Before last March's election, Premier Jean Charest deftly hoisted the question of "reasonable accommodation" right off the political chessboard. He did this in the time-honoured fashion, naming a couple of scholars to inquire into the whole business.
But today the issue returns, as Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor announce plans for public hearings by their group, which goes by the precise if ungainly name Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodements reliées aux différences culturelles.
But before the two distinguished academics could welcome us all back from vacation in this fashion, Mario Dumont grabbed the spotlight for himself. Interviewed by someone from La Presse, Dumont said this: "Your number of immigrants should not exceed your capacity to welcome them and integrate them, otherwise they create ghettos." And Quebec, he added, has reached that limit.
Did he mean immigration should be frozen at the current level? Halted completely? Maybe he meant he wants to spend more money on integrating newcomers. He didn't offer any detail, but he will have to do so, and soon.
Dumont has done quite well for himself by using studied ambiguity on "reasonable accommodation" and on the broader related questions of immigration and nationality. And it's enlightening to note how these blend into one. "Reasonable accommodation" originally referred to religious matters, from the Jewish eruv to Muslim sharia law: When religious practice bangs up against secular civil law, which should take precedence in a society that honours both religious freedom and equality under the law? From the kirpan to the hijab to whether a female police officer should address a Hasidic man, these questions have roiled some parts of Quebec society in recent years - too much so, some would say. As immigration patterns change, such matters have merged into one broader implicit question: Why can't "they" be like "we" are?
Some might think that francophone Quebecers, who have had to answer pretty much that same question from the rest of Canada for 140 years, should know the answer. In any case, the issue has clearly gone from religious practice to "cultural differences" as in the commission's title, and from there to the whole issue of identity. If "Quebecers' now constitute a "nation" according to the House of Commons, then who is a Quebecer?
Immigration is the "third rail" of Canadian politics - touch it the wrong way, and you die. The ADQ's wink-and-a-nod ambiguity gets them nowhere in metro Montreal, but appeals to many elsewhere who do not welcome change.
Charest wasted no time playing the "openness" card in response to Dumont's comment. But last weekend, his Young Liberals called for special classes in "national identity" in schools. And it remains to be seen how the the Parti Québécois will come down on this issue.
The identity question promises - or threatens - to be the biggest issue this autumn for all of us in Quebec.