Book Review: Interculturalism: A View From Quebec

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Multiculturalism has long been a defining element of Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes multiculturalism as recognizing the fact that Canadians have lots of different cultural backgrounds that all have their own value. In practice, this means encouraging and supporting Canadians’ celebrating their cultural heritages and histories in Canada. Pierre Trudeau’s government encouraged multiculturalism as an alternative to the Quebec nationalism he fiercely opposed. In the 50 years since Trudeau Senior made it a policy, it’s become widely popular across Canada.

That said, it’s a lot less popular in Francophone Quebec than the rest of the country. From Confederation to today, Francophone Quebec emphasized its distinctiveness within Canada and triede to maintain its Francophone language and heritage. For a lot of Franco-Quebecois, multiculturalism erased that distinctiveness, reducing Francophone culture to just part of a mosaic. As a result, they focus on making sure new arrivals integrate into Quebecois society. Bill 101 is the most famous example, but Bill 21 is one of the most controversial. Designed to promote the “laicité” (secularism) of Quebec, Bill 21 restricts people working in public positions of authority like teachers and judges from wearing visible ‘religious symbols’ like Christian crosses, Muslim headscarves and Sikh kirpan daggers. It’s been heavily criticized both inside and outside Quebec, but it has more support among Quebecois who believe that immigrants and new arrivals should integrate into the dominant Francophone culture.

The debate makes a review of Gérard Bouchard’s book Interculturalism: A View From Quebec (University Of Toronto Press, 2015, translated from French by Howard Scott) very timely. A longtime public intellectual in Quebec, Bouchard co-chaired the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation, which held hearings across Quebec on the obligations religious and cultural minorities had to integrate into Quebecois society and society’s obligations to accommodate their cultural and religious beliefs. The Commission’s report recommended the idea of “interculturalism” as an alternative to multiculturalism, which Bouchard further discusses in his book.

Bouchard describes interculturalism as a “way of living together that is in continuity with the Quebec past and is the one best suited to the challenges of the present, namely the double objective of unity and the respect for differences.” Since Quebec has a Francophone majority that is itself a minority in North America, Quebec has to balance its efforts to maintain its own heritage and culture with the need to be open to new arrivals and ideas.

The majority culture in a society has the right to set out the broad tenets of the society that new arrivals should be expected to follow. In Quebec, these include French as the primary language and the separation of church and state. The majority culture also has the right to perpetuate itself through recognition of its history and creation of a ‘national memory’ that can build a positive sense of identity for its citizens.

On the other hand, the new arrivals have rights of their own, including religious and cultural ones. They also contribute to the ongoing development of the society they join, both culturally and economically. Recognizing their rights and ensuring they can contribute to their society strengthens it over the long run.

For Bouchard, interculturalism is an attempt to create a social identity that is rooted in the history of the majority, but that’s also open to the new ideas and influences immigrants bring with them. Interculturalism finds a middle ground between the concerns and rights of the majority Francophone community and the rights of new arrivals. It balances society’s roots and continuities with the changes that new arrivals bring.

As a result, Bouchard opposes the restrictions on wearing religious garb such as headscarves in Bill 21, saying that these religious symbols should be accepted when they don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. He gives the example of a group of Sikh citizens who were prohibited from speaking to a Quebec legislative committee because of security concerns around their kirpans. Given that Sikhs are religiously prohibited from using these daggers, under interculturalism they would have been allowed to speak while wearing their kirpans.

Much of the book centers around Bouchard’s contrasting interculturalism with the weaknesses of assimilationism and multiculturalism. Expecting new arrivals to simply assimilate denies many of them the right to practice religious and other rights. It also overlooks the fact that Quebec society’s always had divisions and disagreements. Multiculturalism’s denying the existence of a ‘majority’ culture doesn’t necessarily provide a strong social or historical base for citizens’ identity. It also ignores the fact that the state isn’t actually culturally neutral with the way it promotes English and French over other languages.

These criticisms aren’t limited to Quebec, of course. People in other parts of Canada have had the same concerns about Justin Trudeau’s claim that Canada is the world’s first ‘post-national’ state, citing the benefits patriotism can have for social cohesion. It also runs straight into the assertions of many Indigenous people who refuse to see themselves as part of a multicultural mosaic and want their communities to be recognized as nations. (Bouchard actually doesn’t include Indigenous people much in his model of interculturalism, saying early in his book that their relationship with settler Canadians was better defined by the Natives themselves.)

Concerns about religious symbols like the niqab are also common in the rest of Canada. Muslim activist Zunera Ishaq had to fight for the right to wear her niqab at her citizenship ceremony after the Stephen Harper government banned it in 2011. Harper also considered banning it in the federal public service. There was also a lot of support for banning women wearing niqabs outside Quebec. The situation was resolved in a way that Bouchard would likely approve of-Ishaq was willing to reveal her face to a female immigration officer privately before the ceremony. That way, she respected federal immigration law and her religious values at the same time.

That suggests interculturalism as described by Bouchard might not just work in Quebec, but across Canada too. Most new arrivals to Canada tend to integrate into one official language group or another. In the 1950s, federal officials considered making Ukrainian an official language on the Prairies because over 950,000 people spoke it. 30 years later, that number plummeted to 95,000, a drop of over 90%. Concerns about identities and integration exist both inside and outside Quebec, and so do solutions that respect religious citizens’ rights while following secular laws. An intercultural approach that recognizes a distinct space for Indigenous nations as majorities in their own right would also respect their desire to not be seen as ‘just Canadians.’

Interculturalism doesn’t entail throwing out the strengths of multiculturalism. Will Kymlicka, one of Canada’s foremost thinkers on multiculturalism, talks about recognizing distinct spaces for Quebec and Indigenous nations in his book Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations In Canada. Kymlicka’s concept of a ‘multinational’ Canada is one that fits well with Bouchard’s concept of interculturalism.

Canada has a lot of pressing things to deal with right now, not the least of which is the pandemic. But these issues have been simmering for a long time, and interculturalism might just help us address them.



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