Quebec is an existential kind of place; always has been, always will be.
Issues get debated there differently than elsewhere in Canada – not better or worse, necessarily, just differently. "Who are we?" lies at the heart of a great deal of Quebec public discourse. Who are we here, in Quebec? Who are we in Canada? Who are we in the French-speaking world? And who, by the way, are "we"?
Are "we" everyone who lives in Quebec? Everyone who speaks French in Quebec, regardless of ethnicity or mother language? Everyone whose ancestors were French-speaking?
These sorts of debates swirl (much less among younger francophones than older ones) within a society that speaks a minority language in North America, and therefore can sometimes be prone to seeing slippery slopes, erosion, threats, lack of respect, slights, dangers; actual, past, possible or imaginary.
Into such a society have arrived immigrants, who dress and act differently from the majority. Overwhelmingly, the arrivals and the existing population co-exist harmoniously. They have established, in other words, "reasonable accommodation."
Not perfect, but reasonable. And that state of affairs is a triumph, at least relative to the struggles and nastiness in so many other places. (For confirmation, check what's been happening recently in South Africa, Sudan, Italy, Kenya.)
There were, however, a handful of incidents of intercultural conflict that got a raging debate going over Quebec's identity – the "we" questions. That debate led Premier Jean Charest's government to appoint the Bouchard-Taylor commission into how to deal with diversity.
It was a very, shall we say, French or Cartesian gesture, beyond the sheer politics of appointing the commission, since in the existential world of Quebec, digging down to first principles and then debating them is the preferred course of action, as opposed to the case-by-case incrementalism of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
What led up to the commission's creation was bizarre: a series of little insignificant incidents, blown out of proportion by elements of the media.
Most startling were municipal councillors in a backwater village called Hérouxville who passed resolutions warning Muslims not to try anything funny, such as stoning women. The fact that no Muslims had ever settled in Hérouxville, or would dream of settling there, and that no Muslim had ever been stoned in Canada, ought to have made Hérouxville a laughing stock – except that other little towns without immigrants, or prospects of ever having any, got inspired by Hérouxville's defiance in the face of phantom foes and passed resolutions of their own.
Once begun, the commission's hearings produced the "open microphone" syndrome, whereby half the crackpots, ideologues and nut cases in Quebec appeared. Their "testimony" made great media fodder and deformed the essential reasonableness of the majority of Quebeckers. Prof. Gérard Bouchard (an eminent sociologist) and Prof. Charles Taylor (one of the world's greatest philosophers) produced a report of sustained analytical common sense, the essence of which suggested that everyone calm down. What happened was a clash of perceptions, they found, fuelled by the two villains of the piece: elements in the media, whose coverage of most of these incidents the commission shows to have been false, biased and inflammatory; and politicians trolling for votes in the dark waters of fear and prejudice. (Step up and be noted: Mario Dumont of the Action Démocratique du Québec, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's friend, and of course the braying nationalists of the Parti Québécois.)
Get over the fear of learning English, the commissioners say. Learning it won't cause French to disappear or slip toward oblivion. Don't be silly and set up a separate school for only blacks youths (are you listening Toronto school authorities?) since that mocks the idea of a public school system.
The share of Quebeckers who speak French at home hovers around 80 to 81 per cent, where it's been for a very long time. So much for the slippery slope toward assimilation.
Fear, in other words, can lead to intolerance, and there is no reason for French-speaking Quebeckers to fear their disappearance, the arrival of "others" or to be ashamed of their own record of "intercultural" relations. By and large, that record has been a commendable one. They should be vigilant about their language – how it is spoken, the laws that govern its use, its role in Quebec. The government has a proper role in being supportive of French.
To say the Bouchard-Taylor commission was much ado about nothing is true in the sense that the incidents that gave rise to the commission's creation were exaggerated to the point of deformation by journalistic sensationalism and political opportunism, but false in the sense that Quebeckers did talk these tricky matters through, and by the prism of this report, and its generally positive reaction, may have slain certain demons.
One of Prof. Taylor's most magnificent books is entitled Sources of The Self. The commission he co-chaired led Quebeckers to reflect on the sources of themselves. The result was educative and salutary.
To some extent the Commission's findings tell Quebec to grow up. I appreciate that.
At the same time, the findings also say that multiculturalism needs to be re-imagined, or at least tweaked, in order for Quebeckers to maintain their distinct culture. I don't like the idea of a majority culture to which minorities must acquiesce, and I wouldn't advocate for it. But on some level I can appreciate the need for it.