How a Town Famous for Xenophobia Fell in Love With Immigrants

HÉROUXVILLE, Quebec — For years, the small town of Hérouxville in rural Quebec was the embodiment in the province of deep, nativist hostility toward immigrants.

The town didn’t have any immigrants, but it once adopted a code of conduct that left no doubt that they, and their perceived customs, were unwelcome.

Hérouxville, the code warned, did not tolerate “stoning women to death in the town square” or “burning them alive” or “treating them as slaves.” The people of Hérouxville, it cautioned, celebrated Christmas and didn’t cover their faces, except maybe for Halloween.

The code tapped into a pervasive fear in Canada’s only French-speaking province that immigration would dilute its culture and also triggered a landmark provincial government commission that sought to build a consensus on the “reasonable accommodation” of ethnic minorities.

So it may come as a surprise that Hérouxville is now embracing immigrants and is eager to accommodate them.

“We’ve had a break from our past,” said Bernard Thompson, Hérouxville’s mayor and a onetime supporter of the code. “We now want as many immigrants as possible.”

The sharp shift in this small town’s attitude comes as Canada is seeking to open its doors even wider to immigrants as a crucial strategy for its economic vitality.

Canada’s federal government has announced plans to welcome record numbers of new immigrants over the next three years, with the goal of adding 1.45 million immigrants to the country’s population of 39 million. In contrast to other Western nations, where immigration has cleaved societies and fueled the rise of political extremism, there is a broad consensus in Canada over the value of immigration.

Mayor Bernard Thompson, 70, at his office in Hérouxville. Initially a supporter of the town’s 2007 code of conduct for immigrants, he now wants to welcome newcomers to the region, and wishes to leave the controversial code in the past.

The only outlier has been Quebec, where politicians have fanned anti-immigrant sentiments by seizing on French Québécois voters’ fears of losing their cultural identity.

But even in Quebec, against the backdrop of demographic imperatives and changing social attitudes, there are signs of change in places like Hérouxville.

Hérouxville’s reversal on immigration stemmed from a combination of factors, including an aging population, a low birthrate, the need to fill an acute labor shortage, but also profound shifts in views among younger generations and the personal journeys of individuals like Mr. Thompson.

If asked, the mayor said, he would even allow Muslim immigrants to use a vacant office in the city hall building as a prayer room — though he was not legally bound to do so.

“If we’re unable to respect each other’s culture, whether it’s religious or not, I think that’s a mistake,” the mayor said. “We have to show an openness.”

The need for skilled workers at snowblower factory Les Machineries Pronovost has increased as the company ramps up its production. They’ve hired several immigrants and are keen to recruit more.

Mr. Thompson is also the top elected official of the county of Mékinac — which includes Hérouxville and its population of 1,336 as well as nine other small towns, some of which once supported Hérouxville’s code of conduct. In a sharp departure from the past, when perhaps one or no immigrant settled in the county in a given year, Mékinac attracted a record number of immigrants in the past two years — 60 — from South America, Africa, Europe and elsewhere.

One of them, Habiba Hmadi, 40, arrived in the county over a year ago from Tunisia, along with her husband and their elementary school-age son and daughter. Both French speakers who speak Arabic at home, Ms. Hmadi works as an insurance agent and her husband as a welder.

Habiba Hmadi, 40, immigrated from Tunisia to St-Tite, one town over from Hérouxville, with her husband and two children.

Being away from their families was hardest during Ramadan and other holidays, Ms. Hmadi said. Ms. Hmadi said she had never heard of Hérouxville’s code of conduct and had been welcomed warmly by locals.

“We got many phone calls or even people knocking on our door to ask if we needed anything,” Ms. Hmadi said. “One of our neighbors knocked on our door with a big bag of toys for our kids. We didn’t even know her. We were still moving in.”

The influx of immigrants was the result of a sweeping pro-immigration policy adopted by the county in 2017 — a decade after Hérouxville passed its code of conduct in 2007.

Officials working with local companies aggressively began recruiting foreign workers to settle in a region inhabited almost exclusively by French Québécois and far from multiethnic cities like Montreal. They also began preparing the local population for the newcomers and established programs to help immigrants settle in the area, including at a newly expanded social center called La Maison des Familles.

A few months ago, the county even won a government prize praising its policies toward immigrants.

A pair of elderly residents navigating the icy street in nearby St-Tite. The aging population in the region has left a dearth of skilled labor in small towns across Quebec, spurring regional officials to encourage immigration to the area.

“The arrival of these 60 people has greatly opened up our own environment,” said Nadia Moreau, the county’s economic development director. “They sometimes have different values, customs that they share with us and make us see reality from a different perspective.”

“We hope that they’ll establish roots here, but we don’t necessarily want to change them,” Ms. Moreau added.

Ms. Moreau’s message and the 2017 policy amounted to an official repudiation of the code, which drew an unbridgeable line between locals and immigrants. If the code received support from some corners of Quebec, Hérouxville was also mocked as a bastion of clueless intolerance, most famously in a year-end television skit by the public broadcaster, Radio-Canada, which showed an unsuspecting Muslim couple getting stuck in Hérouxville.

The code’s main author was a councilor at the time, André Drouin, who died in 2017. Mr. Drouin and Mr. Thompson, the current mayor, lived across the street from each other. They regularly got together and, over glasses of wine, discussed to what extent Quebec’s French Québécois majority should accommodate immigrants and other minorities.

The town of Hérouxville’s webmaster at the time, Mr. Thompson said he edited Mr. Drouin’s draft of the code, correcting spelling and grammatical mistakes, as well as cutting what seemed to him excessive references to Christmas trees. He watched Mr. Drouin, a charismatic individual, lead the council in unanimously ratifying the code and rally locals behind it.

“André could have sold a fridge to an Eskimo, as we say here,” Mr. Thompson recalled.

Farmland surrounds the town center of Hérouxville.

But Mr. Thompson — who had worked in telecommunications for decades in Montreal — said he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the code’s most fiery passages. He couldn’t deny that nearly everyone in Quebec was “the son of immigrants,” he said. He “adored” his brother’s longtime partner, a Muslim woman.

Eventually, Mr. Thompson broke with his neighbor and, after being elected mayor, led a push to jettison the code into the town archives. The mayor said he wanted to restore the town’s reputation, and the urgency to attract immigrants grew with the worsening labor shortage afflicting Mékinac county’s agricultural, forestry, industrial and service industries.

“We need immigration to survive,” Mr. Thompson said. “We don’t have a choice.”

Pascal Lavallée, 44, is the co-owner of Boulangerie Germain, a bakery with two stores and 45 employees in the county. Short of workers but hoping to expand his business, Mr. Lavallée was waiting for the arrival of three immigrant workers from the West African nations of Togo and Burkina Faso.

Pascal Lavallée, the co-owner of Boulangerie Germain, revived and expanded the once defunct business, and wants to see the region revitalized. He supports immigration to the area and is eager to hire skilled labor from abroad.

Even in rural Quebec, younger French Québécois were less worried about losing their identity, Mr. Lavallée said.

“They’re more tolerant about the emergence of new customs,” he added.

Still, politicians tapped into anti-immigrant feelings among older, rural voters in the recent provincial election. Jean Boulet — who served as provincial immigration minister until recently and who is from the town next to Hérouxville — said falsely that “80 percent of immigrants go to Montreal, don’t work, don’t speak French and don’t adhere to the values of Quebec society.”

Outside a convenience store in Hérouxville, a woman and a man smoking cigarettes said they still supported the code of conduct.

They said that a group of Muslim cyclists was once seen crossing the main road, not at a traffic light, but at a spot where one of them stopped oncoming cars.

“Look, they’re not in their country,” said the man, Jean-Claude Leblanc, 72.

They were still seething about widely reported stories of sugar shacks — establishments that serve traditional food from Quebec and where maple syrup is produced — that had removed pork to draw Muslim patrons. They had even heard of Muslims patrons praying inside some sugar shacks.

“Inside our sugar shacks,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “Ours.”

For Eva-Marie Nagy-Cloutier, 32, a resident of Hérouxville, however, the code was a relic of the past.

Eva-Marie Nagy-Cloutier, 32, outside her home in Hérouxville. She moved here seeking the slower pace of small-town life and hopes that more immigrants settle in the region.

“We’re of the generation where you can be who you want to be and with whom you want to be,” said Ms. Nagy-Cloutier, who works in human relations at Pronovost, a local snowblower maker, and recruits immigrant workers.

Abdelkarim Othmani, 33, left his home in southern Tunisia nearly two years ago and has been working the evening shift at Pronovost as a machinist. During the last Ramadan, he was allowed to take his meal break early so that he could break his fast after sunset.

Abdelkarim Othmani, 33, near his apartment in St-Tite. He immigrated from Tunisia, and says he doesn’t mind the snow and prefers the tranquillity of the small town to the pace of a busy city.

Mr. Othmani said he socialized and worked out at a local gym with co-workers on weekends.

“I love the atmosphere,” said Mr. Othmani, who is planning to marry and eventually bring to Quebec his Tunisian girlfriend — or his “blonde,” one of the several Québécois slang words he slipped into his French.

His best friend is Alex Béland-Ricard, 29, with whom he car-pools to work every day. A French Québécois born and raised in the county, Mr. Béland-Ricard said he was impressed by the newcomer’s strong commitment to friendship, family and hard work.

“Karim’s the first immigrant I ever met,” Mr. Béland-Ricard said. “I hope many more come here.”

Alex Béland-Ricard, 29, grew up in the region and had not met an immigrant until he befriended Abdelkarim Othmani two years ago. Now he wants increased immigration to Quebec.
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