Time for Quebecers to Be More Open: Report

Jeff Heinrich, Montreal Gazette, May 17, 2008

Learn more English, be nicer to Muslims, get better informed.

Those are just some of the ways the unhappy French-Canadian majority in Quebec can shake off its angst about minorities and help build a truly open society in a globalized world, say the authors of a much-anticipated report for the Liberal government on the “reasonable accommodation” of minorities.

In several chapters of the final draft obtained by The Gazette, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor argue the “discontent of a large part of the population” over demands by Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities “seems to us the result of partial information and false perceptions.” The chairpersons of the $5-million commission address a number of what they call “unfounded objections” to the role of religion in Quebec society, mostly voiced by old-stock francophones during three months of highly publicized hearings last fall.

Rebutting those objections, Bouchard, a prominent Chicoutimi sociologist and historian, and Taylor, a world-renowned Montreal philosopher, lay out their vision of a new Quebec coming to terms with kirpans, hijabs, kosher food and other expressions of non-Christian cultures.

In Quebec, they say, everyone should feel welcome and the majority should no longer feel under threat by newcomers.

“We think it is possible to re-concile Quebecers—franco-phones and others—with practices of harmonization, once it has been shown that: a) these practices respect our society’s fundamental values, notably the equality of men and women.

b) they don’t aim to create privileges but, rather, equality that is well understood and that respects everyone’s rights.

c) they encourage integration and not marginalization.

d) they’re framed by guidelines and protected against spiralling out of control.

e) they’re founded on the principle of reciprocity.

f) they don’t play the game of fundamentalism.

g) they don’t compromise the gains of the Quiet Revolution.” The final draft is dated March 19, two weeks before the commission announced on its website that the writing of the report was finished and that, after adding a series of recommendations, proofreading the document and translating it into English, it would be sent to the printers.

The official report is now in the hands of Premier Jean Charest, who is to present it to cabinet on Wednesday. After a budget-style “lock-up” behind closed doors for journalists Friday morning, the commissioners will hold a news conference to discuss their findings.

Broken down into half-a-dozen parts, the voluminous report has more than a dozen chapters and almost as many annexes consisting of a series of research reports, independently produced under special order by the commission.

Their subjects relate to the accommodation debate, including media coverage, ethnic ghettos and French-language training for immigrants.

In their report, Bouchard and Taylor—but mainly Bouchard, who did the bulk of the writing, insiders say- argue that the responsibility for open-mindedness and desire for change lie mainly with one people: the French Canadians themselves.

“It’s principally from this milieu that the crisis arose,” the commissioners write, adding that many French Canadians “have a strong feeling of insecurity for the survival of their culture.” They fear losing their “values, language, tradition and customs” and of eventually “disappearing” entirely as a French-speaking minority in North America.

Self-doubt and “the fear of the Other”—are “the two great hindrances from the French-Canadian past,” the commissioners write.

“In the past, the threat came mainly from the anglophone. Before that, it was the lifestyle brought on by industrialization. Today, for many, it’s the immigrant.” What Quebec now faces is not the traditional “deux solitudes” of French and English, but rather “deux inquiètudes”—the twin anxieties of the majority and the new minorities, the commissioners say.

The “members of a strong ethnocultural majority fear being submerged by minorities who themselves are fragile and worried about the future, especially immigrants trying to find their feet in their adoptive society,” write the scholars, who in footnotes liberally quote from oral testimony as well as written briefs presented at the hearings last fall.

Bouchard and Taylor also compare Quebec’s immigration situation with that of other provinces, noting that Quebec has far fewer immigrants (11.5 per cent per capita, compared with 28 per cent in Ontario and British Columbia, and 16 per cent in Alberta) and far fewer ethnocultural minorities generally (21 per cent in metropolitan Montreal vs. 46 per cent in Toronto and 40 per cent in Vancouver).

Quebec’s accommodation crisis dates to March 2006, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of a Montreal Sikh teenager who wanted to keep wearing his kirpan, the traditional ceremonial dagger of baptized orthodox Sikh men, to school.

A series of media-fuelled controversies over demands for accommodation by religious minorities followed.

For example: The Association of Maritime Employers agreed to re-examine its workplace rules after orthodox Sikh truck drivers objected to wearing safety helmets instead of their turbans at the Port of Montreal.

A Montreal YMCA frosted the windows of an exercise room so that ultraorthodox Jewish neighbours wouldn’t have to watch women exercising.

And Montreal policewomen were advised in a training brochure to let their male colleagues take charge when visiting Hasidic neighborhoods.

The “scandals” came to a head in January 2007 with the publication of a “code of life” by the village council of Hérouxville in the Mauricie region, in which foreigners were advised that public stonings and female circumcision were not allowed in the community.

Faced with the polemic over that declaration and fearing unrest over immigrants and religious minorities on the eve of a provincial election campaign, Charest quickly announced the formation of a special commission to look into accommodations and defuse the crisis: the Bouchard-Taylor commission.

In their report, the commissioners say that in hindsight the accommodation crisis was largely a media phenomenon—but, they add, it was no invention.

“The media didn’t create the crisis over accommodations, but their message fell on fertile ground.” Elsewhere, they call on the media to show more “self-discipline” and rigour in reporting on ethnic communities and their representatives, some of whom—like deported Tunisian imam Saïd Jaziri—got wide coverage despite having little or no credibility.

Although “what has happened in Quebec sometimes gives the impression of being a showdown between two groups of minorities (French Canadians and the ethnic minorities), each of whom wants the other to accommodate it,” there are many ways to avoid a fatal confrontation, the commissioners say.

People should get used to the idea that “Quebec is made up of diverse ethnic groups, each of which, as is its right and in its own way, cultivates its own memory”—in other words, none is more valuable than the other.

The two commissioners—who each collected a salary of $380,000 for their work—also: Declare themselves in favour of more funding for community groups that try to bring cultures together.

Argue against race-based projects that segregate people from mainstream society (such as a proposed all-black school).

Lament the “wasted careers” of foreign professionals who can’t find work here because their credentials aren’t recognized.

Deplore that only three per cent of Quebec public-service jobs are held by immigrants, “one of the worst situations in North America.” Blame the Quebec media for being generally “very ‘old-stock,’ very ‘white’ (and) by consequence, they broadcast an often biased image of a (multicultural) reality that a lot of people don’t know well enough.” But Bouchard and Taylor also—surprisingly—come to the defence of Hérouxville, which made headlines around the world.

“In a very awkward and excessive way, the Hérouxville text expressed a tension, an ambivalence many French-Canadian Quebecers have,” the commissioners write.

Finally, they make a plea for better understanding of Quebec’s Muslims, “who only make up two per cent of the Quebec population, about 130,000 people,” who are “massively francophone and highly educated,” who are “among the least devoutly religious of all immigrants,” and who are “the least ghettoized” geographically in Montreal.

“The way to overcome Islamophobia is to get closer to Muslims, not to run away from them,” the commissioners state.

“Mistrust breeds mistrust. Just like fear, it winds up feeding on itself.”

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