Sunday, December 16, 2007

Quebec’s debate on ‘reasonable accommodation’ — a socialist view

In recent months Quebec has been immersed in a collective debate on its “national identity”. It erupted in 2006 when the mass media began making a fuss about a few incidents in which members of minority “cultural communities” — mainly Muslims, but also Jews, Sikhs and others — had requested and in some cases obtained measures to accommodate their particular religious beliefs.

Some Muslim students, pursuant to a complaint to Quebec’s human rights commission, had been allocated prayer space in an engineering school. A community health clinic had organized women-only prenatal classes for some Muslims. A school’s ruling that a Sikh student could not wear his kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, because it was a “weapon” was overturned by the Supreme Court, which recognized the kirpan as a religious artefact. Hassidic Jews had requested, and paid for, the frosting of the windows of a YMCA gym to shield teenage males at their neighbouring school from the sight of females working out.

These and similar incidents — all equally banal — were given greater weight when Mario Dumont, the leader of the right-wing Action démocratique party (ADQ), seized on them to campaign in opposition to “unreasonable accommodation” of such practices and in defence of “Quebec values and identity”. His message resonated in some circles. In one notorious incident, the council in Hérouxville, a small town north of Trois-Rivières, posted a “code of conduct” instructing prospective immigrants that they would not tolerate certain practices such as “the stoning of women”.

The opposition to “accommodation” of minorities was clearly motivated in part by the climate of fear of “others” generated by the “war on terror”, and the media attention was not unrelated to the Islamophobia that is part and parcel of the campaign in support of Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan. But it soon became clear that this xenophobia — or “heterophobia” as some call it — also reflected some deeper concerns and insecurities about the status and future of the French language and culture within the native Francophone population, an 80% majority within Quebec but a 20% minority within Canada.

At first, the governing Liberals and (then) official opposition Parti québécois did little to resist Dumont’s demagogy. But the campaign raged on, and in February of this year, on the eve of the Quebec election campaign, Premier Jean Charest appointed a commission of inquiry to examine the issue of reasonable accommodation.

The Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (commonly referred to as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, after its co-chairmen, Professors Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor) was instructed to “formulate recommendations to the government to ensure that accommodation practices conform to Québec’s values as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society,” and to deliver its report by March 31, 2008. Bouchard and Taylor commissioned various research reports and this fall held public hearings throughout Quebec.


Bouchard and Taylor

In all, some 3,300 persons attended the hearings, and 764 of them made presentations to the commissioners. More than 960 written briefs were presented; many of them are posted on the commission’s web site.

The hearings were given wide media coverage. The commission heard many presentations that were racist and xenophobic, especially in rural areas far from Montréal, where most of Quebec’s minority “cultural communities” are located. But when the hearings moved to Montréal, near the end, there were many strong and often moving presentations made by minority representatives themselves explaining the importance to them of their religious beliefs and providing much-needed context to the recent events.

The public debate tended to raise many issues that went far beyond the concept of “reasonable accommodation”, a legal concept that has traditionally referred primarily to special measures taken to aid pregnant women (special leave, lighter duties) or the handicapped and other disadvantaged persons (ramps, special education classes, etc.) and facilitate their participation with equal rights, if not equal circumstances, in society. At issue now were important questions addressed to the fundamental values and concepts identified with Quebec citizenship, and more specifically how immigrants and other non-native Francophone communities could be welcomed and integrated within Quebec’s predominantly French-speaking society. And the debate highlighted, once again, some important differences pertaining to these issues not only within Quebec but between prevailing conceptions of Quebec nationhood in Quebec and conflicting conceptions of Canadian citizenship promoted by the federal government.

(The Commission specifically excluded from its consideration the “rights and prerogatives” already accorded to Quebec’s English-speaking community, and “the political and legal status of the aboriginal peoples”, eleven of which are recognized as distinct “nations” in Quebec law.)

I’ll have much more to say in subsequent posts about this vast “débat de société”, which sheds some much-needed light on key issues relating to the Quebec national question. But readers will benefit greatly from considering what some Québécois themselves have to say on these questions. And in particular, what the socialists have to contribute to the debate.

A valuable contribution is an article by Benoit Renaud, a leader of the International Socialists, a recognized “collective” or political current within Québec solidaire (QS), the new party of the left. Renaud was involved in drafting the QS brief to the Bouchard-Taylor commission, and his article was published in mid-November as part of that process. The QS brief, which was presented to the commission on December 11, is now available (in French only) on the party's web site. I will comment on it later.

Renaud’s article appears in the November issue of the journal Résistance!. Here it is, my translation. – RF

Issues facing the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

By Benoit Renaud

November 16, 2007

This commission was established by the Charest government just before the elections last March, in the wake of a campaign led by the ADQ and relayed by the media to the effect that “unreasonable” accommodations of religious and cultural minorities were becoming so numerous as to constitute a threat to “Québécois values and identity”.

The reaction of the government (and the PQ) was initially to refuse to address the issue; they said the ADQ was exaggerating and that these questions should be left to be settled by mutual agreement or through the courts. But the increasing number of “cases”, which for the most part had nothing to do with reasonable accommodation in the strict sense (a legal decision based on the Charters and designed to avoid situations of indirect discrimination), ended up drawing the PQ, and the government, onto the minefield laid by the sensationalist media and fueled by ADQ leader Mario Dumont’s statements.

The ADQ positioned itself as the party that defended Quebec identity and culture against the threat represented by immigration and minorities. The other two big parties ended up adopting variable doses of the same medicine, combined with some empty liberal phrases against the dangers of racism. But no one stated clearly that this was a campaign about looking for scapegoats to blame for the very real crisis of the Quebec national project, the primary responsibility for which lies with the major political parties and our elites.

Islamophobia, immigration and sovereignty

Six years of “war against terrorism”, coming on top of a long history of colonialism in the Middle East, have fueled every possible prejudice toward Muslims and the peoples associated with them in the western imagination (including Arabs of Christian or atheist persuasion, Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, etc.). When the municipal council members in Hérouxville adopted their “code of life”, it was because it had been hammered into them for some years — in the mass media and through the mouths of political leaders like Stephen Harper and Tony Blair — that the evil fundamentalist terrorists are “against our way of life” and that we are in a “war of civilizations”.

The presence of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is based on this colonialist ideology, which holds that women and children in the Muslim countries need the protection of Christian white men against the irrational and violent men of their own society. It is necessary, therefore, to escape this logic of war as fast as possible and make Quebec a place of welcome for those men and women who are fleeing imperialism, whether they are Iraqi or Afghan refugees or U.S. soldiers who refuse to go and fight for the wealth and power of their leaders.

In all Western societies, immigration is used in the interests of economic growth without much thought being given to the genuine social, cultural and political integration of these new people. The effect is to reinforce tendencies to ghettoization on the one side and xenophobia on the other — irrespective of one’s theoretical model of citizenship, whether it is the French concept of jus soli or right of the soil, the U.S. concept of the “melting pot”, or Canadian multiculturalism.

There is no alternative but to break with the neoliberal logic in its entirety if we are to develop a vision of immigration that is based on both the rights and needs of immigrants and the collective aspirations of the host society.

The sovereigntist project, which for forty years was embodied in the Parti québécois, has been undermined from within by the PQ’s enthusiastic embrace of neoliberalism and its strategy of accommodation with imperialism as a means of facilitating recognition of a sovereign Quebec following a referendum victory. But the very idea of national independence becomes meaningless if such a victory does not allow Quebec society to defend itself against the effects of globalization and to withdraw from the criminal military alliances led by the United States.

What we tend to forget is that the “renewed federalism” defended by the Liberal party of Robert Bourassa and Claude Ryan until the Charlottetown Accord has likewise failed. What has carried the day, in practice, is the centralizing federalism defended by Trudeau and Chrétien. While the Quebec Liberal party (PLQ) of Jean Charest embodies acceptance of this defeat (hence its declining popularity among Francophones), the ADQ has attempted to resuscitate the project in alliance with the federal Conservatives. But the credibility of this autonomist option is extremely limited and suffers from its association with the right-wing, militarist Harper regime.

Tolerance or struggle against oppression?

The weakness of the liberal response to the xenophobic wave has been amply demonstrated by the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. You cannot respond to a people who are in profound disarray, overwrought and continually assailed by discourses based on fear by simply saying that we must be kind and that diversity and openness are better values than homogeneity and withdrawal into a collective autism.

The kinds of questions that are now being put to the B-T Commission are all caught between the two poles of liberal tolerance and conservative intolerance. No one is talking in terms of oppression, whether of Quebec or of its racialized minorities, or of a struggle (ideally, a common struggle) against these oppressions. Very few people evoke, even in passing, the context of the “war against terrorism” and its ideological consequences, or its effects on our society and the way in which it has managed immigration through 25 years of neoliberalism. No one dares to refer to the two referendum defeats, the two counter-offensives of the federal state that ensued (the Constitution Act, 1982 and the “Clarity” Act), or the strategic impasse in which the sovereigntist movement now finds itself. There is talk of “laïcité” or secularism in terms of individual behaviour or the exclusion of this or that type of clothing or accessory in certain public places. But no one denounces the fact that our government is massively subsidizing faith-based schools.

The logical political consequence of the present polarization would be the election of a majority ADQ government in the next general election (probably next spring) and the election of a majority of Conservative MPs from Quebec in the next federal election. In fact, the conservative, narrow defence of identity has become the alternative to the disoriented sovereigntist project, and the rise of intolerance weakens the determination of the Québécois to oppose the war in Afghanistan and Harper’s militarist regime. The disarray of the centre-right parties (PQ, Canadian and Quebec Liberals, Bloc Québécois) is benefiting almost exclusively the hard right (ADQ and federal Tories).

The response of Québec solidaire

Québec solidaire (QS) had the right idea in denouncing this demagogy based on fear of others. But until now we have maintained a certain ambiguity on the question of accommodations, strictly speaking, and on what is or is not reasonable. This ambiguity was necessary in part so as not to presume the result of our internal discussion process on the topic. But in doing so, we have in fact occupied a position that is simply a bit more liberal (in terms of political theory) than the one held by PQ leader Pauline Marois or Premier Charest, and this has served to keep the debate on the continuum of “reasonableness”.

The tabling of the QS brief to the B-T Commission will be a golden opportunity to stake out a distinct position for our party within the political landscape. But to do so, Québec solidaire’s intervention must be based on clear statements and bold proposals.

In the first place, it will be necessary to make the link between this debate and the context of the “war against terrorism” and to denounce the irrationality of Islamophobia. Secondly, we must try to clarify the discussion by distinguishing what is truly reasonable accommodation (a legal concept based on rejection of adverse discrimination) from private arrangements (which should not even be matters for discussion), and from policies for the management of cultural and religious diversity in the public sphere, including the workplace.

Reasonable accommodation, strictly speaking, is an application of the individual rights, including freedom of religion, enshrined in the Charters. Challenging this reality would mean abandoning any notion of rights in order to impose the wishes of the majority without regard for individual freedoms. An about-face of this nature would effectively amount to the abandonment of one of the foundations of what we propose as a democratic society.

As for public policies, it would be appropriate to establish some guidelines for the protection of the rights of each and every one, including freedom of religion and expression, without creating any hierarchy among these rights. We ought to define more precisely our model of “laïcité” or secularism on the basis of the orientations already adopted by Quebec in matters of education, language and management of cultural diversity.

For example, for the schools (which were the central issue in the most recent election campaign in Ontario), Quebec might establish a single secular public school system within which the various religions and cultures could coexist. There is nothing to prevent a public school from providing hallal or kosher (or vegetarian) menus, offering optional courses in Hebrew, Arabic or Greek, or allowing young people to wear clothing or accessories associated with their particular religion or culture. But within this public and secular school, everyone would learn together about the history of Quebec, the sciences, arts and the foundations of all the great religions and philosophies of humanity. Quebec could become a society in which the world’s diversity not only coexists (and is tolerated) but meets, within a perspective of creating something new, right here, and in French!

What resolution for this crisis?

A satisfactory and lasting solution for the problems at the origin of the present debates over accommodation must therefore include (1) Quebec’s withdrawal from any participation in the supposed war on terror, (2) a set of policies of resistance to neoliberalism and in defence of social rights and public services, (3) a language policy capable of advancing French as the language of work and the language of adoption of immigrants, and (4) an immigration policy based on recognition of the rights and aspirations of the newcomers and their genuine economic, social and cultural integration in a Quebec society that is in constant evolution.

These policies are conceivable only in a sovereign Quebec. Indeed, foreign and military policy is within Ottawa’s jurisdiction. So also are the major issues of economic policy and international trade. And the Canadian Constitution of 1982 is a major legal obstacle to any strengthening of our language legislation. Finally, the federal government itself is a major employer, especially in the Outaouais region, and its language of work is generally English, even in the Ottawa-Gatineau area.

It is the continuation of Quebec’s minority status within Canada that precludes the success of the inclusive and pluralist national project that emerged in the 1960s, was affirmed in the Charter of the French Language (Law 101) and has now entered into crisis as a result of the failure of the two referendums and the embrace of imperialism by the major sovereigntist parties. The political struggle of the future in Quebec will be between the conservative fallback on “identity” represented by the ADQ and the renewal of the struggle against national oppression in solidarity with the struggles against imperialism abroad and against racism at home. It is on this terrain that Québec solidaire must take its stand.

(From issue No. 43 of the newspaper Résistance!)

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