Bouchard-Taylor study deserves a fair chance

So our advice to everyone involved is to accept the commission as a good-faith effort to deal with vexing problems, to turn down the volume and the heat, to speak civilly and try to listen respectfully.

Accommodements - Commission Bouchard-Taylor

Quebec's commission studying "reasonable accommodation" of minorities is running into a range of criticism as it begins the public phase of its work. That's unfortunate. This is a project so important that we simply cannot afford for it to be scuttled or hijacked.
In February, when Premier Jean Charest announced the awkwardly named Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles, the idea won wide approval. With an election on the horizon, it seemed prudent to lift the issue, with all its sensitivities, out of the realm of partisan point-scoring. And most people thought it was fine to name respected academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor as co-chairpersons: the first an expert on Quebec identity, the other a learned student of the place of faith in modern society.
But now that the election is over, the realities of routine daily cultural friction remain, and the commission is beginning to see what it expected to see: profound anxiety on the part of Quebec's old-stock francophone majority. That the commission and its leaders have already been denounced and berated strikes us as a manifestation of that anxiety, and not a helpful one. As our poll results on Page B1 suggest, this anxiety is far from universal, but it is more than big enough.

The mandate Charest gave the two wise men included formulating "recommendations to the government to ensure that accommodation practices conform to the values of Quebec society as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society." In other words, he asked, who should carry the burden of adjusting to whom? And how?
The commissioners say candidly that they chose to "perceive the debate on reasonable accommodation as the symptom of a more basic problem concerning the sociocultural integration model established in Quebec since the 1970s. This perspective calls for a review of interculturalism, immigration, secularism and the theme of Quebec identity." Perhaps imprudently, they staked out a position from the start: Their job, they've been telling anyone who will listen, is to find ways to encourage the majority to be supple and to open up to the minority.
You could hardly expect anything different from liberal (we do not say Liberal) professors. But this approach has generated some nasty backlash: Letter-to-the-editor writers and talk-show callers have little interest in reaching out to minorities, and evidently would prefer getting those minorities to take up hockey, Tim Hortons and baked ham at the cabane à sucre.
Meanwhile, many in minority communities - even francophone ones, we are told - have grown anxious about the majority's anxiety. Some see the whole exercise as "by whites and for whites," in the words of May Chiu, a former Bloc Québécois candidate. And now Le Journal de Montréal's generally sensible columnist Richard Martineau is campaigning against Taylor because he accepted the $1.6 million Templeton Prize, which is awarded by a foundation to someone working "to expand human perceptions of divinity."
Chiu's criticism is correct in part. The Bouchard-Taylor commission, and the reasonable-accommodation issues that led to it, truly are in large part a discussion within the francophone majority. (Anglophones, as an audible if not visible minority, are in an ancillary role.) But what else could this debate be? It is not just the long-running debate between cultural groups in microcosm. It is instead a debate, or a quest for consensus, on the part of the majority.
And yet there is an important part in this process for minority input, not only to express their concerns but also to acknowledge and try to defuse the angst of the majority. Minority groups would be foolish to snub the commission. Do they expect a fairer hearing on the talk shows?
The criticism of Taylor seems misplaced. This is, after all, about the role of religion in society. A central tenet of Taylor's thinking, as we understand it, is that neither secular nor spiritual values will serve us well by themselves. He's plainly the right man for this task. What credibility, after all, could religious minorities give to a commission headed only by proselytizers for secularism?

Finally, surely what Quebec needs is a comprehensive approach to all questions of accommodation, one based in a full understanding of our society and demographics.
Perhaps Bouchard and Taylor were unwise to say so bluntly, but it does seem that the majority is overestimating the risks society faces from immigrant diversity.
Certainly more can and should be done about integrating newcomers, but expecting them to abandon central elements of their identity is simply divorced from reality. Muslim girls wearing hijabs as they play soccer alongside vielle-souche francophones: What's so wrong with that?
So our advice to everyone involved is to accept the commission as a good-faith effort to deal with vexing problems, to turn down the volume and the heat, to speak civilly and try to listen respectfully.
There's no way back to the 18th century, thank God (so to speak) so we're all going to have to live together in this time and place. Let's talk calmly together.

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