When a Hasidic synagogue in Montreal asks a local YMCA to cover its windows so worshipping youth wouldn't be exposed to sweaty women, is that news? The small story that ignited a huge debate
The second-floor workout studio of the Du Parc YMCA in Montreal has four large windows with a view across an alley to a Hasidic synagogue. Built in 1912, the Y is functional, not fancy. It’s a place where strings of toddlers shuffle in and out of play areas throughout the day and teenagers shoot pool on Friday nights. On November 6, 2006, Bahia Kennedy was on her way to an aerobics class when she stopped to chat with La Presse arts journalist Sylvie St-Jacques in the locker room. “Did you hear about the frosted windows story?” she asked. “And the petition?”
St-Jacques, a swimmer, hadn’t heard a thing about the synagogue paying for new windows so worshiping youth wouldn’t be exposed to women sweating it out across the way. The synagogue had approached the Y about the tattered blinds that shielded the windows more than once. Eventually, the Y asked for new windows-frosted windows-instead. But the now-dim studio and the idea that they should feel ashamed in their gym clothes made the women angry enough to start a petition calling for the removal of the new windows.
St-Jacques immediately saw a story, but her boyfriend didn’t want her to pursue it. “You’re crazy,” he said. “It’ll be war.”
“No,” she insisted. “It symbolizes something.”
She may have been right, but he definitely was-and the media dropped the first bomb.
St-Jacques’s story ran the next day on page one. The prominent headline read “Cachez ce short qu’on ne saurait voir” (Hide your shorts because we don’t want to see them). The piece generated more than 600 letters and e-mails. The story about four windows in a smallish YMCA then ran on local newscasts and dominated talk radio. Soon it seeped onto the airwaves and into the pages of papers across the country: CTV, CBC Radio, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Guardian in Charlottetown. Ultimately, out-of-province editorialists addressed the furor in terms that tended to be less than flattering to Quebecers. “This was a ‘dispute’ blown so wildly out of proportion,” argued the Globe, “it became an election issue.”
More than that, it became a heated and sometimes ugly debate over how-and how much-to accommodate people from other cultures. The windows, and similar incidents, tapped into something that had been nagging at some Quebecers. But today, the words “reasonable accommodation” no longer stir such strong emotions, and journalists and others are wondering, were the media just doing their job or are they guilty of irresponsibly hyping the issue?
It was an interesting story,” says Karim Benessaieh, the general news chief at La Presse. When St-Jacques pitched the Y windows piece to him, he said, “Yes, definitely do it.” But the reporter now says, “I had no idea it would explode like that.”
The explosion might have been contained if not for a spate of similar stories that followed. On November 15, 2006, La Presse wrote that the Montreal police had suggested female officers call a male colleague when dealing with Hasidic men. Then on January 15, 2007, Le Journal de Montréal published the results of a Léger Marketing poll, co-commissioned by the paper. The front-page headline read: “59% of Québécois say they’re racist.”
A little over a week later, La Presse carried a story that seemed to back up Léger’s results. Hérouxville, a community of 1,300 northof Trois-Rivères, had drawn up a “code de vie.” Henceforth, stoning, burning alive and throwing acid on women would be illegal, as would be wearing a hijab or taking a kirpan to school. Then, at the end of February, Le Journal de Montréal reported that an 11-year-old girl had been barred from a soccer tournament for playing in her hijab.
The next month, the same paper was virtually hyperventilating over the news of a Mont-Saint-Gregoirecabane à sucre owner who had asked patrons to move out of a room so a group of Muslim customers could pray briefly and served pea soup devoid of the traditional ham to accommodate Muslim patrons. Le Journal‘s head on one story was an incendiary “Il faut respecter nos traditions”(It’s necessary to respect our traditions), a quote from the head of the sugar-shack association.
Premier Jean Charest couldn’t have been unaware of the negative press such antics were generating elsewhere. A Toronto Star editorial had drawn parallels between Hérouxville’s council and the Ku Klux Klan, while The Gazette in Montreal had pointed out that the “code of life” story had been reported in unflattering terms “from New Zealand to Bahrain.” With a provincial election set for March 26 and with Mario Dumont, leader of the right-of-centre Action Démocratique de Québec, dogging Charest to stop bending over backwards to accommodate minorities, the Quebec premier had to ménager le chèvre et le chou (run with the hare and hold with the hounds). So he did the Canadian thing: he created a commission.
The mandate of the infelicitously named Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, which Charest announced February 8, was to explore how accommodation was or was not being practised in Quebec, measuring this against other societies’ approaches, and making recommendations “to ensure that accommodation practices conform to the values of Quebec society as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society.” To lead this worthy-sounding venture, Charest tapped respected historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard (yes, brother of, and also a nationalist) and philosopher and public intellectual Charles Taylor. By the time the sugar shack story broke, a week before the election, Bouchard and Taylor were engaged in their first tasks: “discussion groups with experts”; “meetings with the managers of government departments and public agencies”; “focus groups with individuals.”
Voting day was a chastening focus group for the Liberals, who dropped from 76 seats to 48. The big winner was Dumont’s ADQ, which went from four to 41 elected members. In an article the next day, The Gazette‘s Jeff Heinrich attributed at least part of that impressive showing to the ADQ’s no-accommodation stance: “Dumont’s momentum soared after he came down hard on the ways Quebec institutions, like schools and hospitals, have been trying to cater to the demands of conservative Muslims and Hasidic Jews. By proposing a Quebec constitution spelling out common values here, he played to the rural vote, where he had the most to gain.”
The Gazette had greeted the news of the commission with an editorial, praising Charest for “doing exactly the right thing,” and declaring: “Yesterday, Charest sounded convincingly like the premier of all Quebecers, insisting this whole question has to be ‘far beyond partisanship’ and that we need ‘thoughtful and respectful dialogue’ on it.” La Presse also agreed with the commission’s creation, though it pointedly noted Dumont’s central role in its establishment: “If he really wanted to look for a solution to this delicate problem, M. Dumont would recognize that M. Charest finally did what he had to do.”
The Bouchard-Taylor road show-$3.7 million, 901 memoirs, four corners of Quebec, three months of travel, for one report, 37 recommendations and loads of coverage-provided a forum for people to come right out and talk about reasonable accommodation, religion, life experience, diversity, immigration and integration. And open mikes attract bigots. Everywhere.
It started in Gatineau on September 10, 2007, but before anyone else spoke, an “ashen-faced” Bouchard offered his sanglot de remorse. In an August 17 interview with LeDevoir, he had suggested that there are difficulties in justifying the reasonable accommodation process to “people who aren’t intellectuals, but get their news from TVA or TQS, or best case scenario, Téléjournal.”
All three Montreal papers covered the public forums the way small-town dailies report five-alarm fires. Each sent a reporter who provided a wrap-up of every open-mike hearing and then some. They duly reported on comments from those with a hobbyhorse (the government, not the Catholic church, should establish the date for Easter), the frightened (“It’s visceral, the fear I have of the burqa and things like that”) and the aggrieved (“The founding people have become third-class citizens-there are the Indians, there are the immigrants, and finally there’s us-we’ve been relegated to the last rank”).
But there were also context pieces. On September 24, La Presse dedicated a full page to a conversation columnist Michèle Ouimet had with Afifa Naz-one of maybe 30 women in Quebec, the paper estimated, who wears a niqab. The issue of this face-hiding piece of fabric had been yet another media flare-up prior to the Bouchard-Taylor hearings. In March 2007, the general elections director announced that fully veiled women could vote without having to show their faces-contrary to electoral procedures at the time. The interview showed that Naz “is not submissive, or beaten, or forced to stay at home with a throng of children.” In fact, the 25-year-old has no children, holds a degree in electrical engineering and works at a pharmaceutical company. Ouimet described how Naz rolled her eyes at the question of voting in a niqab. “The elections director tried to accommodate us. Which is good, but we didn’t ask. I lift my veil; it takes two seconds. It has never bothered me. On the contrary, it’s normal.”
On the same day, in the same front section of La Presse, reporter Mario Girard wrote about abbot Dominique Boulet, who has been giving mass in Latin for two decades. He asks parishioners to follow a dress code that encourages women to wear a black or white lace headscarf.
These stories provided a closer look at the diversity in the province while showing the similarities between the groups. This is how the reporting throughout the commission differed from the stories that came before it-the ones that hinted at a malaise in the community. Journalists were finally reporting on how people actually lived instead of highlighting how different cultures couldn’t live together.
La Presse is on a hill going south on Boulevard St-Laurent. The entrance feels like a back door and, in one breath, you’re standing in front of a glass box talking through a hole to security guards. But in the newsroom, it’s high ceilings, ’80s furniture, TVs wherever there isn’t a window, a sea of desks and waves of heat. In early 2006, the paper received over 970 letters after a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favour of Gurbaj Singh Multani. The young Sikh boy’s kirpan had fallen out of his shirt in the schoolyard, causing some parents to worry that he would use the small ceremonial knife as a weapon. The response to the story was a clear indication that the public cared about the subject. “When we see our readers are interested in a topic,” says chief editorialist André Pratte, “we cover it extensively.”
In 2002, reporter Laura-Julie Perreault wanted to cover immigration in Montreal. Her boss at the time, Marcel Desjardins, looked at her and said: “Do you think they read us?” Perreault thought so and started covering those communities regularly. For example,in 2004, she wrote a two-page feature about public pools in Montreal that looked at what arrangements had been made for various religious groups and included an explanation of reasonable accommodation. “Nobody,” she says, “went up in arms.” And yet, four years later, an article about four frosted windows set off a crisis in Quebec society. St-Jacques still thinks the story was silly. “It was a stupid mistake on the part of the [Y’s] director and I don’t think he thought much about it or had a religious agenda.” She believes that if it hadn’t been that story, it would have been another one. Perreault thinks so, too: “I was seeing that there was a problem with intolerance in Quebectoward religious diversity, and we were totally negating it.” But the response to the YMCA story suggested a latent malaise just looking for an excuse to become a public conversation.
On November 16, 2006, Le Journal de Montréalreported that a local community service centre and free clinic wouldn’t let men take prenatal classes to accommodate Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women. La Presseresponded the next day with a story quoting Dumont’s uncompromising demands that egalitarian principles must be reaffirmed with the elimination of the prenatal course. But when La Presse columnist Rima Elkouri looked into it, she discovered that rather than a prenatal class it was a meeting for immigrant women. “A lot of the times with reasonable accommodation stories,” she says, “the facts get distorted.”
At the end of January, La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal forwarded Benessaieh an e-mail from Hérouxville city councilor Andre Drouin that said, according to Benessaieh, “Look, I’m in this small municipality called Hérouxville and we’repreparing a code de vie and it basically says: We, in Hérouxville, have a Christmas tree, yada yada yada. We, in Hérouxville, do not whip women or veil their faces….”
The world was suddenly looking at little Hérouxville.
The Gazette is sandwiched between an HMV and a Fido store on Rue Ste-Catherine in downtown Montreal. From the outside, it looks like Superman’s the Daily Planet, sans the big globe. Once you’re through the revolving doors, ornate brass work, high ceilings and low light give you an old newspaper feeling, despite the escalators. Past security, though, the newsroom is inelegantly 21st century: low ceilings, an ocean of cubicles, the deafening hum of computer fans and very beige.
Back in 2001, Heinrich wanted to show how global issues eventually become local, and vice versa, so he pitched a “Global Village” column idea to his editors, which became the diversity beat in 2003. “It’s not that it hadn’t been done, just not in a systematic way,” he says. “Let’s call it diversity, and let’s not just cover parades and costumes and all that folkloric stuff but really, what are the challenges of immigrants? What does the data say?” The 2001 census, released in 2003, provided a lot of material, while 9/11 sparked curiosity about minority cultures and beliefs.
Despite being the only daily paper with an official diversity beat, The Gazette never broke a major reasonable accommodation story. Heinrich found it difficult to confirm the “mini-scoops” that surfaced. “I think I resisted, at first, covering each one because I knew these things had explanations of their own and were topical, but they couldn’t necessarily be seen as a tendency in society,” he says. More interested in the phenomenon than the individual stories, he let events play out for a few days in case a contradictory version emerged. “What was different about the accommodation debate was the quantity and ferocity of the news coming out and the reactions to it.”
Editor-in-chief Andrew Phillips believes his paper “stood up for minorities a lot more than other papers and media outlets,” and that French-language papers tend to be more concerned with the rights of the majority. “The Gazette was a very important voice speaking up on behalf of minorities and trying to calm the whole debate.”
Nevertheless, Paul Waters, the paper’s editorial writer and letters editor, says most of the letters it received didn’t show much tolerance. “The arguments came from people who wrote literate sentences with subjects, verbs and objects, but their logic was non-existent.”
When Le Journal de Montréal released the racism poll, Heinrich couldn’t ignore it. But he didn’t have to buy it either. He pointed out in an article the next day that the Journal never defined racism and made broad statements about communities-it claimed, for example, that “Arabs” are “very open to the demands of the Québécois,” but didn’t specify what those demands were.
Meanwhile, La Presse published an op-ed piece by Léger’s president that showed how easily the poll results could be played with and concluded that 82 percent of Quebecersare only a little or not all racist. “TheJournal de Montréal poll was abominable,” says Benessaieh. “We amalgamated people who say they’re ‘a little racist’ with racists for a spectacular number.” After that, he started asking: “Should we be giving this a place in the public discourse?”
Heinrich and Le Journal de Montréal‘sValerie Dufour were the only journalists who attended every day of the three-month commission. They thought they would have easy access to the professors, but Bouchard and Taylor refused to grant interviews or hold debriefing sessions. Heinrich says access would have changed the way he approached stories. He also wanted to know how the commissioners decided when to draw the line and cut the mike.
Most of the time they just let people talk. “Lots of discourse that I consider highly xenophobicwas legitimized by the commission,” says Perreault, “and if you can say it out loud and someone hears you and thinks, ‘Well, I think the same, so this is mainstream.'”
Taylor now claims that intellectuals do have a responsibility to the media, but he and Bouchard didn’t want to frame the inquiry as us versus them, or intellectuals versus the general population. “I want people to focus on the facts,” he says. “We both figured this is not the time to get into that kind of debate.” He believes the pre-commission coverage mirrored society’s fears and exaggerations of “the other” and that people were angry that they weren’t included in the diversity debate playing out in the media. As a result, the forums “released a sense of frustration.”
When people made comments such as “Don’t they know they’re in this country and they should abide by our rules?” Bouchard often used the opportunity to educate them. So did the newspapers. On November 26, 2007, La Presse ran a two-page spread that cited some myths brought up by speakers-and the facts. At the hearings that day, Taylor said: “Finally, the commission has an impact on La Presse; they’ve started doing their job.”
Perreault was boiling and went to Taylor. “You know what? I’ve been doing this for years!” she told him. “And the number of phone messages I left with you before the commission, when I was doing a dossier on RA [reasonable accommodation] and multiculturalism and all that, you never even once returned my phone calls.”
On December 19, 2007, Bouchard and Taylor delivered a breakdown of the comments they had heard and claimed the province was tolerant.
The journalists thought that was sugar-coating the reality. Perreault asked commission advisors if they felt the same way. They didn’t. Then she asked for examples of comments that belonged in the tolerant category, and a lot of them opened with “I’m not racist, but….” She pointed that out in an article that quoted Pierre Bosset, a commission consultant, saying that the report should have discussed anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Another committee member, Jacques Beauchemin, said Bouchard and Taylor should intervene when they heard intolerant comments. After the piece appeared, the commission’s press representative, Sylvain Leclerc, called Eric Trottier, managing editor of La Presse, accused Perreault of bias and asked him to remove her from the story.
Trottier refused, of course, but the request showed how much some people-even those who should have known better-wanted to shoot the messengers.
“It never ceased to astonish me,” says Paul Waters. “You can walk out on St. Catherine Street on any given day in July and there are great rivers of human flesh moving up and down with staples through their navels and tattoos all over them and nobody murmurs. But let one poor 11-year-old show up on a soccer field with a head scarf and the world goes berserk.”
Quebec went berserk over reasonable accommodation for two reasons, according to Marissal, who is now the political and national affairs columnist for La Presse. First, Mario Dumont needed to play the nationalist card to catch up in the polls. Second, the media. “I’m ashamed to say that, but that’s true.” A La Presseheadline that read, “No veiled women would be able to vote in Charlevoix” was the low point, says Marissal. “I mean, how many Muslims and how many veiled women do we have in Charlevoix?”
Though some journalists have a few regrets, they don’t think they have anything to be ashamed about. Heinrich admits the press initially went in “half-cocked.” Journalists blew incidents out of proportion because they ran with them before knowing all the facts. The sugar shack story was an example of that: the commission discovered that though the music in the dance area stopped for less than 10 minutes so Muslims could pray, the owner never asked anyone to leave.
In addition, Heinrich argues that it wasn’t an easy issue to cover. “It wasn’t studies, it wasn’t numbers and the rest, it was real people,” he says. “And how can you do justice to a person by giving them a couple of lines in the newspaper?” At least he could take comfort in seeing his coverage attacked by all sides. “Then you know you’ve done your job because if everybody dislikes it equally, it must mean you’re bang-on,” he says. “You weren’t complacent or overly negative.”
Perreault suggests that to properly cover and understand Quebec society, all media organizations should have immigration beats. Critics can blame the media, she says, but parents aggressively protested after the Supreme Court ruling on the kirpan case. “There were people yelling things, there was angry demonstrations.There was a real story and real tension.”
Her paper covered reasonable accommodation stories because people wanted to read them. “I write about other things,” she says, “and you know what? I don’t get that kind of reaction.”
While Dufour thinks her paper might have contributed to the controversy, especially when it printed the poll results, she refuses to believe the media created the story. “I think that we helped point something out,” she says. “If there’s no story, the story just dies.”
The final Bouchard-Taylor report, released in May 2008, contained no big surprises for Dufour, Perreault or Heinrich. It recommended that Quebecers get closer to the communities around them, become more open to the world, know several languages, be more aware of discrimination and so on. Essentially, the only government response since its release was introducing a mandatory declaration for immigrants, committing them to respect Quebec’s common values: French as the official language, gender equality and separation of church and state. Otherwise, the report has been shelved.
Even days before the commission was announced, Marissal was on his way out of the office when Trottier stopped him to ask if a story involving Hassidic men wanting male driving examiners was important enough to run on the front page. “The fact that we had to ask ourselves this type of question,” says Marissal, “is probably because we realized, somehow, that we went too far.”
Still, he suggested putting the story below the fold on page one, but in the end it ran above the fold. Looking over the stories that preceded the commission, he thinks the papers wouldn’t do it much differently. “Unfortunately, we would react the same with another story, with another debate, because we like good stories.”
And they were good stories. In their eagerness to give readers what they wanted, the Montreal papers may have gone too far a couple of times (the poll on racism being the most notable example) and made the problem seem worse that it actually was. But that doesn’t mean journalists created the story-or that they wouldn’t do it again.
by Eve Tobolka
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.