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Quebec town considers dropping code for immigrants

If you're from Hérouxville, it's probably best not to admit it.

That's how the mayor of the tiny Quebec town says residents have felt since they made international news and were thrust to the forefront of a heated debate over religious minorities.

The town became Ground Zero of the so-called reasonable accommodations controversy, which has now culminated in legislation that would restrict Muslim headwear in provincial institutions.

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Mayor Bernard Thompson now says the town is considering tossing in the towel on the policy that started it all.

Hérouxville gained international fame three years ago by adopting a controversial code that warned immigrants against behaviour like stoning women and covering up their faces.

International media came flocking to the little town of 1,300 in central Quebec.

Hérouxville is now quietly considering dropping the code and creating some distance between it and the former councillor who spearheaded the movement in 2007.

"When [people]go out of town, they don't say they're from here any more," Mr. Thompson said. "Whenever they mention, 'Hérouxville,' people give them a little smile and say, 'We know about your town.'" The former councillor - André Drouin, who didn't run for re-election in 2009 - has continued to seize the spotlight.

He was just in Quebec City, testifying at the legislative committee looking at banning niqabs and burkas. Mr. Drouin testified that Quebec should close its doors to all immigrants, period.

Things like that bring Hérouxville back into the news. The town surmises that by erasing its famous code, it might better demonstrate that Mr. Drouin is acting of his own accord.

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"The municipality has nothing to do with the decisions of one citizen to embark on a crusade," said Mr. Thompson.

"Hérouxville is always identified - anything that's written, whether it's about secularism or reasonable accommodation, when Mr. Drouin is involved, Hérouxville is always attached.

"That's what people were annoyed with."

Mr. Thompson says he wants townspeople to be able to say: "I am from Hérouxville and I'm proud of my village."

The town council will discuss overturning the code next month.

Early versions of the code forbid the stoning and burning of women, but those were quickly toned down after a media frenzy.

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Other clauses pertain to the equality of the sexes, forbid the covering of faces and defend the right to drink alcohol, listen to music and trim a Christmas tree every year.

Many rights groups weighed in, calling the code deliberate hate-mongering and xenophobic. The Canadian Muslim Congress dispatched a delegation to the town so that councillors could meet actual Muslims.

But since 2007, the code has remained intact.

Mr. Drouin was shocked to learn from reporters this week that the code he implemented could be overturned.

"Frankly, I'm dumbfounded," he said. "It's difficult to understand. It's a document that is historic for the community. Why remove it?"

He suspects the sudden shift has occurred because his initial move prompted a broader debate over whether there was room for religion at all in Quebec society.

"They wanted to get rid of [the code]because they have 60 people that go to church and I'm campaigning for a secular state."

Mr. Drouin called the "code-de-vie" his vision and said history might see it as something that shook society.

While he's routinely congratulated by well-wishers, Mr. Drouin says his attention is now elsewhere and he doesn't have time to battle council if it elects to rescind the code.

"If the council decides to eliminate the code or keep it as is, it doesn't change anything in my life," he said.

"The code is a symbol."

The Canadian Press

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