5.24.2008

bouchard-taylor commission tells quebec to grow up

I like this column by Jeffrey Simpson about the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report. I was appalled by the hearings while they were happening; Simpson helps me see a positive side.
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.

9 comments:

M. said...

Thank secularlism for WMTC - I'm in India and had no idea the report was out.

I do have to disagree with you on one thing, however. I do feel that multiculturalism is a flawed framework, just not for the same reasons as most of the commenters on that CBC article. Respectfully, I think there's a bit of a tendency for equality-minded Americans, when they first come to Canada, to be a little starry-eyed about multiculturalism. Its anti-racist soul, I think, is sound, but in practice the attitude also tends towards ghettoization and isolation. Multiculturalism is about "tolerance" in the most problematic sense of the word, and allows Canadians to slap themselves on the back for being so fair-minded as to allow all those minorities to keep eating their food and wearing their clothes.

And I think that attitude also permits the end of this belevolent patience and fair-mindedness when people begin to feel threatened, eg. now.

The search for a new framework, I think, is entirely necessary - I just want one that recognizes the inherent rights of all people who step onto Canadian soil, recognizing that those rights come from their humanity and not from the 'tolerance' of established Canadians, not one that tells those uppity brown people to suck it up.

Sorry this is so long.

L-girl said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, M, and no need to apologize.

I didn't read the comments on that story, so I'm not sure what you're responding to. Something other than what's on this blog, I think? (Not sure.)

I haven't seen (in English Canada) that multiculturalism is about the majority tolerating the minority as long as it suits them, which is what I think you're saying. Of course some people see it that way, but that will always be the case. No theoretical framework will change that.

I come from a place (NYC) that is also multicultural. I've lived it day-to-day for a couple of decades, so I'm not overly starry-eyed about it.

I just want one that recognizes the inherent rights of all people who step onto Canadian soil, recognizing that those rights come from their humanity and not from the 'tolerance' of established Canadians, not one that tells those uppity brown people to suck it up.

I absolutely agree. But I'm not sure what kind of framework can promote this any better than what Canada does now. What are your ideas?

Thanks for your thoughts.

L-girl said...

Maybe you were responding to this?

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.

This specifically refers to Quebec, because it's a minority culture within Canada.

I'm not necessarily in favour of this. But from reading and hearing what Quebeckers have to say, I've come to accept that this may be what their culture needs to survive. I don't fully understand it, but at least I understand that I don't understand it, if you know what I mean.

Nigel Patel said...

I remember the last referendum (mid nineties) and at the No vote the Premiere at the time blaming the First Nations population and recent immigrants for prefering English over French.
I doubt it's even a question Separation could even answer, I think the language just isn't winning the battle of cultural assimilation.
I like The Quebecois being a People but not everyone who lives there is going to choose join the club.

(this is part of why I want to increase my Spanish litteracy)

L-girl said...

Now all new immigrants to Quebec have to apply directly to Quebec and they must speak French.

Of course that doesn't apply to refugees, and anyone who is already living legally elsewhere in Canada can move to Quebec without a language requirement.

M. said...

Hi again,

To be honest, I partially misread you - I thought I detected a defense, in the passage you've helpfully quoted in your comment, of 70's-style Trudeau multiculturalism. I guess I wanted to respond to the debate more generally.

It's hard to offer another framework that doesn't feel like petty semantics, although I know better. So far, the best I've heard is "pluralism" - addresses the inherent, uncountable, uncategorizable variety in the way people identify and live, and hopefully makes room for the vast majority of us who live somewhere on the spectrum between the labels of "Canadian" and "not."

Mostly though, I have no idea how to address this whole issue except for everyone to do what we're (usually) good at - keeping our heads.

L-girl said...

Thanks for your further thoughts.

And also, I'm way flattered that you're reading this blog while you're in India. I also check in on your travels from time to time.

Lone Primate said...

Assimilation has always been kind of the bug-a-boo in this country. In the wider context, assimilation with the United States. Specific to Quebec, waking up one morning speaking English and enjoying sub-standard wines. I'm glad they had the courage to report the numbers. Quebec will never be assimilated, and 33 million quasi-francophones (virtual though they may be) keep the products packaged in French, our presence on the world stage in French... conquering us by letting us win in 1759 was the best thing that ever happened to them. :)

L-girl said...

Assimilation has always been kind of the bug-a-boo in this country.

LP, more and more, I see what you mean.

I'm glad they had the courage to report the numbers.

But what did you mean here?