Official public inquiries backed by public hearings and extensive research are a practice of which Canadians, or at least their governments, seem particularly fond. At the federal level the Rowell-Sirois, Gordon, Dunton-Laurendeau and Macdonald royal commissions, the Pépin-Robarts Task Force and the Mulroney government’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples are among the best known examples. In Quebec the Tremblay, Gendron, Bélanger-Campeau and Larose inquiries have been particularly significant, although there have been others.

Formally these various exercises are derivatives of the British practice of a royal commission, still sometimes used in Canada for its traditional purpose of investigating a disaster or a scandal involving the state. In practice they have a different and even more political function, one which in Britain is more typically entrusted to the bureaucracy and in the United States to a committee of Congress: to explore a contentious area of public policy, consult both the public and the “experts,” and arrive at presumably disinterested recommendations for policy which may or may not find their way into the statute book. Yet as the list above indicates, they at times transcend the normal policy process by exploring the most fundamental issues of national identity and national purpose.

The latest example of this Canadian art form is the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. The commission was established by the Quebec government in the wake of some rather trivial incidents involving complaints either by or against religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Hasidic Jews, which led to a debate about what was termed the “reasonable accommodation” of religious differences. At about the same time the obscure village of Hérouxville adopted a semi-serious “code of conduct” for immigrants (of which it has almost none) which warned them against, among other things, burning or beating women in public. (Whatever its intentions, this document won the village a level of renown, or notoriety, that has rarely been achieved by a community of comparable size.) Viewed in a broader context, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission is a product of the Western world’s growing anxiety about exotic religions since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It is unlikely that the commission would exist today if that event had not happened.

The document issued by the commission in mid-August to guide the public consultations scheduled to begin about a month later defines the aims of the exercise as exploring the nature and source of cultural conflicts within Quebec and imagining the means of resolving them. It rejects a narrow focus on the legal concept of “reasonable accommodation” in favour of a broader approach, including four main themes which are defined as values and rights, cultural diversity, Quebec’s existing model of intercultural integration, and secularism. (Explicitly excluded, however, is the enormous question of relations with the First Nations.) In an appendix, the document includes definitions of a number of terms related to its mandate.

Although generally bland and uncontroversial, the document contains some dubious assertions and some careless, and not always well-documented, use of statistical data. For example, on page 5 it states that problems associated with cultural diversity are found in a long list of Western nations and to a lesser extent (my emphasis) in anglophone Canada. On page 10 it implicitly uses the term English origin to include Scottish and Irish, and on the same page it makes the questionable (and, given the current methodology of the census, unverifiable) allegation that only 70 per cent of Quebec’s people are of French ancestry. Also on page 10, it states that persons of origins other than “English” or French are probably about 25 per cent of Quebec’s population, but on page 23 it asserts that “ethnic minorities,” whatever that may mean, account for only 12 per cent of the population. The discrepancy is not explained, and perhaps was not noticed by the editors. Perhaps it would have been better to omit all of these numbers.

As I write these lines in early September the commission is already enduring flak from all directions. To some extent, admittedly, it has brought this criticism onto itself by broadening its own terms of reference, as indicated above, beyond what Premier Charest probably intended. Two of these tempests in the teapot are allegations that Commissioner Bouchard made some mildly disparaging comments about the general public’s understanding of the issue and (hold your breath for this one) criticism of Commissioner Taylor for accepting this year’s Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, a prestigious award from a respected British foundation.

In fairness, not all of the criticism has been as absurd as these two examples. Some of it is based on concern that the public discussion of these issues will exacerbate tensions and conflicts in Quebec society rather than helping to resolve them. Some has come from immigrants, including a woman of Chinese ancestry who was a candidate for the Bloc Québécois in 2006 and who complains that the commission is a conversation among “white men” from which she feels implicitly excluded. Other critics, including Carole Beaulieu, the editor of L’Actualité, and Danic Parenteau, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, have charged that the commission has defined its terms of reference too broadly and is inventing a problem where none really exists, since Quebec has been remarkably successful in integrating immigrants and minorities.

It is too early to state with any assurance whether the commission will achieve anything of value, or indeed whether its creation will prove to have been a good idea. However, at least two observations may be offered at this early date. The first is that Quebec’s existing approach to integrating immigrants and minorities is appropriate and has, on the whole, been successful. The concept of “interculturalism,” developed by the Parti Québécois in the early 1980s, is a middle-of-the-road strategy avoiding the two extremes of Trudeauvian “multiculturalism” on the one hand and the hard-line assimilationist approach of French republicanism on the other. Reinforced by the Charter of the French Language, it has enabled most recent immigrants to integrate successfully into Quebec society and to learn the common public language in which that society functions. This is a significant achievement, comparable to that of the United States which has pursued a similar strategy in far more favourable circumstances.

The second observation that comes to mind is the fundamental shift in the parameters of the debate over diversity and immigration, not only in Quebec but in Canada and to a large extent throughout the Western world. When multiculturalism first became a buzzword in Canada more than 30 years ago, most people still envisaged it in terms of folk dancing, perogies and the perpetuation of heritage languages. In the 1980s, with most immigrants coming from non-European sources, emphasis shifted to the politics of “race,” an orientation reinforced by then-recent memories of the African-American struggle for civil rights in the United States. (It was at this time that the hideous Canadian expression visible minority, since rightly condemned as racist by the United Nations, entered the lexicon.)

The third phase, which may be dated from September 11, 2001, although it had other causes as well, is marked by a growing recognition that religion, a subject that makes many intellectuals nervous but is an elephant in the room that can no longer be disregarded, is really the most important aspect of our diversity. People don’t kill one another, or risk death, for perogies, but religion is fundamental. Even language, while a source of serious conflict in many parts of the world, is less likely to survive among the grandchildren of immigrants than is religion. We have thus returned by a circuitous route to one of the oldest and most complex questions in Western political theory: the relationship between church and state. It is more complex now than previously because the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy that played a large part in the histories of both Canada and western Europe has been replaced by a pluralism in which all of the world’s major religions are now well represented in Canada’s (and Quebec’s) population, although some of them have not really participated in the debate, at least until recently.

Both France and the United States have articulated clear positions on this thorny issue, both of which seem to work well for the countries concerned, although I happen to prefer the American approach. Canada, including Quebec, has not. Although we have never actually had a state church, as in England, Catholicism was given a quasi-official status in Quebec in 1774, and Protestantism, or at least the versions of it that originated in Britain, was almost as hegemonic in the other provinces, as Frederick Vaughan has reminded us in his recent book The Canadian Federalist Experiment.1 There is still a crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly, a fact of which Mr. Boisclair complained when he was leader of the Parti Québécois, and the perennial issue of funding religious schools reared its head again in Ontario’s 2007 election campaign, as it has done with monotonous regularity for almost a century and a half. The recent decision by Elections Canada to let veiled Muslim women vote without revealing their faces, an absurd expression of political correctness that was rightly condemned by almost everyone, is a further reminder of the issue that won’t go away.

Not only Quebecers, but all Canadians, thus have reason to be interested in the work of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. While these two distinguished scholars are not likely to resolve the issue, their contribution to the debate should receive a respectful hearing.

1 Frederick Vaughan, The Canadian Federalist Experiment: From Defiant Monarchy to Reluctant Republic (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).