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Francophone Quebeckers are currently insecure and anguished about their identity, which is fuelling a backlash against minorities, says one of the two scholars who will chair hearings on the issue this fall.

"It's as if Quebeckers of French-Canadian origin are feeling that their culture is going through a slump while the culture of others [is alive]" sociologist Gérard Bouchard said. "There is what you could call a very serious identity problem among Quebeckers of French-Canadian origin."

Prof. Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor are co-chairing a public inquiry into accommodation for religious minorities.

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Speaking to the news media yesterday as they unveiled their calendar of activities, the two said they want to hear from regular people on the issue, which has roiled Quebec in recent months.

"We've got to get it out ... the less you talk about it, the more the tensions," Prof. Taylor said.

While integrating newcomers is a challenge for all Western societies, the two men noted Quebec's unusual dynamic, where the francophone majority is at the same time an insecure minority in Canada.

Confronted by the cultures of immigrants, "they fear that it will erode and drain out the French-Canadian culture," Prof. Bouchard said.

The two men attended a series of focus groups to gauge public attitude about religious accommodation.

They were taken aback by the intense insecurity they witnessed.

Prof. Bouchard noted that francophones, who make up 72 per cent of the population, were fearful of Muslims, who make up 1.4 per cent.

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"It's totally out of proportion," he said.

In the past year, there has been a backlash against religious minorities in Quebec, epitomized by Hérouxville, a village with no Muslim residents that felt compelled to issue a code of conduct banning purported immigrant practices, such as stoning women.

Action démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont used the issue to propel his party into Official Opposition status in this year's provincial election.

Yesterday, Prof. Bouchard disagreed with Mr. Dumont's recent statement that the province would have trouble taking in more immigrants.

Prof. Bouchard said he knew of no society that has the kind of indicators to address that issue accurately.

"Unless we're talking about extreme cases," he said. "But Quebec isn't there."

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The two men urged interested Quebeckers to submit briefs and express opinions so the matter isn't restricted to elite thinkers.

"There's a lot of things that are unspoken. There's a lot of malaise that hasn't been expressed yet," Prof. Taylor said.

Open debate will help marginalize extremist views, he said.

The inquiry will tour Quebec during the fall, holding hearings and discussion forums. People can submit briefs in person or electronically.

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