Viewed separately, the incidents seemed relatively insignificant. Members of a Hasidic synagogue here wanted a neighboring Y.M.C.A. to block or tint the windows of an exercise room used by women. A Muslim girl was barred from playing soccer for wearing a hijab on the field. And, in Quebec, some Muslims and Orthodox Jews refused to deal with police officers and physicians of the opposite sex.
Then came the decision in late January by Herouxville, Quebec -- a town of French-speaking Catholics -- to create a code of conduct for immigrants that prohibited, among other things, the covering of women's faces except for on Halloween and the use of public stoning as a form of punishment. This despite the fact that there are no Muslims in the town and no modern history of stonings.
The move offended many Muslims in Quebec and prompted a wide, and not always temperate, debate among the French-speaking majority about the role of immigrants in the province. After a political opponent took up the anti-immigrant backlash as his cause, Premier Jean Charest of Quebec responded by creating a commission to discuss immigration concerns. But rather than quell the debate, it may have made matters worse.
At a series of public, televised meetings that began in August and ended this month, the Quebec Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences heard several reasoned suggestions for improving relations.
Still, its sessions proved irresistible for the xenophobic. Their frustrations and fears, particularly about the province's Muslim and Jewish populations, sometimes turned the commission's meetings into a bigots’ roadshow, say minority leaders.
“People are now more divided than they were a year ago, that is without question,” said Sameer Zuberi, the human rights coordinator of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Over one year, people's opinions have formed, and it's really going to take a while for that to melt away.”