In Search of the ‘Reasonable’

In search of the 'reasonable'

The Bouchard-Taylor commission on the accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities has wrapped up its tour of Quebec. Was the “freakshow” worth it?

Philippe Gohier
Jan 11, 2008 | 10:47 am EST

A lot has happened in Quebec since Mario Dumont lit the fuse that started the debate into the accommodation of religious and ethnic minorities with an off-the-cuff remark about a handful of cases involving special requests by (mostly Jewish and Muslim) residents. Bridges and overpasses all across la belle province have been pre-emptively declared disaster areas; the manufacturing and forestry sectors have suffered a number of crippling blows; Jean Charest's government was reduced to minority status in the province's National Assembly; and the Parti Qubcois is now on its third leader in as many years. But none of those issues has lingered quite like the public consternation over accommodations.

The roots of the most recent debate into religion practices can be traced back to a November 2006 interview in which the Action dmocratique du Qubec leader said minorities were increasingly “abusing the Charter and that the situation had become ridiculous. In the same interview, Dumont uttered a fateful phrase that would soon become the rallying cry for wary Quebeckers: “This is in no way reasonable”.

Reasonable. From that point on, the word achieved the type of ubiquitous buzz marketers (and political spinsters) only dream of. The phrase reasonable accommodations would eventually cast a long shadow over the March 2007 provincial election, weaving its way into nearly every press conference and public appearance. And the publics worries about the ostensibly increasing space taken up by religious minorities would eventually help propel the ADQ to record-levels of popularity, much of it at the expense of the Parti Qubcois, which lost its status as the prime defenders of the sacrosanct Quebec identity to Dumonts upstarts.

In an attempt to quell the rising tide of frustration, Charest called a commission of inquiry into the provinces standards on the issue of accommodations. He appointed Grard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, two prominent academics, to lead public consultations across the province and produce a report into the governments handling of accommodation requests by religious groups. The open meetings proved spectacularly popular and were even broadcast in prime-time by Radio-Canada.

The attendant media coverage, however, wasnt always flattering. The meetings were routinely derided by Quebecs chattering class as a freakshow for the rhetorical excesses of its participants — so much so that at the conclusion of the hearings, the commission sought to defend the process with a report insisting the more odious outbursts had in fact been rare.

An analysis of interventions during the 22 forums reveals that a strong majority (85%) were moderate or pluralistic in nature, the report said. Potentially offensive remarks that reflected ignorance, stereotypes or prejudices accounted for 12% of interventions, while openly racist or xenophobic remarks were rare in all regions of Qubec (1.8%).

Still, the forums seemed to showcase a growing divide between white francophone Quebeckers and their counterparts from other communities. More often than not, that divide fell along religious lines, with old-stock defenders of Quebecs catholic and secular traditions on one side, and those pleading for a more open and tolerant approach to cultural practices on the other. For Michel Venne, the director of the Institut du nouveau monde, which is organizing one final town-hall discussion on the matter in Montreal next month, the hearings appeared to cement Quebeckers faith in the secular turn of the Quiet Revolution.

I think we can conclude, he says, that Quebeckers, even if they are open to immigration, want newcomers to the province to abstain from calling into question a consensus dating back to the 1960s, a consensus that made religious practice a private affair. They dont want public institutions to get mixed up with religious belief.

Throughout the hearings, public figures of all stripes sought to devise ways to reinforce that apparent consensus through political means. The Parti Qubcois made perhaps the biggest splash with a controversial proposal that would have required new arrivals to the province to prove their proficiency in French in order to be granted citizenship and therefore be eligible to run in an election. But according to Venne, those who viewed the fuss over reasonable accommodations as an opportunity to lord the dominance of old-stock Quebeckers over immigrants may have missed a crucial part of the debate: the hearings also provided those same immigrants a rare opportunity to have their voices heard. And what they had to say should perhaps have sparked a different set of concerns.

The hearings allowed a large number of immigrants to speak up,” Venne says, “to introduce themselves and show they have a desire to integrate. What surprised me was that most of the immigrants first spoke of their love for Quebec, about how they chose to live here. But some also expressed a worry that things were changing, that the legendary openness of Quebeckers was disappearing. I think they were sounding an alarm bell.

The commissions final report isnt due until March, and neither Bouchard nor Taylor have provided concrete hints as to what recommendations it might contain. But theres little chance it will extinguish the resentment on either side of the debate. For that to happen, Mark Lilla, a humanities professor at Columbia University, thinks religious and secular citizens of Western democracies will just have to get used to living with each other.

We need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low, he wrote in a recent essay for the New York Times Magazine. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected. […] The best should not be the enemy of the good.