Coping with “deep cultural diversity”1 has become a major preoccupation in Western societies since the advent of globalization and demographic dependence on immigration. Contemporary Quebec, with its almost negative reproduction rate and its besieged cultural situation, is no exception. To understand the issues these changes have provoked, it is first necessary to sketch out the context in terms of five major relevant societal developments and social policy initiatives of the last three or four decades.

Perhaps the major relevant social policy change that was implemented from the sixties forward was the déconfessionnalisation of Quebec society. The Parent Report on education (1963–65) and the much later abrogation of the clause in the British North America Act that protected public denominational Catholic and Protestant schools (1998) were the two major turning points in Quebec’s secularization strategy. Since the turn of the century, this strategy has become more radical, notably through the exorcising of vestiges of religious manifestations in public places, such as Christmas trees and crucifixes, by the Quebec human rights commission. However, the emergence of a radical secularization strategy was largely an initiative of the cultural elite and new technocratic social class, in which the population was never actively involved. It was simply laid on from above, without consultation or even input.

The initial motivation of the elite was a modernizing vision accompanied by a zeal for democratization. Both of these were driven by anticlericalism (although not anti-Catholicism), fuelled by a substantial ressentiment (a pervading sentiment of envy with regard to privileges or power) against a church that had become so politically powerful that it was a coercive mechanism of social control. These first anticlerical reformers – many of them defrocked priests – were superseded in the late seventies and early eighties by a new social-class formation, technocrats of the public and parapublic sectors who had a material interest in déconfessionnalisation and a personal interest in libertarianism. François Ricard’s La génération lyrique (1992) is one of the best critiques of the rationalization of these people.

A second, and not unrelated, major social policy development was the gradual but inexorable incorporation of public education into the state sphere, to the point that the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, set up in 2007 to examine concerns about “unreasonable” accommodations to cultural and religious minorities, could as a matter of course refer to Quebec teachers as “agents of the state.” Today in the 21st century public education – and most of private education – has been entirely appropriated by the Quebec state. While this situation may not be all that different from what has been happening elsewhere in the industrialized world, it has very real consequences in terms of social policy generally.

One of these consequences, our third major development, has been the state-initiated implantation of a multicultural orthodoxy throughout the educational establishment, from kindergarten to graduate school. The multicultural vanguard was made up of university professors who, in a remarkably short period, imposed multicultural ideology as an orthodoxy, propagating it throughout the whole public apparatus.

This orthodoxy and its institutionalization in charters (Quebec in 1975 and Canada in 1982), combined with statist education, paved the way for a new generation of philosopher-kings, among whom the most eminent figures are Jean-Pierre Proulx and Georges Leroux. These people are convinced that the state knows best what is in the public interest and is the only social institution capable of implementing the measures that are necessary for assuring the public good.

Such figures, and their university fellow-travellers in the public and parapublic sphere under their influence, begot the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course, obligatory in all Quebec schools, public and private, from Grade 1 to the end of secondary school, with the exception of Secondary 3 (Grade 9). The explicit and predominant rationalization behind the need for the course was preparing Quebec youth for the new racial and cultural diversity of Quebec society. In the thinking of those who conceived and implemented the new course, religious differences are an important manifestation of “cultural” diversity.

The state-imposed course’s answer to the problems of “diversity” and its objective was the development of a new shared or common public culture (culture publique commune) and an enhancement of young people’s ability to be tolerant and understanding of cultural differences (vivre-ensemble). The means to achieving this are in-class group dialogue, a form of “deliberative democracy,” and a “neutral” presentation of numerous religions, thus relativizing them all.

It is revealing that in 2008 the entire political and cultural elite acquiesced in the decree that the ERC course had to be mandatory from the beginning to the end of compulsory schooling. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission also endorsed this position in its 2008 report. An indirect and unforeseen consequence of ERC is that it has contributed immensely to enshrining the charters in Quebec: as the course is rigorously relativist (no religion offers the truth) and as there is, by necessity in an “ethics” course, a need for a final transcending moral standard, it becomes, by default, the charters.

Another development affecting diversity, our fourth, has been the dissolution of a pre-existing historical consciousness. This is, of course, directly related to the ideological hegemony of multiculturalism. Educational content has become largely disembodied from Quebec history. This “cultural discontinuity” is a very recent development in Quebec. For instance, Quebecers under 45 who know what the battle of Châteauguay (1813) was and the name of the French-Canadian British commander (de Salaberry) are extremely rare, whereas most educated Quebecers over 50 acquired such knowledge at school.

Very recently, neonationalists such as Mathieu Bock-Côté and Éric Bédard have begun to agitate against what they call the “denationalization” of the teaching of history, but this has only happened in the last half decade.

And finally, the fifth development relevant to “diversity” is that the period as a whole – approximately 1970 to 2010 – has been one of economic stagnation in Quebec. Although the rise in the standard of living has kept up with Ontario, this has been at the expense of underinvestment in long-term development (capital equipment, public infrastructure and public services such as education and health). Although general awareness of this stagnation or relative decline – the “Lucides” and Alain Dubuc’s book L’éloge de la richesse (2006) – is relatively recent, the phenomenon itself has been documented since the seventies. Among the consequences are declining population growth, declining productivity and creativity (othen than artistic) and a declining capacity to do anything about it (high public debt and no real increase in educational attainment). Quebec is a society in which there is now generalized competition for a bigger slice of a pie which has stopped growing – fertile ground for ressentiment.

One final comment about the societal context of cultural diversity in Quebec: cultural diversity, contrary to what the multicultural pundits would have us believe, has not increased greatly in recent Quebec history. Granted, the nonfrancophone population is more ethnically diverse, but it still represents only one fifth of the population. Even in terms of religion, or perhaps more properly religious culture, 90 per cent of Quebecers are self-declared Christians according to the last census, and the majority of immigrants are still Christians. In terms of “diversity,” Montreal is still nothing like Toronto, where “whites” are close to becoming a “visible minority” and White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are a fast declining ethnic group.

In summary, these five societal contextual developments – imposed secularization, state appropriation of public education, propagation of a multicultural orthodoxy, loss of historical consciousness and societal stagnation – have set the stage for the emergence of a new public ressentiment that does not augur well for collective coping with the “deep cultural diversity” which may, indeed, come to pass, if only for reasons of forced population growth and labour-market requirements.

Recent developments: A commission and two court cases

This ressentiment came to the fore with the Supreme Court of Canada’s kirpan decision of 2004, which overturned Quebec court decisions that had upheld a school board’s decision to forbid the wearing of the ceremonial Sikh dagger (kirpan) in school. A series of “accommodations” to religious claims in Quebec and Ontario in the previous decade (the majority of which were arrived at out of court)2 were judged to be “unreasonable” by popular Quebec opinion and reported as such in the Quebec media. A notorious expression of the ressentiment thus engendered was the “code of conduct” published in 2007 by the municipal council of Hérouxville in the St. Maurice Valley, in which it was proclaimed that the wearing of the full veil (niqab or burqa) and stoning would not be tolerated.

Eventually the media storm around “unreasonable accommodations” was such that the Charest government, on the eve of an election in 2007, established a commission headed by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor to air the whole subject of “reasonable accommodations,” which had been inspired by and justified by the new multiculturalist orthodoxy and the charters.3 The Bouchard-Taylor Commission subsequently (2008) pronounced that in most cases individuals and institutions were able to come to reasonable accommodations and that the media had played an important part in whipping up a public storm.

The most recent developments are two court cases. The case of the Lavallée family of Drummondville involves the rights of parents to get their child exempted from the obligatory ERC course, while the issue in the Loyola College case is the right of a private institution to be exempted from teaching the course by replacing it with their own related course (“Great Religions”). In both cases the requests were made by virtue of relevant exemption clauses in educational legislation. In the Drummondville case, the judge decided in favour of the government, and in the Loyola case a Montreal judge decided against.

Both judgements have been appealed, the Drummondville case by the parents and the Loyola case by the Quebec government. In all likelihood – given the constitutional aspect – both will be heard together by the Supreme Court. In the Loyola case the ruling was that the minister, in the first instance, had not acted within the confines of the rule of law, having overstepped her powers, and in the second instance, had violated the religious freedom enshrined in the Quebec charter. The decision, quite a bombshell in Quebec although poorly reported by the media, focuses several of the issues facing a contemporary Quebec trying to maintain a distinct society while dealing with cultural diversity. I proceed to an articulation of what I believe those issues to be.

Four current diversity issues

Assuming the will to maintain a distinct society based on the sociopolitical reality which is geographical Quebec, the first issue is whether a common public culture into which all Quebecers would be acculturated is necessary. Of course, any “national” entity experiencing cultural diversity faces the same question. The necessity of such a common public culture is now generally recognized in Quebec and is coming to be so in most modern political entities. Both Britain and France are going through a period of reassessment in this regard.

Such a position, the necessity of a common public culture, stands contrary to multicultural orthodoxy, for which such a common public culture represents an obstacle to the adequate recognition of diverse cultures within the political entity, as well as being an expression of ethnocentrism. Indeed, it is seen as being contrary to the position of liberal thinkers of the Rawlsian tradition for whom all that is necessary in a liberal pluralistic society is a willingness to obey the law, itself conceived as disembodied from any particular cultural heritage.

In Quebec, however, events of the last half century have tended to demonstrate that a common public culture, rather than mere contractual legalism, is necessary if Quebec is to survive as a distinct society. Manifestations of what is required are the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) of 1977, the Cullen–Couture immigrant selection agreement of 1978 and the McDougall–Gagnon-Tremblay agreement of 1991 which allowed Quebec to impose a “moral contract” on immigrants accepted in Quebec.

Later, after the turn of the century, the Quebec Department of Education proposed as one of the two anticipated outcomes of its ERC course a common public culture; the other was a vivre-ensemble that would allow for the tolerance of cultural diversity. Subsequently, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission reaffirmed both the need for and the existence of a common public culture, as well as the appropriateness of imposing the obligatory ERC course to bolster these two objectives. And finally, in the last five years a new generation of Quebec nationalist thinkers has called for a stop to the disregard of national history brought on by a multicultural pedagogical perspective.

All of these developments have led to the explicit acceptance of the need for a clearer vision of what the common public culture is, and of the need to ensure its transmission. Acculturation to the common public culture would be incumbent both on all school children and on immigrants and would provide a basis on which to manage cultural diversity.

Our second issue is the adequacy of multicultural ideology and its constitutional “human rights” offspring, the charters, in coping with cultural diversity in Quebec. Multiculturalism and its benign idealism are coming to be seen as having contributed to the dissolution of the Quebec historical consciousness and to the charters becoming enshrined, by default, as the ultimate moral reference in public matters. Multiculturalism and the charters are insufficient to alleviate the resurgence of the ressentiment of Quebecers who see themselves as dispossessed. The charters’ legal sanctity is not enough to convince a population that “accommodations” derived from these documents are possible not only for newcomers but also for them.

The decisive and inescapable role of the Quebec charter in Judge Gérard Dugré’s Loyola decision is extremely revealing in this regard. Indeed, Judge Dugré’s second reason for invalidating the obligatory nature of Quebec’s ERC course was that such an imposition violates the religious freedom disposition in Quebec’s own charter. This being the case, assuming that the judgement is upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, there is no legal limit to religious claims for exemption from government-imposed cultural pretensions in Quebec: scientology and moderate Islam could make claims identical to those made by the very Catholic Loyola College.

The two court cases involving the role played by the Department of Education in imposing the ERC course lead us directly to the third “diversity” issue that has emerged in the last five years: the role that government can legitimately play in coping with diversity by laying on remedial educational programs.

Government in a postmodern society like Quebec is of such a rigorously secular nature that there seems to be no possible arrangement according to which it can deal directly with the topic of religion in schools. Quebec tried with the “religious culture” approach, but neither believers nor atheists have found the method acceptable. It is, and rightly in my opinion, seen as an infringement on fundamental liberties: freedom of religion and conscience and parental prerogative in education. The only acceptable position would now seem to be that the state as such, as opposed to the school, not impose any content of a religious character in the curriculum, but rather limit itself to “ethics” and “civics.”

The fourth “diversity” issue is the problem created by the displacement, by omission and delegitimization, of the society’s historical consciousness, a consequence of the influence of multicultural ideology and the relativizing mindset it cultivates. Put concretely, in the context we are dealing with, the current generation of high school graduates are rigorously ignorant of Quebec, Canadian and Western history dating back to before the Quiet Revolution. Put positively, the issue is whether a postmodern secular and pluralistic society can legitimately insist on the teaching of its own history.

If a common public culture is to be successfully articulated, kept alive and transmitted, I think the answer is yes. However, it would have to be done within the limits of the rule of law. Here is where Judge Dugré’s Loyola judgement is so crucial. The judgement maintains that in the imposition of its culturally interventionist role (here in the sphere of religion, not history), the Quebec government had been acting without due regard to the rule of law: the executive authority did not act in conformity with its mandate from the legislative authority. This aspect of the decision is even more remarkable in that the abuse of administrative power leading to the denial of due process, even access to the law, was much more evident – even flagrant – in the Drummondville case.

The crux of the question then becomes: how is a secular pluralistic society to privilege the teaching of its own history and culture, the ultimate source and justification of its common public culture, while remaining within the bounds of the rule of law – the kind of law generated by a legislative authority acting in conformity with the same common public culture?

Unless there is a way of legitimizing the teaching of national history, there is no stopping the erosion of indigenous historical consciousness. Even the high priests of multiculturalism are beginning to recognize that this is a problem: Georges Leroux with regard to the transmission of a literary and philosophical canon in his article “Enjeux de la transmission” and Joseph Heath with regard to shared values in his article “The Myth of Shared Values in Canada.”4

The solution to this dilemma is available in Quebec’s constitutional history, and it is recourse to the “notwithstanding clauses” that exist in both of the charters. Section 52 of the Quebec charter specifies that “no provision of any Act … may derogate from sections 1 to 38, except so far as provided by those sections, unless such Act expressly states that it applies despite the Charter” (emphasis added). Section 1 of the Canadian charter notes that its rights are freedoms are guaranteed “subject to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Furthermore, section 33 allows Parliament or a provincial legislature to expressly declare that an act “shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.”

It is worth recalling here that Bill 101, implemented to protect the French language in Quebec, was constitutional at the time as it predated the Canadian charter, but would be impossible today without recourse to the “notwithstanding” clause. This clause in the federal charter was inserted on the insistence of Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta at the time, for just such reasons as invoked here: to allow a province to protect itself from what it sees as a threat to its “cultural” powers as provided for by the 1867 British North America Act and still intact in the 1982 Constitution Act. There is, it seems, no alternative to “notwithstanding” clauses – in either a federated or an independent Quebec – if a common public culture is to be maintained. Recourse to a “notwithstanding” mechanism in human rights charters needs to be legitimized as a necessary instrument for the survival of regional cultures in a globalizing world.

The Western canon: The only workable outcome

These four major “diversity” issues are now, I suggest, inescapable in Quebec:

  • The existing common public culture, which is constantly evolving, needs to be rehabilitated by articulation and transmission.
  • Multicultural ideology and charters have had perverse effects with regard to fostering tolerance of diversity, and have become the source of a new ressentiment. This is not surprising given the circumstances: the overall economic stagnation of contemporary Quebec.
  • In a secular pluralistic society, the state should not, in an attempt to deal with cultural diversity, be involved in putting forward any matter of religious content in the schools.
  • Again in a secular pluralistic society, the state needs to privilege the teaching of the society’s own history, on which its common public culture is based, in a context of respect for one of the pillars of that common public culture, the rule of law.

From these observations, we conclude that the best policy is to limit “reasonable accommodations” in the public sphere by systematic recourse to the notwithstanding clauses in the charters. Recently Quebec did indeed introduce a bill (Bill 94) that would require full facial exposure in the dispensing of government services, by the provider and the recipient, hence banning the niqab or burqa.5 Should this bill become law, and should there be a charter challenge, as there probably would be, Quebec should immediately invoke the “notwithstanding” clause.

Second, Quebec should promote a more rigorous “civic” and “ethics” curriculum, both in the context of a rehabilitation of “national” history and the transmission of the Western canon in literature and philosophy. Obviously, in terms of multicultural orthodoxy this is discrimination and ethnocentrism. Since in a multicultural world there can be no “national” values but only “universal” values, the transcending purposes of a particular national common public culture are always suspect, being judged arbitrary or “essentialist.” However, since any functioning and enduring society must have a common public culture, at least if such a culture is historically grounded then it is not totally arbitrary and has stood the test of time. It has the merit of having been experienced, of having matured in the light of its successes and failures.

All of that having been said, I am quite conscious of having left untouched one major issue which is pertinent to the cultural diversity question, although the discussion of it is beyond the scope of this text. It was aptly put by the now deceased Alan Jones in 1979 in his review of the work of the late-19th-century British educational reformer Lyulph Stanley:

In the endless debate on the place of church schools in a nation-wide system of education, a debate which led to that compromise which engulfed the school boards, Stanley left one question unasked: whence comes the moral authority of the state? To take schools away from the control of the Church in Victorian England did not change them much, for teachers were either Christian, or, if not, they justified themselves by outdoing Christians in moral rectitude. Once that situation vanished then it is difficult to see what the ultimate basis for the operation of the schools might be. To argue that teachers should be chosen not for their churchmanship but for their citizenship may seem unexceptionable, but does citizenship imply, say, obedience, and, if it does, where does the ultimate jurisdiction rest? To answer, “in each man’s conscience,” or, less likely, “with the authorities,” seems to give a choice in the end between the chaos of individualism and the tyranny of state control.6

“That situation” referred to by Jones has now vanished both in contemporary Britain and in Quebec with the accomplishment of dechristianization. Are we now faced with the “chaos of individualism” or the “tyranny of state control”? Some, perhaps many, would argue that the role of Christianity as the ultimate moral arbiter – the Bible being the “Great Code” in Northhop Frye’s terms – has been replaced by “Human Rights” as enshrined in the various charters and constitutions of the contemporary world. The Quebec case would seem to suggest that the charters alone are an insufficient moral authority in preempting ressentiment from becoming an obstacle to tolerance of “deep cultural diversity.” If so, Alan Jones’s question regarding religion and 19th-century public education in England still stands unasked in Quebec more than a century later. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that the religion issue, déconfessionnalisation, also engulfed school boards in Quebec, or rather led to their being effectively eviscerated.

However, even more to the point of the present discussion, if the charters have become, by default, the de facto ultimate moral authority, then how does one proceed to “notwithstand” the charters? My response to this dilemma is that the answer to Jones’s question, “whence comes the moral authority of the state?”, has to come from within the Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition or the Western canon; there is no other workable outcome available to us in our Quebec context. And if this is so, the limits to and the assurance of a workable “cultural diversity” continue to be found in the deployment, propagation and transmission of the Western tradition, of which the charters are, after all, only circumstantial, circumscribed and ephemeral (in the Quebec case because constantly changing) derivations, not to be taken for the real thing. “You shall not raise up images in my name.”


1 The term is from Gilles Paquet, Deep Cultural Diversity: A Governance Challenge (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2008).

2 For an exhaustive list, see the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report, pp. 48–75, available online at

3 The official name of the commission was “Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles.”

4 Georges Leroux, “Les enjeux de la transmission,” in Stéphan Gervais, Dimitrios Karmos and Diane Lamoureux, eds., Du tricoté serré au métissé serré? La culture publique commune au Québec en debats (Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2008); Joseph Heath, The Myth of Shared Values in Canada: The 2003 John L. Manion Lecture (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Management Development, Ottawa, 2003), available online at

5 Other types of “masks” would be banned as well. At the end of the Oka crisis in 1990, there was a signing ceremony in which a masked warrior participated. Judge Alan Gold, who represented the federal government, later regretted having acquiesced in this.

6 Alan W. Jones, Lyulph Stanley: A Study in Educational Politics (Waterloo, ON, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1979), p. 160.