Canada: The Future of Communitarianism and (or in) Quebec

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 5 15:05:43 UTC 2008

 The Future of Communitarianism and (or *in*)

I finally got around to reading the 99-paged abridged
titled "Building The Future: A Time For Reconciliation"--of the findings and
recommendations of Quebec's "Consultation Commission on Accommodation
Practices Related to Cultural
Differences."<>It hasn't
attracted much comment from the American
blogosphere, though it should--I can't think of another work of public
political thinking nearly as careful yet ambitious and serious as this.

Why did I read it? For a couple of reasons. First, because I care about
Canadian politics (see
here <>for
examples)--partly because of old friends we have there, partly because
my family and I have spent a fair amount of time there, but mostly because I
think Canada's political environment brings forward issues and ideas that we
rarely see expressed in the United States, and yet which are, I suspect,
crucial to the future of the modern liberal polity. Of course, this isn't an
original observation. Canada's convoluted constitutional arrangements, its
struggles over language rights, its frequent arguments over national
identity: all have been used creatively and thoughtfully by many
recent decades to explore multiculturalism, liberalism, nationalism
so forth...with the not incidental result of pushing
philosophers and political theorists who know this material best to
the forefront of their respective fields, the greatest example of which
clearly being Charles Taylor. Which leads me to the second reason I read the
report: Taylor was the co-author of it, along with the sociologist GĂ©rard
Bouchard (though both of these men are bilingual, it was typical for Quebec
to appoint co-chairs to the Commission, an Anglophone--Taylor--and a
Francophone--Bouchard). Sucker for communitarian philosophy that I am, I've
read just about everything by Taylor that I could get my hands on (and yes,
my blogging of A Secular
start...soon) for years now, and this report wasn't going to be an
exception. And I'm glad for that, since it was very much worth my time.

To put it in a nutshell, Quebec faces a constant quandary, a question about
how to maintain elements of its particular constitutive cultural identity
(which is itself hardly that of an isolated, inclosed, premodern Amish
community, but rather is actually quite modern and liberal, as far as these
things go) in the midst of both the larger multicultural reality
without--the federation of Canada, of course, though also in a sense all of
North America--and the emerging challenge of multicultural accommodation
within--represented in this report mostly by Muslim ethnic and religious
movements, but more broadly pertaining to many other such internal
challenges as well. In writing this report, Taylor and Bouchard have
essentially written an instruction manual for liberal nationalists and
communitarians everywhere. What the report has to say about "
interculturalism," "harmonization," "public language," and more, all gives
examples of what the practical project of maintaining a community--a
community without the advantage of being tiny or the ward of an overarching
pluralistic state, but rather a community which sees itself as a "nation"
and thus must governs itself in light of international trends and
realities--requires today.

The background story of the report is pretty straightforward. A little more
than a year ago, following a series of continuing controversies over
immigration and cultural (in)sensitivity that had grown in intensity (though
the report suggests that much of that supposed intensity has been the
product of media-enabled misperceptions on all sides), the Quebec government
called for the formation of a commission to conduct public hearings,
investigate legal claims and allegations, and make recommendations as to how
Quebec ought to handle such controversies in the future. The overarching
goal was to articulate, within the context of the sort of society Quebec is
and presumably wants to remain, a policy regarding the "reasonable
accommodation" of diversity and minority claims which greater numbers of
Quebecers could accept. This led to the appointment of Bouchard and Taylor,
and the beginnings of a long process of dialogue with dozens of communities
and representative groups, a great many of which led, unfortunately, to the
airing of paranoia and suspicion, and sometimes outright bigotry. Jacob
Levy--nicely ensconced at McGill University in Montreal--followed this
process <> for months, and
with the completion of the commission's task and publication of its findings
and recommendations, he conducted a fine online summary discussion of the
Globe and Mail readers. Jacob has been able to talk to Taylor about
report, and Taylor is apparently optimistic about it effects; despite the
fact that, as Jacob
the government of Jean Charest in Quebec immediately squelched the report's
most prominent suggested reform--that the crucifix which hangs on a wall in
the Quebec National Assembly be removed--Taylor apparently feels that the
simple fact that the commission did what it did (note that the front cover
of the report carries the slogan, "dialogue makes a difference") will
contribute to an improvement in feelings in Quebec...or, at the very least,
will have helped prevent feelings and actions from getting much worse.

The report is filled with numerous small details that I would think anyone
interested in issues of religion, culture, and democracy would find
fascinating. (That France combines a rigorous official secularism with
extremely generous state support of religious schooling, for example.) But
for those who care about Quebec, Canada, and what both might have to teach
the U.S. about community and culture in our late-modern world, there are a
few key points in the report which deserve special attention:

1. No amount of theorizing can deny basic demographic and economic choices.

Despite the wishes and fears of unreconstructed, rural, Catholic
Quebecers(whether such people are real and numerous or mostly just
brought into
existence by worried conservatives), communities change, and the basic
foundation for those changes are to be found in how individuals in a free
society choose to act. The reports spells about those choices and changes

*Readers should keep in mind that our reflection is delineated by the basic
societal choices that Quebecers have made in recent decades. Their low
birthrate and desire to sustain demographic and economic growth have led
them to opt for immigration. At the same time, many Quebecers have abandoned
religious practice and have distanced themselves from the French-Canadian
identity in favor of the new Quebec identity. They have also decided (until
further notice) to belong to Canada and, consequently, have come under the
jurisdiction of its intitutions. They have undertaken to shift to
globalization and, as the common expression would have it, "openness to the
world."* (Abridged Commission Report, pg. 11)

This is not to say that Taylor and Bouchard discerned an easy liberalism
hiding beneath the stated preferences of Quebecers, and make recommendations
accordingly: they emphasized and respected the deeply felt uniqueness and
precariousness of Quebec's situation, acknowledging that, as a "small
nation" it is understandable that Quebec is "constantly concerned about its
future as a cultural minority" (pg. 40), and that "for Quebecers of
French-Canadian descent, the combination of their majority status in Quebec
and their minority status in Canada and North America is not easy" (pg. 75).
But their ultimate conclusion is once balanced by the communal and moral
concerns which invariably follow in the wake of economic and demographic

*French-speaking Quebec is a minority culture and needs a strong identity to
allay its anxieties and behave like a serene majority. This is the first
lesson we should draw from recent events. The identity inherited from the
French-Canadian past is perfectly legitimate and it must survive, but it can
no longer occupy alone the Quebec identity space. It must hinge on the other
identities present, in a spirit of interculturalism, in order to prevent
fragmentation and exclusion....[I]t is a question of sustaining through
symbols and imagination the common public culture, which is made up of
universal values and rights, but without disfiguring it* (pg. 75).

2. *Interculturalism as a communitarian response to multicultural realities
in liberal states*.

The report defines "interculturalism" as the preferred mode of response to
cultural controversies for Quebec, distinguishing itself from the policy of
multiculturalism employed elsewhere in Canada, given that in the rest of
Canada "anxiety over language is not an important factor" and that "there is
no longer a majority ethnic group...citizens of British origin account for
34% of the [Canadian] population, while citizens of French-Canadian origin
make up a strong majority of the population of Quebec, i.e. roughly 77%"
(pg. 39). Interculturalism as a policy thus makes sense of how a dominant
(but still basically modern and liberal) cultural majority should act upon
and deal with diversity: rather than abandoning cultural history and
identity entirely to individual choice, rights and differences should be
respected and accommodated in light of certain public continuities and
practices that have a genuine moral weight in themselves. For Quebec these
include, first and foremost, "French as the common public language," as "the
intercultural approach would hardly have any meaning if Quebecers were
unable to communicate with each other in the same language"; following this
comes the importance of the formal "development of a feeling of belonging to
Quebec society" through school curricula and "symbols of collective life,"
all of which is premised upon "[t]he associative idea that places
intercultural exchanges in the realm of concrete, citizen action" (pgs.
88-89). Democracy and dialogue are not to be seen primarily in terms of
acknowledging and accounting for individual preferences, but as ways to
interactively articulate and thereby identify (and help to integrate) common
contexts and points of consensus in the midst of cultural diversity.
Taylor's deep commitment to certain aspects of the civic republican ideal
are clear here: the liberal communitarian or nationalist has to believe that
the constitutive underpinnings and worth of their nation or community is not
static, trapped in the past and under constant assault, but rather
that--note: given shared modes of expression and participation--one's nation
or community can grow, adapt, even change, without undermining the value it
collectively offers to those beholden to it. (Having been much influenced by
Taylor, and in turn by Herder here, this is why I tend to
language policy, while surely not disconnected from immigration
is nonetheless far more important than it.) And moreover, this adaptation
shouldn't be framed in terms of individual rights, but rather as collective

3. Local harmony and open secularism as opposed to top-down equality.

Going along with their commitment to delineating exactly what, on the basis
of their studies and their public dialogues, Quebec does and does not
wanting to see done about the issues of cultural difference, Taylor and
Bouchard firmly state that "Quebec's political system is both democratic and
liberal," in that "political power ultimately resides with the people," but
also that "individual rights and freedoms are deemed to be fundamental and
are thus confirmed and protected by the State" (pg. 35). Moreover, those who
participated in the commission's public consultations "massively espoused
the concept of secularism" (pg. 43). But this gets to the heart of one of
the largest problems which the commission faced, namely: what kind of
"secularism" is appropriate for a nation where Catholicism has had such a
deep and longstanding impact, especially when the secularism of post-"Quiet
Revolution" <> seems to many
Quebecers of French-Canadian descent to contrast poorly with the aggressive
piety of many Muslim and Sikh immigrants? What accommodations are truly fair
and proper, in such an environment? How to address the arguable ostentation
of certain immigrant religious practices in light of the historical vestiges
of Quebec's own once-dominant symbols, rituals, and practices?

Again, the important point seems not to be necessarily the content of
proposed accommodations, but the manner in which they are achieved.
(Which--going back again to Jacob's
suggest that the real problem wasn't the Assembly's refusal to go along with
the report's recommendation that the crucifix be removed from the Assembly
Hall, but the speedy and almost contemptuous way they did it.) Throughout
the report, Taylor and Bouchard are critical of a too-quick resort to the
courts and juridical solutions, as opposed to following the lead of managers
and interveners--whether they be social workers, union representatives,
public affairs committees, neighborhood groups, or others--who are actually
working in the field. They call this the tendency to go the "legal route"
rather than the "citizen route" of "concerted adjustment" (pg. 51-52).
Frequently, in their judgment, the accusations and animosities which lead to
public outcries and demands for action spring not from those addressing the
dilemma itself, finding that often those actually striving to come up with
local compromise solutions end up coming very close to those outcomes which
the statements of rights which Quebec (both as a province and as a part of
Canada) has committed itself to seem to require, and with less hostility
along the way. Part of the reason for the increase in apparent hostility on
broader levels of inquiry and action is that, at such a point, overarching
principles of "equality" become voiced ever more vociferously, with the
unanticipated result of making different responses to specific problems seem
"unfair," when in fact it is the reaction to them which potentially
increases--by shifting--the unfairness. The report spells it out thusly:

*Sociologically speaking, we have observed that a number of apparently
neutral or universal norms in actual fact reproduce worldviews, values, and
implicit norms that are those of the majority culture or population....Even
if they do not exclude a priori any individual or group, these provisions
can nonetheless lead to discrimination toward individuals because of
specific traits such as a temporary or permanent physical disability, age,
or religious belief. It follows that absolute rigor in the application of
legislation and regulations is not always synonymous with fairness....[T]he
right to equality and freedom of religion do not necessarily have as a
corollary uniformity or homogeneity. According to jurists, a given right may
demand adjustments in treatment that must not b equated with privileges or
exemptions since they are intended to remedy a flaw in the application of a
statute or a regulation. As the experts have expressed it, a treatment can
be differential without being preferential.*

"Differential without being preferential." For the United States, which
continues to operate for the most part--legally, at least, though in much of
our popular and political culture as well--under the fiction that we don't
have, don't want to have, and don't need to have a common, constitutive
culture (instead, we supposedly have a disembodied "creed" if
ethnicities and nationalities and cultures don't have ideological and civic
aspects to them as well), a line like this one is important. It reminds us
the assimilation of cultures--or, worse, the making-irrelevant of cultures
through globalization--isn't the only possible response to diversity which
still respects liberal equality and freedoms. You could instead, as Taylor
and Bouchard encourage their fellow Quebecers to do, take culture
means, in a liberal state at least, making the decisions necessary to make
collective participation in it both available and important to all, and then
adapting the particulars of the various aspects of your community
accordingly. Sounds like a plan to me.

There's much more in the report than this, of course, with a great many
specifics, arising from debates over kosher food, the kirpan, headscarves,
and more. If you're into political or legal or cultural debates, do yourself
a favor: print it out, and give the whole thing a read. This is one work of
"public philosophy" that I suspect will be cited for many years to come.

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