MONTREAL — Controversies involving religious symbols like the Muslim hijab and the Sikh kirpan have been good for business for Ivan Drouin, who runs a company that conducts guided tours of Montreal.
When he first started “Tours Kaleidoscope” in 1996, Drouin organized visits to ethnic communities in Montreal for people who were planning to travel abroad to places like China and Italy.
“We used ethnic neighbourhoods to allow people to better understand the places where they would be going,” he said in an interview.
But then Drouin noticed a huge interest among locals who wanted to discover the city’s different ethnic neighbourhoods.
During those outings, people would ask questions about religion, so he put together a program of seminars involving places of worship.
Drouin, 55, said excursions to places like Sikh temples and Jewish synagogues help to educate tourists, teachers and students.
His guided tours became even more attractive when the Quebec Education Department added an ethics and religious culture program to schools in 2008.
“Teachers who had to teach that course were not trained or had very little experience,” he said. “It was because of that, that certain school boards asked us to put together visits for professors who were giving the course.”
Drouin said teachers learn about different religious denominations during the outings and also about the children they would be teaching in elementary and secondary schools.
“In Montreal, there are more and more schools with children who come from other countries and that teachers didn’t know anything about,” he added.
Drouin said interest in learning about the Sikh community increased an extra boost after controversy erupted when a 12-year-old boy dropped his kirpan in a schoolyard in a Montreal suburb more than a decade ago. The story made headlines across Canada and the world.
“Even before the conflicts with the kirpan or the veil being worn by Muslim women, we were already bringing in people,” he added.
“After these events, it became more important. School directors were wanting more information and we gave them that opportunity.”
Drouin’s tours are “made-to-order” for schools, associations, travel agencies or private companies, while many federal civil servants also take part.
The tours are organized in groups of between 10 and 15 and reservations are obligatory. Prices tend to be in the $15-20 range.
For a class of students, there’s a group rate of $5 per student.
Right now, according to Drouin, there’s a lot of interest in Islam.
“People want to know more about what a Muslim is, what the different trends of Islam are and about the schools of Islam,” he said.
Drouin stressed each trip to a mosque, synagogue or Sikh temple is not just a quick visit — it can last up to two hours.
“We don’t just go for voyeurism, we go to try to understand, so that requires time,” he said.
Tours Kaleidoscope’s visits focus on history, culture, traditions and religious beliefs.
Drouin cited a visit to a Sikh temple as one interesting experience because of the conditions attached.
“You have to be clean, no alcohol — no one can be intoxicated — and if you smoke, you can’t bring in the package of cigarettes,” he explained.
“You have to cover your head, you have to remove your shoes and socks, wash your feet and wash your hands.”