Gérard Bouchard,
L’Interculturalisme: Un point de vie québécois.
Montreal: Boréal, 2012.
286 pages.

According to Quebec historian-sociologist Gérard Bouchard, interculturalism and multiculturalism are fundamentally different. Multiculturalism ascribes equal merit to all cultures and value systems, and denies special status regardless of size or seniority. Interculturalism acknowledges that, while all cultures are entitled to consideration and respect, size and seniority must be taken into account.

In L’Interculturalisme: Un point de vie québécois, Bouchard argues that interculturalism fosters concord specifically in those Western liberal nations which, since the middle of the 20th century, have experienced large-scale immigration from countries rooted in non-Western religious and other beliefs. Under interculturalism, according to Bouchard, cultures interact to their mutual enrichment and give birth to a transcending common culture. By mere force of numbers, the majority contributes most to shaping the new, common culture. Interaction, he says, doesn’t suppress minority cultures; rather, it promotes common ground where disagreements can be smoothed and contentious issues resolved.

In Quebec, which is Bouchard’s main concern, the common culture

is formed of two great components. The first includes prescriptive elements, primarily French as the civic and public language, and values and standards which, being written into the charter and laws, bind all citizens … The second is made of standards and models corresponding to widely shared, but non-codified, values (solidarity, personal autonomy, mutual respect, a sense of the common weal, respect for the past, public-spiritedness, etc.).

Through the common culture, he claims, interculturalism integrates minorities; it doesn’t assimilate them. Bouchard argues that it is false

to assert that interculturalism creates a majority-minority relationship … It neither creates nor fosters such a relationship, but must take it into account, owing to the simple fact that it weighs heavily on life between cultures, and structures a great deal of thinking about Quebec diversity.

Further, interculturalism “seeks to negotiate the majority-minority relationship so it won’t evolve into an us/them cleavage and lead to tensions liable to give rise to discrimination and exclusion.”

I’m not persuaded.

Bouchard argues that, in troubled times (he cites the 2005–08 “accommodations crisis”), intellectuals, administrators and elected officials ought to mistrust and stand fast against popular moods propelled by groundless and unacceptable considerations. Some would dispute that, but I emphatically don’t. Critical thinking ought never to be swayed, and before any conclusion is reached about popular moods, their causes should be meticulously examined.

Unfortunately, in this instance, Bouchard hasn’t carried out such an examination himself. He suggests that popular moods might express some kind of wisdom, and in this connection it bears recalling that the accommodations crisis arose largely because elected authorities and the courts yielded to minority demands for exemptions from the requirements of laws and bylaws, all in the name of freedom of religion. Bouchard doesn’t recognize that, too often, the demands were based on questionable grounds and, as a result, concessions in the name of “reasonable accommodation” to self-excluding minorities – not minorities discriminated against or cast out by the majority – led to widespread indignation and resentment, some of it quite justified.

Bouchard rejects the notion that the rule of law, based on rationality, is sufficient to ensure peace and order; the belief that it might be, he contends, springs from a disembodied, unrealistic idea of the nature of life in society. Admittedly, of and by itself, the rule of law can’t accomplish this purpose; still, general reverence for it is necessary, as are clear thinking and unrelenting determination to craft laws, bylaws, etc., guided by the principles of natural justice.

Owing to ever-evolving circumstances and the frailties of human nature, just and wise legislation cannot be enacted once and for all; of necessity, it will always be a work in progress. As well, good faith, good will and good judgement on the part of all concerned are necessary to make imperfections more bearable while the pursuit of more perfect justice helps make social peace a reality. Unfortunately, the limits Bouchard sets for bending laws and bylaws to accommodate minorities faithful to the commands and customs of their particular religion are dangerously vague and elastic; worse, they often bow to obscurantism. The scope that his model of interculturalism would grant to freedom of religion loads it with limitless perils.

Bouchard’s interculturalism attaches equal importance to culturally defined identity (religion being an important component) on the one hand, and to individual rights and the obligations of citizenship on the other. It “endeavours to harmonize law and the recognition of identity, reason and emotion. As required by the fabric and evolution of society, it therefore calls for mediation, interpretation, bridges and syntheses.” No mention, though, of how this could resolve irreconcilable conflicts other than through some marshmallowy, magical, “ad hoc room for manoeuvre” granted to appointed intermediaries, such as the intercultural harmonization or mediation agency recommended by the commission Bouchard chaired along with Charles Taylor. Should intermediaries fail, it’s back to the courts, and there it will end.

Interculturalism, Bouchard claims, “seeks to destroy the cultural roots of discrimination and dispel groundless fears … conducive to rejection or withdrawal.” A praiseworthy end, but he is long on generalities and short on specifics. Nor does he acknowledge that fears are not necessarily groundless, or that some behaviour is morally objectionable or offensive because of clashing customs. In the case of clashing customs, mediation, interpretation and communication can sometimes help, although not always. But where behaviour raises genuinely moral issues, is it always possible to resolve such issues without “rejection or withdrawal”?

As suggested earlier, the enormous scope Bouchard’s model awards to freedom of religion is its most serious flaw. The professor holds that secularity (laïcité) cannot be dealt with independently of interculturalism:

Religious diversity stands out as a chief feature of ethnocultural diversity. It brings together a mix of worldviews, beliefs, values, ideals, allegiances and more or less institutionalized traditions. Accordingly, interculturalism and secularity can, indeed must, be examined together and from the same premises.

Bouchard may see it as inescapable, but the logical connection here escapes me. As often as not, individuals belonging to the same ethnocultural group profess different religious faiths; likewise, individuals belonging to different groups frequently profess a common religious faith. In most Western nations, Christians of various denominations, along with Jews of different traditions, have long lived side by side. What has enabled them to do so in relative peace, in more recent times anyway, is the effective, if not always official, separation of church and state, or, to borrow Bouchard’s apt phrase, “the reciprocal autonomy of the state and institutionalized systems of beliefs.”

In the last half-century or so, Western Christians and Jews have been joined by large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others. To award a broadly, yet vaguely, defined privileged position to “freedom of religion” in culturally plural societies and, worse, to yield almost systematically to frivolous demands of some groups, especially fundamentalists, is a surefire formula for social unrest. To paraphrase Supreme Court Judge Ian Binnie’s metaphor, there is a vast difference between using freedom of religion as a shield against interference with religious freedoms by the state and using it as a sword against perfectly reasonable laws and bylaws.1

Religious leaders, especially fundamentalists, all too often claim that they alone understand sacred questions and enjoy exclusive insight into divine matters; to boot, they are often able to demand blind obedience from indoctrinated or trusting followers, or members fearing ostracism and shunning. Such a flock puts religious leaders in a powerful position to browbeat civil authorities, overtly or behind the scenes, into enacting legislation or regulations favourable to their interests. In societies where one religion is dominant, this opens the door to the tyranny of obscurantism; where there are many religions, all of whose leaders compete for influence, it is a formula for conflict.

The Mosaic Law enjoins Jews and Christians not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Accordingly, it is an infringement of this commandment, not to mention sheer nonsense, for religious leaders of these faiths (of whatever denomination or tradition) to invoke divine authority to elevate customs into sacred obligations, and to enforce compliance on pain of punishment for eternity, or ostracism and shunning in the here and now.

For civil authorities to interpret religious freedom so broadly as to allow sectarian leaders to impose particular customs and – even more – their morality on highly impressionable children and on adults under social pressures too heavy to resist is to annihilate the capacity for critical thinking indispensable to the unfettered exercise of freedom of conscience. It bears keeping in mind that, at times, freedom of conscience can be extremely demanding and, accordingly, its exercise can be painful. A crucial lesson of World War II – an eternal truth alas often ignored today – is that freedom of conscience is personal, not collective, and it can require a person to disobey orders from religious just as much as civil leaders, and to defy social pressures as well. Democratic governments must be vigilant to ensure that religious leaders don’t abuse their positions of power, especially in the field of education. Truly free choice in religious matters can only be exercised once freedom of conscience has been fully achieved and secured – an issue Bouchard sidesteps completely.

With its 245 pages of text, including 317 footnotes (almost all references to the writings of others and to his own), 28 pages of bibliographical references and an eight-page index, L’Interculturalisme offers itself as a scholarly work. I’m persuaded that, if he read his sources at all, the author perused many in considerable haste. For example, on page 210 he writes, “Several Québécois plead in favour of prohibiting all religious signs in public and parapublic institutions, a measure I consider excessive,” and then he cites me, among others, in footnote 13. I never pleaded for such a blanket prohibition – indeed I explicitly expressed broad, although not complete, agreement with the recommendations on the subject put forward by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.2 I don’t suggest that his charge of intransigence was malicious, but rather that it’s evidence of sloppy scholarship.

Finally, L’Interculturalisme is a turgid tome. Its style is cumbersome and there is much tedious repetition; when the writing is clear, readers get the message on first reading. After a while, I felt an overwhelming temptation to put it aside, and had I not promised to review it, I’d not have had the patience to finish it.


1 See Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47.

2 Should Gérard Bouchard read this and doubt my word, he can reread my Les Accommodements raisonnables entre Hérouxville et Outremont (Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009), pp. 89–96, passim.

Pierre Joncas, a retired federal civil servant, is the author of Les accommodements raisonnables: Entre Hérouxville et Outremont (2009).