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Religion is the elephant in the room

by Garth Stevenson

Official public inquiries backed by public hearings and extensive research are a practice of which Canadians, or at least their governments, seem particularly fond. At the federal level the Rowell-Sirois, Gordon, Dunton-Laurendeau and Macdonald royal commissions, the Pépin-Robarts Task Force and the Mulroney government’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples are among the best known examples. In Quebec the Tremblay, Gendron, Bélanger-Campeau and Larose inquiries have been particularly significant, although there have been others.

Formally these various exercises are derivatives of the British practice of a royal commission, still sometimes used in Canada for its traditional purpose of investigating a disaster or a scandal involving the state. In practice they have a different and even more political function, one which in Britain is more typically entrusted to the bureaucracy and in the United States to a committee of Congress: to explore a contentious area of public policy, consult both the public and the “experts,” and arrive at presumably disinterested recommendations for policy which may or may not find their way into the statute book. Yet as the list above indicates, they at times transcend the normal policy process by exploring the most fundamental issues of national identity and national purpose.

The latest example of this Canadian art form is the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. The commission was established by the Quebec government in the wake of some rather trivial incidents involving complaints either by or against religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Hasidic Jews, which led to a debate about what was termed the “reasonable accommodation” of religious differences. At about the same time the obscure village of Hérouxville adopted a semi-serious “code of conduct” for immigrants (of which it has almost none) which warned them against, among other things, burning or beating women in public. (Whatever its intentions, this document won the village a level of renown, or notoriety, that has rarely been achieved by a community of comparable size.) Viewed in a broader context, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission is a product of the Western world’s growing anxiety about exotic religions since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It is unlikely that the commission would exist today if that event had not happened.

The document issued by the commission in mid-August to guide the public consultations scheduled to begin about a month later defines the aims of the exercise as exploring the nature and source of cultural conflicts within Quebec and imagining the means of resolving them. It rejects a narrow focus on the legal concept of “reasonable accommodation” in favour of a broader approach, including four main themes which are defined as values and rights, cultural diversity, Quebec’s existing model of intercultural integration, and secularism. (Explicitly excluded, however, is the enormous question of relations with the First Nations.) In an appendix, the document includes definitions of a number of terms related to its mandate.

Although generally bland and uncontroversial, the document contains some dubious assertions and some careless, and not always well-documented, use of statistical data. For example, on page 5 it states that problems associated with cultural diversity are found in a long list of Western nations and to a lesser extent (my emphasis) in anglophone Canada. On page 10 it implicitly uses the term English origin to include Scottish and Irish, and on the same page it makes the questionable (and, given the current methodology of the census, unverifiable) allegation that only 70 per cent of Quebec’s people are of French ancestry. Also on page 10, it states that persons of origins other than “English” or French are probably about 25 per cent of Quebec’s population, but on page 23 it asserts that “ethnic minorities,” whatever that may mean, account for only 12 per cent of the population. The discrepancy is not explained, and perhaps was not noticed by the editors. Perhaps it would have been better to omit all of these numbers.

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About the Author

Garth Stevenson
Garth Stevenson is Professor of Political Science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to Inroads.


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