Deborah Gyapong: Who are we? Even Quebeckers don't know says Iain Benson

Who are we? Even Quebeckers don't know says Iain Benson

Iain Benson of the Centre for Cultural Renewal has written a powerful assessment of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission's efforts so far to find reasonable accommodation of religious and cultural minorities in Quebec. The whole piece is worth a good read. And just as Cardinal Ouellet's brief to the commission which blamed Quebec's social problems and difficulty in welcoming newcomers on the collapse of Catholicism but had a wider application to the rest of Canada, so does Benson's analysis.

He writes:
The quest for a social consensus on the way to deal with Quebec's increasingly pluralistic reality should therefore have been a very positive thing. This would have been the case if the government has set up the Commission as an act of leadership, rather than as a way to distance itself from the Question. When Lucien Bouchard tried to get the population on board with the goal or reaching a déficit zéro, which entailed drastic cuts in government spending, he relentlessly toured the province, meeting with leaders from every sector of the economy. There was no such leadership at the Commission, which offered no social vision around which to rally the population, and allowed for the law of the jungle to rule. Most were horrified that the government had offered a tribune and a year's worth of headlines in newspapers and on TV to the most extreme, racist and bigoted elements in Quebec society. Such a public and organised display of immigrant bashing had never been seen in Quebec, even under PQ government.

Ultimately, the Bouchard-Taylor commission failed not so much because of the occasional unsightly breakdown of decorum and civility, but because at the end of this year long exercise in collective soul searching, as the dust finally clears up, "social peace" is nowhere in sight. The debate also spread from minority issues to questions concerning the very foundations of Quebec society: the Quiet Revolution principles of French empowerment, feminism, and secularism. While the Commission started out being about how a hypothetical we (the French majority) should deal with a hypothetical them (the minorities), it quickly became about how to define this we. But here also, there is no consensus.

For more than 15 years, Benson has been one of the "prophets" warning of a new kind of secularist ideology that was supplanting traditional liberal notions of pluralism. He has argued that all are believers in something--whether our "faith" is religious or non-religious-- and moves to banish religion from the public square are really attempts to make sure that only atheism and secular humanist ideas shape public policy.

Benson does not think the West is going to go back to a Christian consensus, but he hopes it can avoid a new "one-size-fits-all" vision that will force various religious conceptions into the closet.
Instead, he would like to see as much public space as possible carved out for different conceptions, without some degeneration into multiculturalist relativism. Freedom of religion, of speech and of conscience are key to his vision.

Alas there is even less of a "we" in the Rest of Canada.



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