Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor have set a clear and positive tone for their roving hearings on reasonable accommodation, meetings that will begin in Montreal on Aug. 24. It remains to be seen if the debate can be kept at the high-toned level to which they aspire.
The two academics, co-chairing Quebec's Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, have been at work for much of the last few months, laying the groundwork for what happens now: broad consultation of Quebecers about minorities, cultural and religious differences, and even immigration levels.
Their job, as assigned to them by Premier Jean Charest in February, is to take stock of the way Quebec accommodates religious and cultural minorities, analyze the issues that arise, consult the public, and report back by March 30, telling the government of Quebec what to do "to ensure that accommodation practices conform to the values of Quebec society as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society."
To their credit, Bouchard and Taylor have grasped the nettle boldly. Instead of proposing merely a few fine-tunings of this or that law, they and their 15-member advisory committee have chosen to, as they say, see the whole reasonable-accommodation debate as "a symptom of a more basic problem concerning the sociocultural integration model that has prevailed in Quebec since the 1970s." They have, in other words, opened the whole can of worms: not just "reasonable accommodation" in the narrow legal sense, but multiculturalism, secularism, immigration, and even Quebec identity. They're not afraid to state the issue clearly, acknowledging that it looms largest for "Quebecers of French-Canadian origin" and even taking a shot at "occasionally alarmist" media.
All this is in the finest traditions of honest academic inquiry. The consultation document's clear and candid prose is perhaps a little less reminiscent of academia, but is highly praiseworthy in this context.
The commissioners are no doubt aware that they have picked up a live wire here. Anecdotal evidence - from talk shows, letters to the editor and other such sources - suggests that Quebecers are, reasonably or not, unwilling to be very accommodating to minorities these days. Thirty years after the Charter of the French Language was adopted, francophones and anglophones have reached what most consider an acceptable and durable mutual accommodation in Quebec. But for visible, cultural and religious minorities, there is no such arrangement. The manifesto from Hérouxville last year (" ... we consider that killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive, are not part of our standards of life ...") reveals a certain ignorant mistrust of at least some newcomers. No commission hearings are scheduled for Hérouxville, but some of that sentiment will likely be heard.
The commission's formal public hearings will be somewhat controlled, in that only those who have presented briefs in advance and been screened will be heard. But the commission has also scheduled a series of "citizens' forums" across the province. For these, too, registration will be required but they will be less formal sessions, at which individuals can blow off steam. We look forward to some newsworthy meetings.
Bouchard and Taylor are doing what they can to put the whole debate on an elevated plane, saying that they expect "frank, open discussions that are tempered by reason and civility." And they are clearly aware of the powder keg of emotion on these issues.
Francophone Quebec is, Bouchard said Tuesday, "a majority afraid of its minorities." It's a telling observation. More telling, perhaps, was what he said next: "We have to change that, because in reality, there's no reason for it. Being a majority has responsibilities, such as making sure minority rights are respected."
Another signal about the commissioners' orientation comes in their consultation document, which refers frequently to what other societies do about these issues. Competition between two competing values, namely respect for diversity and social cohesion, is common to many societies. In many places newcomers cluster in the biggest cities. In many places immigration is a hot political issue.
But Quebec's peculiar demographics, culture, and history have brought these issues to a boil in our own distinct way. To the credit of us all, the debate has been vigorous but peaceful and for the most part civil. Now this commission gives us an opportunity to consider not merely the grievance or outrage-of-the-day, but the broad context of how we should live together in the modern world. Their effort has been well-launched. Everyone with a stake in Quebec's future should be interested in what comes next.
Commission documents, including hearing-participation guidelines, can be found, in English as well as French, at www.accommodements.qc.ca