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.

Each plural society is a product of history, and while we have much to learn from one another in this relatively uncharted area, the terrain, as the Bouchard-Taylor inquiry illustrates, is littered with particularities. It focuses on Quebec, but not on all of Quebec. Relations between anglophones and francophones are excluded on the ground that a regime of recognition and accommodation has been achieved. Eleven Aboriginal nations are also excluded on the ground that they are recognized by the National Assembly, and the l982 Constitution Act recognizes Aboriginal and treaty rights. Further, the relation between Aboriginal peoples and Quebec is a nation-to-nation relationship.

While these exclusions are not whimsical, the absence of these matters from the inquiry’s mandate means that two of the major cleavages in Quebec society are put on the shelf. Living with Quebec nationalism and with two referendums on independence have had the consequence that Quebecers whose mother tongue is English have declined by 250,000 since the PQ’s 1976 election victory – a 30 per cent reduction. Thinking about the attrition of the anglophone community, their nonrepresentation in the Quebec civil service and other indicators of the cultural consequences of increasing marginality, Reed Scowen, who has been at the centre of Quebec constitutional politics for decades, has recently reissued a plea to build Canada without Quebec.2 In other words, in response to the alienation of the Quebec francophone majority from Canada, he invites the Rest of Canada (ROC) to secede from Quebec. To exclude the dramatic exodus of anglophones from an inquiry seeking to find an accommodative strategy of inclusion for ethnocultural minorities is to relieve the commission of an obligation to grapple with seemingly contradictory consequences of the rise of francophone majority nationalism.

While Seeking Common Ground asserts that the “English-speaking minority …, which is obviously part of … the host society, is fully experiencing Quebec’s ethnocultural diversity and is thus closely concerned by the Commission’s mandate,” that minority’s relationship to the ethnocultural communities of Quebec receives no further attention as part of the host society. This is particularly unfortunate given that 88 per cent of immigrants live in the Montreal area, where the bulk of the anglophone population resides. Further, there is no discussion of the anglophone community’s relations with the francophone majority component of the host society. The host society, in fact, is two societies. This matters, because it would be astonishing if the relations between the ethnocultural communities of Quebec and the anglophone minority population did not differ from their relations with the francophone majority. After all, much of the battleground between the two linguistic communities has been over the allegiance and language practices of the ethnocultural communities. The consultation document, however, does not indicate that different patterns of relations of the ethnocultural communities with the two distinct components of the host society will be examined. This apparent additional exclusion is regrettable, for it deprives the commission of what probably would have been an insightful comparison.

While Aboriginal numbers are much smaller than anglophone ones, at slightly more than 1 per cent of the Quebec population, they complicate the Quebec nation-building project, especially in its independence version. Immediately prior to the 1995 Quebec referendum, a veritable cacophony of statements from Aboriginal leaders and the Quebec branch of the Assembly of First Nations either indicated that their people would not be part of a Quebec exiting from Canada, or that they would decide what they would do of their own free will and in their own interest when the time came. Their elementary message was that they would not be bound by the results of a Quebec referendum. To exclude them is to leave out a conflict of nationalisms which, had it been included, would have informed the reader of a different context for a different version of reasonable accommodation to play itself out.

The commission’s overwhelming focus is the relationship and tensions between the ethnocultural communities and the majority French-speaking community. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the commissioners plan to look at intermarriage, the rates of which vary dramatically among ethnic communities, as a bridge between cultures. Further, many of the immigrant ethnocultural communities differ profoundly from other communities. It would be immensely helpful if the commission made some observations about relations between ethnic groups outside the host society, ranging from empathy to hostility. After all, particularly in Montreal, they live with one another and they have relations – good or bad – with one another as well as with the francophone community. In particular cases, those relations may be fraught with far more tension than their relationship with the francophone majority. Only the latter, however, appears to be part of the commission’s mandate. The world of relations outside the singular focus on accommodation of ethnocultural communities with the francophone majority appears extraneous to the commission’s task, although for many individuals those relations may far outrank in emotional significance what the commission will be studying. Further, their nature, friendly or acrimonious, affects the Quebec nation, broadly defined.

The most dramatic absence in the consultation document is its reticence about Quebec nationalism and nationhood. A reader finds little indication in Seeking Common Ground that Quebec has had two referendums on “independence” in the last 30 years, or that Quebec francophone nationalism has been a driving force in Quebec provincial and Canadian federal politics for half a century. This is not to suggest that the commission should focus on the question of Quebec’s relationship with the rest of the country – inside or outside Canada – but only that the national question, particularly the pursuit of independence, cannot be separated from the issue of relations between the ethnocultural communities and the francophone majority.

Bouchard and Taylor do raise the question, “Is Quebec nationalism a source of malaise for immigrants?” The question, however, is only raised in passing. It does not follow or precede any analysis of Quebec nationalism, or even a recognition of its existence. Further, the statement could be revised to read, perhaps more helpfully, “Is the immigrant population a source of malaise/frustration for supporters of the nationalist, especially the independence, project?” Jacques Parizeau delivered a resounding yes after the 1995 Quebec referendum. And Pauline Marois, the new Parti Québécois leader, recently argued that the PQ must speak for and reassert itself as the party of the Quebec francophone nous, implicitly indicating that a civic nationalism did not do justice to the distinctiveness and desires of the overwhelming francophone majority.

The relative absence from the consultation document of nation, of nationalism, of the pursuit of independence – and especially of the divisive and convulsive impact on the nonfrancophone communities when the population confronts referendums on Quebec’s future – excludes a key factor in the search for reasonable accommodation between the ethnocultural communities and the francophone majority. When this is coupled with the virtual exclusion of the English-speaking minority from the discussion, the exclusion of First Nations and the unlikelihood of the commission being concerned with relations between different ethnic groups, it is clear that the commission has singled out one set of relations – that between the francophone majority and the ethnocultural communities of the province – for analysis.

On its face, Seeking Common Ground does not present itself as a document of nationalism. The excerpt from the Quebec government order in council establishing the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, published as an appendix, is relatively general and open. It does not appear to preclude a more inclusive interpretation of its mandate to include First Nations and Inuit, or to exclude the anglophone community.

However, the commissioners understandably may have recoiled from documenting and explaining the dramatic anglophone exodus from Quebec since the 1976 PQ election victory. And while the rationale for excluding Aboriginal peoples appears weak, particularly since one third of First Nations individuals live off-reserve, it is easy to understand why the commissioners shied away from including Aboriginal peoples in their inquiries. To do so might have required revisiting Oka and the memories of the 1995 referendum, preceded, as noted above, by a host of statements from First Nations and Inuit leaders that an independent Quebec would not include them.

However, given the constitutional crises of the last half-century, the question remains: why were the words nation and nationalism so conspicuously absent in the consultation document? The most plausible explanation is that the language of nation and nationalism would not be warmly received by the ethnocultural communities the commission hoped to bring into a more civil, less tense relation with the francophone majority by the vehicle of reasonable accommodation. The purpose of a politics of accommodation, as José Woehrling notes, is to favour inclusion and harmonious integration into Quebec society.3 National rhetoric ill serves that purpose.

That, in this case, the goal of nation-building is best pursued by indirection does not invalidate the thesis that Seeking Common Ground is an instrument of nation-building. It is often the case in political life that publicizing an objective gets in the way of achieving it.


1 Rachida Azdouz cautions against reducing the debate to the national question (“Un debat inachevé qui refait surface,” Policy Options, September 2007, p. 60) – an appropriate caution. However, removing the national question from the reasonable accommodation debate is a more serious error.

2 Reed Scowen, Time to Say Goodbye: Building a Better Canada without Quebec (2000; new edition, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007).

3 José Woehrling, “Neutralite de l’ Etat et accommodements: convergence ou divergence?”, Policy Options, September 2007, p. 26.