Common differences

  • May 22, 2008

{mosimage}The release of the Bouchard-Taylor report May 22 on reasonable accommodation of religious and ethnic differences in Quebec offered a useful corrective to some of the alarmism creeping into public debate on this issue. As one of the first official and systematic examinations of how Canadians integrate newcomers into our midst, it holds valuable lessons for all of us.

The report was leaked a couple of days early, unleashing a torrent of criticism upon its authors for, apparently, failing to confirm all those fears of immigrants mooted about in Quebec over the last couple of years. Instead of legitimizing worries about newcomers “imposing” their religions and customs on society, the authors called on the majority francophone population to be more open to immigrants, learn more English and accept that expressions of religious difference rarely pose threats to those of other faiths.

Premier Jean Charest had launched the commission early in 2007 after rising criticism of immigrants. The authors — sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor — had the task of examining the concerns that Quebeckers have about immigrants, assessing how real they were, and recommending how to reasonably accommodate their differences without harming the cohesiveness of civil society.

The two commissioners tried, in their report, to bring the debate back to Earth. They pointed out that the “demands” of religious minorities for accommodation were actually rare and usually didn’t affect anyone else’s rights. They also touched on a sensitive point in Quebec: The commissioners argued that much of the fear stems from longstanding insecurity among francophone Quebecers about the survival of their language and culture. An old story, dressed up in modern garb. Instead of the English being the threat, it is now immigrants.

The authors challenge this dogma head on. They argue that the vast majority of immigrants are trying desperately to integrate into society. It was also abundantly clear that many of the cultural differences that sparked objections are rooted in religion. Once a province in which Catholicism dominated everything, Quebec now has one of the most secularized societies on Earth; no doubt many there are conflicted about jettisoning their faith so quickly during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. As Bouchard and Taylor observe, if anyone is at fault for the disappearance of traditional Quebec religiosity, it is Quebeckers themselves.

“The right of freedom of religion includes the right to show it,” they write, challenging those who insisted that separation of church and state means no public expressions of faith. “In the end, it is believers themselves, and only them, who are the source of the decline of Catholicism in Quebec.”

No doubt Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec, would agree with that assessment. He made a similar argument in his own brief to the commission.

Though we outside Quebec appear to have integrated newcomers with less public angst, we share many of the same prejudices and sources of conflict. None of us can pretend we have always been as welcoming of our neighbours as we should.

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