The commission that is supposed to study the question of Quebec's relations with its religious minorities is off to a shaky start. One co-chair, sociologist Gérard Bouchard, has been accused of being an intellectual snob, while the other, philosopher Charles Taylor, is (unfairly) suspected of colluding with the American religious right.
Some members of the cultural minorities, as well as several columnists, consider that such a commission, whose first public hearing is to be held today in Gatineau, shouldn't be headed by two white males of the same generation; others wonder what makes these two men experts on immigration. Prof. Taylor's extensive research is not connected to the action on the ground, and Prof. Bouchard, a lifelong resident of the Saguenay, never worked or lived in a multicultural environment. Moreover, there's a feeling that the commission is embracing too wide a spectrum and will not be able to provide concrete advice on "reasonable accommodation."
The commission was hastily set up by Premier Jean Charest during this year's provincial election campaign after Action Démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont exploited a series of incidents involving religious minorities to present himself as the champion of old-stock francophones whose values were supposedly being threatened by the unreasonable demands of fundamentalist Muslims and Hasidic Jews. (In a string of cases, rules had been altered by local authorities to "accommodate": Muslim women, for instance, wanted to exclude men from prenatal courses at a Montreal community centre and from a YWCA swimming pool, and Hasidic Jews wanted a YMCA to cover its windows so students at a neighbouring school wouldn't see women in tight gym clothes.)
Mr. Dumont's demagogic campaign caught fire and helped his party to climb in the polls. Mr. Charest, like any leader facing an unexpected crisis, got rid of the hot potato by appointing a commission. Unfortunately, along the way, its mandate to study "reasonable accommodation" ballooned: It will now tackle matters such as multiculturalism, secularism, diversity, levels of immigration and even the thorny question of Quebec "identity." The commission's advisory committee is packed with academics but practically devoid of people with experience in the field of immigration and integration. It will hold public meetings in 17 towns, most of which have no immigrants.
Meantime, Prof. Bouchard, the older brother of former premier Lucien Bouchard, has been musing about Quebeckers' "fear" of losing their identity. He imprudently told a reporter that the arguments for cultural diversity are difficult to sell to "people who are not intellectuals and watch the news on TVA or TQS [private TV networks] or, in the best case, on CBC." This remark was seen as a sign of contempt for the public.
A few days later, it was Prof. Taylor's turn to get pummelled in the news media. Richard Martineau, a columnist for Le Journal de Montréal, noting that Prof. Taylor had been awarded the Templeton Prize, said the John Templeton Foundation, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to the reconciliation of science and religion, has some links to the American religious right and the creationist lobby. He then expressed doubts about the credibility of the "co-chair of a commission dealing with secularism and the place of religion in society."
This sounds like a verdict based on guilt by association. The Templeton Prize, worth more than $1.7-million, is internationally recognized; in any case, Prof. Taylor, one of Canada's pre-eminent philosophers, is a left-leaning intellectual. He also is a devout Catholic - but should Catholics be excluded from public responsibilities?
Still, Mr. Martineau's rant is symptomatic of the skepticism surrounding the commission's work.