An introduction by Bob Chodos

A century ago, in October 1908, a new play by British writer Israel Zangwill opened in Washington, D.C. Its subject was the cultural and political issues raised by mass immigration to the United States. Zangwill drew on his own Jewish background in his portrayal of the main character, David Quixano, and his family. David is an orphan whose parents were killed in the Kishinev pogrom of 1903; he now lives in New York with his uncle and elderly grandmother. He is wildly enthusiastic about his adopted country:

America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the crucible with you all! God is making them American.1

The main tension of the play turns on the romance between David and a settlement worker, Vera Revendal, who is from Russia, like David, but gentile. The romance founders when David discovers that Vera’s father was the army commander in Kishinev who looked on approvingly as his parents were slaughtered. Not even America can dissolve all “blood hatreds and rivalries.”

Zangwill’s play has been largely forgotten, but its title, The Melting-Pot, survived as a metaphor for the process of cultural transformation taking place in the United States. A century later, The Melting-Pot seems thoroughly dated in some respects: its stock ethnic characters (the Irish servant who says things like “yer houly grandmother has me disthroyed intirely”) and its naive belief in America as the land of the future. In other ways, however, it is strikingly contemporary, for questions relating to how societies accommodate newcomers have not gone away. If anything, they have become more complex, and have spread from the United States and other historic countries of immigration to the whole of the Western world.

In recent years, these questions have surfaced in France, which banned the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” (notably the headscarf worn by Muslim women) in schools; in the Netherlands, shaken by the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a devout Muslim angered by van Gogh’s film that derided the Qur’an as misogynist; in the United States, where the debate has focused on illegal immigration; in Ontario, site of an acrimonious controversy over the possible use of shari‘a (Islamic law) in family arbitration; and in other places.2

And then there is Quebec. The issues may be widespread, but how they play out is, as Alan Cairns suggests in these pages, “littered with particularities.” The Quebec of the early 21st century sees itself as a liberal, democratic, secular, pluralist society, but the triumph of these ideas is recent in Quebec compared to most of the rest of North America. Not until 1944 did women vote in a Quebec provincial election. Secularization occurred only with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. In addition, as Christian Rioux notes, the reluctance of immigrants to adopt French as their new lingua franca was at the centre of Quebec’s bitter language debates of the 1960s and 1970s. Quebec may be open to immigration, but immigration raises sensitivities about Quebec’s hard-won status as a modern society and about survival of French in a secular age.

These sensitivities came to the fore in late 2006 and early 2007. The catchword for the debate has been “reasonable accommodation,” a concept first introduced by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985 to take account of situations where the equitable application of a norm requires differential treatment of some people for medical or – more controversially – cultural or religious reasons. In the Quebec context the phrase has been used more generally to cover all measures a society takes to accommodate cultural and religious minorities.

The phrase reasonable accommodation also contains an implicit question. If reasonable accommodation of cultural and religious minorities is a good thing, is there a point at which accommodation becomes unreasonable and therefore a bad thing? A number of incidents suggesting that Quebecers were asking this question generated headlines. Most of these incidents involved Muslims, but not all: one source of controversy was the installation of frosted windows in a Montreal YMCA to protect students in a nearby Hasidic Jewish school from the sight of women in exercise wear.

In the fall of 2006, the question of limits to reasonable accommodation found political expression through Mario Dumont and his Action Démocratique du Québec. In fact, Dumont’s willingness to raise questions about reasonable accommodation, unlike his Liberal and Parti Québécois counterparts, was a major factor in the ADQ’s meteoric rise in popular support, leading to its near-victory in the election of March 26, 2007 (see pages 78–117 of this issue). Meanwhile, in January 2007, the tiny town of Hérouxville in the St. Maurice Valley – a region where immigrants are estimated to make up roughly 1 per cent of the population – adopted a code of conduct for immigrants that, among other things, banned stoning and burning of women. However tenuous the Hérouxville code’s link to local reality, it underlined the existence of a gulf between Montreal and rural Quebec, where the metropolis feels like foreign territory.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest responded as beleaguered politicians often do in similar circumstances: he appointed a commission to study the matter. What was unusual, however, was the identity of the commissioners: two of Quebec’s most distinguished thinkers, historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. In some ways they balance each other: a sovereigntist and a federalist, a francophone and an anglophone (although an anglophone with deep French-Canadian roots). Both are committed pluralists, and this commitment underlies the consultation document they issued in August, in preparation for public hearings across Quebec.

In the following pages, Inroads presents an excerpt from the consultation document, in which Bouchard and Taylor explain the rationale for “harmonization practices,” including reasonable accommodation. In addition to their own exposition, the commissioners pose a series of questions for people appearing before the commission – and for all of us – to think about. We sent the consultation document for comment to people both inside and outside Quebec. We present four responses: from two noted Canadian political scientists, Alan Cairns and Garth Stevenson; Christian Rioux, Paris correspondent for the Montreal daily Le Devoir; and David Goodhart, editor of one of Britain’s liveliest and most intelligent magazines, Prospect. Stevenson and Goodhart emphasize the broader context of defining limits to accommodation, while Rioux and Cairns focus on aspects specific to Quebec.

Click to read Seeking Common Ground by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, Bouchard-Taylor and Nation-Building by Alan Cairns, Religion is the Elephant in the Room by Garth Stevenson, The Quebec Language Question is Back by Christian Rioux, and When Liberalism and Pluralism Conflict by David Goodhart.

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission is scheduled to present its recommendations in March 2008. But in October, as the commissioners were travelling around the province, events began to move too fast for the commission’s timetable. Acting on a recommendation from the province’s Council on the Status of Women, Premier Charest announced his intention to introduce a bill amending the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to establish the primacy of equality of men and women over religious freedom. “On that question, there is no need to wait for the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations,” he said.3 A week later, the new PQ leader, Pauline Marois, introduced her Quebec identity bill in the National Assembly. Along with other controversial provisions, the bill included a more far-reaching amendment to the Quebec Charter:

The Charter must be interpreted and applied with due regard for the historical heritage and fundamental values of the Québec nation and, in particular, the importance of ensuring the predominance of the French language, protecting and promoting Québec culture, guaranteeing equality between women and men, and preserving the secularity of public institutions.4

Bouchard and Taylor are no strangers to politics, but now they are riding a political tiger. It remains to be seen whether their sagacity and goodwill will be up to the job.

Religion, argues Garth Stevenson, is the most important aspect of our diversity: it is “an elephant in the room that can no longer be disregarded.” As David Goodhart suggests in his contribution, the elephant in the room is not simply religion in general but, more specifically, Islam. There are exceptions, like the Montreal Y’s frosted windows to accommodate Hasidic Jews, but on the whole, issues that can be handled relatively smoothly in other contexts become neuralgic when Muslims are involved. In Ontario, for example, Orthodox Jews had conducted family arbitration under their religious law for more than a decade without controversy, yet when Muslims proposed to do the same, the issue spun out of control and eventually led Premier Dalton McGuinty to end all use of religious law in family arbitration.

There are any number of possible explanations for this, from the widespread association of Muslims with terrorism since September 11, 2001, to the historic rivalry between the Christian and Islamic worlds. There are also signs that it may be beginning to change, including the popular success of the CBC situation comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie, in which the humour turns on the foibles of a Muslim community in a small town in western Canada and its relations with its neighbours. Meanwhile the Islamic world is itself in ferment, with a variety of social and religious reform movements struggling to emerge and, according to one close observer of Islamic affairs, numerous aspirants lining up to play the role of the Muslim Martin Luther.

In Israel Zangwill’s time there was considerable doubt that Jews could be integrated into American life; Zangwill argued strenuously that they could, although it might take longer for them than for other groups. He was right, of course, although a century later tensions between Jews and non-Jewish Russians were again being reported in the Brighton Beach area of New York City.5 Are Muslims simply the Jews of our time? Or do the differences – the geopolitical context, Jews’ history of being a minority in contrast to Muslims’ history of being a dominant power – outweigh the similarities?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but something significant is taking place in Quebec, something very different in tone from the multicultural ethos of Heritage Canada press releases. Quebecers – much like the majorities in western European countries – are struggling with how to define expectations of minorities. Today this exercise is taking place, largely in French, in Quebec; tomorrow it may well be taking place, largely in English, in the rest of Canada.


1 Israel Zangwill, The Melting-Pot: Drama in Four Acts (1909; rev. ed., New York: Macmillan, 1915), p. 33.

2 These questions were covered in depth in the Summer/Fall 2004, Summer/Fall 2005 and Winter/Spring 2006 issues of Inroads.

3 Robert Dutrisac, “Accommodements raisonnables – L’égalité hommes-femmes passe avant la religion,” Le Devoir, October 10, 2007.

4 Québec Identity Act, Quebec, 38th Legislature, 1st Session, Bill 195 (Quebec City: Québec Official Publisher, 2007), s. 12, adding s. 50.1 to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

5 Walter Ruby, “The New Russian Anti-Semitism,” New York Jewish Week, October 5, 2007.