Ties that Bind

Understanding Quebec’s unique brand of multiculturalism.

The Muslim teacher, she worried, would drive her child to extremism. A man was convinced the Muslim faith was ruining Christmas in Quebec. A fellow from Quebec City said he was sick of being forced to purchase kosher food at the supermarket. In Gatineau, a man stood up and stabbed the air with his finger. “Why do the Jews have their own hospital?” he bellowed, referring to Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital.

These comments were made voluntarily, in public, by citizens who, far from being cowed by the abject ignorance tumbling from their mouths, often seemed possessed by or drunk on their own righteousness. At the head of these often packed meetings, two weighty intellectuals nodded and (usually) thanked the participants. Sometimes they asked questions. Often their faces were masks of weariness and frustration.

So went the latter half of 2007 for Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the two intellectuals who were mandated by Quebec’s Liberal government of the day to travel the province to take its pulse on “reasonable accommodations”—the practice of granting special provisions to religious minorities. It was a long slog, for Bouchard and Taylor as well as for the press corps, which faithfully followed the pair around as they attracted roomfuls of mostly disgruntled people.

To be fair, many people were disgruntled precisely because there were so many other people inferring that immigrants and other non-whites were ruining Quebec’s distinctly lapsed Catholic version of Christmas and the like. Yet as Bouchard and Taylor found out, it was impossible to ignore the legions of mouth breathers for whom, to borrow the words of an even weightier intellectual, l’enfer, c’est les autres.

I covered what was officially known as the “Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences” as one of my first assignments for Maclean’s. Up until the reasonable accommodations business—you run out of breath trying to say the formal title—the most I had suffered from Canadians living outside of Quebec was the typically earnest cluelessness about the province’s French fact.

Things changed when, in early 2007, the town of Hérouxville (population: 1,235 almost entirely white, francophone souls) published a code of conduct outlawing, among other things, religious face coverings, stoning of women and the “genital mutilation” of the town’s womenfolk. More than one friend called me to ask, more earnestly than usual, “What the fuck is going on there?” Hérouxville seemed to confirm the unspoken beliefs many have about Quebec society as an unwelcoming bastion of social austerity, one perpetually frightened that its uniformity might be disturbed. I could stand the endless stripper, poutine and dépanneur jokes from my Ontario brethren. But Quebec as a racist backwater? It hurt—much as the truth might.

Clearly, Gérard Bouchard was off put as well. Apparently, co-authoring a 310-page report on what became known as Quebec’s reasonable accommodations crisis with Charles Taylor was not enough for the Saguenay-born professor of history and sociology (and older brother of Lucien, Quebec’s former premier). In 2012, four years after this report was published and promptly ignored by the very Liberal government that had commissioned it, Bouchard published a book furthering his thoughts on immigration and the conundrum of acceptance in Quebec. The English version, Interculturalism: A View from Quebec, was published in January. It is less an addendum to the Bouchard-Taylor report than a treatise on “interculturalism,” one of the report’s little understood precepts.

Although you have probably never heard of it, interculturalism is the Quebec government’s official accepted way of integrating immigrants into its society. You read that right: much as Quebec did not sign Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982, it never endorsed the country’s multiculturalism policy of 1971. Multicultural in fact, Quebec is not multicultural by law.

Not that the Quebec government realizes as much. The earliest ­reference I could find to interculturalism was in a Quebec government policy paper in 1981. It remained a favourite of certain policy wonks, Bouchard included, until at least 2011, when I first wrote about the subject. Despite being official Quebec policy, no one in government could tell me how long it had been in place. “It’s been like that for a number of years, I think,” a spokesperson for Quebec’s immigration minister told me at the time. He did not appreciate my chuckle, or seeing his name attached to the quotation the following week.

To be fair to the poor fellow, Bouchard himself cannot pin down the date in a book largely dedicated to the subject—much less give it a definition that does not span a 30-page chapter. A non-verbose definition of interculturalism is a tall order, because as Bouchard points out it describes a policy as well as the process by which this policy came to be. “[Interculturalism] particularly found its source in what was perhaps the most important cultural change of the Quiet Revolution, namely a redefinition of the French Canadian nation, now centred in Quebec,” Bouchard writes.

In the interest of clarity, here is my definition: interculturalism is a contract between new arrivals to Quebec and Quebec society itself, through which integration of all Quebecers—immigrant or ­otherwise—occurs through a shared, French-speaking culture. Or, even simpler: speak French in public, engage Quebec culture in general, and anxieties over cultural differences will evaporate like so much sap through a still.

Interculturalism lies somewhere between multiculturalism’s fetishization of difference and France’s assimilate-or-die model that has effectively disenfranchised several generations of mostly North African immigrants. For Bouchard, interculturalism is both a survival mechanism for French in Quebec and the balm to soothe Quebec’s ailments vis-à-vis the integration of newcomers within its borders.

“What matters is that the exchanges and interactions advocated by interculturalism engage the majority and the minorities in a dynamics of openness and rapprochement rather than one of entrenchment and tension,” he writes, in a sentence only an intellectual could conjure. Multiculturalism celebrates differences at the expense of all else. Interculturalism—“born of the rejection of multiculturalism,” as Bouchard writes—makes difference possible through the radical sameness of a common language.

I wonder. Doubtless, part of many Quebecers’ prickliness with immigration is language based. Many Quebecers were outraged when Montreal’s Hasidic community asked the administration of a city YMCA to frost their front windows, if only to shade the eyes of the little pischers from the phalanx of sweaty female flesh jiggling away on the treadmills. They were all the more so upon discovering that much of Quebec’s Hasidim can hardly speak French.

And Mordecai Richler did not only enrage nationalists by pillorying Quebec language laws, but also by his inability to string two French words together when defending himself on television as well. (This was hardly his fault; like the vast majority of non-Francophone students of his era, the Quebec government kept him from attending French school.)

Language, though, is hardly the passport into blissful Quebecitude that Bouchard seems to think. Take Quebec’s Islamic population. It doubled between 2001 and 2011, according to Statistics Canada data, and today represents nearly 10 percent of Montreal’s population. As far as language and education are concerned, you could not ask for better candidates. The bulk of these immigrants are from the former French colonies in North Africa, and are by and large university trained. Unlike Quebecers de souche, they are generally prolific at making babies, which is all the better to bolster the province’s moribund birth rate.

Yet immigrants to Quebec, North Africans very much included, suffer from the highest unemployment rate of any such group in the country—nearly 12 percent, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada study. Part of the fault lies with Quebec’s guilds and professional orders, which like many others in Canada are often slow to recognize degrees from foreign universities.

There is another potential, more troubling reason. First generation Muslims tend to be more religiously observant; as such, many Muslim women wear the hijab and, less often, the niqab and abaya. They tend to stick out on the streets of Montreal—never mind in the off-island hinterland—even more than their typically swarthy, bearded husbands. Although they speak French like blazes, these immigrant groups do not always adhere to the “Quebec values” of secularism, equality between men and women and what Bouchard obliquely refers to as “national memory.”

Could this be a factor in the dismal unemployment numbers? This is a huge problem, as Bouchard quite rightly points out in Interculturalism. “The most serious failure of integration is the inability of Quebec society to reduce underemployment among new arrivals, a factor that exacerbates social marginalization.”

In a sense, Interculturalism is at odds with Bouchard’s own work on the Bouchard-Taylor commission. There was a good reason that the trusty media corps followed Bouchard and Taylor around the province for nearly six months. Outraged people make for good copy; outraged people saying outrageous things on the record is even better. It points to a larger truth about the reasonable accommodations debate: it was by and large a media construct, ginned up and splashed onto the front page of Le Journal de Montréal, Quebec’s largest circulation newspaper, which catalogued just about every perceived immigrant affront to Quebec’s culture, often with 60-point headlines.

The Bouchard-Taylor report documents every flashpoint leading up to the 2007 reasonable accommodations “crisis” in its table of contents; it reads like a chronology of the Journal’s own breathless coverage, which gave the perception that immigrant hordes were carpet bombing Quebec society with endless, religiously based demands for accommodation.

Predictably, reality was slightly more benign. In 2013, I asked Quebec’s transport ministry, which has more than five million yearly interactions with the public, how many requests for religious accommodations it had received. The answer: five. No wonder Bouchard and Taylor referred to the reasonable accommodations debate as a “crisis of perception.”

In Interculturalism, though, Bouchard gives legitimacy to these loud voices, suggesting they are a reflection of profound and perpetual uncertainty as to the future of French in North America. “Public sentiments, especially in times of crisis, can be fueled by baseless or objectionable motivations, and we therefore need to be wary of them and fight them,” he writes. “But the mood of the population can also express a form of wisdom.” And, later, “francophone Quebec faces constraints that are a source of vulnerability and that fuel a feeling of insecurity.”

Of course, of course. The man practically retching at the prospect of consuming kosher food and the woman worried that her son’s hijab-wearing kindergarten teacher will convince him to strap on a suicide vest are not blatantly xenophobic; they are merely expressing their worry that new arrivals to Quebec cannot properly conjugate the verb être.

It is all the more disappointing that Bouchard gives even an ounce of credence to this hateful claptrap, given his own take on immigration. Like the Maple Leaf–draped multiculturalist he decries throughout the book, Bouchard is a firm believer in the necessity of immigration. He takes to task the paleo-nationalist argument that increasing immigration levels will turn Quebec into some sort of multiculturalist gulag.

Bouchard hits his stride in Interculturalism’s afterword, written in the wake of the Parti Québécois government’s so-called “Quebec values charter.” Introduced to the Quebec public by way of a leak to (you guessed it) Le Journal de Montréal, the PQ’s proposed charter sought to restrict the wearing of what it called “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols by Quebec’s public sector workers. Unlike Bouchard, who favours a restriction on religious accoutrements only for those with powers of coercion (police, judges and the like), PQ minister and charter architect Bernard Drainville wished to restrict such things from the heads, necks and lapels of anyone drawing a government paycheque. Such a prohibition was necessary, he said at the time, to “recognize and affirm some of the fundamental values that define us as Quebecers.”

Others saw it as a cynical pre-electoral gambit to rally the Parti Québécois base—the white, French nous (“us”)—on the backs of the province’s cultural communities. Notably, Quebec’s Muslim, Jewish and Sikh communities were united in their outrage, and more than one wag suggested Montreal should be renamed Drain Ville. That is exactly what would happen to the blessed city if the charter became law.

Bouchard was apoplectic at the prospect of such a law. His defining moment came during an appearance with Drainville on the popular talk show Tout le Monde en Parle in the fall of 2013. “You are legislating on matters that you don’t understand,” Bouchard said, with a hint of his brother’s deliciously indignant fury. “You went into this whole thing being ignorant of the situation.”

The PQ government lost the ensuing election in 2014, and along with it went Drainville’s charter. It is a moment of triumph for Bouchard, who sees the PQ’s collapse—it was the party’s worst electoral defeat in terms of popular vote in 44 years—as a kind of reaffirmation that Quebecers are fundamentally a welcoming people. “Every opposition party in the National Assembly came out against the proposed charter and close to half of Quebecers rejected the charter,” he writes.

So: is Quebec more xenophobic than the rest of the country? Maybe, maybe not. One thing is certain, though. The question cannot be answered based solely on the sideshow of the Bouchard-Taylor commission. Mistrust of difference is alive and well across the country as it is everywhere. The one difference is that the Quebec government, for good or ill, gave people a public forum to proudly voice this mistrust.

Okay, two differences. Quebec is also home to the only mainstream political party in Canada to exploit this mistrust for political gain. Although it failed miserably in 2014, its current leadership has since doubled down. During a March leadership debate to replace Pauline Marois, who resigned on election night, leadership hopeful Pierre Karl Péladeau pressed the necessity of separating Quebec from Canada post haste. “We don’t have 25 years ahead of us to achieve it,” he said. “With demographics, with immigration, we’re definitely losing one riding each year.”

There were echoes of Jacques Parizeau’s “money and some ethnic votes” comment, which he uttered following the Parti Québécois 1995 referendum defeat. Unlike Parizeau, Péladeau apologized for his remarks. Many Péquistes, though, wondered aloud why he would do such a thing. After all, they said, it is the truth.

Perhaps the real measure of Quebec’s tolerance for others does not hinge on Quebecers’ embrace of interculturalism. Perhaps it depends on how successful the Parti Québécois will be in seeking out electoral favour by targeting those who do not look like nous.