Little Maghreb, Welcome or Not?

Little Maghreb, Welcome or Not?

Quebec argues over the limits of multiculturalism.


The area around Montreal’s rue Jean-Talon, long known as Little Italy, has recently been renamed “Little Maghreb” by local traders. Montreal, a city of 2 million people, is divided between French speakers in the east and north and English speakers in the southeast, but it is also an ethnic patchwork. Little Maghreb is home to many of Quebec’s North African population, especially Algerians. Many sections of rue Jean-Talon, on the edge of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, a middle-class area favored by French immigrants, show signs of these arrivals, who started to come in the early 1980s. One Canadian in five was born abroad (200,000 in North Africa); 80 percent of them live in Quebec, 70 percent in Montreal itself.

Butcher shops here are halal, travel agents offer cheap flights to North Africa, and bakeries sell cakes and kitchen utensils from back home. A few shops indicate a South American presence. When there are celebrations of a North African soccer win, the police gently divert the traffic to limit congestion. Many cafés share their names with those of Algiers, Tunis, and Casablanca. In the 5th July Café (named after the date of Algeria’s independence in 1962), I met several recent arrivals. Mounir D., 35, from Oran in Algeria, is a maintenance man in a department store and received his immigration visa in 2015. He told me that his new life has given him autonomy and freedom: “I’m good here. I won’t deny there are problems—but, brother, I have my wife and my children, we have a home and a car, and in five years at most we’ll be Canadian citizens. You shouldn’t take too much notice of the people who complain. Here, we have peace.”

Many of his friends strongly disagree; they say their reality is very different. They don’t hide their disappointment or anger with Quebec’s authorities, which haven’t done all they could to help them integrate. Hassan M., a Tunisian architect who says he “works in construction,” is bitter: “We’re not refugees asking for charity. We’re here as a result of a selective immigration policy, because Canada and Quebec invited us and chose us. But when we get here, unemployment is guaranteed. No way is this El Dorado.”

To tackle a declining birth rate and avoid Quebec’s share of the population dwindling relative to Canada’s English-speaking majority, the province passed legislation allowing it to select “foreign nationals capable of participating fully, in French, in Quebec society.” North and West Africa and Haiti are a pool of French-speaking potential immigrants widely considered vital to Quebec’s development.

Hassan and his friends emphasize that unemployment is particularly high among those of North African origin: It’s between 20 and 30 percent, three to four times higher than the Quebec average, which was 6.2 percent in January 2017. But these figures fail to capture the strong sense of demotion that many working migrants feel. A much-quoted anecdote says that if you have a medical emergency in Montreal, your best bet is to call a taxi rather than depend on the oversubscribed health service: Your driver is likely to be a doctor from North or sub-Saharan Africa, unable to practice because his qualifications are unrecognized.

Mounir admits that he finds it hard to accept his situation. He has a PhD in literature and a Tunisian diploma for interpreting, but hasn’t been able to find a job to match his skills: “They don’t warn you enough during the selection process. The immigration services rightly emphasize how hard the winter is, but they’d do better to warn immigrants that the toughest thing for them will be finding a real job.” Government publications do point out to would-be immigrants that “having been selected as a qualified worker does not mean that you will have a job in the profession or trade that you wish to pursue.”

Everyone I spoke to dreaded joining those who have to wait for the end-of-month payment of the bessbass (“fennel”), a contemptuous name for the government’s social-aid program, normally called social well-being (bien-être social), or pejoratively “BS,” which pays $604 (US $460) a month to each adult. Moaz F. used to be an engineer at an electricity company in Tunisia. He invited me to his small house near the leaning tower of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. He has managed to find work as an engineer, but only after an arduous process that took years and meant going back to study to gain recognized qualifications.

His wife, Ines, is also trained as an engineer, but works part time for a literacy service for non-French-speaking migrants. She admits that she has “peace of mind” now that she has left Tunisia and its political uncertainties, but she is critical of the official response to the difficulties that North Africans face finding work. “The problem is downplayed, whichever politicians are in power. The corporatism of some professional bodies prevents access to regulated professions, such as doctor, teacher, or craftsperson. It isn’t questioned, and the subject of discriminatory hiring practices is taboo,” she says. At the same time, people are told to start their own businesses. It’s a real culture shock, because these people come from countries where being an employee is the norm and the state is expected to provide solutions. That’s what creates the frustration you hear. Some get tired of fighting and set up small businesses whose target market is North Africans. That’s what promotes divided communities.”

Statistics show that North Africans are most affected by unemployment, but this seems to make little impression on the authorities, even if calls are increasing for a more sustained effort to make public-sector jobs accessible. I heard dozens of accounts like those of Ines and Hassan, with the same criticisms and arguments. Kamel Dziri, who worked as a journalist in Algeria, describes hand-delivering hundreds of copies of his CV and getting only a few interviews that led nowhere. He is considered overqualified and has had to make do with working in an electrical-goods store. Adib Bencherif, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, in neighboring Ontario, was told by a recruiter “that having a good mastery of the French language and culture was a handicap. He said it might make my Quebecker colleagues uncomfortable.”

Complex triangular relations between Quebec, France, and the Maghreb shape the daily lives of the migrants. Taïeb Hafsi, a professor at HEC Montréal, a French-language business school, has lived in Canada for three decades. He has watched the development of the communities over time: “Overall, North Africans are happy to be in Quebec, and they are made much more welcome here than in Europe. They have a real sense of belonging to their adoptive homeland, and the criticisms you hear about the difficulty of finding work are in part explained by a strong sense of impatience and desire to integrate.” Hafsi, a management specialist, thinks that problems tend to arise when Quebec, with its tradition of multiculturalism, imports unfamiliar problems such as the French debate over secularism and the place of Islam in the public sphere.

Two major events prior to the attack on the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre on January 29 created a sense of unease within the community. First there were the public debates in 2007 and 2008 about the “reasonable accommodations” that Canada’s Supreme Court has imposed since 1985. These exceptions to some apparently egalitarian rules are intended to avoid discrimination against the disabled or (mainly religious) minorities. Those authorized by the courts permit days off for religious holidays and the wearing of the traditional dagger by Sikh students at school, the hijab by Muslims, and the kippah by Jews. The Bouchard-Taylor commission concluded that these dispensations posed no problem on the ground, but did bring into the open Quebeckers’ growing fear of immigration.

The more recent event is the proposal for a Quebec Charter of Values, first raised by the Parti Québécois (PQ) during the provincial election campaign in September 2012. The plan presented in 2013 was intended to circumscribe the practice of reasonable accommodations within a reaffirmation of secular values and gender equality. The charter banned all employees in the public, health, and education sectors from wearing “religious symbols which are easily visible and have a demonstrative character.” The charter provoked both opposition and support, dividing the Quebec independence camp, and was eventually ditched after the Liberal Party’s victory in April 2014. During these periods of turbulence, many migrants felt stigmatized and believe the PQ is responsible for stirring up a general climate of intolerance.

Salim Nadjer, a young Frenchman whose grandparents are Algerian and who now lives in a Montreal suburb, has a sense of déjà vu: “The debates have sometimes been caricatures. Anyone can grab the microphone and say whatever they like. It feels as though France and its problems have followed me to Montreal, and I’m thinking I may have to go to the English-speaking part of Canada to get some peace.” Abdelhamid Benhmade, a Moroccan PhD student at Ottawa University, believes the polemics around the Charter of Values had some positive consequences: “Many Quebeckers have stopped skirting around the issue and have said things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. It’s a starting point for tackling a lack of understanding.” Rachida Azdouz of Montreal University, who is actively involved in the anti-discrimination struggle, agrees: “The debate about secularism is necessary, but we also need to bear in mind that intolerance is growing. There are definitely adjustments that need to be made, but some people are taking advantage of this to question the presence of North Africans in Quebec.”

Quebec has not been immune to the turmoil in the Middle East and Europe. On March 28, 2015, the far-right group Pegida Québec, modeled on its German namesake, tried to organize a march “against the Islamization of Quebec” in Little Maghreb, but canceled it at the request of the police and in the face of a sizable counter-demonstration. In December 2016, perhaps sensing the possibility of an extremist attack, many North African residents in Quebec and Montreal expressed concern about the social-media activities of various groups calling for Quebec to be “cleansed of all Muslim presence.” One, La Meute (The Pack), set up in autumn 2015 by two former soldiers, claims 43,000 Facebook members and seeks to defend the identity of Quebec, “the home and epicentre of European civilisation throughout the Americas.”

The killings by a far-right student in the Quebec City mosque has given the Parti Québécois pause, as has the intense debate around the charter of values. One PQ leader, who took part in the 2014 electoral campaign, told me anonymously: “There is a need to impose limits on multiculturalism as it exists in the rest of Canada. A police officer wearing a veil may not be a problem in Calgary, but that’s not so in Quebec. It’s not about saying no to Islam, but about setting rules for coexistence. This debate is not over, even if our party risks cutting itself off from a section of the Muslim electorate.”

Political scientist Christian Dufour shares this view. “Quebec is certainly not France,” he said. “We’re more open and more tolerant of cultural diversity. But we’re not British Columbia, Alberta, or Ontario either. It’s up to Quebec’s nationalists and autonomists to define a platform that’s acceptable to all, far removed from identity issues.” The progressive party Québec Solidaire (Quebec Solidarity) decided in November 2015 to keep its distance from the identity debate. Though vigilant about proselytism, the party does not oppose state employees wearing religious symbols. The party hopes to attract supporters of independence for Quebec alienated by the debate over the Charter of Values through a “collective plan for independence and defence of the rights of the individual and minorities.”

And yet, many residents of North African origin openly supported the charter. “I didn’t move to Quebec to experience the same religious pressures I suffered in Algeria,” said Fouad Dziri, a software engineer. He believes that it’s right that people such as Djemila Benhabib, a PQ candidate in 2012 and 2014, should speak out about the danger of fundamentalism and divided communities. On February 4, 2017, Benhabib, an active campaigner who has been severely criticized for her uncompromising secularism, posted a Facebook attack on the opportunism of Quebec’s political class after the mosque shooting. “I would have expected that their meetings with Muslim leaders would also be an opportunity for our politicians to explain the meaning of democracy to them: The necessary distancing of politics from religion, precisely to protect the latter. Profound respect for women. Our attachment to freedom of expression. Our visceral rejection of violence. But no, that was too much to ask. The opportunity to notch up a few votes was too much for them to resist.” This intervention sparked debate. And it suggests to many Quebeckers from North Africa that they are pursued not just by arguments from France about integration, but also by the confrontations between secularists and Islamists that divide their countries of origin.

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