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Co-chairman Gerard Bouchard begins the first session of commission hearings into religious and cultural accommodation in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 10, 2007. (FRED CHARTRAND/FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Co-chairman Gerard Bouchard begins the first session of commission hearings into religious and cultural accommodation in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 10, 2007. (FRED CHARTRAND/FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quebec headed toward 'radical option' on religious minorities, sociologist fears Add to ...

One of the great thinkers who helped calm Quebec's reasonable accommodation debate is stirring it up again, saying he fears the province may be headed toward a "radical option" to deal with religious minorities.

Gérard Bouchard, the sociologist who travelled the province with philosopher Charles Taylor to study Quebec's integration of minorities, said the province still lacks coherent rules to govern accommodation.

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He warned that confusion and a leadership vacuum could lead Quebec toward a hardening line against religious freedom for minorities or a free-for-all where institutions twist the rules of secularism. A third scenario he outlined could be an incoherent combination of different rules for Catholic traditions and other faiths.

"The government will have to do something. The public debate has failed to reach a consensus. There is division among the people and in this context the state must intervene. What I am afraid of now is a radical option," Dr. Bouchard said in an interview on Wednesday.

Three years after the two academics released their report, Jean Charest's government has set out few clear, coherent principles and specific guidelines for secularism, integration and accommodation the province.

The government has instead boosted French instruction and produced a law to restrict one aspect of the Muslim religion - the veil - while regularly falling into headline-making cases that raise questions about official government neutrality on religion.

Recent events, from the legislature's unanimous support for banning the Sikh ceremonial dagger from the National Assembly to Saguenay City Hall's persistent campaign in favour of public prayer, show the need for guidelines, Dr. Bouchard said.

Dr. Bouchard was also aghast last year when the province's immigration minister had to intervene in the case of a college student who disrupted class after insisting on wearing an all-covering niqab to an immigrant French course. The minister gave an ultimatum to the woman, who chose to leave rather than remove the veil. Dr. Bouchard said it was ridiculous that school managers were incapable of making the decision on their own.

Even as the provincial government, legislature and several city halls have proclaimed their neutrality, some have also supported limiting veils and kirpans in government institutions while protecting the crucifix and prayer in their own assembly halls.

One of the rejected recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor report was that the National Assembly remove its crucifix, installed during the Duplessis era to demonstrate the link between the church and state. Three years later, city halls in Montreal and Saguenay also have their crosses. They should all come down, Dr. Bouchard said.

"You can't swallow everything in the name of heritage," Dr. Bouchard said. "Personally, I thought with our report we had made some contributions down this road, but apparently I was mistaken."

In an open letter published today that he signed with three fellow academics, Dr. Bouchard argues accelerating rates of immigration demand clarity on government policy. Dr. Bouchard will host a conference on minority integration in late May.

A series of local controversies four years ago pushed Premier Jean Charest to call the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which issued an extensive report that was largely shelved.

"I think we need to talk about this again," Dr. Bouchard said. "A number of things need to be clarified. It has become quite obvious, judging from the state of the public debate in Quebec on these matters, that a number of Quebeckers still feel there is a vacuum."

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