Jean-Louis Roy,
Chers voisins: Ce qu’on ne connait pas de l’Ontario.

Montreal: Stanké, 2013.
370 pages.

As a young journalist, I was taught that the essence of a news story is “man bites dog” – a reversal of expectations. Since then I’ve also learned that there are many newsworthy occurrences that don’t fit that simple formula, but I still sometimes come across stories that have clear “man bites dog” appeal. “Distinguished Quebec writer falls in love with Ontario, writes book” is certainly one of them.

The Quebec writer is Jean-Louis Roy, who was publisher of the Montreal daily Le Devoir in the early 1980s and later Quebec delegate-general in Paris and then secretary-general of the main administrative body of la Francophonie, the international organization of French-speaking nations. It would be unusual for someone with Roy’s CV even to be interested in Ontario, let alone to have nice things to say about it. But what makes his book Chers voisins even more surprising – and relevant to the current debate about Quebec’s proposed charter of values – is that what he likes best about Ontario is the way the province has adapted to the increasing cultural diversity of its population.

Chers voisins takes the form of a reportage: Roy interviews a variety of people in Ontario, reports and makes observations on the interviews, and stitches together the threads that emerge from them. The book is divided into three sections: the second and third deal with the province’s economy and cultural industries respectively. But it is the first and longest section, labelled “Les Ontariens,” that is the heart of the book.

“Multiculturalism” is the word that is usually used to describe the way various cultures are expected to live together in English Canada. It is regarded with deep suspicion in francophone Quebec, and there are sound reasons for this. At its origins, multiculturalism was a diversion from the “biculturalism” that formed part of the mandate of the Laurendeau-Dunton Royal Commission appointed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s. It became part of the federal government’s policy toolkit in the 1970s under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, widely regarded as a foe of anything hinting at the specificity of francophone Quebec. On this take, the goal of multiculturalism was to reduce francophone Quebec to the status of one of many “cultures” coexisting within Canada.

But while there is considerable truth in this account, multiculturalism acquired a life of its own, especially in the large metropolitan areas of Toronto and Vancouver, transformed by increasing and increasingly diverse immigration in the last decades of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. And it is this life that Roy discovers in his journey through Ontario. Indeed, he finds that the transformations have been so profound that multiculturalism is no longer an adequate word to describe Ontario’s “unprecedented cultural space”:

Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s vision of multiculturalism, inspiring as it was in its time, no longer corresponds to Ontario society and the way Ontarians practise the racial, cultural and linguistic diversity that is now their world. In Ontario, diversity is now the very ground of common life; it is quantitative and substantial. In this sense, it is not a perfected form of multiculturalism. It goes beyond multiculturalism and represents the appearance of something else, a postmulticulturalism in which the will of the majority is no longer the source of the diverse communities’ recognition and status.

This idea of “postmulticulturalism” is echoed by a number of Roy’s interview subjects. Thus Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Toronto Community Foundation, describes diversity as “the very DNA of Ontario society,” contradicting both the old “metanarrative” of an Anglo-Saxon society and the new one of Canadian multiculturalism.

Roy acknowledges the social and economic gaps that continue to disadvantage some of Ontario’s ethnic groups, but they do not disturb his generally positive view. He also acknowledges that there are in reality two Ontarios – the Greater Toronto Area and the rest of the province – but his attention is directed almost exclusively toward one of them. Chers voisins is, in essence, a book about Toronto. I found little in it that relates to the small-town Ontario where I live, where diversity is, if not completely absent, still something of a curiosity, and not one that is always welcomed by longtime residents.

Still, Chers voisins captures something real and essential about contemporary Ontario. And it raises a question that Quebecers need to pay close attention to: the relationship between the majority and cultural minorities:

In this society of diasporas, the idea and the reality of a majority are fading away, to be replaced by a singular entity in which a constellation of communities, only yesterday still designated by the term “minorities,” live together. Ontario society seems to have been preserved from the hate-filled debates, recurring fears and violent crises that feed the West’s deep malaise in the face of the diversity that now defines it.

Has Ontario really achieved this status of a collection of communities living together, with no one dominant majority setting the rules for the rest? Is this desirable? How would this apply in Quebec, where the crucifix in the National Assembly has been defended not on religious grounds but on grounds of Quebec’s “heritage”? I remember being struck a few years ago by a Muslim woman’s comments on the Bouchard-Taylor Report on reasonable accommodation:

How can harmony among cultures come to be when there is a relationship of domination in which other cultures are subordinated to the culture of the Québécois de souche? How can a vivre-ensemble that takes different cultures into account be constructed when the references are those of Quebec culture? The Bouchard-Taylor Commission missed the opportunity to discuss a common culture to be built with – not outside of – new Quebecers, taking into account their cultures, and not just a single culture, that of the established majority.

What she was proposing was something very similar to what Roy purports to have discovered in Ontario. It is not something that most Québécois and Québécoises de souche have bought into, or are likely to buy into in the foreseeable future. Most Quebecers would likely agree that the majority should be generous to minorities – the extent of that generosity is part of what is at issue in the debate over the charter of values. But the proposition that the majority, if such a thing exists, should be on an equal footing with minorities, culturally as well as economically and politically, is another matter.

It is undoubtedly easier for an English-speaking society such as Ontario, where the dominant language group can simply take its dominance for granted, to be multicultural or even “postmulticultural” than it is for a society such as Quebec whose language is constantly in need of protection. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that most Ontarians have bought into the above proposition either, at least not consciously. (It is worth remembering that it is in Ontario, not Quebec, that state-funded religious education is available to you if you are a Roman Catholic but not if you belong to any other religious tradition.) And I would not venture to predict how debates surrounding this proposition are likely to play out.

But what is clear is that for healthy debates to take place, the idea of a society without a culturally dominant majority needs to be out in the open, and not hidden behind other issues. In making this idea explicit, Jean-Louis Roy has performed a valuable service, for Ontarians and Quebecers alike.