A native Montrealer, I recently returned to Quebec, 28 years after leaving Canada, and embarked on a road trip aimed at understanding Quebec identity. And so it was that I found myself on a recent day in a village many Quebecers would rather forget. I was curious to observe whether attitudes had shifted.
My initial reception was as cold as the chilly March weather.
“Nothing ever happens here — we have a church and a few chalets. Oh, that’s about it,” said the first woman who crossed my path. “Why are you here?”
The code, which polarized Quebec, helped spur a loud national debate and even a provincewide commission on what constituted “reasonable accommodation” when it came to respecting the cultures and traditions of immigrants. Should veils, for example, be worn by Muslim students at school? Should a Montreal Y.M.C.A. have installed frosted windows at the request of ultra-Orthodox Jews who didn’t want to see scantily clad women exercise?
Questions of identity and cultural preservation run deep in Quebec, a majority French-speaking province of eight million people, which fears that its native tongue could be subsumed by the large English-speaking majority in much of the rest of North America. To help preserve the French language, there are laws in place, including a requirement that immigrants send their children to French schools.
Hérouxville became such a target of derision that it was recast in a comedy show as “Hérouxtyville,” in a now famous skit in which a Muslim couple accidentally end up in the village. They are brought before a stern village councilor because, among other things, the veiled woman has ordered baklava at the local bakery and they are driving a Hyundai, a foreign car. Pointing to the car, the red-faced councilor barks at them to drive their “moving bomb” out of town.
To take today’s political temperature in the village, I contacted Hérouxville’s mayor, Bernard Thompson, an early supporter of the code of conduct. He declined to meet me, citing an urgent meeting with other local leaders. (He later told residents his mother had been ill when I was in town.)
Nor were some Quebecers pleased about my Hérouxville visit. On radio shows and social media, commentators tut-tutted me, suggesting that there were more interesting places. “You are completely out of touch with Quebec society,” Johanne Vallin, a history teacher, wrote on Twitter.
In Hérouxville, many residents declined to disclose their full names, citing fears of retribution. At the local convenience store, a truck driver, a beer in each pocket, complained that the code of conduct was the first subject visitors brought up.
A woman buying groceries said locals were fed up with all of the attention. Suzanne Lamothe, a retiree whose house is next to the main Hérouxville sign, said visitors came to the village to take selfies in front of the sign, some putting mock head scarves on their heads. She defended the code of conduct. “If immigrants come, they should respect local customs,” she said. “I wouldn’t go to a Muslim country and walk around scantily clad.” Another resident asked whether I was Muslim.
Yet for all of the annoyance at the apparent impertinence of my visit, I was struck by the way the identity politics raised by Hérouxville still resonate.
Late last year Quebec introduced Bill 62, a law requiring people to show their faces when using public services like buses and libraries. Some human rights advocates have pilloried the law for stigmatizing Muslims who wear head scarves. But others have defended it as a necessary measure to ensure Quebec’s vaunted secularism and way of life.
Marie Louise Héroux, whose great-uncle, the abbot Joseph-Euchariste Héroux, founded Hérouxville in 1897, said she had wanted to walk with a “bag over my head” after the village that bears her name became synonymous with xenophobia. She said the guidelines had been a particular source of angst for her, as she had been in love with a Muslim doctor.
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“It does not represent me as a Héroux,” she said, adding: “In Quebec, we like to think that immigrants should come and adapt to our way of doing things. In Hérouxville it was pushed to ridiculous proportions, but it tapped into something that had to be taken into account.”
Others said the visceral reaction to safeguard Quebec against immigration, and conservative Islam in particular, was a reflection of the province’s history, its staunch feminism and its strong reflex against outward signs of religiosity.
Gérard Bouchard, an eminent historian and sociologist who helped lead the commission on cultural accommodation spurred by Hérouxville, lamented that the code of conduct had attracted outsize notoriety. Nevertheless, he said the backlash against accommodating ethnic minorities partly reflected the extent to which Quebec was still under the sway of the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when Quebecers revolted against a Roman Catholic Church that had once ruled daily life, including pressuring women to reproduce.
Alluding to the situation of majority-French Quebec surrounded by English-speaking Canada, he added, “When a majority feels like a minority, it’s not a very good neighbor for other minorities.”