MONTREAL – The Quebec government refused a government-mandated commission’s recommendation to remove a crucifix from the wall of the Quebec National Assembly and move it to the city hall next door.
But it has not yet commented on the same commission’s recommendation that there should be no prayers at city hall meetings.
Referring to the crucifix as a symbol of “our religious and historical patrimony,” Quebec Prime Minister Jean Charest made it clear that he supports the conclusions of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices related to Cultural Differences, which delivered its 300-page report containing 37 recommendations May 22.
Launched in September 2007, the commission led a Quebec-wide public consultation on the religious and cultural accommodations of immigrants and cultural minorities, in which more than 3,000 people participated and some 900 statements were delivered by the general public and interested organizations. The commission, known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, was directed by two eminent professors: historian and sociologist Gerard Bouchard, the brother of former Quebec Prime Minister Lucien Bouchard, and philosopher Charles Taylor, the author of publications on religious belief and science.
“Integration through pluralism, equality and reciprocity is by far the most commendable reasonable course” when considering the highly charged debate on how to integrate immigrants whose faith practices sometimes collide with the values of a staunchly secular, Francophone and feminist modern Quebec society, the commissioners said.
After hearing testimony from Francophone Quebecers and immigrants with a broad spectrum of religious and cultural beliefs and practices, the commission’s recommendations included one that the Quebec government should produce a white paper on secularism to better define it as a cornerstone of society.
It also proposed a model of “interculturalism” that recognizes the cultural majority, Quebecers of French origin, and at the same time calls for coexistence with cultural minorities. The commission called on the Quebec government to produce legislation to enshrine such a model.
The intercultural model is contrary to the Canadian model of multiculturalism, put in place by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in which there is no official dominant culture in Canada.
The commission’s report, “Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation,” also recommended a strengthening of the secular nature of state institutions, while at the same time protecting the right to freedom of religion for individuals. In this vein, it proposed that state representatives who must perform their functions with neutrality – for example, police officers, judges, magistrates, prosecutors, prison guards and the president and vice president of the Quebec National Assembly – should be banned from wearing religious symbols, including crosses, kirpans and Islamic “hijabs” at work.
But it stated that teachers, students and health professionals, as individuals, have the right to choose to wear such symbols, because displaying their religious beliefs does not compromise their ability to do their jobs properly.
The commission also called on Quebec to increase finances available to state bodies responsible for the integration of immigrants and for a new commission to look at specific ways of speeding up the process of the recognition of the qualifications of immigrant professionals. Many immigrants – including doctors, teachers, lawyers and scientists – have complained of being unable to find jobs in Quebec because their professional qualifications often are not recognized.
“Unfortunately, there are numerous misconceptions and myths about minority groups that have been exaggerated and presented as a threat to Quebec’s Francophone majority, a group that feels its already fragile cultural identity is threatened by immigration,” Bouchard told local media May 22. “This is a misconception; the French identity is strong in Quebec and Quebecers should not feel threatened by immigrants and minorities.”
The commission was launched by Charest in response to a series of often sensationalized media reports over supposed “reasonable accommodations” of immigrants.
The debate started in March 2006, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Sikh schoolboy should be allowed to wear his kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, at school.
Further highly publicized incidents took place. They included the decision by a local YMCA in a neighborhood with a large population of Orthodox Jews to frost its gym windows so that the Jewish men would not have to look at non-Jewish women exercising in gym clothes. A series of controversies also occurred over young Muslim girls demanding the right to wear their veils while playing soccer or practicing judo, contrary to local practice.
The Bouchard-Taylor Commission analyzed these incidents and found that most of them were grossly misreported in the local media, fueling misconceptions about immigrants and ethnic and cultural minorities.