Canada: Quebec mayor reaches out to French-speaking Muslim immigrants

Like small-town mayors everywhere, Stéphane Gendron is trying to entice newcomers to settle in his community. But he may be the only one whose enticement offers include a promise to build a mosque and halal slaughterhouse.

Mr. Gendron, a frank-talking mayor with a knack for publicity coups, has stepped into the limelight again by announcing he wants to counter his town’s population decline through Muslim immigration.

He’s got a charm offensive sketched out, starting with a visit to a Montreal mosque this Friday to address potential residents after prayers. He’s taking out an ad in an Arab-community publication, and this spring plans to charter buses to his town for what he calls “speed dating.”

Though open to all immigration, Mr. Gendron says, he’s especially keen on courting people from the French-speaking Maghreb region of North Africa.

“Before Sept. 11, we used to say people from the Maghreb are marvelous, they’re our francophone cousins, they integrate well,” he says. “Now, they’re treated like terrorists.”

The twice-re-elected mayor, whose Facebook profile photo shows him praying in a Montreal mosque next to the imam, has laid out the welcome mat by offering to build a mosque, Halal abattoir and Muslim cemetery to add to the Protestant and Catholic one. There are tax credits too.

“Immigration isn’t the solution to everything. But I believe in the mosaic, in the mixing of races,” he says. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec, he believes, has been fed by what he terms “the fear industry” led by some media commentators. “For Quebec’s regions to survive, it will take immigrants.”

Mr. Gendron’s campaign, though mostly based on intentions for now, is being called La Grande Séduction, after the hit movie about a Quebec village’s all-out attempts to lure a family doctor to set up in town. And the seduction campaign in Huntingdon, a former mill town an hour’s drive southwest of Montreal, is badly needed. The town of 2,587 has lost about half its population since the 1970s, mainly through the departure of anglophones, and it then fell on hard times after the closing of its textile plants. Like small towns and villages across the province, its population is aging.

But it’s got a fledgling food-processing industry, and the mayor says immigrants from the Maghreb, with their French skills and high levels of education, could fill badly-needed manpower needs.

By opening the door wide to Muslims, Huntingdon is being cast as the anti-Hérouxville, after the Quebec town that won world notoriety with a code of conduct banning stonings and acid throwing. It stoked the heated debate in Quebec over the accommodation of religious minorities.

“What they did in Hérouxville,” Mr. Gendron says, “was ignorant, narrow-minded and backward.”

Mr. Gendron isn’t unaccustomed to notoriety himself. Something of a gadfly, he gained national prominence when he imposed a curfew on teenagers in 2004 to counter vandalism (it was never put into effect). A radio and TV commentator, he has been the target of numerous complaints, and doesn’t shy away from controversy in his column in the daily Journal de Montréal. Last year he called Israel an illegitimate state and compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto.

It remains to be seen if Mr. Gendron’s courtship meets its intended target. Lamine Foura, radio commentator at Taxi Maghreb and secretary-general of the Congrès Maghrébin au Québec, says Mr. Gendron’s emphasis on mosques and Hallal slaughterhouses plays into religious stereotypes about Muslims. With unemployment at about 30 per cent, what the community mainly needs are jobs, he says.

“We have plenty of mosques in Algeria and Morocco, we don’t need them in Quebec,” Mr. Foura says. “We came to Quebec for freedom and to give better opportunities to our children.”

On the other hand, Mr. Gendron’s overtures show a willingness to speak favourably about Muslim immigration at a time when it’s often cast as a threat to the Quebec’s francophone majority, Mr. Foura says. Neither Liberal Premier Jean Charest nor Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois speak about diversity in a positive way, he says, because to do so would be politically risky.

“It’s as if diversity isn’t considered a value we want to promote any more in Quebec,” he says.

In fact, Mr. Gendron says he’s already received hostile postings on his Facebook page, and a Quebec columnist took him to task for wanting to create “ghettos” in his town.

“From that point of view,” Mr. Foura says, “Mr. Gendron’s gesture is very courageous.”