December 12, 2012


Particularly since 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror,” Muslim immigrants’ religious affiliation and social integration in Western countries have been hot button issues, and acts of violence in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and in France, and extensive media coverage has propelled these issues into the spotlight. Although the challenges of Muslim integration in Canada have received ample coverage in the nation’s newspapers, the difficulties – and the violence – have been notably less pronounced.  Is Canada really integrating Muslim immigrants more effectively than other countries, and if so, what accounts for it?  The evidence on these questions is far from clear, and systematic comparisons of similar groups of immigrants are required.

These fascinating questions are a special case of broader questions about the integration of immigrant minorities in Canada and many other countries. Canada’s relative success in integrating large numbers of immigrants  – so striking in a global context that some have begun to speak of it as a case of ‘Canadian exceptionalism’ – has spawned an important debate.   Is Canada’s success mainly a result of judicious immigrant selection?  Or does it owe something to distinctive integration policies, such as multiculturalism, or other immigrant settlement policies it has developed based on its experience as a “nation of immigration”?

Canada and Québec clearly require separate consideration in such comparisons. Although Québec certainly qualifies as a “nation of immigrants,” it takes a somewhat different approach to immigrant integration.  Québec’s discourse of interculturalisme departs from the national emphasis on multiculturalism, by subordinating minority rights to preservation of French language and culture.  And in recent years, debates circulating in Québec over Muslim immigration have been intense.  Conflict over what constitute “reasonable accommodation” of Muslim religious practices – particularly the wearing of headscarves and veils – prompted a provincial government investigation, and the resulting Bouchard-Taylor report released in May 2008.

These debates in Québec are uncannily reminiscent of those in France, where a longer and more extensive experience with Muslim immigration has revealed serious problems of integration as reflected in economic distress and violence in Muslim neighborhoods in Paris and other major cities. In France, public debates on the themes of headscarves and veils, and other religious practices, seem to have been a model for parallel debates in Québec.  Many have suggested that these perspectives reflect a distinctively French approach to immigration, deriving from its “republican model,” and that the French emphasis on secularism expressed in the term laïcité, has exclusionary or assimilationist implications for its immigrants.

So, in considering the distinctiveness of Canada and Québec, the comparison to France is quite compelling.  In its approach to Muslim immigration, is Québec more like the rest of Canada, or more like France?  And what impact, if any, do these differences in approach make to the ultimate integration of immigrants in each setting?

A systematic France-Québec-Canada comparison is needed, and a new project from the Munk School’s Global Migration Institute answers the call.  Led by Prof. Jeffrey G. Reitz, Robert F. Harney Professor at the Munk School, in collaboration with Patrick Simon at the Institut National Etudes Démographiques (INED) in Paris, the project compares outcomes in France to those in both Québec and English Canada, and is aimed at untangling the interrelated forces affecting the integration of Muslim immigrants.  The project is supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (2012-16) in Canada, and Prof. Reitz also has the support of a Marie Curie International Fellowship (2012-14) from the European Commission.  He is working in affiliation with l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

The study is the first attempt to compare immigrant issues in Québec and France, while recognizing the similarities and differences between Québec and the rest Canada.  It systematically compares the relative degree of social, economic and political integration of Muslim immigrants in the three contexts, and assesses the impact and significance of a number of factors at work in producing any underlying similarities and differences.  These include (i) the characteristics of immigrants themselves, (ii) public policies and national ‘models’ or approaches to immigrant integration, (iii) inter-group relations in the community, and (iv) institutional factors such as labour market structures.  What is their relative importance, and how are they inter-related in their impact on immigrant integration?

The study looks beyond media controversies and debates to investigate outcomes at the community level.  Several data sources and research approaches are used.  First, the study compares two major national surveys of inter-ethnic relations.  In the case of France, the study takes advantage of the breakthrough Trajectories and Origins survey, conducted by an INED research team including Dr. Simon.  The first of its kind in France, this survey has a design very similar to Canada’s Ethnic Diversity Survey, permitting extensive and very pertinent comparisons. Both contain extensive data on Muslim minorities, both immigrants and the second generation, as well as responses from the mainstream populations.  These sources are then supplemented with evidence from the World Values Survey and surveys of Muslim minorities in each country.  Finally, qualitative focus group sessions involving direct interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims will be conducted in Paris, Toronto, and Montreal.  The focus groups allow an assessment of inter-group relations currently, observed under virtually identical circumstances.

By focusing on inter-group relations, the study adopts a broader understanding of integration including social, economic and political dimensions.  These include trust in institutions, social networks, identities, participation in organization, perceptions of discrimination, voting habits, employment earnings, and experience with gender inequality, taking account of religious behavior and engagement. It also investigates the interaction between Muslim integration and the characteristics of the host society: mainstream attitudes and values, institutional structures such as labour markets, and public policies. Finally, the researchers measure how distinctive immigrant characteristics affect integration outcomes. For instance, many French Muslims are of North African Mahgreb origin, while Muslims in English Canada tend to hail from Pakistan and other Arab nations, and those in Québec reflect both source regions. Geographic origins are related to educational levels and occupational outcomes.  The study also examines the interaction among various factors over time.

Professor Jeffrey Reitz

Professor Jeffrey Reitz is Director of the Robert F. Harney Program in Ethnic, Immigration, and Pluralism Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. An expert in immigration, immigrant employment, and ethnic relations, he is the author of Multiculturalism and Social Cohesion: Potentials and Challenges of Diversity, (with Raymond Breton, Karen K. Dion, and Kenneth L. Dion, Springer 2009),  “The distinctiveness of Canadian immigration experience,” Patterns of Prejudice, 46:5 (2012), 518-538, “Pro-immigration Canada: Social and Economic Roots of Popular Views.” IRPP Study, no. 20. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2011, “Comparisons of the Success of Racial Minority Immigrant Offspring in the United States, Canada and Australia,” (with  Heather Zhang, and Naoko Hawkins, Social Science Research 40,4 (July 2011):1051-66. and “Race, Religion, and the Social Integration of New Immigrant Minorities in Canada,” (with Rupa Banerjee, Mai Phan, and Jordan Thompson, International Migration Review, 43, 4 (Winter 2009): 695-726.