TORONTO STAR EDITORIAL – Messages for us in Quebec report
May 24, 2008 04:30 AM
It would be easy for Canadians outside Quebec to feel smug after witnessing the spasms of intolerance that have gripped that province in the debate over “reasonable accommodation.” After all, nowhere else has a town council felt it necessary to propose a code of conduct that forbids the stoning of women, as Hérouxville notoriously did.
But the result of these uncomfortable deliberations – a moderate and thoughtful report this week by academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor – warrants our attention. For while the report reflects the minority position of Quebec’s francophone population within Canada, it also contains some valuable messages for the rest of the country.
One of the report’s major themes can be summed up by an overused self-help mantra: don’t sweat the small stuff. The authors shine a bright light on some of the controversies that whipped up public anger over “reasonable accommodation” and conclude that there were “significant distortions between facts and perceptions.”
The Muslims who reportedly demanded a sugar shack make pea soup without ham and clear a dancehall so they could say their prayers? The group had arranged the modified menu a week in advance, and it was served only to its members. Prayers were conducted in the dance hall at the invitation of the owners, who wanted to free up the dining room for other patrons.
Without this and other media-fuelled tempests in teapots, the “accommodation crisis” likely would not have happened, the authors argue. This is a welcome reminder to all Canadians not to jump to conclusions or get worked up about the minor frictions that are inevitable when different cultures live together.
On the substantive side, the report emphasizes that our duties to newcomers do not stop when we let them in the door. Bouchard and Taylor recommend more government funding for settlement programs, more language services, and better recognition of international degrees and credentials to help immigrants integrate more quickly. These ideas are as applicable to Toronto as to Montreal.
Bouchard and Taylor also advocate a concept they call “open secularism” – essentially the separation of church and state. It is a sound idea in principle, but can be tricky to put into practice, as the ongoing debate over the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the Ontario Legislature highlights.
Here the report fights with itself, however. To underscore the separation of church and state, the report recommends the removal of the crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly and a ban on the wearing of religious headgear such as turbans and yarmulkes by certain public officials. Don’t the report’s recommendations regarding these relatively trivial concerns violate the authors’ first imperative, which is to focus on the bigger picture?
Bouchard and Taylor don’t have all the answers. But they have provided some good ideas for further discussion. As immigrants continue to arrive at Canada’s doors, it is a debate in which we all need to engage.
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