National Column: Trying to put genie back in the bottle

by Chantal Hebert

Almost a decade ago, Montreal philosopher Charles Taylor – one of Canada’s leading intellectuals – co-presided over a provincial commission on religious accommodation that recommended, among other measures, that Quebec impose a secular dress code on the province’s judges and police forces.

In so doing, he and historian/sociologist GÈrald Bouchard inadvertently planted the seeds of Quebec’s decade-long fixation on religious vestments in general and the Muslim veil in particular.

Some of those seeds eventually found their way elsewhere in Canada, most notably in the shape of the debate on the place of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies at the time of the last federal election.

The Bouchard-Taylor report was more than 300 pages long and most of its recommendations dealt with measures designed to nurture a pluralistic society. But it was the notion of a government-imposed ban on religious signs that stuck with the public.

The imprimatur of two leading thinkers freed part of Quebec’s chattering and political classes to jump on the dress code bandwagon and advocate restrictions on individual religious expression that would have been unthinkable prior to the report.

Taylor and Bouchard prescribed a ban on religious signs for people invested, by virtue of their positions, with coercive powers.

In the rhetoric of the Coalition Avenir QuÈbec and the Parti Quebecois, that came to mean anyone in a position of authority. And even that term soon lost any semblance of meaning.

In the PQ’s defunct securalism charter, a secular dress code would have been imposed on anyone on the publicpayroll, from clerks to nurses to doctors to child-care workers.

Neither academic had such blanket restrictions in mind when they wrote their report. On various occasions, both tried to set the record straight.

Now Taylor has gone a step further. In an op-ed piece published in La Presse earlier this week, he urged Quebec’s political class to put back in the bottle the genie he and Bouchard let out. In hindsight, he wrote, he wishes he had left the bottle uncorked.

Taylor says he never did believe that a prohibition on religious signs, be it on those who sit on the court benches or wear a police uniform, was necessarily in keeping with Quebec’s secular character.

In his op-ed, it comes across as little more than a bone thrown to the many Quebecers who felt their identity was threatened by expressions of religious diversity. The proposal had more to do with marketing than actual values.

Taylor writes that he thought the recommendation would help a majority of Quebecers buy in to the more positive prescriptions of the report.

The opposite, of course, happened.

Even with the best of intentions, opportunism is not a substitute for principles.

Taylor also predicts that should the national assembly ever put the restrictions on religious signs he once advocated into law, the courts would throw them out.

That, too, is a bit of a stunning admission.

Over the past decade, there has not been in Canada a substantial court ruling that would inform or affirm Taylor’s doubts as to the legal standing of the proposal he is recanting.

In other words, if he believes it would probably not survive a charter challenge now, he would have had cause to suspect as much at the time of writing the report.

Taylor said it was the attack on a Quebec mosque two weeks ago that prompted his public reversal. In the aftermath of that attack, the parties in the national assembly essentially resumed the debate over religious accommodation where they had left off. Arguing that a majority of Quebecers back the dress code restrictions of the Bouchard-Taylor report, the opposition parties have been pressuring the Liberal government to pass them into law.

Taylor believes that the public goodwill that has resulted from the mosque tragedy will be squandered if Quebec’s political class does not switch its focus from debating how far to restrict the rights of religious minorities to the building of more bridges with the Muslim community.

Predictably, since he reversed his position, Taylor has been vilified on social media. Some have called him a Liberal sellout; others accuse him of being a fundamentalist.

It took courage for Taylor to repudiate a notion that has driven Quebec’s identity debate for the best part of a decade.

Still, one cannot help but regret that he did not exhibit that courage nine years ago, at the time of the co-writing of the report that bears his name.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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