When two highly regarded Quebec intellectuals, Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, released their long-awaited report in late May on "reasonable accommodation" of the province's ethnic and religious minorities, it was hard to imagine that all this fuss began with a dropped kirpan.
Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a 12-year-old Sikh boy was playing in his French school's playground when his kirpan (a small ceremonial sword that symbolizes protection from oppression) fell out of its cloth sheath. The knife is viewed by Sikhs as a religious object.
Some Francophone parents complained about the knife. The boy's family argued the kirpan was an essential part of Sikh faith. Angry school board meetings, hyperactive news stories, suspensions, reinstatements and court cases ensued until March 2006 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the kirpan should be allowed in school, as long as it is adequately covered and hidden under clothes.
The kirpan case in part set off a series of reactions ranging from outright xenophobia to uncertainty about the nature of a secular, multicultural Quebec, a mood which one Montreal editorial writer described as "self-doubt fueled by a jealousy of others' self-belief." (About 70 percent of Quebec is French Canadian and fewer than 2 percent Muslim.)
In one of the most hyped incidents, the town of Hérouxville in January this year passed several anti-Islamic resolutions declaring among other things that face coverings should only be worn during Halloween, and it banned stoning.
In this politically charged atmosphere, the 300-page Bouchard-Taylor report (even the executive summary quoted here is 99 pages) provides a large dose of common sense, moderation and civility. (Taylor is well known for his writings on multiculturalism, namely his essay Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition" [Princeton University Press, 1992]).
The report makes 37 "moderate" proposals to the Quebec government aimed at preserving secularism while fostering harmony and what it calls "interculturalism." At a press conference after the report was released, Taylor noted that Quebec interculturalism is similar to but different from Canadian muliticulturalism.
"They're really very close policies," Taylor told reporters. "But here, we're a société d'acceuil, a society that's receiving, a society which itself is under pressure, which has to take certain measures to maintain a certain historical line on the [French] language, and so on. ...
"The reason why people use the prefix 'inter-' as against 'multi-' is that they want to accentuate the exchanges between different cultural groups ... [using] the French language, within which we all exchange."
Among other things, the report recommends judges, officers and other officials be banned from wearing religious symbols and for town councils to cease prayers at public meetings. The report stirred controversy when it added:
"Under the principle of the neutrality of the State, religious displays linked to the functioning of public institutions should be abandoned. Thus, we do not believe that the crucifix in the National Assembly and the prayers that precede municipal council meetings have their place in a secular state."
Quebec Premier Jean Charest quickly rejected the report's recommendation of removing the crucifix from the National Assembly. "We cannot erase our history," Charest told reporters. The legislature quickly voted to keep the crucifix.
But the largely middle-of-the-road report adds, "we have come to the conclusion that the foundations of collective life in Quebec are not in a critical situation. If we can speak of an 'accommodation crisis,' it is essentially from the standpoint of perceptions." Included in those perceptions is media coverage of the "crises." In many cases the commissioners found great disparities between the reality of the case and public perception.
Regarding the kirpan controversy, the report noted such cases are better handled without going through the courts, noting that the Supreme Court decision reiterated an earlier agreement worked out between the school and the boy's parents.
The report concluded on a note of optimism: "All citizens and social stakeholders are concerned by the choices that Quebec must make. Our objective is clear. Our deliberations and reflections have firmly convinced us that integration through pluralism, equality and reciprocity is by far the most commendable, reasonable course.
"Like all democracies in the world, Quebec must seek to reach a consensus against a backdrop of growing diversity, renew the social bond, accommodate difference by combating discrimination and promote an identity, a culture and a memory without creating either exclusion or division." — D.C.