A blueprint for an 'intercultural' Quebec

[e-mail this page to a friend]

National Post, Friday, May 23, 2008

Herouxville and the head scarf. That's what Quebec's year-long debate on "reasonable accommodation" comes down to.

Herouxville is the small town where it all began. Its municipal council set out a statement rejecting the sexist principles embedded in shariah law. The head scarf, or hijab, became the most visible symbol of the debate.

When the issue heated up before the 2007 Quebec election, Premier Jean Charest did the very Canadian thing and named a commission to make the problem go away. It didn't, at least during the campaign. Action democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont exploited a populist sentiment that Quebec had become too accommodating to religious and cultural customs of immigrant faiths, notably Muslims.

Dumont rode the wave to become opposition leader in a new majority legislature, and the commission has spent the last year trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. Frosted windows at a Montreal YMCA in deference to a synagogue across the street? Muslims interrupting festivities at a sugar shack by taking over a dance hall for prayers? Hicks at Herouxville?

During a month of public hearings last fall, it seemed the Bouchard-Taylor Commission was running the Gong Show. The vast majority of Quebecers cringed with embarrassment at the spectacle of angry white folks whining about newcomers imposing their customs on Quebec society.

In all, nearly 250 persons testified, and another 3,400 took part in four regional forums. The commission received 900 briefs and then settled down to write its report, which was released yesterday. The good news? The Bouchard-Taylor commission spent only $3.7-million of its $5.1-million budget. It came in more than 25% under budget.

For the rest, the 307-page report is about what you'd expect from co-chairs of the stature of Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, two of Quebec's most eminent academic figures. It's thoughtful, rational and moderate in tone. Most of its 37 recommendations deal with building on the existing foundations of a culturally secure and tolerant society.

"The rationale underlying our report," they conclude, "stems from three intersecting themes: interculturalism, open secularism and harmonization practices."

To define the above, they frame interculturalism as "a question of reconciling the imperatives of pluralism stemming from the growing diversification of our society and the necessary integration of a small nation (Quebec) that constitutes a cultural minority in North America."

They define "four principles" of "open secularism" -- equality, freedom of religion, the separation of church and state and the neutrality of the state as between religious and secular convictions. Harmonization practices could be broadly defined as encouraging government to increase program spending on building a more diverse and tolerant society.

Yeah, but what about the head scarves? Get over it, says the commission, they're no threat to anyone's way of life. "Let's finish with the head scarf," they write. Enough, already. But in a Solomonic aside, they add "that a teacher wearing a burka or a niquab in class couldn't adequately do their job." Duh.

More seriously, the authors deplore "the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Quebec"; declare it "is in Quebec society's interests to get to know the Jewish community better"; and recommend that "awareness initiatives should be implemented to overcome anti-Semitism."

And in the spirit of separating church and state, they recommend that judges and police officers not be permitted to wear religious garb or symbols.

In the same spirit, Bouchard and Taylor recommend that "the crucifix must be removed" from the wall behind the Speaker's chair in the National Assembly. The Charest government wasted no time in declaring this had no chance of happening, as it quickly introduced a resolution in the legislature affirming its "attachment to our religious and historic heritage represented by the crucifix." Towns like Herouxville will have to decide for themselves whether to follow the commission's recommendation to cease the practice of prayer before council meetings.

"We do not believe the crucifix in the National Assembly, and the prayers that precede municipal council meetings," they write, "have their place in a secular state."

Many will disagree. Others, notably nationalists, will quarrel with the commission's choice of words in daring to mention French Canadians and Quebecers as if the two categories were distinct. Time and again, they refer to "Quebecers of French-Canadian descent," and "French-Canadian Quebecers."

In so doing, they may have started an entirely new debate.

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard