I come not to bury André Drouin’s legacy, but rather to praise him. In his way, he made a singular contribution to the debate about immigration in Canada.
Drouin, a former city councillor in the Quebec town of Hérouxville, passed away at age 70 earlier this month. He was famous, after a fashion, for having been the co-author in 2007 of a peculiar (and highly controversial) ‘code of conduct’ for new immigrants that made his community a lightning rod in the debate over immigration and the so-called “reasonable accomodation” of minority cultures.
You remember this one. Hérouxville is a little town with a population that is predominantly white, francophone and Catholic. Still, for reasons of its own, it adopted a code of conduct for new immigrants reminding them that women in the community must be allowed to show their faces, drive cars and write cheques — and that they’re not to be killed in public beatings, or burned alive.
The reaction of the wider world ranged from mockery to outrage — and Hérouxville quickly became a symbol for everything wrong with the Canadian conversation on immigration. Drouin did not coin the phrase “reasonable accommodation”, but he gave it its political currency in Quebec.
As an immigrant who had been in Canada barely five years when the Hérouxville controversy first surfaced, I felt profoundly offended. Where did this guy — who’d probably never met an immigrant or a person of colour — get the right to “prescribe” the outer limits of a society’s welcome? It built up my notion of Quebec as the least friendly of provinces for newcomers.
Today, I think of Drouin differently. In fact, it was the non sequitur of Hérouxville’s immigration stance that inspired me to launch New Canadian Media.
I now believe Drouin did us a favour by articulating a sentiment that rarely gets aired in mainstream media: the notion that immigrants have obligations, too. Assimilation, integration or tolerance — whatever semantic approach you take to the process by which a nation accepts and weaves together newcomers, it is indeed a two-way street.
If the world today recognizes “Canadian exceptionalism” in the area of immigrant integration and citizenship, it’s partly because ordinary folks like Drouin — who had only a small-town bully pulpit — articulated in a democratic fashion fears that a lot of Canadians share, but are loath to voice for fear of ostracism.
I’d prefer Drouin any day to a lurking xenophobe who doesn’t quite know why he “fears the Other” – only that he does. He had the decency to speak his fears aloud, giving his society a chance to confront them.
In fact, I think it’s because of public officials and civic leaders like Drouin that Canada has not produced a Marine Le Pen, a Geert Wilders, a Heinz-Christian Strache or even a Viktor Orban. We largely have a mature discourse on the defining issue of our era — an issue that has proved to be extremely divisive and explosive in every other nation that has confronted it.
This was no accident. Every country that has a high immigrant population needs public forums and institutions where opponents of laissez-faire immigration can have their say, within democratic norms. Coun. Drouin used one of those forums to the hilt.
He wasn’t whistling in the wind, either. Like it or not, Quebec is Canada’s crucible on immigration policy. Recent controversies around finding a burial ground for Muslims, the carnage at the mosque in Quebec City and the earlier firestorm over one builder’s bid to have a condo complex just for people of a particular faith show that Quebec represents the bleeding edge of the immigration debate.
One doesn’t have to drive too far south from the town of Hérouxville to witness first-hand what an alternative to a reasoned, national discourse looks like. There’s a daily drumbeat of executive orders from the Trump White House, but the most dramatic ones — the ones that get reported and dissected endlessly — have had to do with immigration and visas. Why?
I believe it’s because Americans have been uncomfortable with their immigration policy for a long, long time, but have found few in Washington or elsewhere who would voice their fears. This has led to an untenable situation where you have as many as 12 million “illegals” in the country. Clearly, this is a policy that went off the rails decades ago.
Civic leaders like Drouin act as a ‘pressure valve’, staving off an immigrant-baiting political groundswell like the one we’re seeing in the U.S. We’d be far worse off without them.
George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media. Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit