec politics are also fueled by nationalism. It’s common to hear talk of “pure wool” Quebecers — a term that refers to descendents of the original settlers from France. In 1995, when the separatist Parti Quebecois government narrowly lost a referendum to make Quebec an independent country, then-Premier Jacques Parizeau, on national television, blamed the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote.”

Many in English-speaking Canada were reminded of the delicate relationship Quebec has with its immigrants when the veil incident occurred last week. Anglophone commentators noted, somewhat smugly, that governments in largely English-speaking provinces have not mused about banning the veil, generally seeing it as a matter of personal choice. But they generally failed to note a more troubling reality.

Recent immigrants across Canada, studies indicate, are having a harder time integrating into the labor market than previous waves of newcomers. They’re no longer catching up to the earnings of Canadian-born workers — even when they’re better educated than Canadian-born workers. The same goes for their children.

Racism, overt or not, clearly plays a role.

Last year, an economist at the University of British Columbia headed a study that sent 6,000 resumes to employers in the Toronto area. Those with names like Greg Johnson and Michael Smith were 40 percent more likely to get callbacks than applicants with the same education and job experience who had Indian, Chinese or Pakistani names.

Similar studies in Chicago, Boston and Paris have arrived at similar results.

Focus on symbols like the Islamic veil, in other words, detracts from more important systemic barriers to integration. It breeds the volatile environment seen in France, where politicians get hot and bothered about religious clothing while marginalized ethnic minorities in suburban enclaves — struggling with high unemployment — periodically unleash violent riots.