The Quebec commission looking into what constitutes reasonable accommodation of the province's minorities is primarily the product of a leadership failure. Its high profile has more to do with the void left behind by the fading sovereignty-versus-federalism debate than with the place of minorities within Quebec's public space.
The commission's advent is testimony to Premier Jean Charest's weak command of the province. The debate on so-called reasonable accommodation was born in the hype of a media ratings war fought over a handful of marginal stories last winter. Rather than tackle the issue head on, the premier set up a commission to remove it from the landscape of his upcoming re-election campaign.
Like former prime minister Paul Martin, who farmed out the sponsorship affair to an inquiry in the lead-up to the 2004 election, Charest expected to be in a more secure position by the time the commission chickens came home to roost.
But at least Justice John Gomery had something solid to look into. On that score, the Quebec commission is more akin to the citizens' forum led by Keith Spicer in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake accord in the early 1990s.
At a time when the province's political establishment has lost its traditional bearings, the commission is quickly becoming an outlet for lingering angst over Quebec's collective identity.
Not a week goes by without a poll confirming Charest's flagging popularity. Only because it has excised a referendum from its priorities is the Parti Québécois doing a bit better. When it comes to the march to sovereignty, it is on a treadmill.
Last spring the sparks of the debate on minority accommodation reignited the career of Action Démocratique Leader Mario Dumont. But today he – like PQ Leader Pauline Marois and Charest for that matter – would be hard-pressed to spell out what concrete changes could possibly result from the work of the commission. Predictably, its first public forum this week drew calls for a return to the days when the Catholic religion was a staple of the Quebec school system as well as some anti-minority rants. Just as predictably, the capacity crowd was mostly made up of older Quebecers.
It would not be the first time that observers and politicians have confused the last big chunks of a melted iceberg with the tip of a massive hidden one.
In 1989-90, more than two dozen Ontario municipalities – including the cities of Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie – declared themselves English-only, in protest over the advent of a more comprehensive provincial regime of French-language services. Like some of the Quebecers who are currently venting about the impact of non-existent local minorities on their traditions, many of the Ontario municipalities involved were not even included in the new regime.
A larger unity crisis had turned the Ontario initiative into a lightning rod. At the time, it did feel like the fragile structure of linguistic accommodation in Canada was coming crashing down. It was not so fragile after all. Three short years later, Jean Chrétien – probably the federal politician most identified with official bilingualism – went on to sweep Ontario.
For all the hair-raising prescriptions that the commission may yet hear, demographics and the mathematics of a three-way race suggest that the next majority government in Quebec is unlikely to be run by a party that caters to the old Quebec at the expense of the new.
Chantal Hébert's national affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.