Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Let the debate begin

Commission unveils timetable on accommodation hearings

ANN CARROLL, The Gazette

Quebecers will finally have a chance to say how they really feel about accommodating newcomers, the Bouchard-Taylor commission says.

After five months of preparation, research and focus groups, the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences has unveiled a schedule of hearings and informal "town hall" meetings across Quebec, from August until December.

The commissioners - sociologist and historian Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor - are to submit a report and recommendations to Premier Jean Charest on March 31, 2008.

"It's important for us to reach as many people as possible and give them the opportunity to express themselves freely," Taylor said yesterday at a news conference in Montreal.

"A lot has remained unsaid (about immigrants) and there's an unease that has not yet clearly been expressed."

Charest created the commission on Feb. 8 - six weeks before the provincial election - to avoid the political minefield of defining reasonable accommodation with immigrants.

From the norms adopted by the Hrouxville council for newcomers to a ban on Muslim girls wearing hijabs during sports competitions, accommodation flashpoints all but derailed the election campaign and helped boost Mario Dumont's Action Democratique du Quebec to second place at the polls.

Bouchard and Taylor declined yesterday to be drawn into the political storm over accommodation.

They also refused to comment on Dumont's recent speculation that Quebec might have maxed its limits for integrating new immigrants.

Immigration quotas are a "difficult and complex question" that requires more data than now available, Bouchard said.

The commission, with a budget of $5 million and an advisory panel of 15 government and academic experts, has been asked to examine accommodation practices and make recommendations.

Reasonable accommodation is a legal notion, defining equality in a diverse society. But the phrase in Quebec has come to encompass everyday gestures that help integrate immigrant customs and religious practices into the broader society.

Taylor and Bouchard said they are taking the widest possible view of their mandate, and will look at the root problem of integration in Quebec society.

"Everyone knew there were immigrants in Quebec," Bouchard said. "But it's now as if, all of a sudden, Quebecers have really become aware of immigrants."

The awakening has only exacerbated Quebecers' old fears of losing their identity, he said.

Old-stock francophone Quebecers, sometimes called Qubcois de souche, are a minority in Canada and North America and seem insecure in the face of immigrant minorities in the province, Bouchard said.

That might explain why the issue of reasonable accommodation is now more hotly debated in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada, he added.

Quebecers need to regain confidence and show the "openness and generosity of spirit" that majorities have toward minorities in their midst, Taylor said.

Commission findings might help dispel some of Quebecers' fears, Bouchard said.

Concerns about a veiled Muslim woman's right to vote, for example, might seem disproportionate in light of the fact Muslim women make up less than one per cent of the population in Quebec, he noted.

The commission's first citizens forum and hearings takes place in Gatineau Sept. 10-11.

Montreal public hearings and "town hall" meetings are scheduled Nov. 26-30.

The commission has also asked the Institut du nouveau monde, an independentpublic-information and consultation organization, to organize four forums.

The first province-wide forum will be held in Montreal Aug. 24. Interested individuals must register with the institute online ( or by calling 1-877-934-5999, Local 263.

Meanwhile, the Quebec Human Rights Commission is taking a closer look at the place of religion in Quebec society. The commission has set up a link on its website ( to provide statistics, research documents and previous legal judgments on the issue.

The commission is also seeking public input, and has launched a competition for research papers. The best submissions are to be published by Laval University Press.

Taylor said his group is working closely with the provincial human rights commission. But the two commissions have different mandates, he added.

The Bouchard-Taylor commission will go beyond the strictly legal aspects of accommodation, and evaluate everyday concessions people make to get along.

"A number of our recommendations will go beyond their (human rights) mandate," Taylor said.

For information on the Bouchard-Taylor commission, see