Would the real Quebecer please stand up?!

Two Quebec academics have one year to answer this tough but very interesting question.

Last week Premier Jean Charest named two highly respected academics to head a study on the "reasonable accommodation" of the traditions of newcomers to Quebec.

Charles Taylor, a McGill University professor emeritus of philosophy and Gerard Bouchard, a historian and sociologist, will have one year to prepare a report for which all of Canada, not only Quebec, will be waiting.

That’s because Canada is a mosaic of minorities, each of them defined along distinct lines of gender, ethnicity, religion, age, language and culture, as well as historical and geographical ties.

If Canadian culture and values are too narrowly defined, many minorities will not fit in and consequently find themselves alienated, marginalized and eventually the victims of ethnic cleansing. While this term is usually associated with violence and atrocity, it can also be a very quiet and subtle phenomenon, for at its most basic, the criteria of ethnic cleansing involve the destruction of language, religion, culture and tradition; when these are gone, the identity of a people disappears as well.

The appointment of professors Taylor and Bouchard was triggered by the adoption of a self-styled and controversial code of conduct by the municipal council of a small Quebec town called Herouxville (pop. 1,300) located 160 km north-east of Montreal. Its citizens include one black family among a population that is otherwise exclusively white and Roman Catholic.

Herouxville’s code of conduct bans such anachronistic practices as the stoning and burning of women, which are obviously criminal offenses in Canada anyway (these practices, thankfully, have largely died out in all but a very few regions of some Muslim and Hindu countries). Another of the code’s allusions is to female genital circumcision, also a crime in Canada, but still carried out in a very few African and Middle Eastern countries; and yet another prohibition is that of wearing religious head coverings, in reference to the hijab scarves of Muslim women (but supposedly not applicable to Roman Catholic nuns). The code also bans the wearing of ceremonial knives, in reference to a common and religiously important part of a Sikh’s everyday apparel.

Where the Herouxville behavioral code has gone so badly wrong is that it clearly propagates negative stereotypes of Canadian minorities in a manner that has shown callous (and perhaps naïve) disrespect for both the spirit and letter of Article 27 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Article 27 says: "This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians." The Herouxville declaration is symptomatic of a dangerous trend in Quebec and Canada that could set multicultural progress back generations, despite legislation to the contrary.

Premier Charest has even offered professors Taylor and Bouchard some free advice and opinions to jump-start the research process, saying that some recent decisions touted as "reasonable accommodation" have produced the opposite results. He cited, for example, the frosting of windows at a YMCA gym located near a synagogue, to meet the objections of Hasidic Jewish men who don’t want to see women in exercise outfits. The premier also mentioned the practice of using only male police officers, rather than their female counterparts, in dealing with Hasidic Jewish men, as well as the case of a man who was asked to leave a swimming pool so Muslim women could swim (a topic treated with sympathetic humor in a recent episode of CBC TV’s new sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie).

And in another example of accommodation gone wrong, Charest declared, "Expelling an ambulance driver from the cafeteria of a Jewish hospital is not seeking compromise," referring to a driver who was asked to leave the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal because he was eating non-kosher food in an area designated for kosher food consumption.

"These are not reasonable accommodations," Charest said. "These are arrangements contrary to the values of our nation."

Charest also rejected the practice of assigning male employees to give driving tests to Hasidic Jewish men, saying that the practice is contrary to the principle of gender equality. "This is not an acceptable practice," Charest said. "We are an open society."

"The Quebec nation has values, solid values, including the equality of women and men; the primacy of French; the separation between the state and religion," Charest said in a prepared statement. "These values are fundamental. They cannot be the object of any accommodation. They cannot be subordinated to any other principle."

Professors are used to giving tests, but for Taylor and Bouchard the assignment of finding out just who is a real Quebecer might be the toughest one they’ve ever tackled. I hope they get an A-plus, at least for the effort.