In Quebec’s distinct political culture, debate transcends the usual categories

Joseph Facal, Quelque chose comme un grand peuple. Montreal: Boréal, 2010. 320 pages.

Pierre Joncas, Les accommodements raisonnables: Entre Hérouxville et Outremont. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009. 140 pages.

Reviewed by Henry Milner

These two books – and their authors – underscore two related characteristics that make Quebec distinct. The first is that Quebecers seem better able than Canadians elsewhere to discuss “politically incorrect” subjects – and yet do so in a generally respectful manner. Pierre Joncas’s Les accommodements raisonnables is especially illustrative of this, concretely addressing the question of the degree to which the majority should accommodate groups that settle in urban areas and turn their backs on their neighbours. Joseph Facal’s Quelque chose comme un grand peuple – the title is drawn from an expression used by René Lévesque – even more explicitly, if less concretely, takes on the issue of reasonable accommodation.

Facal illustrates the second of Quebec’s distinct characteristics, namely the existence of political space that transcends the usual partisan divide. While Joncas is a retired federal civil servant who has a reputation for fair-mindedness but has generally avoided the limelight, Facal is a prominent opinion leader and a frequent columnist in Le Journal de Montreal and panelist on Radio-Canada. But the opinions of neither fit neatly into the usual categories. Facal is an important figure in what might be termed Quebec’s third force, a voice that cannot be captured or easily dismissed by one side or the other of the partisan divide.

Like the United States, if not as intensely, Quebec has fairly clear political fault lines. (In Canadian federal politics, the traditional role of the usually powerful Liberal Party was to blur these fault lines. With the Liberal Party floundering, the lines seem to be emerging – except that no one quite knows where they lie). While American politics is polarized between an ideological religious right and a (vaguely) secular moderate left, Quebec, less deeply, has been polarized between a sovereigntist centre-left and a federalist centre-right. But this is a fault line that is transcended regularly and publicly by this third force, an informal group of prominent intellectuals and former politicians and mandarins.

The most visible public face of the third force is former Parti Québécois Premier Lucien Bouchard, who has staked out this territory in recent years. In 2006, in Inroads 18 and 19, we summarized the content of, and published reactions to, the manifesto entitled Pour un Québec lucide (For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec), which gave the group a name that has stuck: the Lucides. The Lucides argued that Quebec’s development is blocked by the groups which have benefited from the policies of the “Quebec model” but are not paying their fair share in the form of efficiency-enhancing changes to public policy, such as shifting taxation from income to consumption and an end to cheap electricity.

Early this year Lucien Bouchard made public a plan for implementing a key proposal in the Lucides’ manifesto: raising Quebec’s low university tuition. Among those joining him in signing the “tuition pact” were former Liberal finance ministers Michel Audet and Monique Jérôme-Forget, economist Pierre Fortin1 and Facal, who had earlier been a cabinet minister under both Bouchard and his successor, Bernard Landry, and is now a policy adviser to current PQ leader Pauline Marois. Facal was also a member of the 2008 government task force on user fees headed by economist Claude Montmarquette, which went even further than the Lucide manifesto, calling for higher fees on daycare, driver’s licences and car registrations as well as tolls for some roads and mandatory water meters in homes and businesses. Though it did call for “measures to protect the least privileged members of society,” the report, which the Charest government immediately placed on the far back burner, portrayed the user-pay concept as the only way to influence users’ behaviour so as to reduce the waste of resources and find funding for quality services.

In his book, Facal returns to some of the Lucide issues, but his primary concern is different, and much of the book puts him at odds with Luicen Bouchard and other erstwhile Lucides. For one thing, Facal could not have appreciated Lucien Bouchard’s public pronouncement that, while he is still a sovereigntist, he does not expect another sovereignty referendum in his lifetime. Bouchard was echoing the words of former PQ finance critic François Legault, who left politics in 2009 saying that sovereignty was going nowhere for now because, as he put it, a cynical population isn’t in the mood for such grandiose adventures and the PQ should concentrate on getting Quebec’s public finances in order.

Too much accomodation?

For his part, Facal does not retreat from his sovereigntist convictions, but his real divergence with Bouchard is on what Facal calls the “multiculturalist ideology.” The main thrust of Bouchard’s remarks was directed at the PQ and nationalist intellectuals for sounding like the populist Action Démocratique du Québec in their attitude toward minorities. His statement amounted to a defence of the interculturalist position set out by his brother Gérard and Charles Taylor in their much discussed if little implemented report on reasonable accommodation.2 If Lucien Bouchard had read his former collaborator’s book – unlikely since Quelque chose comme un grand peuple had been published just a few weeks earlier – he would have found there a coherent critique of the accommodationist perspective of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s report and its advisers.

On reasonable accommodation, let us begin with Joncas. Joncas is critical of Bouchard-Taylor, though he does not adopt Facal’s polemical tone. The historical chapters, while setting the stage for this critique, break little new ground. They do remind us that the tendency in English Canada to unfairly cast Quebec as unwelcoming to newcomers has deep historical roots. What makes Joncas’s little book a valuable contribution to this long-running debate in Quebec – the latest instalment of which concerns a woman expelled from a language class for wearing a niqab – is his account of the disputes setting Hasidic Jews against their neighbours in the Outremont borough of Montreal. Joncas takes sides, but he is always fair-minded; he does not disagree fundamentally with Taylor and Bouchard’s “open secularism” perspective, but he laments the sages’ failure, like that of the judges who apply the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights, to take into account the daily realities of those on the front lines of accommodation. His harshest words are reserved for the local politicians who ignore their own laws and regulations.

He examines two cases involving Hasidic communities in Outremont, the eruv (symbolic enclosure using a thin string allowing the relaxation of some Sabbath restrictions) incident and the sukkah (booth erected outdoors for the fall festival of Sukkot) incident; in both cases he thinks that accommodation was carried too far. He makes a very good case regarding the sukkah incident: the individuals signed a condo agreement excluding building these temporary dwellings on their balconies, yet simply went ahead over their neighbours’ objections and built them. His argument against the eruv, that it privatizes public space, is technically true – but in fact, since it is unobtrusive, and affects only those who strictly observe Jewish law, it is not very powerful.

Justifiably, Joncas’s strongest criticism is of a continuing set of practices which set the Hasidim against their Outremont neighbours – most significantly, large buses double-parking on residential streets to pick up or deliver passengers to and from New York. The reason the practices have never been dealt with is that the local politicians simply ignored them either out of principle or expediency (the Hasidim tend to vote as a bloc).

The wider question Joncas raises is one we like to ignore: relations with communities that are philosophically opposed to integration with the rest of society. In this sense the Hasidim are similar to Old Order Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors – maybe even the Fundamentalist Mormons of Bountiful, B.C. – but with the difference that they tend to settle in urban areas, so that there are many more opportunities for friction with their neighbours. We cannot expect everyone to integrate, but we can place obligations on those who don’t, at least with regard to obeying traffic ordinances. More profoundly, Joncas asks, to what extent can we be expected to accommodate groups that refuse to accommodate the wider society?

This issue came to the fore in March with the case of a woman who was expelled from a government-supported French conversation class for wearing a niqab. While the expulstion was denounced by the Montreal Gazette and dismissed by Charles Taylor as giving in to media hype, Quebecers – to my mind correctly – by and large see it as a necessary response to unreasonable, unreciprocated expectations of accommodation. Indeed, while the two cases are not the same, I suspect that most Muslims and Jews are not comfortable with the small minority of their coreligionists who so plainly turn their backs on their neighbours.

The most recent issue concerns the right of religious Jews and Muslims to bring religion to the highly subsidized daycare centres in their communities. Indeed, the key battleground for these issues is the school: to what extent such groups opt out (and still get the taxpayers to pay), and more broadly, the content of the courses touching on religion and accommodation in the curriculum.

In the Winter/Spring issue of Inroads we highlighted a debate over the new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course, which replaces traditional religious education. The Inroads debate set our frequent contributor Gary Caldwell, who is strongly critical of the ERC course, against philosopher Georges Leroux, one of its designers. Facal comes down on the side of Caldwell. But his emphasis is not on the ERC course’s assumption that the acceptance and understanding of the religious practice of minorities is compatible with the views of parents who believe theirs is the true religion. Rather, Facal – like Le Devoir Paris correspondent Christian Rioux3 – takes what might be called a republican approach to the question of education.

Facal contrasts this approach with the multiculturalist approach underlying the ERC course, which he sees as reflecting what is wrong with current trends in Quebec education: relativism. His response is to return to traditional methods and objectives. It is interesting to note that the author of this articulate defence of the principle of building on the values that make Quebec a distinct society came to Quebec as an immigrant from Uruguay at the age of nine.

Facal is unsparing in his critique of the elites that run the ministry of education, who are prepared to reject years of experience in the name of this new relativist theory of education. The chapter on education presents a scathing denunciation of the wide-ranging educational reform that Quebec primary and secondary education has been undergoing in fits and starts for the last ten years. Unlike the PQ, which is divided over the issue, Facal is unequivocal. Student-centred education plays into the bad tendencies he condemns. If teachers have no goals in terms of content to be learned, but are merely facilitators of the students’ self-development, then education, and the whole society, suffers. Indeed, indications are that the Quebec Minister of Education, Michelle Courchesne, is backing away from the reforms, starting by returning to report cards with numbers on them.

Facal’s scathing attack on multicultural, student-centred education is based on a critical assessment of Quebec education. He is here following in the footsteps of former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau, who two years ago pushed the issue to the fore in an open letter in which he noted that even taking into account such factors as gender, socioeconomic level and learning difficulties, a student in an English high school was twice as likely to graduate as one in a French high school in Montreal.4 After scolding ministry of education bureaucrats, Facal goes further. Quebec has a high dropout rate, ultimately, because Quebec society does not value education enough: “How many Quebec parents supervise their children’s homework, evening after evening?”

Gros bon sens

Apart from educational policies, this book is less trenchant on policy initiatives than the Lucides’ manifesto or the Montmarquette report – or indeed many of Facal’s columns and comments in the media. Facal the polemicist emerges only in pages 60–80, where he reiterates the economic and social realities earlier set out by the Lucides and the various commissions. Turning to wider questions in the last third of the book, Facal is the conveyer of le gros bon sens, starting with some general observations as to why both left and right end up being self-contradictory if they think their ideologies provide answers to how to act today.

He calls for a cohesive mobilization of effort, efficiency, responsibility and foresight to implement the policy measures everyone knows are unavoidable. Ultimately this part of the book is disappointing, since he bypasses an occasion to put the argument, facts and figures together in one document in much more accessible and compelling language than that of government reports. As such Facal leaves himself open to the charge – for example, by Jean-Francois Lisée in his popular blog – that despite having much of value to say on education and culture, he merely repeats (even while insisting that he is not one of them) the arguments of neoliberal critics of the Quebec model, offering nothing to those looking for social and economic innovation.

Facal assumes that there are no shortcuts to solutions, no escapes from economic reality. I suspect he is right; I only wish that he would have taken the opportunity in Quelque chose comme un grand peuple to demonstrate this.


1 See Fortin’s analysis of the Quebec model in “Quebec’s Surprising Economic Performance: The Myth of a Lagging Quebec Doesn’t Stand up to the Facts,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2009, pp. 108–15 and “Quebec Society is Less Unequal: Among Regions of Canada, Quebec is a Leader in the Fight against Poverty and Inequality,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2010, pp. 58–65.

2 See Inroads, Winter/Spring 2008, pp. 43–77.

3 See Christian Rioux and Magali Favre, “This is History?: Quebec’s New High School History Textbooks are Inward-Looking and Devoid of Meaning,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2009, pp. 100–105.

4 See Jacques Parizeau, “The School Mess,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2009, pp. 74–77.