Eleven years ago this month, Quebec wise men Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor tabled their report on religious accommodation in Canada’s once “priest-ridden province.”
The two intellectual giants chosen by then-premier Jean Charest to extricate his Liberal government from the quagmire in which it found itself – it had been reduced to a slim minority after an election campaign that largely focused on religious accommodation – went to great lengths to insist that secular Quebec was not experiencing a clash of values. The apparent “crisis” involving the demands of religious minorities for recognition was largely, to use a term now in vogue, fake news. Some media organizations, they concluded, had been making mountains out of molehills, creating a false sense of urgency and collective insecurity.
And yet, Prof. Bouchard and Prof. Taylor went on to lay out in 310 dense pages how Quebec was different from the rest of Canada and North America, and how it was incumbent upon the provincial government to lay down the parameters for secularism. Rejecting the Canadian policy of multiculturalism as “poorly adapted to Quebec’s reality,” their report called for legislation establishing “interculturalism” as the model for managing diversity in the province.
”It is in the interests of any community to maintain a minimum of cohesion," the Bouchard-Taylor report concluded. “For a small nation like Quebec, always preoccupied with its future as a cultural minority, integration represents a condition of its development, indeed its survival.”
The report presented its ideas for how to help an insecure minority – in this case, French-speaking Quebeckers – feel more secure. After spending decades seeking to eliminate the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church in public institutions, they sympathized with the desire of Quebeckers to prevent other religions from taking its place.
It was hence that Prof. Bouchard and Prof. Taylor recommended that state employees exercising “coercive powers” – such as police officers, prison guards, Crown prosecutors and judges – be prohibited from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. It was not a recommendation they made lightly; their report makes clear that such a prohibition would deprive some religious minorities of the ability to exercise certain state functions. But they concluded that it nevertheless constituted the “right balance for Quebec society today.”
It was obvious then that, in implementing such a ban, Quebec would put itself on a collision course with the rest of Canada. Indeed, by 2008, it had already been 18 years since the RCMP first began allowing Sikh officers to wear turbans as part of their official uniform. Whether they intended it to or not, their recommendation soon took on a life of its own, as proponents of Quebec secularism seized on the imprimatur of Bouchard-Taylor to legitimize their cause.
Appearing last week before the National Assembly commission studying Bill 21, Prof. Taylor, now 85, pleaded that he had been “naive” about the monster he helped create in tabling this recommendation. "Just promoting this kind of program starts to provoke incidents of hate,” he insisted, explaining why he no longer supports a recommendation he previously defended.
In Saturday’s Journal de Montréal, Quebec’s most-read newspaper, three columns were devoted to discrediting the McGill University philosopher. One compared him to the washed-up drunk Calvero in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. “There is only one word to qualify this 180-degree turn – pathetic,” former Parti Québécois minister Joseph Facal wrote.
It might be going too far to say Prof. Taylor had been set up by Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who has meticulously stage-managed the parliamentary hearings on Bill 21, which end on Thursday. But the distinguished professor did not do himself any favours by effectively likening supporters of the bill that would implement the principal recommendation from his report (while adding teachers into the mix of state employees prohibited from wearing religious symbols) to hatemongers. He played into caricatures of himself.
That’s exactly how Mr. Jolin-Barrette wanted the hearings to unfold. “In the course of the past 15 years, previous governments have not succeeded in translating and implementing the will of the Quebec people to establish a secular framework for the state,” the minister said. “Quebeckers can be proud of this bill because it allows us to turn the page on this issue.”
By giving so much airtime to those who hold extreme opinions – former Liberal senator Céline Hervieux-Payette warned that “behind” the Islamic veil lay genital mutilation and forced marriages, while several intervenors called on the government to extend the religious-symbols ban to all state employees – the hearings aimed to ensure that the Coalition Avenir Québec’s Bill 21 came out looking like a reasonable compromise.
For Mr. Jolin-Barrette and his boss, Premier François Legault, it was mission accomplished.