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Bouchard-Taylor and nation-building

by Alan C. Cairns

Some readers may feel that I have interpreted my task too broadly, too generously, and they may be right. I do not focus on the reasonable accommodation of this or that cultural practice or on when accommodation becomes an exercise in casual relativism. Indeed, I have probably ventured well beyond where the Bouchard-Taylor Commission is likely to go. So be it. My position is that lurking behind reasonable accommodation in the commission’s consultation document, Seeking Common Ground, are issues relating to nation-building in Quebec. I do not argue that my approach is all-encompassing, but only that it is one of several lenses through which the Bouchard-Taylor inquiry can be profitably viewed.

Province-building and, in Quebec, nation-building have become standard phrases to describe the activities of provincial governments in, among other things, creating a supportive citizenry identifying with their government and political community. Nation-building is a more demanding task for the Quebec government than province-building is for other provincial governments. Not only has nation more emotional resonance than province, but it is called on for greater tasks, ranging from carving out a larger political and constitutional space within Canada to the independence of Quebec. These nation goals require a degree of grassroots support and political identification with the national community in Quebec that is far beyond what provincial governments outside of Quebec require of their people. It follows that cultural diversity and a lack of identification with the Quebec community and its state are far more serious threats to fundamental Quebec goals than similar realities would be for the more prosaic goals of the nine other provincial governments and their societies.1

It may appear unfair to criticize a preliminary consultation document for what it doesn’t do. Accommodation and Differences: Seeking Common Ground: Quebecers Speak Out is not a final report of the Bouchard-Taylor inquiry. It is, rather, an invitation to Quebecers to address the issue of how the immigrant communities of Quebec and the francophone community are to live together harmoniously. The invitation, however, defines the issue in a particular way, which suggests the likely focus of the subsequent final report. Specifically, it excludes mention of the nation-building and nation-representing task that has been the priority agenda item of successive Quebec governments since the Quiet Revolution. The virtual bypassing of the reality of nation in the consultation document and other assumptions, exclusions and inclusions are what attracted my attention.

This inquiry is part of the introspection occurring throughout the Western world about how increasingly heterogeneous societies fed by immigrant diversity can find the common ground which the Bouchard-Taylor inquiry seeks. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the contemporary challenge to the Western world is to rethink the nature of the state and its citizenry and the relations between them. In a number of cases, including Quebec and Canada outside Quebec, the complexities of the situation are compounded by the emergence of nationalism among some 300 million indigenous peoples scattered around the globe who do not fit comfortably into the state and the political communities in which they find themselves.

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About the Author

Alan Cairns
Alan C. Cairns teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.


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