Politics

Chris Selley: Quebec academics’ reasonable accommodations report an oil slick that just keeps growing

When Quebec premier Jean Charest unveiled the Bouchard-Taylor Commission just over 12 years ago, there was a widespread sense of relief. The reasonable accommodations debate was spinning out of control. The world was gawping at Hérouxville, the all-white hamlet with its hysterically Islamophobic code of conduct (no stoning women within city limits!) and its mayor who wanted martial law declared to protect Quebec culture. It was at least embarrassing, potentially dangerous.

Tweedy sociologist Gérard Bouchard and equally tweedy philosopher Charles Taylor would take things off the boil: tour the province, hear people’s grievances, sort the genuine from the crazy and come up with something everyone could live with. The opposition Parti Québécois was on board. “There’s nothing like a year of scholarly discussion to drain the passion out of any issue,” the Montreal Gazette opined in an editorial, “at least for a while.”

It didn’t really even do it for a while. Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique rode nativist angst to official opposition. In response, the PQ embraced nativist angst as well. Meanwhile Charest’s and, later, Philippe Couillard’s governments got busy doing nothing about the Bouchard-Taylor recommendations — notably that judges, prosecutors, police officers and other wielders of state authority not wear religious symbols. When the Liberals finally threw the mob a bone in 2017, in the form of Bill 62, justice minister Stéphanie Vallée found herself banning women who wear niqabs from riding public buses.

Far from cleaning things up, the Bouchard-Taylor gambit ended with everyone covered in grime.

Hearings began in Quebec City this week over the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s Bill 21, which would extend the Bouchard-Taylor-recommended restrictions to teachers and, Premier François Legault hopes, put the whole issue to bed. Indeed, that’s the main defence he offers of the law: not so much that it’s a correct or necessary package of restrictions on minority rights, but that it’s the package of restrictions most likely to be accepted by the majority and make this whole ass-ache go away.

Others are more … passionate, shall we say. On Wednesday, a bona fide Université de Montréal professor argued as follows: Belgian cartoon cowboy Lucky Luke used to be depicted constantly hacking a dart; lest children start smoking, he is now depicted chewing on a wisp of straw; ergo teachers should not be allowed to wear hijabs.

On Thursday former Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette opined that while women might say they choose to wear the hijab, it’s not really a choice but rather an endorsement of forced child marriage.

It’s like the Bouchard-Taylor hearings all over again, just with more postnominals.

The report continues to utterly befuddle the Liberals, who are in the middle of a leadership race and trying to figure out just what the hell they stand for, if anything. “We’re the party of individual rights,” they half-state/half-ask, with Bill 62 looming over their heads as if in an editorial cartoon. Bouchard-Taylor is their baby. Yet they deplore Bill 21, which Legault accurately describes as not much more than Bouchard-Taylor. Are we supposed to believe the difference between a just and unjust society rests on whether or not teachers get the shaft? No one does, surely.

Far from cleaning things up, the Bouchard-Taylor gambit ended with everyone covered in grime

Hardliners still see the report as essentially a thinly veiled multiculturalist manifesto, and some are now turning to mockery: In Thursday’s Journal de Montréal, columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté likened Bouchard and Taylor to a “comic duo.” He has a point. Bouchard dubiously calls Bill 21 “radical” relative to the report he co-authored because it targets teachers, and even more dubiously suggests it would be constitutional — and not require use of the Notwithstanding clause — but for teachers’ inclusion. Taylor repudiated the whole document in 2017 after the slaughter at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City, arguing restrictions on civil servants’ religious attire risked “stigmatising” minorities. He deplores Bill 21, says it reflects a society “full of Islamophobia.” It’s a heck of a mystery how he failed to notice this in years previous, when people were freaking out about pork-free meals at sugar shacks and the horrors of accidentally ingesting halal meat.

Taylor tried to explain his change of heart in 2017: “I supported (restrictions on public servants’ religious symbols) because I believed that in the atmosphere following the debate on reasonable accommodations, not imposing these restrictions would shock public opinion to the point of endangering … open secularism.”

And there, indeed, is the rub. What this debate needed all along were prominent, influential voices to stand up for the perfectly successful status quo — to argue that a police officer in a turban or a teacher in a hijab dispassionately performing his or her duties to the state and its citizens is not an affront to state neutrality but the purest expression of it; or, failing that, to say “get over it, work it out yourselves, the government has bigger fish to fry.”

Alas, that ship sailed and sank many years ago, with the professors emeritus riding the bow. The oil slick just keeps growing.

• Email: cselley@nationalpost.com | Twitter: cselley

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