The Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s recommendations stated many things very well. They echoed much that was obvious and most of the conclusions exhibited a great deal of common sense. But even coming in some twenty per cent below budget, a commendable achievement for a government mandate, common sense was the least we should have expected.
What was sadly missing was what might have been—a clear statement of what we are for as a society. For amidst all the polite suggestions and painstaking political correctness, we are left with the gnawing impression that once again we define ourselves by what we are against rather than what we are about.
The commissioners were right when they said that “self-doubt and a fear of the other” have been great hindrances to, in the commissioners’ words, French-Canadians. But it goes further than that. We have written in these pages that Montrealers, of all linguistic origins, have been imprisoned by Quebec’s “self-doubt fuelled by a jealousy of others self-belief”. And that self-doubt has been a virus spread by a political class that has profited from the politics of division and discord. This Commission had a tailor-made opportunity to say that. To put the onus not at the feet of the majority of Quebecers who happen to be Francophone, but at the feet of the political and intellectual classes who have imprisoned francophones, anglophones and allophones alike within the doctrines of contempt.
But what is wrong you might ask with recommending that the majority be more understanding of minorities? It is inherent in the contradictions of the Commission’s conclusions itself. At the same time that they properly stated that the crisis in the reasonable accommodation debate was a crisis only of perception, they still insisted that the “other” was misunderstood. At the same time that the conclusions underlined the necessity of protecting the gains of the Quiet Revolution, they did not clearly and candidly state what those were—and who we therefore are—and instead retreated to the security of sociological relativism by suggesting new bureaucracies to deal with minority complaints.
The Commission compromised its call for official secularism by reassuring Quebecers that distinct Catholic traditions will be preserved. It rightly called multiculturalism “unhelpful”— something that even Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged in his later years—and then recommended replacing it with the new notion of “interculturalism”. It mentions the goodwill of citizens often, yet falls back on nanny-statism by endorsing big government policies to “bring peace among cultural communities”. It pays lip service to the importance of freedom of expression, then suggests eliminating possibly offensive terms such as “visible minority” and even “reasonable accommodation” from our lexicon.
Where should the commission have directed us? The past may well be prologue. In this issue we commemorate forty years since the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. In this current debate words of another assassinated leader come down to us through the mists of time. That leader was a Canadian. He was the only politician to be assassinated in our history. His name was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. In 1865 he spoke these immortal words in Quebec City. “There is room in this Northern Dominion—under one flag and one set of laws—for one great people. There is no possibility for that greatness—under that same flag and those same laws—if we succumb to a hundred squabbling particularities.” If we go down the wrong road now, the post Bouchard-Taylor era may well be characterized as a surrender to those squabbling particularities. Indeed it may already have begun.
For the problems rest not just with new citizens who hold greater fidelity to the traditions and laws of their home countries and cultures, but also with Quebecers loyal to false notions of their own past. That is why Premier Charest’s inelegant haste in moving a National Assembly resolution to keep the crucifix in place played so well. His defense that this represented a remembrance of Quebec history was a defense of the wrong cross. The cross on Mount Royal indeed recalls the historical events surrounding Cartier and later de Maisonneuve. The one in the National Assembly was of more recent vintage bearing witness to an odious deal between Premier Maurice Duplessis and the Church in 1936 that solidified that inglorious period of our history known as la Grande noirceur. And in this failing of our political leaders to speak truth about our past lies the root of our greatest challenges today.
The reality of today’s Quebec is that our great schism is not between francophones and anglophones. Not between “old stock” Quebecers and new arrivals. The great schism—the real two solitudes—is between those Quebecers who realize they are the heirs of arguably the most progressive political tradition in North America, and those others who see themselves as defenders of, and apologists for, la Grande noirceur. For the rich patrimony that truly defines who we are as a people is there to be mined in the rich truth of our history, and it is in that truth that we can find the courage to overcome the politics of the big lie that for too long has driven so much of Quebec’s self-doubt. If only Bouchard-Taylor had looked to that and told all Quebecers, new and old; of whatever color or creed; of whatever faith, that here is what we are for, here is our common humanity and with this there can be no compromise.
We are for the legacy of Papineau, who ensured emancipation for all minorities twenty years ahead of Great Britain. We are for the vision of Lafontaine who with Robert Baldwin instituted the first government responsible to the people in the entire British Empire. We are for the courage of Laurier who boldly stood for a public culture free of any privilege or preference to any faith and declared that “It has been the pride of my political life to have been excommunicated by Roman priests and condemned by Protestant parsons.” We are for the resolve of Lesage to open Quebec, and Quebecers, to the modern world, moving forward with the sure knowledge that we can compete effectively on the international stage shedding retrograde and revanchiste prejudices. And for are for the determination of Trudeau to insure the sovereignty of individual conscience and consequence over any demand of state or collectivity.
This is what Quebecers are for. This is the message that Bouchard-Taylor should have sent. A message that the “crisis” over accommodation is not only one of perception, but that the very idea of accommodating these universal principles of liberal pluralism to any other standard is not up for negotiation. That we as a people will not succumb. That we will strive for greatness.