For more than two months, the Bouchard-Taylor commission on the accommodation of minorities toured Quebec's small "white only" towns, and listened to old-stock Quebeckers (many of whom had never met an immigrant) voicing imaginary fears about immigration. Last week, the commission finally returned to reality. And what it heard in the Montreal area - basically the only multicultural region in Quebec - was that there is no real, serious problem in the schools and health services that have diverse clients. Each day, small compromises are made to accommodate various religious minorities, without fuss and drama.
Actually, what the commission was indirectly told by those who know what's happening on the ground was that there is no need at all for a commission on "reasonable accommodation." (The commission, headed by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, was created in the middle of an election campaign marked by the exploitation by some media and politicians of a series of minor incidents involving religious Jews, Sikhs and Muslims.)
At the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), the province's largest francophone school board (its 106,000 students come from 193 countries and speak 151 languages), 894 requests were made for accommodation in 2006-07. Two-thirds were accepted. Now, here's the surprise: The largest single religious minority group that sought special treatment was Jehovah's Witnesses. And what did they want? That their children not celebrate Halloween. This is why Quebec taxpayers are spending millions on a public inquiry?
The second-largest group seeking accommodation are Muslim parents concerned about swimming lessons, school trips or cafeteria meals. Compromises are made: The girls wear swimsuits that cover the body, the cafeterias offer vegetarian dishes and so on. There are two bones of contention, though: CSDM president Diane De Courcy would like the government to forbid veils that completely hide the face in public schools, as well as the allocation of special rooms for prayer.
The school board doesn't need more involvement from the government. "Our schools are small United Nations," said Ms. De Courcy, "and these nations get along fine, thank you."
As for the association representing health and social care services, its spokesperson, Lise Denis, is even more adamant in asking the commission not to recommend wall-to-wall measures that would force the institutions to work inside a fixed framework. Thousands of small, reasonable accommodations are made every year in Montreal-area hospitals and social services, and each one is decided case by case. Muslims and religious Jews are served special meals; when it's possible, they are exempted from receiving intimate care from an orderly of the opposite sex or from having to share a room with a person of the opposite sex.
"All patients are unique," says Ms. Denis. "Their needs are different and they are all vulnerable." In each case, the institutions take into account the nature of the medical treatment, the risks and the costs involved, and also the effects that a compromise would have on the employees. For instance, the institutions willingly change working schedules to accommodate those who want their holidays to coincide with Jewish holy days or Ramadan. But, at the end of the year, observant Jews and Muslims will have had the same workload as other employees.
If the commissioners were looking for a chance to make their personal mark by recommending a host of new structures and new laws, they may have to think again. With such presentations coming from people with a working knowledge of multiculturalism, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Bouchard will have to resist the temptation of tinkering with a situation that, on the whole, works well. If it doesn't itch ...