Sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor have produced what is probably one the most elegantly written and most subtly reasoned reports ever commissioned by a Quebec government.
Its 267 pages, 37 recommendations and seven appendices propose a clear, flexible blueprint, that could, if followed, save Quebec a lot of grief as it tackles the challenge of accommodating immigrants with religious beliefs and cultural traditions that would have been considered exotic and alien just a generation ago, but which today constitute part of the woof and warp of Quebec society.
The report's wisdom is reflected not so much in its recommendations as in its careful and respectful declaration of principles. Many of its recommendations, in fact, are quite anodyne and even self-evident. Who, for example, other than the most preposterous bigot, could object to a suggestion that Quebec promote intercultural contacts to allay negative stereotypes? And a more open recognition of immigrants' credentials is something we have long urged.
But what the report does offer is a working outline for a more open society that would preserve the neutrality of the state and the fundamental values of a liberal democracy - freedom of expression, sexual equality, etc. - but at the same time allow individuals as much liberty as possible in the public expression of their deepest beliefs.
The vehicle Bouchard and Taylor propose for this is what they call "open secularism," a concept that seems perfectly adapted to Quebec's needs and, as Taylor said at a news conference yesterday, simply continues the direction Quebec chose for itself at the beginning of the Quiet Revolution.
Open secularism is far more flexible than the rigidly republican laicism of France, say, which forbids such religious expressions as the hijab in public institutions like schools and hospitals. In practical terms, the Bouchard-Taylor report would forbid some public officials - those that represent the coercive powers of the state like judges and police officers - any outward display of religious faith. But it would allow everyone else in the public service, from teachers and nurses to licence-bureau clerks and janitors, to wear crucifixes, hijabs, kippas or any other religious symbol. It's a neat and - dare we say it? - very Canadian compromise.
The report also recognizes Quebec's particular needs as a minority French-speaking society in a vast, English-speaking sea. The multicultural ideal that seems to work so well in the rest of Canada, Taylor said yesterday, needs to be nuanced for Quebec, and replaced with a model that more readily recognizes Quebec's very real anxieties about preserving its distinctive culture and language.
All this makes perfect sense. We might have some future quibbles about the details and nuances of the report's recommendations, but its general thrust is overwhelmingly positive.
The real devil in this case, however, is not in the details, but in how the report is received by Quebecers. All Bouchard's and Taylor's careful work could be rejected as yet another attack on Quebec's culture and traditions if critics succeed in reducing their report to a "crucifix-out-hijab-in" caricature.
And the early signs don't augur well. One of report's gentler suggestions was that the crucifix over the speaker's chair in the National Assembly be removed to a more museum-like setting in the name of preserving state neutrality. But even before the report was officially made public, Premier Jean Charest was on his feet in the National Assembly yesterday morning, proposing a motion that would keep the crucifix where it is as a symbol of Quebec's culture and history.
It was an unfortunate action. The suggestion to move the crucifix was hardly one of the report's most important recommendations, but it gives critics an easy symbol to focus on. Charest's motion seems to play to the very fears and forces he was trying to restrain when he commissioned the report in the first place.
Bouchard and Taylor deserve better. Their report doesn't solve all our problems, but it does offer a starting point for a thoughtful and profound debate about just what kind of a society we want to build. It would be a shame if we missed that opportunity.