Last week, Quebec business interests sounded an alarm about the negative economic ramifications on the province of the proposed values charter. First the Conseil du patronat and then the head of a cable and media company warned that Bill 60 would discourage immigrants needed for economic growth.
This issue arose the first day of the charter hearings last month, when the leader of a Muslim organization talked about a crisis among families of highly qualified North Africans who are being shut out of jobs in their fields.
Samira Laouni, of Communication pour l’ouverture et le rapprochement interculturel, estimated that current unemployment in the North African community is around 30 per cent – even though overall unemployment in Montreal is roughly 8 per cent. Laouni contends that employment discrimination against Muslims started after 9/11 and deteriorated after the Herouxville incident in 2007, when the town council there passed a code of conduct for minorities targeting Muslims. She commented that since the proposal of the Quebec values charter, the employment situation for Muslims has worsened.
Laouni, a graduate of the Sorbonne in Paris, does not support “unreasonable accommodation” demands, and she would accept prohibition of religious head coverings for judges, crown prosecutors and prison guards. However, she is against the ban on head scarves for public service employees. “A head scarf is part of my identity,” she told the hearings.
In the wake of the proposed charter, more and more alarming stories are surfacing about employment discrimination against Muslims, mostly from North Africa but also from Iran.
An Arabic teacher from Tunisia is making a living teaching Arabic and working for a grocery store even though he has a master’s in business administration. “There is a crisis in the North African community because of the high unemployment,” he said. “Friends of mine from Algeria are so discouraged they are going home. Quebec has encouraged North Africans who speak French and have high education to come here, and then we find out we’re being rejected by employers. Many are warning others not to come here.”
Provincial-immigration figures for 2012 indicate that the single biggest block of immigrants, accounting for more than 15 per cent, came from the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.
In a Montreal North nursing home where most of the staff are North African, a Moroccan man cleaning floors said he had extensive experience managing dépanneurs in Morocco. “I thought I would be able to find work in one of the dépanneur chains here. But no luck.” The stories go on. A trilingual Iranian woman — in a hijab — who earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Université Laval and also has two patents to her name hasn’t been able to find work in her field. She is now teaching mathematics privately.
And then there is the situation of university-educated taxi drivers. The Atlas Taxi company was started by unemployed Iranians, some of them engineers, business-administration graduates and doctors locked out of employment in their fields. Research by Vahideddin Namazi for a Université de Montréal PhD thesis showed that even after 15 years in Quebec, many university-educated Iranians were still driving taxis.
Physicians from the Maghreb have also complained about problems being accepted into the hospital networks. Studies indicate a problem of discrimination that started well before the proposed charter.
Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey showed an overall unemployment rate in Montreal for adults with post-secondary education of 5.8 per cent. However, unemployment for university-educated Arabs and West Asians (including Iranians and Afghans) was triple that at more than 15 per cent — higher than for other visible-minority groups, including Latin Americans and Chinese.
Muslims in 2011 accounted for only 5.9 per cent of the island of Montreal population and 3.1 per cent of Quebec residents, and yet anti-Muslim attitudes in Quebec appear to be hardening. Much of the responsibility for this, I believe, lies with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who told French President François Hollande during a visit to France last December that her government was inspired by France in framing the Quebec values charter.
However, in France, because of fears over rising ethnic tensions, Hollande commissioned a report on the question. Released shortly after Marois’s visit, the report recommended a radical overhaul of France’s policies toward minorities, including ending the ban on Muslim head scarves in the schools.