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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.

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.