The accommodation debate

It's an argument that just won't die - and there's plenty of hypocrisy and self-satisfaction on both sides

Burqa interdite

Reasonable accommodation in Quebec is a debate that refuses to die.
Francophone Quebec continues to react negatively to anything that disturbs its ideals of total secularism and of the absolute equality of men and women. English Quebec and English Canada jump with alacrity at any sign that Quebec is less tolerant and less open than the rest of the country. Both positions are untenable and mask considerable hypocrisy and self-satisfaction.
Neither secularism nor gender equality has an ancient tradition in Quebec. If the Quebec of Maurice Duplessis had been selecting its guiding principles, Catholicism and traditional family roles would have been chosen. It is a little disturbing to think that, within the lifetime of one generation, we have postulated opposites as our fundamental guiding principles and, each time, refused to entertain any doubt or debate about them.
Moreover, we are far from even-handed about defining accommodation. It is the kirpan, the turban, the hijab, and now the niqab that have provoked reactions, not little crucifixes, stars of David or kippahs.
While we proclaim our secularism, we finance religious and ethnic schools that serve to perpetuate differences. Nuns and priests continue to teach, even if they no longer wear the habit. They have every right to do so, and many of them make a priceless contribution to education in Quebec. However, most of them are identifiable by their dress and often are called by their religious title.
Are we then to pretend that children should be taught by persons whose religion is completely unseen and reject men with kirpans and women with scarves in the name of religious neutrality?
Gender equality raises other problems. Can we presume that rejecting a scarf promotes equality more than excluding a potential teacher or public servant who has freely decided to wear one? Further, why are we more concerned with gender equality than with racial or ethnic equality? Is our society not as much rooted in the notion that skin pigmentation, native language, or place of origin should play no role in determining success?
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that political correctness plays a major role in determining what is truly fundamental at any point in time.
On the other hand, any sober analysis will show that Quebec's ideal of integration in a common culture is more beneficial to minorities than English Canada's multiculturalism, which purports to maintain differences from generation to generation. Moreover, if we destroy the notion of a common culture and a common solidarity promoted, at least financially, by the state, we effectively leave all cultural policy to market forces and help diminish further the role of civil society. If Quebec is not consistent and not always frank in the details, the Quebec goal of integration is more noble and more just than Canada's avowed "diversity."
What is missing in both jurisdictions is an analysis of the principles that should allow us to choose between desirable and non-desirable accommodation. It is clearly unthinkable to reject all claims. No one seriously challenges helping persons with handicaps. Nor is there any serious objection in Quebec to the very considerable accommodation of English-speakers in the language laws. Almost everyone agrees that concern for religious freedom and for freedom of expression forces us to tolerate opinions and practices that clash with our beliefs and that we cannot insist that people share our beliefs.
On the other hand, all accommodations claimed cannot be granted. Some are too expensive and too onerous. Others allow groups to isolate their members. Accommodation has to be measured not against an ideal vision of secularism that everyone does not share, but against the policy of integration that we want to apply to everyone.
Allowing scarves, turbans, kirpans, kippahs, and saris, in classrooms, hospitals, courts and government offices has the effect of promoting integration. Excluding immigrants from many activities and jobs leads to their isolation. If we decide to accommodate, very few in the next generation will seek the same privilege, and a large number will have married outside their community. Accommodation is largely a temporary phenomenon.
On the other hand, the niqab blocks integration, because it is difficult to form friendships with people whose face we have not seen. The worst accommodations are private, ethnic or religious schools, hospitals, separate court systems, and all forms of accommodation through separateness. Such accommodation not only maintains the differences, but creates a lobby whose interest is to make these institutions permanent.
Unfortunately, no leadership is likely to appear on the Quebec political scene. All of the actors are seeking ways of profiting or at least of avoiding damage from what is perceived as a delicate issue and they are making decisions exclusively in their own short-term interests.
The Quebec Liberal Party is trying to salvage its reputation with its supporters among Quebec's minorities without losing all of the soft nationalist vote and especially its portion of the old Action démocratique du Québec vote. It does so by brandishing the spectre of separatism so as to dampen any protest among minorities against restricting accommodations and by increasing aid to the ethnic schools - clearly the worst of all worlds. However, the fact that it must cater to two irreconcilable solitudes protects it against sudden, rash projects and this is illustrated by the draft law tabled March 24 that is very moderate in tone and, assuming a generous interpretation by the courts, is quite acceptable.
The Parti Québécois's left wing, which might have opposed the anti-accommodation excesses, has recently had its wings clipped as the party veered to the right. The type of opinion it might have expressed is now found in Québec solidaire, which is a very minor player. The mainstream PQ is determined to attract ADQ votes by reaffirming its faith in an old-fashioned notion of identity and by refusing most accommodation.
The ADQ, which is falling apart in any event, reflects the traditional Quebec nationalism, right-wing, and ethnocentric. Its last hope to avoid oblivion is to make gains by taking a hard stand.
It is therefore clear that no development on the political scene will reflect anything other than the three parties' struggle for the popular vote.
Instead of fretting about scarves and kirpans, Quebecers should exert pressure to have all immigrants attend public schools that are open to all. The social interaction and the inevitable francization will achieve more than all the restrictions now proposed by the opponents of accommodation.
As for English Canada, it needs a more radical solution - the abandonment of multiculturalism. Diversity should be encouraged in its individual form, such as non-conformism and absence of political correctness, but not in any collective way. Collective "diversity" of groups is, in many cases, a repressive phenomenon that encourages conformism inside the group and diminishes awareness of how similar the needs and desires of all citizens are.
When the reasonable-accommodation debate dies down, we shall have the freedom and the time to discuss the social issues that will really affect how we live - medical care, free education, the environment, and peace. These crucial questions have been put in the shade by emotional but ultimately insignificant identity issues.
Julius H. Grey is a Montreal lawyer and a former president of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation.

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