OPINION

Quebec: maybe identity is the real problem

The Bouchard-Taylor commission said xenophobia is bad; anglophobia, not so much.

ANDREW COYNE June 9 2008
OPINION

Quebec: maybe identity is the real problem

The Bouchard-Taylor commission said xenophobia is bad; anglophobia, not so much.

ANDREW COYNE June 9 2008

Quebec: maybe identity is the real problem

OPINION

ANDREW COYNE

When Victor-Lévy Beaulieu issued his now famous denunciation of the Governor General as the “Reine-Negre” (literally, the Negro queen) of Quebec, he had a ready defence against the storm of indignation it aroused.

Why, no, the writer and separatist protested, his use of the phrase was not meant to call attention to her black skin. Pas du tout. He was only making a play on the term roi-negre, used in colonial times to denote a particularly pliant kind of local ruler, propped up to give the natives the illusion of autonomy. Perhaps you’ve spotted the subtle analogy: her role, as a francophone Quebecer, was to placate Quebec, on behalf of her English masters.

So you see? It isn’t that she’s black. It’s that she’s an Uncle Tom. What on earth is all the fuss about?

This is a variant on what I call the Péladeau defence. When the late Pierre Péladeau, the nationalist chairman of Quebecor, was quoted as saying Jews “take up too much space” in Quebec, his defence, like Beaulieu’s, was that he had been misconstrued: it wasn’t their religion or their ethnicity he found so suffocating, but their unfortunate habit of speaking English. It’s not that they’re Jews. It’s just that they’re squareheads.

The distinction, I should say, is hardly unique to Péladeau. It is a familiar part of the province’s political discourse, trotted out whenever, as often happens, some nationalist politician lets slip a remark that inadvertently reveals a view of a Quebec divided between “nous,” the overwhelmingly white French-speaking majority, and that ineffably foreign remainder. Quickly, the chastened public figure issues a clarification, or is made to. It is the French language that makes us nous-, so far as minorities are prepared to speak French, it is always open to them to join. Of course.

It is no surprise, then, to find the same dichotomy running throughout the recent report of the Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’acommodement reliées aux differences culturelles, or as it is more popularly known, the Bouchard-Taylor commission, after its two distinguished chairs: the sociologist Gérard Bouchard and the philosopher Charles Taylor. Their report has been rightly praised for its phlegmatic response to the near-hysteria that prevailed in the province a couple of years ago over the supposedly unreasonable demands of religious minorities for “accommodation,” and more broadly over the place of immigrants in Quebec society. The incidents that had sparked so much concern, the commission argued, were almost invariably overblown. Fears once inflamed by a sensationalist media and demagogic politicians had since largely subsided.

While there would inevitably be the odd occasion where differing religious traditions came into conflict, it went on, these could for the most part be negotiated by people of goodwill: no need to drag the courts into every dispute. So far as the state entered into it, its role was to maintain a scrupulous neutrality, neither preferring one religion to another nor banning all religious displays from the public square, but rather practising what the commissioners called “open secularism.” Thus most ordinary civil servants would be permitted to wear religious symbols, but not judges or police officers. The crucifix would be removed from the National Assembly, but not the cross from the top of Mount Royal.

The Bouchard-Taylor commission said xenophobia is bad; anglophobia, not so much.

So far, so good. If the commissioners were rather too willing to pretend that Quebec’s “interculturalism” differed in some profound way from the “multiculturalism” practised in the rest of the country, they were nevertheless brave enough to suggest, not only that immigrants would inevitably have a hand in shaping—and changing—Quebec’s culture, but that they had a perfect right to do so. If some of their prescriptions for addressing intolerance— a ban on inciting discrimination, for example— were half-baked, the broader message, that a civil society imposes mutual obligations, on hosts and newcomers alike, was welcome.

Where they err, however, is in their diagnosis of how it came to this. If, as they claim, there is no particular problem of intolerance in Quebec, why was the commission convened? Why did the province, as they suggest at one point, come close to “spinning out of control” over the issue? There is an attempt at an answer. The problem, they note, is that French-speaking Quebecers are both a majority in Quebec and a minority in North America. Plagued by the minority’s “anxiety over identity,” they are unable to “behave like a serene majority.” The implication, as always, is that only when the place of the French language is assured will that serenity come.

But should we take that anxiety over identity” as a given? Or was it, in effect, a choice—a choice to make Quebec’s identity, linguistic or otherwise, the primary object of state policy, the rock on which Quebec would be built? Societies, after all, do not always do so. In place of identity—a set of traits that supposedly mark one group of people out as distinct from others, the preservation of which requires constant vigilance against impurities—a society may instead choose to emphasize a set of common political ideals, as in the American example: ideals like freedom, openness, and the equality of every citizen.

The commission is distressed to find so much intolerance of religious differences, even as it calls for further tightening of the province’s language laws, to require the use of French in all businesses with more than 20 employees. But the distinction it seeks to draw—xenophobia bad; anglophobia, not so much—is a false one. Language is not so easily severed from culture, nor is culture from ethnicity. It cannot have escaped notice that, 30 years after Bill 101, French-speaking Quebecers are no more reconciled to the presence of minorities in their midst than they were before. Perhaps identity, far from being the solution, is the problem.

ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Coyne, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewcoyne