The two-year-old debate on reasonable accommodation in Quebec has been criticized for lifting the lid on some very ugly attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, but the divisive topic seems to have also drawn sovereignists and federalists closer than either camp might care to admit.
What began as a term for accommodating the workplace needs of the disabled and the devout has now become a catch-phrase for Quebecers concerned that demands by religious minorities are threatening the secularism and culture of the province. The Liberals, the Parti Québécois (PQ) and the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) are all scrambling to position themselves as the party that would best preserve Quebec identity The term attracted international coverage in 2006 when the municipality of Herouxville, a small town north of Trois-Rivieres, issued its code of standards for immigrants: along with a description of the town’s secular values, the code advised immigrants that they may not burn and stone women. Herouxville was immediately denounced as an embarrassment by many Quebec politicians. Liberal Premier Jean Charest described it as an “isolated case.” But a month after Herouxville adopted its code, and seven of the ten neighbouring municipalities expressed their support, Charest announced he would name a commission to hold public consultations on the topic and make its recommendations to the provincial government, tapping scholars Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard as the commissioners The Bouchard-Taylor hearings captured the public imagination. During the lead-up to the 2007 provincial election, the Liberals and the PQ were slow to appreciate how deeply the issue resonated with Quebec voters. But both parties soon found themselves in a serious three-way race with the ADQ. A part of the ADQ’s popularity came from its espousal of Quebec autonomy, rather than independence, and its robust stance on reasonable accommodation. After a harrowing election, Charest and his incumbent Liberals scraped by with a minority government. Soon after, in submission to the Bouchard-Taylor panel, the party announced a plan to require would-be immigrants to sign a moral commitment stating they understood “Quebec values.” The party also said it would amend the Quebec charter to stress women’s equality (an otiose amendment, critics say, since the charter already guarantees equality of the sexes). The notion behind Herouxville’s standards, once derided as a contemptuous gesture toward immigrants, has essentially been adopted, albeit in less colourful form, by the ruling Liberal party. All three political parties still repudiate ugly attitudes toward immigrants and minorities. But capturing the unexpected upsurge in popular feeling the issue has turned up is a new priority. “We certainly underestimated the importance of the issue,” says Benoît Pelletier, Quebec minister for Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs. Pelletier says the debate moved from reports on religious accommodations to encompass the perennial question of Quebec identity. “As federalists, we are [just] as concerned with Quebec’s identity as sovereignists are,” he says. The Liberal party hasn’t been popularly equated with preserving Quebec identity since the Jean Lesage era of the 1960s, but Charest, a former Tory, has recently announced a more stringent enforcement of Bill 101, among other measures. Preserving a secular, francophone-majority nation, it seems, is no longer just a sovereignist goal. For its part, the Parti Québécois has tried to woo back voters who flocked to the ADQ in the last election by reasserting its traditional role. “The PQ took it for granted that they were the only ones defending the culture,” says Guy Lachapelle, a professor of political science at Concordia University. “That changed with the ADQ.” After falling to a very humiliating third place in the elections, behind the ADQ (which grew from five seats to forty-one), the Parti Québécois ousted its leader, André Boisclair. Now under veteran political animal Pauline Marois, the PQ has been trying to woo back its disaffected base. The PQ’s attempt to reassert lost ground has been most spectacular when it comes to responding to the reasonable-accommodation debate. Last summer, Marois tabled a bill in the Quebec National Assembly that would require immigrants to learn French before acquiring the right to run for public office or petition the legislature. It also proposed that the Quebec charter be interpreted with “due regard ... to the historical heritage of the Quebec nation and to its fundamental values” and “appreciation of Quebec culture.” Significantly, the word “sovereignty” was absent from the proposed legislation. Although reiterated as the party’s top priority in its 2005 platform, sovereignty through a referendum had been placed on the back burner. “The problem we had, for the past years, is we were referendists,” says Martin Lemay, a PQ Member of the National Assembly (MNA) and party critic on immigration, cultural communities and citizenship. “We have to talk about sovereignty and policies, and not just referendums.” Lemay voices a widespread concern in the PQ that the party has neglected the “why” of sovereignty, focusing too much on the “how.” The new approach seems to be working. A recent poll suggests Quebecers believe the PQ is the party best suited to deal with reasonable accommodation and protect the French language. As one Marois confidant told the Toronto Star, “If we can harness this sentiment, then we can steer the discussion back to sovereignty.” The PQ is unapologetic if its message comes off as intolerant. “We were more multicultural than the Liberals,” says Lemay. “We made a mistake.” He says immigrants in a multicultural society gravitate toward the majority in language. “In Quebec the majority isn’t clear,” he says, referring to Quebecers’ status as a French-speaking minority in North America. “We wanted the rest of the world to see that were open and not bigots. But there’s also a French community that wants to survive and flourish.” Lest anyone remember Jacques Parizeau’s infamous “money and the ethnic vote” comment from the 1995 referendum, Lemay says the PQ is opposed to ethnic nationalism and welcomes immigrants to Quebec. “What we’re saying is: you have to learn French, and we’ll provide the resources to ensure you [do].” When Charest initially appointed the commission, critics ridiculed the move as a hasty response to inroads being made by Dumont ahead of the 2007 elections and to the incessant coverage of the topic by the francophone media. “It was a lack of leadership,” says Lachapelle. “Mr. Charest, instead of saying this is a secondary issue, started a commission.” But the commission offered a chance for Quebecers across the province to sound off on the topic. Although at times the consultations threatened to become a soapbox for anti-immigrant and xenophobic views, especially toward Muslims and Jews, the hearings showed that Quebecers aren’t willing to leave the preservation of their values, identity and institutions to politicians and the courts. The controversy over reasonable accommodation “sparked a debate on who we are, and what kind of society we want,” says Jeff Heinrich, a Montreal Gazette reporter and co-author of an upcoming account of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. “It became a commission on the future of Quebec. If this is a society where you agree on common values, what do you do with all these side deals for accommodation?” The difference in Quebec’s reaction to accommodation, says Heinrich, in part owes to an emphasis on community above the individual. How accommodations affect the larger francophone community—and not the minority—has become the overriding concern. The Liberal party’s plan to compete with the PQ as guardian of Quebec identity has, unsurprisingly, generated resistance from hard-liners within the camp. Staunch Quebec federalists say the party’s reasonable-accommodation proposals give too much ground to Quebec nationalists. Despite Marois’ recent pledge to shelve an immediate referendum in a bid to retune the party’s electability, the PQ insists that no amount of federal concessions will dampen the sovereignist movement in the long-term. Though it’s clear that the PQ’s reasonable-accommodation proposals (Quebec citizenship, tougher language laws, a school curriculum favouring Quebec nationalism) offer their own risks: in trying to win back francophones, they’re alienating the ever-growing immigrant communities who’d eventually have to be onside for a successful referendum. For now, the debate on reasonable accommodation and the absence of enthusiasm among voters for another referendum have provided a rare middle ground for Quebec federalists and sovereignists. “I still feel that polarization,” says Pelletier. “It still exists, and maybe because it does exist it’s important to define some common values.”