Are our accommodation efforts reasonable? 

By Karen Herland

Canada has long defined itself as multicultural. So why are we becoming increasingly concerned about the ways that newcomers fit in?

This was the question Andrew Renahan unpacked when he spoke at a panel discussion at last month’s symposium on Pluralism, Politics and God, at McGill University.

Andrew Renahan recently addressed a symposium on the question of reasonable accommodation. Magnifying glass

Andrew Renahan recently addressed a symposium on the question of reasonable accommodation.

Renahan will be writing his master’s thesis in the Religion Department on Charles Taylor’s theories of identity and the creation of self in the modern environment. The Taylor-Bouchard Commission, travelling across the province for the next two months, provides a laboratory for some of the ideas he’s wrestling with.

His paper challenged the implicit meaning of “reasonable accommodation,” the term used to describe Quebec society’s relationship to newcomers from other cultures, and the popular name used for the commission.

“We need to look at the way the framework is set up,” Renahan argued. The use of the term ‘reason’ in this context suggests that “we in the West have license to ‘objectively’ judge different practices. It puts us on an unequal footing.” The implication is that the newcomers are being somehow ‘unreasonable’.

Similarily, the word ‘accommodation’ implies a temporary situation. Underlying the term is the assumption that newcomers will leave behind their ‘traditional, older’ ideas and values and move toward a more ‘progressive’ position.

Renahan sees the current media sensationalism as a reflection of the increased number of immigrants from Asia, India and Arab nations. “Religious symbolism has become the most covered [by the media] aspect of difference, because it is so visible.” It is often those visible signifiers like the hijab or kirpan that have led to conflict.

There are some who might argue that if people come here, they should be prepared to operate within the prevailing context.

Renahan is not looking for right and wrong in that discussion. He just thinks that Quebecers needs to be self-reflective about their own values. It is not entirely accurate to define the West as a “modern, secular” society.

“The idea that religion is never in the public discourse is a fiction. Especially in a city which celebrates as a trademark a monumental crucifix on public land.”

He would like both sides to engage in an honest dialogue. “People have come here seeking an open, democratic society. The reality on the ground is different. I imagine it can be traumatic.”

Renahan’s paper addresses the situation that emerged in Hérouxville earlier this year, when the town council developed a list of appropriate behaviours for the community. “They tried to build an identity, but they did not do it in a positive way. Instead of defining who they were, they set up a definition against a stereotype of Islamic extremism.”

Yet even that clumsy attempt proved positive in that it led a Montreal Muslim women’s group to visit the community and offer an opportunity for discussion.
In a similar way, Renahan sees opportunity in the Taylor-Bouchard Commission. “At least certain statements are being expressed openly. That is positive if we use the opportunity to move into an open dialogue.”


Concordia University