Montreal — As a teenager in France, Tarek Belaroussi could never escape his name or the tint of his skin. Police asked him routinely for his identity papers. He got suspicious looks in shops. More than once, he was bluntly told to “go home.”
So Mr. Belaroussi did go home. He returned to Montreal.
The 20-year-old grew up in the city that gave him a love for winter and collecting hockey cards. It was only when his father left for Paris for a business opportunity that the younger Mr. Belaroussi followed, at age 16.
His initiation into stratified French society left him so despairing that, as soon as it was time for university, he flew back to Montreal.
“When I moved to France, at first I couldn’t understand what kept happening to me. I was treated like a foreigner,” Mr. Belaroussi said. “But then it became normal, routine. I lived in France, and yet that country didn’t accept me.”
This week, as he watched the flames swallow up the suburbs where his cousins and friends still live, Mr. Belaroussi felt he was lucky to have gotten away.
He did not condone the rioters, but he understood them.
“In Canada, someone who wants to integrate can do so,” said Mr. Belaroussi, who has Algerian ancestry. “Those who don’t, won’t. It’s not offered to you on a platter. But at least people here don’t judge you by your outside appearance.”
The sentiment echoes that of several North Africans in Montreal who have had a first-hand taste of daily life in the world’s two major French-speaking cities.
Even as they struggle to find their place in their adopted country, they say Canada has offered them a degree of openness and acceptance they felt was denied them in France.
“We always say that whoever complains about life here has never been to France,” said Lamine Foura, an engineer who hosts a Saturday night radio show, Taxi Maghreb, serving the North African community. “I’ve been here for six years, and I already feel I have more weight as a citizen in Canada than an Algerian in Paris whose father is born in France.”
To be sure, comparisons between the two countries are imperfect. Canada is free of France’s legacy of colonialism in North Africa, and at 100,000, Montreal’s North African community is a fraction of that in Paris. Also, North Africans who immigrate to Canada — the vast majority are in Quebec — are preselected for their high level of education and skills, in contrast to the labourers and factory workers brought in from France’s former colonies.
Also, most of the North African Muslims who have settled in Montreal arrived over the past 10 to 15 years. As first-generation immigrants, sacrifice is as much a part of their new lives as Tim Hortons and snowsuits. Yet even this generation speaks of growing frustration over high unemployment, and warns that Canada’s real test will arrive when their children and grandchildren come of age.
Still, as the city of lights turns into the city of fights, as one British paper described Paris, North Africans in Montreal say they have never looked back.
Ismael Houdassine, 30, worked for two years in France’s notorious suburbs, witnessing youth poverty and alienation close up. By his 20s, he had seen enough. The Frenchman of Moroccan ancestry left for Montreal, a city he had never been to before.
The realization that life would be different came minutes after his plane touched down at Montreal’s Dorval Airport in May, 2001. At customs, the officer welcomed him to Canada and sent him on his way.
“They didn’t search me. It was the first time in my life that my luggage wasn’t opened.”
“In France, your face betrays you,” said Mr. Houdassine, a freelance journalist. “Here, I feel a part of society.”
The newcomers see other differences in their adopted country. A black woman was named the Queen’s representative in Canada; in France, they say, they virtually never see non-white faces in positions of prominence in government or in the media.
Montreal has so far avoided the grim apartment towers that have fostered ethnic ghettos in Paris; North Africans might be concentrated in some neighbourhoods in Montreal, but the family next door is likely to hail from Haiti, the Philippines or Pakistan. Montreal’s Algerian Cultural Centre, where immigrant men crowded around computer terminals this week in a training course, is located above a Vietnamese beauty-supply shop and a Tamil grocer on cosmopolitan Jean-Talon Street.
Still, there are cautionary notes. Recent North African immigrants are almost three times as likely to have a university education as Quebeckers at large, yet their unemployment rate, at 24 per cent, is three times the Quebec average.
As their numbers grow and their roots deepen in Canada, so will their expectations. Globe & Mail