Gérard Bouchard,
L’Interculturalisme: Un point de vie québécois.
Montreal: Boréal, 2012.
286 pages.

According to Quebec historian-sociologist Gérard Bouchard, interculturalism and multiculturalism are fundamentally different. Multiculturalism ascribes equal merit to all cultures and value systems, and denies special status regardless of size or seniority. Interculturalism acknowledges that, while all cultures are entitled to consideration and respect, size and seniority must be taken into account.

In L’Interculturalisme: Un point de vie québécois, Bouchard argues that interculturalism fosters concord specifically in those Western liberal nations which, since the middle of the 20th century, have experienced large-scale immigration from countries rooted in non-Western religious and other beliefs. Under interculturalism, according to Bouchard, cultures interact to their mutual enrichment and give birth to a transcending common culture. By mere force of numbers, the majority contributes most to shaping the new, common culture. Interaction, he says, doesn’t suppress minority cultures; rather, it promotes common ground where disagreements can be smoothed and contentious issues resolved.

In Quebec, which is Bouchard’s main concern, the common culture

is formed of two great components. The first includes prescriptive elements, primarily French as the civic and public language, and values and standards which, being written into the charter and laws, bind all citizens … The second is made of standards and models corresponding to widely shared, but non-codified, values (solidarity, personal autonomy, mutual respect, a sense of the common weal, respect for the past, public-spiritedness, etc.).

Through the common culture, he claims, interculturalism integrates minorities; it doesn’t assimilate them. Bouchard argues that it is false

to assert that interculturalism creates a majority-minority relationship … It neither creates nor fosters such a relationship, but must take it into account, owing to the simple fact that it weighs heavily on life between cultures, and structures a great deal of thinking about Quebec diversity.

Further, interculturalism “seeks to negotiate the majority-minority relationship so it won’t evolve into an us/them cleavage and lead to tensions liable to give rise to discrimination and exclusion.”

I’m not persuaded.

Bouchard argues that, in troubled times (he cites the 2005–08 “accommodations crisis”), intellectuals, administrators and elected officials ought to mistrust and stand fast against popular moods propelled by groundless and unacceptable considerations. Some would dispute that, but I emphatically don’t. Critical thinking ought never to be swayed, and before any conclusion is reached about popular moods, their causes should be meticulously examined.

Unfortunately, in this instance, Bouchard hasn’t carried out such an examination himself. He suggests that popular moods might express some kind of wisdom, and in this connection it bears recalling that the accommodations crisis arose largely because elected authorities and the courts yielded to minority demands for exemptions from the requirements of laws and bylaws, all in the name of freedom of religion. Bouchard doesn’t recognize that, too often, the demands were based on questionable grounds and, as a result, concessions in the name of “reasonable accommodation” to self-excluding minorities – not minorities discriminated against or cast out by the majority – led to widespread indignation and resentment, some of it quite justified.

Bouchard rejects the notion that the rule of law, based on rationality, is sufficient to ensure peace and order; the belief that it might be, he contends, springs from a disembodied, unrealistic idea of the nature of life in society. Admittedly, of and by itself, the rule of law can’t accomplish this purpose; still, general reverence for it is necessary, as are clear thinking and unrelenting determination to craft laws, bylaws, etc., guided by the principles of natural justice.

Owing to ever-evolving circumstances and the frailties of human nature, just and wise legislation cannot be enacted once and for all; of necessity, it will always be a work in progress. As well, good faith, good will and good judgement on the part of all concerned are necessary to make imperfections more bearable while the pursuit of more perfect justice helps make social peace a reality. Unfortunately, the limits Bouchard sets for bending laws and bylaws to accommodate minorities faithful to the commands and customs of their particular religion are dangerously vague and elastic; worse, they often bow to obscurantism. The scope that his model of interculturalism would grant to freedom of religion loads it with limitless perils.

Bouchard’s interculturalism attaches equal importance to culturally defined identity (religion being an important component) on the one hand, and to individual rights and the obligations of citizenship on the other. It “endeavours to harmonize law and the recognition of identity, reason and emotion. As required by the fabric and evolution of society, it therefore calls for mediation, interpretation, bridges and syntheses.” No mention, though, of how this could resolve irreconcilable conflicts other than through some marshmallowy, magical, “ad hoc room for manoeuvre” granted to appointed intermediaries, such as the intercultural harmonization or mediation agency recommended by the commission Bouchard chaired along with Charles Taylor. Should intermediaries fail, it’s back to the courts, and there it will end.

Interculturalism, Bouchard claims, “seeks to destroy the cultural roots of discrimination and dispel groundless fears … conducive to rejection or withdrawal.” A praiseworthy end, but he is long on generalities and short on specifics. Nor does he acknowledge that fears are not necessarily groundless, or that some behaviour is morally objectionable or offensive because of clashing customs. In the case of clashing customs, mediation, interpretation and communication can sometimes help, although not always. But where behaviour raises genuinely moral issues, is it always possible to resolve such issues without “rejection or withdrawal”?

As suggested earlier, the enormous scope Bouchard’s model awards to freedom of religion is its most serious flaw. The professor holds that secularity (laïcité) cannot be dealt with independently of interculturalism:

Religious diversity stands out as a chief feature of ethnocultural diversity. It brings together a mix of worldviews, beliefs, values, ideals, allegiances and more or less institutionalized traditions. Accordingly, interculturalism and secularity can, indeed must, be examined together and from the same premises.

Bouchard may see it as inescapable, but the logical connection here escapes me. As often as not, individuals belonging to the same ethnocultural group profess different religious faiths; likewise, individuals belonging to different groups frequently profess a common religious faith. In most Western nations, Christians of various denominations, along with Jews of different traditions, have long lived side by side. What has enabled them to do so in relative peace, in more recent times anyway, is the effective, if not always official, separation of church and state, or, to borrow Bouchard’s apt phrase, “the reciprocal autonomy of the state and institutionalized systems of beliefs.”

In the last half-century or so, Western Christians and Jews have been joined by large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others. To award a broadly, yet vaguely, defined privileged position to “freedom of religion” in culturally plural societies and, worse, to yield almost systematically to frivolous demands of some groups, especially fundamentalists, is a surefire formula for social unrest. To paraphrase Supreme Court Judge Ian Binnie’s metaphor, there is a vast difference between using freedom of religion as a shield against interference with religious freedoms by the state and using it as a sword against perfectly reasonable laws and bylaws.1

Religious leaders, especially fundamentalists, all too often claim that they alone understand sacred questions and enjoy exclusive insight into divine matters; to boot, they are often able to demand blind obedience from indoctrinated or trusting followers, or members fearing ostracism and shunning. Such a flock puts religious leaders in a powerful position to browbeat civil authorities, overtly or behind the scenes, into enacting legislation or regulations favourable to their interests. In societies where one religion is dominant, this opens the door to the tyranny of obscurantism; where there are many religions, all of whose leaders compete for influence, it is a formula for conflict.

The Mosaic Law enjoins Jews and Christians not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Accordingly, it is an infringement of this commandment, not to mention sheer nonsense, for religious leaders of these faiths (of whatever denomination or tradition) to invoke divine authority to elevate customs into sacred obligations, and to enforce compliance on pain of punishment for eternity, or ostracism and shunning in the here and now.

For civil authorities to interpret religious freedom so broadly as to allow sectarian leaders to impose particular customs and – even more – their morality on highly impressionable children and on adults under social pressures too heavy to resist is to annihilate the capacity for critical thinking indispensable to the unfettered exercise of freedom of conscience. It bears keeping in mind that, at times, freedom of conscience can be extremely demanding and, accordingly, its exercise can be painful. A crucial lesson of World War II – an eternal truth alas often ignored today – is that freedom of conscience is personal, not collective, and it can require a person to disobey orders from religious just as much as civil leaders, and to defy social pressures as well. Democratic governments must be vigilant to ensure that religious leaders don’t abuse their positions of power, especially in the field of education. Truly free choice in religious matters can only be exercised once freedom of conscience has been fully achieved and secured – an issue Bouchard sidesteps completely.

With its 245 pages of text, including 317 footnotes (almost all references to the writings of others and to his own), 28 pages of bibliographical references and an eight-page index, L’Interculturalisme offers itself as a scholarly work. I’m persuaded that, if he read his sources at all, the author perused many in considerable haste. For example, on page 210 he writes, “Several Québécois plead in favour of prohibiting all religious signs in public and parapublic institutions, a measure I consider excessive,” and then he cites me, among others, in footnote 13. I never pleaded for such a blanket prohibition – indeed I explicitly expressed broad, although not complete, agreement with the recommendations on the subject put forward by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.2 I don’t suggest that his charge of intransigence was malicious, but rather that it’s evidence of sloppy scholarship.

Finally, L’Interculturalisme is a turgid tome. Its style is cumbersome and there is much tedious repetition; when the writing is clear, readers get the message on first reading. After a while, I felt an overwhelming temptation to put it aside, and had I not promised to review it, I’d not have had the patience to finish it.

Continue reading “The perils of Gérard Bouchard’s interculturalism”

If you understand it, it’s not God.
Augustine of Hippo, quoted by Bob Chodos, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2010

On what bases can one affirm the existence or nonexistence of some Supreme Being whose nature is beyond grasp? Whose, or what’s, existence is being asserted, or denied? Isn’t the affirmation, or denial, of an undefined being meaningless? Can either affirmation or denial of such a god’s existence be made with assurance? What would it signify? To recognize one’s inability to know is to acknowledge one’s agnosticism: aware of it or not, both theists, who believe there is a god of unspecified nature, and atheists, who believe there is none of any nature, are agnostics.

With few exceptions, however, believers profess more than plain theism. Some claim to have experienced conclusive divine revelation: the nature of their god is specified, if only partially, so their assertion isn’t meaningless. The faith of the masses, who follow without privilege of personal godly disclosure, springs from confidence in the witness of others; after the disappearance of the illuminati, it is based on trust placed in the testimony of their successors – or arises out of fear of retribution from authorities whom it would be foolhardy to challenge; compliance to rules of which the said god is allegedly the author is similarly based. Owing to the possibility of flawed translations of “revealed truths,” and of inadvertent or deliberate distortions and add-ons over generations, the reliability of mere hearsay is open to serious question.

Since Aristotle, there have been arguments in support of the existence of some Prime Mover, First Cause, etc. While such a Being could justify theism, it can hardly inspire worship or give rise to a code of behaviour and a set of ritual practices such as those commanded by, say, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Moreover, not only do the dogmas, codes and practices of these religions diverge from one another, but are exist sharp differences within each between denominations and sects. To complicate matters further, there are many other religions, some with huge followings.

If the premise is granted that one may not disclaim responsibility for deeds directed from above, believers are responsible for actions harmful to others or disruptive of a fair and balanced social order, even if these are commanded by authorities who claim to speak on behalf of some celestial Being. As do all citizens, believers enjoy the right to insist that civil authorities take appropriate measures to cancel the offensive directives of religious leaders.

Faith operates in the realm of the unknown, if not the unknowable: no matter how seriously examined, it is nonrational and, sometimes, irrational. More often than not, a specific faith is given allegiance in childhood out of submission to one’s elders through affection or dread, not through reason; in adulthood, in matters of theology, morals, mores and rituals, it is perpetuated not by reason but by the remnants of that affection or dread and by a human tendency to comply with society’s prevailing views.

With rare exceptions, religious authorities strive to keep beliefs alive and to thwart deviance in dogma and behaviour. To this end, they often resort to threats of suffering in an afterlife and, in the here and now, to social or bodily penalties: shunning and ostracism, or – albeit rarely nowadays – physical punishment in the shape of incarceration, torture, even death.

In enlightened times, awareness of these circumstances should beget humility, stifle proselytizing and stiffen resistance to religion’s more aggressive forms. Where citizens of different religions live side by side, mutual respect is crucial. Ensuring social peace through equal justice requires that laws be crafted on grounds of reason and enforced uniformly. Bending rules to accommodate whimsical, benighted or, worse, fanatical religious beliefs opens the door to injustice; yielding to obscurantist requests leads to feckless government. There is considerable evidence to suggest that such awareness is lacking today.

The landscape of History is littered with victims of the determination of some to impose on others the worship of God, as they perceive God, and to subjugate them to God’s laws, as they interpret them. Wars have been waged not only between Christians, Muslims and Jews, but also between denominations of the same religion: Europe has been the battleground of fierce conflicts between “orthodox” and “heretical” Christians, between Catholics and Protestants. Aside from the atrocity of slaughter, what, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, is wrong with this picture?

In Exodus, God commands His people to worship no graven image, and not to take his name in vain. Yet, over the centuries, some Jewish and Christian religious authorities have called on the faithful to worship their particular idea of God – in other words a graven image. As well, they have laid down laws and ordered ritual practices unrelated to God’s will as expressed in sacred scriptures, thereby taking His name in vain. Having been raised a Christian, I shall confine my remarks to that religion.

The Crusades would baffle me were I not sure that, in sending naive and adventurous men out to kill – and be killed by – “the Infidel,” papal and royal authorities were moved by the desire to enlarge their domain and treasure as much as by religious considerations. Whatever the “official” reasons, conquering or maintaining control over land led to later religious wars in Europe. Like the Crusades, they are irreconcilable with the commandment of love for one’s neighbour. Not all Christian leaders have presided over similar horrors, nor have leaders of other religions been uniformly innocent of comparable misdeeds, but these abominations don’t shake, as they should, the trust of some believers, and unshakeable trust opens the door for charlatans professing old and new faiths to mislead and exploit the gullible.

Such is the perspective from which I approach the discussion launched by Arthur Milner, Bob Chodos and Gregory Baum.1

My disagreement with the friend who persuaded Bob that agnosticism was “an intellectually dishonest position” should be obvious. Nor do I find it be fair to assail agnosticism as slothful or fainthearted. Adlai Stevenson referred, fittingly, to having the courage of his doubts. There are fundamentalists and fanatics among nonbelievers as well as believers, as I understand Arthur to imply. Perils to peace arise not from belief or disbelief, but from the fanatical proselytizing that can accompany fundamentalism. And I agree with Bob when he writes that “most horrors … attributed to religion are actually the products of religious exclusivism of one sort or another” – with the twin provisos, which I would expect both he and Arthur could accept, that to religion be added secular ideologies (fascism, communism, etc.), and that to religious and ideological exclusivism be added religious and ideological imperialism.

Provided they are undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect, nothing ought to prevent fruitful exchanges between believers and nonbelievers. Let me briefly discuss three broad categories of issues.

1. Cosmological and theological

Since the conflicting dogmas of different religions, denominations, sects, etc., can’t all be true simultaneously, there is no point in interfaith discussions to reconcile contradictory, but adamantly held, cosmological and theological positions, any more than there would be in a debate between theists and atheists about the existence or nonexistence of God: they can only end in disagreement, even quarrel. Such discussions are best avoided.

2. Global and environmental

Having earlier mentioned “the maldistribution of wealth and power in the world, the conditions that force people of the South to emigrate massively, the limits of natural resources, the threat to the environment, the ongoing violation of human rights and the military interventions to ensure access to oil and gas,” Gregory writes, “The socioethical debates about these issues do not situate believers on one side and atheists on the other. Because the division in society today cuts across the difference between faith and atheism, believers and unbelievers should not quarrel; rather they should engage in dialogue to explore common values and lay the foundation for common action.” I agree.

In a 1975 article in the New York Times Magazine, the economist Robert Heilbroner made a compelling case for intergenerational responsibility.2 The arguments of economists leading to indifference about the longer-term survival of humankind outraged Heilbroner. He contended that they reveal the suicidal dangers of “rational argument” in matters calling for an appeal to a faculty other than “cool reason.”

While I can’t imagine the late professor having claimed his arguments were conclusive, they persuade me. By their respectfulness, they show that quarrels between believers and nonbelievers aren’t unavoidable, and by their civility they illustrate the possibility of engaging “in dialogue to explore common values and lay the foundation for common action.” In short, if one accepts Heilbroner’s reasoned approach, it lends realism to hopes for the discussion Gregory wants.

3. Religion and society, church and state, rule of law

Some thorny issues, although played out on a local stage, are nevertheless important. Because they affect the quality of everyday life, their discussion requires sensitivity. “Reasonable accommodation,” which bestrides relationships between religion and society and between church and state, is such an issue.

Societies existed ahead of states governed by monarchs or elected governments. Their members held beliefs and followed rituals before they were formalized and codified, and before the authorities of emerging religious structures enforced doctrinal and behavioural compliance. Religious structures vary in architecture. As well, however firmly they may proclaim them, religious leaders adjust doctrine and discipline to social and political realities; sometimes they even collude with temporal authorities in enterprises neither spiritual nor noble.

Over generations, the rule of law has emerged as a principle of sound government in the Western world, notably in countries of British tradition: because they are enacted for the common weal, laws are meant to be respected by all and, in the event of refusal, to be enforced without fear or favour. Another important principle in the West is separation of church and state: laws are enacted by parliaments for everyone, not on behalf of religious authorities (or other special interests). While religious authorities may set rules for their faithful, they ought not to enjoy the coercive powers of the state.

Given the increasingly wide variety of religions in the West, separation of church and state might better be termed mutual independence of civil and religious authorities. While this principle doesn’t require believers to repudiate their beliefs or to forswear their allegiance, neither does it exempt them from obeying laws.

Over generations, religious beliefs shape laws and practices: superiority or hegemony can’t be claimed for some over others, and imperialists are correctly berated for riding roughshod over the beliefs of colonials. No matter how taboo-laden, local customs aren’t sacred; still, they are dear to those they have shaped and, for this reason, deserve pride of place in case of conflict with those of newcomers. Each people evolves in its own way: accordingly it behooves newcomers to adjust.

But what about charter-enshrined freedom of religion? What about the right to live according to God’s laws? Some prior questions need answers. First, where does one’s understanding of God’s laws come from? What divine authority do the originators of that understanding carry? And if, to borrow words from Robert Heilbroner, “a hundred faiths contend for believers today,” can their clashing demands be reconciled? If not, what ought to be done?

I suggest Jewish and Christian fundamentalists take another look at Exodus 20:7: “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Many claims for accommodation are based not on scriptural commandments, but on the elaborate, convoluted inferences of rabbis, theologians and clerics, or on their peculiar interpretation of traditional beliefs based on neither the Old nor the New Testament. To yield to their unreason is to trade the rule of law for that of obscurantism. While fundamentalists of other religions turn to sources other than the Bible, their obscurantism isn’t preferable to Jewish and Christian varieties.

When freedom of religion is interpreted extravagantly, its unfettered exercise can curtail, even eradicate, the rights of others. Notwithstanding a signed contract, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly overruled both the Quebec Superior Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal in determining that, for the eight-day festival of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews in Montreal had the right to erect individual huts (sukkahs) on their balconies at Le Sanctuaire, a luxury high-rise complex.

In the course of proceedings, the co-owners produced a letter from a senior underwriter stating their insurer’s refusal to cover any liability resulting from the building of huts (balconies serve as a horizontal and vertical escape route in the event of fire). As well, the co-owners had offered to build, at their expense, a communal sukkah on condominium grounds, an offer the appellants turned down.

Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Frank Iacobucci held that, under the Quebec and Canadian charters,

Freedom of religion … consists of the freedom to undertake practices and harbour beliefs, having a nexus with religion, in which an individual demonstrates he or she sincerely believes or is sincerely undertaking in order to connect with the divine or as a function of his or her spiritual faith, irrespective of whether a particular practice or belief is required by official religious dogma or is in conformity with the position of religious officials … A claimant need not show some sort of objective religious obligation, requirement or precept to invoke freedom of religion. It is the religious or spiritual essence of an action, not any mandatory or perceived-as-mandatory nature of its observance, that attracts protection … Because of the vacillating nature of religious belief, a court’s inquiry into sincerity, if anything, should focus not on past practice or past belief but on a person’s belief at the time of the alleged interference with his or her religious freedom.

Laws ought to be designed to govern actions, not beliefs – much less vacillating beliefs. At issue here is the right to take a particular action, not to hold a particular belief. In a powerful dissent, Justice Ian Binnie wrote,

There is a vast difference, it seems to me, between using freedom of religion as a shield against interference with religious freedoms by the State and as a sword against co-contractors in a private building. It was for the appellants, not the other co-owners, to determine in advance of their unit purchase what the appellants’ particular religious beliefs required. They had a choice of buildings in which to invest. They undertook by contract to the owners of this building to abide by the rules of this building even if … they accepted the rules without reading them.

This Supreme Court ruling vividly illustrates how, beyond impairing contractual rights, farfetched interpretations of religious freedom can weaken security, and even endanger lives.

There are few religions that do not require the profession of implausible and contradictory beliefs. Why, then, do presumably critical thinkers refuse to dispute absurd dogmas? Why do they refuse to rebel against out-of-place and outdated rituals, or to display outrage against serious abuses, even depravity, in high places? Could it be that they haven’t, in fact, the ability to think critically? Is joining a religion not as free as some imagine?

By resorting to intimidation to prevent questioning in areas they deem their exclusive preserve, religious leaders gag the conscience of the faithful who dutifully submit. Accordingly, when in the name of freedom of religion, courts overrule sound laws and regulations to accommodate compliance with “sacred” yet farfetched directives, they not only condone irresponsible observance but also collude in stifling freedom of conscience. When they accommodate the current version of a “vacillating religious belief” by granting undue weight to some ephemeral, albeit sincere, whim, they foolishly equate passing fancy with thoughtful conviction. Governments and local administrations that, for similar reasons, choose not to enforce existing laws do likewise and thereby undermine the rule of law.

It is essential to add that, in backing governments guilty of crimes, religious leaders and theologians tarnish their spiritual authority, shame the faithful and cast discredit on the moral principles they claim to defend (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church’s support of military dictatorships in Latin America, most recently in Chile and Argentina in the last third of the 20th century). It is equally essential to note that religious leaders and theologians (e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who endanger their freedom and their life to condemn government transgressions brighten their spiritual authority, honour their faithful and raise the credit of the moral principles they profess.

Continue reading “Tearing Down the Barriers of Exclusivism”

Trudeau’s Darkest Hour was published last autumn to mark the 40th anniversary of what came to be labelled the October Crisis. It is impossible for me to review this anthology without a sense of embarrassment. Readers are entitled to know why.

At the time of the crisis, I was in my mid-thirties. For nearly two decades, I had admired Pierre Trudeau for his public stands on a number of important, but controversial, issues. In my eyes, his courageous defence of causes such as civil liberties and personal rights was as praiseworthy as it was unpopular. I trusted him. Accordingly, while I winced at his patronizing “bleeding hearts … weak-kneed … just watch me” remarks to CBC journalist Tim Ralfe, I nevertheless accepted his judgement that extreme measures were required to halt what struck me as escalating terror. Of course, I entertain no retrospective sympathy for the Front de Libération du Québec. In the sixties, its home-made bombs concealed in mailboxes and elsewhere maimed and killed innocent people, some of whose names (Walter Leja, Thérèse Morin) will remain forever etched in my mind. The FLQ’s surreptitious attacks imperilled all Montrealers, including my parents and friends.

Although I, and others, may not have fully appreciated our good fortune, and notwithstanding the 1955 Maurice Richard riots, Quebec society had been, on the whole, peaceable, and FLQ violence was particularly disquieting. I therefore welcomed vigorous action to put an end to its unwonted savagery. As it turned out, in defending the government’s indiscriminate counteroffensive, I was wrong.

One last observation with a bearing on what will follow. The federalist perspective from which my views have evolved is quite different from that of the editors of this collection of speeches, articles and other documents. Both retired university professors of political science, Guy Bouthillier and Édouard Cloutier are committed sovereigntists of long standing. They explain that their purpose is to dispel an “objectionable notion hampers our ability to establish good neighbourly relations and continues to isolate Quebecers” − that notion being that “‘they’ stood united against Quebec.” I never shared this perception, but acknowledge it is held firmly by some: I therefore applaud the editors’ determination to lay it to rest.

In their introduction, Bouthillier and Cloutier write,

We believed that there were people in Parliament, in the media, and among the population at large in English Canada who refused to march to the Trudeau drum. Some may not have stood up in October 1970, but they spoke out later to set the record straight. Our hypothesis was well founded. Many English Canadians spoke up, acted, reflected, and above all wrote, with much less unanimity, with nuance, and sometimes in strong opposition to the official truth.

Their anthology proves it.

The excerpt from Peter Newman’s Here Be Dragons (2004) discloses how Prime Minister Trudeau and Marc Lalonde, at the time the PM’s Principal Secretary, gulled Newman into believing in the existence of a conspiracy of eminent Quebecers – René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Claude Ryan among them – to set up a “provisional parallel government” to replace the Bourassa administration, and manipulated the influential journalist into spreading this “meticulously concocted lie” through the Toronto Star, of which he was editor-in-chief.

Federal government sources referred to in Reg Whitaker’s Queen’s Quarterly article, “Apprehended Insurrection? RCMP Intelligence and the October Crisis,”1 convincingly support his claim that the RCMP never requested the invocation of the War Measures Act, weren’t consulted about its usefulness and, had they been asked, would have advised the government against availing itself of its wide-ranging powers. Whitaker also supplies powerful evidence that although in a formal sense Ottawa was responding to requests from the Montreal municipal and Quebec provincial authorities, the decision was in fact that of “the Prime Minister and his inner circle of Quebec ministers and advisers.” He further asserts that “the RCMP saw the crisis as requiring good, patient, careful police work to solve. The Quebec ministers in Ottawa deliberately chose to escalate the political magnitude of the crisis to justify emergency powers as a means of intimidating nationalists and separatists, with whom the Quebecers were locked in a bitter conflict for the allegiance of Quebec.”

Newman and Whitaker offered their assessments of the government’s actions after the fact, as did others in this collection. Some very early: Prince Edward Island Progressive Conservative MP David MacDonald did so in a speech the very next month; Ontario PC Senator Grattan O’Leary a month later. Robert Stanfield, who was Leader of the Opposition at the time of the events, did so in his 1979 introduction to the second edition of Ron Haggart and Aubrey Golden’s Rumours of War. Even members of Trudeau’s cabinet later acknowledged reaching similar conclusions: Don Jamieson in posthumously published writings (A World unto Itself, 1989) and Eric Kierans in his memoirs (Remembering, 2002); Jamieson and Kierans also report that four cabinet colleagues had harboured “grave doubts” or were “obviously troubled.”

Bouthillier and Cloutier also quote British Foreign Office documents, unsealed 30 years after the event, to the effect that Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, confided to his British opposite number, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, that “there was no evidence of an extensive and coordinated FLQ conspiracy.”

Borrowing a tribute from Eric Kierans, the editors dedicate their anthology to the memory of Tommy Douglas for his “political courage of the highest order” – and with good reason. On October 19, 1970, to heckles from government benches in the House of Commons, Douglas voted disapproval of the drastic measures adopted under powers of the WMA and, on November 4, he delivered a persuasive, yet nuanced, speech against the WMA’s successor, the Public Order (Temporary Measures) Act:

More than two weeks since the War Measures Act was invoked, the government has not produced one shred of evidence, either publicly or privately, which would lead me to the conclusion that a state of apprehended insurrection existed in Canada on October 16. This is the kind of situation in which one cannot be dogmatic. It may be that when the government some day produces information which we do not now have, they may prove to be right; but as a Member of Parliament standing in my place I have no right to restrict the liberties of 21 million Canadians without adequate proof that a state of apprehended insurrection exists in this country …

If the government knew there were these thousands of guns, bombs, and machine guns, if they knew there were 1,000 to 3,000 FLQ people in high posts, they must have known who they were and where they were. But what has happened? Was the minister 2 simply drawing on his imagination? And are the forces of law enforcement in this country so incompetent that they have not been able to apprehend any of the people referred to by the Minister of Regional Economic Expansion? …

Has the War Measures Act been used to settle political scores and to intimidate groups like the Quebec Federation of Labour? I think it is significant that to date most of those detained seem to be members of either FRAP3 or the Parti Québécois. Although I disagree with the separatists, it is not a crime to be one as long as they do not seek to use violence and unconstitutional means to advance their objectives.

Douglas predicted accurately that, when the evidence became available, it would show the operation had jailed far more innocent parties than guilty, a fact that was swept under the rug by those in charge and, alas, is forgotten by most Canadians.

“The shame – or guilt – about October is palpable, at least in Quebec and particularly among sovereigntists,” Bouthillier and Cloutier write. “Perhaps it stems from the very goal of the authorities in 1970, which was to link the FLQ and its crimes to the Parti Québécois.” I know of no evidence to prove their claim conclusively, but, whereas in 1970 I would have judged the charge preposterous, today it seems altogether plausible. The editors then ask if it “can be posited that this shame or guilt was, and remains to this day, the ultimate and unquestionable victory of censorship imposed under the War Measures Act.”

Stephen Harper’s “anti-coalition” rhetoric in the 2011 federal election campaign would seem to suggest – it does to me – that demonizing the Québécois in general, and sovereigntists in particular, remains electorally profitable in the rest of Canada and among English-speaking Quebecers. One would like to think that Trudeau’s Darkest Hour will contribute to dissolving an unfair stereotype pinned on sovereigntists, namely that they condone violence to reach their ends. But this would require a much wider readership than this book can get; prejudices die hard.

A French translation, which I’m told is planned, should contribute to melting another unfair stereotype − that, for all their talk, English-speaking Canadians have little regard for the civil liberties of others, especially the Québécois. Should it see the light of day, a translation should serve to remind readers that the operation was entirely conceived, designed, justified, launched and managed by a French-speaking Prime Minister with French-speaking advisers and cabinet ministers, all from Quebec, at the behest – encouraged by Ottawa – of the French-speaking Mayor of Montreal and Premier of Quebec, and supported overwhelmingly by Quebec’s French-speaking MPs. Although, of course, most English-speaking Canadians endorsed the government’s actions (as David MacDonald observed, “Pierre Elliott Trudeau the ideal solution for English-speaking Canadians who want to settle the Quebec problem once and for all”), the handful of MPs who refused to fall in line were almost all English-speaking and from outside Quebec.

Each selection in this book, taken by itself, is informative and credible. Taken as a whole, the collection shows that a small but significant number of English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec (MPs, local politicians, academics, writers, artists, musicians and others), sensing the motives behind the operation and conscious of the abuses likely to ensue, courageously and, it turned out, wisely raised their voices to oppose the invocation of the WMA, or criticized it later when they had had time to reflect on it. In assembling these documents, Bouthillier and Cloutier have performed an invaluable public service. By bringing together the testimony of various witnesses, they have beamed a well-focused ray of light on the circumstances and events of what historian Ramsay Cook has called “that doleful October.”

Some shortcomings will be found in the editors’ notes. To harp on a Gallicism here and there would be to quibble. There is, however, one conspicuous error: David MacDonald, correctly identified on page 150 as a minister of the United Church of Canada, becomes an Anglican minister on page 162. The mistake is perhaps attributable to haste in meeting a self-imposed October deadline; fortunately, it doesn’t undermine the overall credibility of the anthology.

While today most observers dismiss the prospect of a successful referendum on Quebec independence, I don’t see it that way. Since my youth, the rise of this initially quixotic yearning may have ebbed and flowed, but, from time to time, its advance has been propelled by unexpected events which have elicited and intensified the unexpressed, and unconsciously shared, dissatisfaction of large numbers of Québécois over their lot, the dwindling importance of their number in Canada, and the ever growing hegemony of Ottawa.

Among the most spectacular, but unforeseen, of these were the 1955 Maurice Richard riots; the 1959 CBC French network producers strike; the 1976 air traffic controllers’ and airline pilots’ strike, on the eve of the Montreal Olympics, over authorizing the use of French as well as English in air-ground communications at a few small Quebec airports (leading to the election of the first Parti Québécois government and, as a result, the first referendum); the patriation of the BNA Act against overwhelming opposition in Quebec; and the subsequent failure, in extremis, of a diluted Meech Lake Accord, which would have enabled Quebec to sign on to the constitution with honour (leading to the election in 1993 of a Bloc Québécois majority of Quebec MPs, uninterrupted until 2011, as well as to the election of a new PQ government in Quebec City and to the second referendum). The resentment accumulated through this chain of occurrences may not be active, but – je me souviens – it lingers and could be reignited unexpectedly.

In 1856, speaking of the Canadiens, John A. Macdonald wrote as follows to the editor of the Montreal Gazette: “Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do – generously. Call them a faction and they will become factious.” While the adoption – a mere 150 years later! – by the House of Commons of a motion recognizing the people of Quebec as “a nation within Canada” may be a small step in the right direction, to be meaningful it will have to be followed by substantial constitutional reforms along the lines sought in Quebec for ages by governments of all parties.

In their notes, Bouthillier and Cloutier quote a statement by Tommy Douglas cited in Doris French Shackleton’s 1975 biography of the former NDP leader. It sums up my feelings and provides an appropriate ending to a review of this valuable anthology:

Separatism is not going to go away. The strong-arm methods aren’t going to work. They never have. I don’t want to see Quebec leave Confederation, but I wouldn’t have one drop of blood shed to keep them in Confederation. It’s possible we will have to work out methods to separate and then work out agreements, though I hope it won’t come to that. It would be better than a civil war. The Americans are still suffering from the civil war they fought a hundred years ago.

Continue reading “That Doleful October, 40 Years Later − 1: Voices of Dissent, in English”