A personal tragedy in Montreal last week exposed yet again a streak of unpleasant racial attitudes in Quebec. A 48-year-old woman died on a Metro station escalator when her scarf became entangled in the mechanisms and she was strangled. Editors at the tabloid Journal de Montréal made a judgment that the most newsworthy fact of the tragedy was that the “scarf” was, in fact, a hijab, the head covering often worn by Muslim women. A characteristically enormous headline roared: “Strangled by her hijab.”
As more temperate reporters would later discover, Naima Rharouity, a mother of two, was indeed wearing a hijab. But she was also wearing a scarf. Montreal is very cold this time of year and hijabs are not intended for warmth. It appears that, while the victim was wearing a hijab, she was strangled by a run-of-the-mill scarf, the sort that many, if not most, Quebecois wear during the winter months.
Yet, why does it even matter? The tragedy is a tragedy, with no need to add unnecessarily to the pain of the loss experienced by the family and community.
The sad accident comes in the midst of the province’s public hearings on the Parti Quebecois’ proposed Charter of Values. While it is hard to imagine what motivated the newspaper to trumpet (apparently incorrectly) the religious nature of the garment that caused the misfortune, it seems that readers were to assume that the woman had lost her life because she insisted on dressing herself in the exact sort of garment the Charter of Values seeks to censure. Of course, the discussion around the charter is not strictly about the letter of the proposed legislation, which would apply clothing limitations only to public-sector employees; it is cloaked in a spirit of intolerance that goes beyond the limitations of the bill. The hearings have proved an invitation for anyone with an aberrant sensitivity to other cultures to openly express their views in a welcoming environment, and witnesses at the hearings have raised all range of paranoid and bigoted opinions.
Any who question whether Quebec is indeed a “distinct society” within Canada should hope that is the case, at least as regards the charter and the notions on which it is based. But we dare not assume that our distinctly laid-back West Coast society is free of religious intolerance. We must stand up to religious and racial intolerance everywhere and in every form.