When the co-chairmen of the commission on reasonable accommodations were asked in an interview with The Gazette this week what they would change about their mandate if they could, Charles Taylor replied with a laugh, "We'd have started two years earlier."
More than five months after they started work and nearly halfway through their mandate, Taylor and Gérard Bouchard have yet to face the first of the public consultations they'll hold in 17 Quebec cities, starting next month and concluding at the end of November.
Their report is due March 31, which leaves them precious little time to achieve their stated objective of reducing a cultural insecurity among French-speaking Quebecers that has endured for centuries.
But they were already late the day they were appointed last February. That was a few months after the controversy over incidents involving the accommodation of non-Christian religious practices, an issue suddenly ignited in the pages of Le Journal de Montréal.
And by the time the commission was created, the controversy, fed by inflammatory reports in the province's most widely distributed daily, had escalated to widespread hysteria exemplified by the Hérouxville code.
The code, adopted by a remote, economically depressed village where there were no religious minorities and none were likely to settle, formally denounced the burning of women, among other practices.
It was reminiscent of the anti-bilingualism resolutions adopted in the early 1990s by Ontario towns, the largest of them Sault Ste. Marie, where there were few or no francophones anyway.
Maybe two years ago, as Taylor implied, it would have been possible for the two eminent academics who head the commission to raise the question of harmonious relations between ethnic groups and have the civil discussion they seek.
But now, it appears more likely their public consultations will be about as civil as talk radio - the Buck 'n' Chuck Show, coming to you live and in person in a hotel meeting room in a regional centre near you.
And two university professors might not be the ideal choice to host a talk show, without benefit of call-screening, tape delay and kill button, especially amid the climate of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that is developing around the accommodation issue.
Even Joseph Facal, himself now a university professor as well as a former Parti Québécois minister, criticized the elitism of other unnamed professors on the issue, in his column yesterday in Le Journal.
So Buck and Chuck had better be prepared to duck. In fact, even before the consultations begin, the brickbats are already flying at the heads of the co-chairmen - and from opposite directions.
Minorities have complained they're too concerned with the cultural insecurity of francophones, and francophones that they're biased in favour of minorities. On the latter score, Bouchard told The Gazette the commission is "on the side of human rights, especially minority rights."
Their inexperience in the political arena also is apparent. Bouchard, in particular, has made a number of statements that he had reason to regret after being named co-chairman of the commission.
Most recently, he complained to Le Devoir "people who aren't intellectuals but watch the news on TVA or TQS, or at best (Radio-Canada's) Le Téléjournal," often say "things are much simpler when we're all the same." In response, a couple of columnists in Le Journal (owned by Québécor, which also owns TVA) have attacked Bouchard for expressing contempt for "the real people."
The two professors have indicated they intend to use their consultations and their final report to educate francophones and correct their erroneous perceptions about minorities. For professor Bouchard to begin the class accused of insulting the students isn't likely to make them more receptive toward the lesson.
I don't often feel sorry for people making $1,100 for a day's work. But by the end of The Gazette's hour-long discussion with Bouchard and Taylor, I was starting to feel sympathy for them.
The Buck 'n' Chuck Show
Two eggheads have their work cut out for them