Debate is a by-product of Quebec's past

Accommodements et les régions

Gérard Bouchard has sure been getting an earful over the last week. Even if he accomplishes nothing else in the next several months, the co-chairman of the commission looking into "reasonable accommodation" has provided a wide spectrum of Quebecers with a first-rate forum to vent their fears, hopes and frustrations about the future of their society.

And that has been a useful if confusing exercise. It has certainly provided a fascinating window into the inchoate uncertainty that many Quebecers feel as they struggle with accommodating newcomers whose cultures, histories and faiths are so radically different from their own. It's unfortunate that a medical problem has so far prevented Bouchard's colleague, McGill University professor Charles Taylor, from joining in the fun.

Most of the witnesses so far have been francophone Quebecers, hardly surprising given that the commission has spent its first week in Gatineau and Rouyn-Noranda, but nevertheless, they've been a satisfyingly diverse lot, ranging from devoutly Roman Catholic housewives to fiercely secularist professionals.

In Gatineau, for example, a senator announced to Bouchard that God exists, no matter what our doubts, while in Rouyn Noranda, a disabled plumber confided that all religions are based on superstition. On a lighter note, a young student told Bouchard that in the end she chose "boys in bathing suits" over solidarity with her more demure Muslim friend - but that she felt bad about it. And some testimony has been simply incomprehensible, notably that of the federal policy analyst who declared solemnly that "freedom of religion is a freedom, not a right" - whatever that means.

All these contradictions reflect something that's often forgotten in the debate over the challenges that immigrants pose to Quebec culture, and that is that that culture is still recovering from the seismic shocks of the 1960s and '70s that turned it upside-down.

Just 50 years ago - a mere blink in the great sweep of history - Quebec was one of the most devoutly Roman Catholic societies on Earth. Families were large, churches were full and just about the only unmarried adults around were the armies of priests, nuns and brothers who staffed virtually all of the province's health, educational and social institutions.

Now Quebec appears to be leading the rest of Canada into some sort of post-modern, post-Christian nirvana (or hades, depending on your point of view). Sexual egalitarianism, medicare and the welfare state have replaced the old Catholic certainties of faith, family and redemption. The province leads the country in the acceptance of same-sex marriage and no marriage at all. It has the lowest fertility rate in the country, and one of the highest abortion rates. Those children who are born tend to be raised by single women or unmarried couples.

Whether you applaud these changes or lament them - or fall somewhere in the middle - is almost irrelevant. The fact is that it's difficult for any society to absorb that much change that quickly without losing some equilibrium, some sense of what it stands for. That might help explain why language - one of the few surviving links with the past - is such a hot-button issue in Quebec.

It also explains, perhaps, why accommodating immigrants with exotic ways of praying and dressing is also such an issue. Other Canadians are probably no more or less welcoming than Quebecers. The difference is that Quebecers, in a way, have earned their uncertainty.

But there's an irony in that uncertainty, as well. Quebecers who were born here and can trace their ancestry back to the Norman pioneers who settled here more than 200 years ago, should remember that a few women in headscarves are unlikely to change their culture and their values as profoundly as they have themselves. Comparing themselves with their counterparts of the 1950s should give them a sense of perspective that is sometimes lacking.

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