The report of Quebec’s Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation of minorities has been received with a rocky start, but better may follow. Sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor advocate “open secularism,” meaning that the State is neutral in religion but that the individual is free to practice as he or she pleases, with reasonable accommodations made to meet individual needs. On May 22, the day the report was released, Premier Jean Charest introduced a motion in the National Assembly to reaffirm the presence of the crucifix on the wall of the Assembly. Its removal was one of the report’s recommendations, but Charest’s motion passed unanimously. It was he who appointed the Commission.
|Premier Jean Charest|
One concern expressed by critics of the exercise was that it would give a platform to bigots, and indeed there were some. Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, found their comments “extremely painful.” The media tended to be drawn to extreme comments such as those to be expected from Hérouxville politicians, but the report points out that they were by far the minority of presenters. It remains to be seen if the thoughtful, measured report will lead anywhere. Gatineau’s Catholic Archbishop Roger Ebacher said that “The report brings clarification to this debate, which has been marked by false starts.”
In a survey by SOM carried out last fall, 72% of Quebec French-speakers found the province to be too accommodating to minorities. English-speakers and other Quebeckers were much less concerned. The unease of the French group is a general anxiety with its roots in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s, when the powerful grip of the Catholic Church was severely weakened. Education was turned upside down. Latin was out the door and business-related subjects took its place.
As the Commission put it, the change “destroyed founding traditions” without replacing them. Added to that fact is the disruption of much of the economy, especially in the hinterland, with a population shift toward Montreal and other larger centers and with business faced with globalization. Language was threatened by English. Quebec felt isolated. At the same time, Quebec needs immigrants because of its aging population. It needs them economically but they exacerbate the anxiety because, at the same time that Quebec values and attitudes are in flux, they bring with them their own ways which are different.
Dumont, of the ADQ, wants to cut down on immigration and replace the population by increasing the birth rate. He has three children, but while that is more than average, it is not enough to stem the decline in births. To accomplish that, Quebeckers would need to follow the example of people like John Sweeney, the late Ontario politician. He was truly a practicing Catholic: he had ten children. Quebec has a program of seven-dollar-a-day child care, but there is a sizeable waiting list. The Parti Québecois, a separatist party, proposes to eliminate the waiting list. Dumont does not pick up on this realistic way of increasing the number of children, but even that move would hardly meet the need.
In the face of all the problems, what does the Commission find? Their main point is that things in Quebec are not all that bad. People are working things out relatively well, and more than any laws what is needed is better communication among groups and reasonable give-and-take. Most accommodation issues that have arisen have not been of demands for separation. Rather, they have been demands for inclusion—the hijab in soccer, tae-kwon-do, school. These Muslims were not demanding their own soccer league or entry into their own schools.
The media were targeted by the Commission as a source of bad intercultural relations. It analyzed stories of alleged unreasonable accommodation and found gross inaccuracies. To give one example, a group of Muslims arranged to go to a maple sugaring, where they had a meal served that met their dietary requirements, served at one table in the hall. The false story that hit the media was that they were responsible for denying the whole room of ham in their pea soup and pork in their pork and beans. In fact, only their table was served the halal meal. The rumor served to create widespread resentment.
Bouchard and Taylor took issue with the more steadfast Quiet Revolutionaries, who want to follow the French model of suppressing personal religious symbols in the name of secularism. The Commission noted that France gives religious schools financial support at a higher rate than Quebec does and that France also pays for chaplains in high schools, prisons, and the military. It also helps to pay for maintenance of churches and cathedrals.
In their call for open secularism, Bouchard and Taylor called for an end to prayer at municipal councils. For some time the National Assembly begins with a moment of silence rather than prayer. While their open secularism is meant to accommodate differences, including differences in wearing of religious symbols or attire, they would prohibit these for certain authority figures: police, jail guards, judges, and presidents and vice-presidents of the National Assembly.
The exemptions are highly problematic. A turban-wearing Sikh has become a Mountie. Is it okay for Canadian Mounties but not for Quebec cops? As Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski put it, the Supreme Court would throw out such a prohibition. Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, also raised question about this exception, while joining the bulk of Muslim leaders in endorsing the general thrust of the report.
The Commission calls for more interaction between new Quebeckers and natives. One way to accomplish this might be through interchanges between Catholic churches and mosques. Many Quebeckers no longer go to church, but more older people do, and it is among them that unease about the newcomers is most strongly felt. Progressive churchmen like Archbishop Ebacher would likely be open to the idea.