A decade ago this month, then-Quebec premier Jean Charest called on two prominent academics to help him solve the collective identity crisis then threatening to rip his province apart. Punting the problem of how to reconcile Quebec's secularist values with the rights of the province's growing Muslim minority to Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard seemed like the politically expedient thing to do with a provincial election looming and no easy solution in sight.
Mr. Charest's first reaction to the tabling of the Bouchard-Taylor report a year later was to reject outright its call for the crucifix to be moved from Quebec's National Assembly to a museum of parliamentary history. His decision was entrenched in a motion adopted that very day in the legislature. It was the first sign that the Bouchard-Taylor report would create more problems than it solved in a society dominated by cafeteria secularists still attached to their Catholic past.
Now, even Prof. Taylor agrees. Conceding that he never really believed in his report's principal recommendation – that individuals invested with the "coercive" powers of the state be prohibited from wearing religious symbols – the esteemed philosopher said this week that the events of the past decade have convinced him that Quebec should abandon the idea of legislating in this area altogether. Any such law would probably be unconstitutional anyway. More important, the stigmatization of the province's Muslim minority in the debates that followed his report, and the subsequent Parti Québécois government's attempt to adopt a charter of Quebec values that would have extended the ban on religious symbols to all state employees, gave licence to a xenophobic minority of Quebeckers to act on their discriminatory views, Prof. Taylor said.
The 85-year-old philosopher concluded that the recent attack on a Quebec City mosque that left six worshippers dead prompted a rare expression of solidarity that must not be squandered by reopening divisive debates over Muslim headgear. It's time for Quebec to move on – and heal.
Unfortunately, Prof. Taylor's words of wisdom will be all but ignored, in part because the co-author of the Bouchard-Taylor report profoundly disagrees with them. For Prof. Bouchard, a sociologist and the brother of former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard, it is precisely the failure of politicians to act on his report's recommendations that led to an increase in hate crimes and discriminatory attitudes toward Muslims. For him, it's "urgent" to legislate the rules of religious accommodation now to prevent this debate from boiling over again in the future.
Prof. Bouchard's point of view reflects one of his report's fundamental observations. Though a majority in their home province, francophone Quebeckers with Catholic roots still consider themselves a threatened minority and expect newcomers to understand this. "What's just happened in Quebec," the 2008 report noted, "gives the impression of a face-to-face between two minorities, each asking the other to accommodate it… We can conclude that Québécois of French-Canadian ascendance are still not very comfortable with the cumulation of their two statuses – majority in Quebec, minority in Canada and North America."
A decade later, not much has changed. The current Liberal government of Premier Philippe Couillard, which depends on the overwhelming support of the province's anglophone and immigrant populations to win elections, once again finds itself awkwardly trying to prevent an unresolved identity crisis from again becoming a political one. It has proposed legislation establishing the parameters of the state's religious neutrality that would ban face coverings among those who dispense or receive government services.
The opposition PQ and Coalition Avenir Québec naturally think the Liberal legislation is too timid and, barely a week after the Quebec City shooting, said they would only support it if it also included Bouchard-Taylor's proposal to ban police officers, judges and prison guards from wearing religious symbols. Coalition Avenur Québec Leader François Legault called the idea a "compromise."
Indeed, the opposition is attempting to exploit divisions within the Liberal caucus itself. Liberal MNA's from outside the Montreal area are worried that a failure to address the debate over religious accommodation could lead to their defeat in the 2018 election, just as it did in 2007. Hence, Mr. Couillard's government reportedly considered adopting Bouchard-Taylor's recommendations after the Jan. 29 mosque shooting. But the Premier ultimately could not stomach the idea. Prof. Taylor's volte-face vindicates Mr. Couillard. But it is a small consolation for the Premier. A decade after Bouchard-Taylor, Quebec is still no closer to reconciling its religious past and present.