The challenge of pluralism: the case of Quebec

10/02/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Ottawa - In Quebec, a bill roughly drafted to manage the province's religious diversity by restricting the visible display of religious symbols such as turbans, kippah, hijab and visible crucifixes by employees of public institutions has attracted worldwide attention.

One has to understand the delicate situation of Quebec's identity before addressing this issue. Composed of a Francophone majority who are, in turn, a minority in majority Anglophone Canada, Quebec is constantly struggling to preserve its distinctive traits - as is often the case of minority identities.

Whether Quebec's Charter of Values is a maladroit move to deal with the province's religious diversity or a politically calculated coup, it nevertheless puts forward a central issue faced by today's pluralist societies: adapting its policies to a transformative social identity.

A majority of pluralist societies are nowadays faced with a common societal dilemma. In its most simple articulation, this dilemma addresses the necessary balance between managing the growing diversity within its population (whether ethnic, cultural, religious and etc.) and preserving its own traditions, heritage and main identity traits.

Within the broad Western cultural hemisphere, the answers to this puzzle widely differ between societies and are frequently (but very simplistically) presented on a spectrum ranging from the French assimilation model to Anglo-Saxon-style multiculturalism. If the former seeks to impose a relatively predetermined national identity on its ever growing and fairly diverse immigrant population, the latter tends to overlook its constituents' heterogeneous identities as long as some basic social principles are embraced by all.

After a century of high immigration and the growing number of second and third generation citizens of foreign-descent, both approaches have shown their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. Most importantly, both courses of action have made clear that these once-effective systems are in dire need of regular adjustments to respond to the increasing complexities of today's pluralist societies.

Amid this simplified portrait, Quebec's case needs to be more thoroughly scrutinised to better grasp the context in which The Charter of Quebec Values was proposed.

Many Quebecois bills and policies are foremost based on a protectionist rationale: Bill 101 institutionalised French as the official language of the province; the Interculturalism policy proposes a model of cross-cultural relations in which French-Canadian culture takes precedence (compared with its English-Canadian counterpart which posits the equality of all communities); and the new charter extends the concept of secularity in Canada, which is one of flexible modus operandi that accommodates religious expression if deemed reasonable (reasonable accommodation), to a stricter laïc one stressing the prohibition of ostensible religious symbols for public employees.

Quebec's own history with religious institutions is one of past socio-political abuses by the Catholic Church. The Church used to control health, education and press services. Combined with an ultra-conservative government from the 1930's through the 1950's, this helps explain popular sentiment behind the religious rebuff. Many have not yet made their peace with the past.

Whatever the intentions behind the proposed charter, it clearly puts forward deeper-level issues, such as making peace with one's own history and accepting the dynamic and transformative character of social identities. These issues have to be addressed in any pluralistic society for diversity to be nurtured and to flourish properly.

It's a natural human reaction to feel uneasy or anxious toward otherness. Yet it is possible to rise above it with an inclusive mindset. Quebec's civil society is already very active on this matter through artistic, education and training programs, sponsorships aimed at strengthening intercultural relations and interreligious dialogue sessions seeking a better understanding of the others, to name a few.

The proposed charter should in no way shed a doubt on the open-mindedness, tolerance and receptiveness of Quebec's society. Respect and appreciation of diversity are deeply-rooted values in Quebec. One only has to enter a school or a university, go to a public park or down a crowded street to see the mingling of ethnic, cultural and religious symbols. And these are only the visible aspects of the beauty of Quebec's diverse population.

* Meher Khatcherian is doing his PhD on International Conflict Resolution and is Coordinator of the Canada Research Chair on Islam, Pluralism and Globalisation at the University of Montreal. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 2 October 2013. Copyright permission is granted for publication.