Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor are preparing to lift up a rock and see what's really under there. This might prove to be unpleasant work, but somebody's got to do it.
The two scholars, appointed last February by Premier Jean Charest to inquire into "accommodation practices related to cultural differences," embark next month on an eight-week tour that will fulfill one of their mandated duties: to "conduct an extensive consultation" with Quebecers, individuals and organizations alike, about how religious and ethnic minorities should be treated.
The two and their specialists also are supposed to make recommendations to the government by the end of March. Knowing, however, that most commission proposals on most topics meet a dusty and forgotten fate, the co-chairmen are saying that listening attentively might be the most useful thing the study group does. We hope they're wrong about that.
Meeting the editorial board of The Gazette yesterday, Bouchard and Taylor said they have easily detected a deep malaise in Quebec's "old francophone" population - and not just in the Hérouxvilles of the province. The same anxiety turned up in focus groups everywhere.
People at the hearings will surely offer views ranging from polite anxiety to overt racism. The commissioners see value in getting it all into the open, and believe the extreme end of that spectrum will prove vulnerable to a good dose of reality. False perceptions - up to and including the notion that Muslims are somehow taking over our society - can be dispelled, partly at least, by facts. And they must be dispelled: Islamophobia has the potential, Taylor and Bouchard warn, to wreck the relationship between our Muslim minority and the rest of Quebecers.
"Old francophones" are not the only ones who will be bringing their insecurities before the commission. The Montreal Muslim Council said this week it will take part, despite the commission's "obvious bias toward the French-Canadian majority" and other problems. Everyone, it seems, is on edge about this subject. The commissioners will have to tread carefully. And they will need responsible media coverage of their hearings.
Are the commissioners correct to say listening might ultimately prove to be the most useful part of their work? Here they are, we believe and hope, being too modest. Their public "consultation document" already suggests some things governments can do - stop talking and start acting about opening up the civil service and the professions to qualified newcomers for example.
And scholars in many places, studying comparable situations in other jurisdictions, have proposed other measures that could be adapted for Quebec - accelerated language training, expanded youth sports opportunities as a way to break down barriers from a young age - and more.
There's no panacea for the questions of cultural co-existence that challenge almost all modern societies. But there are surely good and bad ways for our society to proceed. If the commission proposes improvements and the government fails to act, then nobody will be able to blame the commission. It makes good sense for the commissioners to listen - but, ultimately, they also will have to speak.
To listen to The Gazette editorial board's meeting with Professors Taylor and Bouchard, go to www.montrealgazette.com and look under "Today at ..."
The Commission's "consultation document" is available, in both French and English, at http://www.accommodements.qc.ca
Bouchard and Taylor will have to speak, too
It makes good sense for the commissioners to listen - but, ultimately, they also will have to speak.