Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles) was launched by Liberal premier
Jean Charest on 8 February 2007. It was called in response to heightened public tensions concerning the reasonable accommodation of ethno-cultural and religious minority groups, mainly of Muslims,
Sikhs and Jews by the historically Catholic French-Canadian
majority population in the province. The commission was co-chaired by Université du Québec à Chicoutimi professor
Gérard Bouchard and McGill University professor emeritus Charles Taylor.
It subsequently came to be known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.
Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, co-chairs of Quebec’s Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (2007-2008).
In Canada, the concept of “reasonable accommodation” was first articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985. The high court held that discrimination on the basis of religion and belief (as well as other grounds, such as disability and gender) was prohibited and that the principle of reasonable accommodation requires that all parties (such as employers and government) accommodate, up to a certain point, the beliefs and practices of all Canadian citizens.
2006 saw the beginning of a series of events that prompted a hardening of attitudes in Quebec toward cultural practices different from those of the majority francophone population. These included the 2006 Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Multani case (Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite Bourgeoys) over the issue of Sikhs wearing kirpans (religious ceremonial daggers) in schools. The high court reversed a decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal and upheld the lower court judgment authorizing student Gurbaj Singh Multani to wear his kirpan in school (see Palbinder Kaur Shergill). The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was a reasonable accommodation to permit the young man to wear the kirpan “in a wooden sheath and wrapped and sewn securely in a sturdy cloth envelope.” The decision was a subject of much debate in Quebec, including the comments of Justice Louise Charron, who wrote that the Quebec appeal court ruling had been "disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion” and did not “take into account Canadian values based on multiculturalism.”
Other highly mediatized incidents included accommodation for Muslim prayer sessions in the dancehall of a traditional sugar shack (cabane à sucre), while others removed pork from some of their food to meet Islamic dietary requirements; requests by members of Outremont’s Hassidic Jewish population to put in frosted windows at a YMCA; and the Hérouxville “Code of Life” in which the town council of this rural farming town adopted a five-page “Code of Conduct” for newcomers.
Concerns around identity and reasonable accommodation also found expression at a political level. In the National Assembly in 2007, the opposition Parti Québécois led by Pauline Marois tabled Bill 195 – the Québec Identity Act would have established Quebec citizenship. It did not pass. In the 2007 Quebec general election, the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) led by Mario Dumont won 41 seats to become the official opposition. The ADQ had campaigned hard on the issue of reasonable accommodation, arguing that accommodations had gone too far.
After the election, the new minority Liberal government of Jean Charest moved ahead with the commission to look at the issue of reasonable accommodation.
The Commission’s mandate was as follows:
“The Order in Council establishing the Commission stipulates that it has a mandate to (a) take stock of accommodation practices in Quebec; (b) analyse the attendant issues bearing in mind the experience of other societies; (c) conduct an extensive consultation on this topic; and (d) formulate recommendations to the government to ensure that accommodation practices conform to Quebec’s values as a pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society.”
Bouchard and Taylor chose to explore the debate on reasonable accommodation through the lens of sociocultural integration in Quebec, with an emphasis on various economic and social dimensions. The commission’s investigation and hearings focused on a detailed review of “interculturalism, immigration, secularism and the theme of Quebec identity.”
In 2008, the commission’s work culminated in a report entitled Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation (Fonder l'avenir: le temps de la conciliation).
The report concluded that there was no real crisis with the practice of accommodation in Quebec and suggested that what was being reported in the media – namely, that religious minorities were being granted unfair advantages and were not accepting mainstream Quebec values – differed from what was happening on the ground.
However, the report also said that Quebecers of French-Canadian ancestry were “still not at ease with their twofold status as a majority in Québec and a minority in Canada and North America.” The report recommended a limited ban on the wearing of religious symbols by people with “coercive” powers, namely judges, prosecutors and peace officers.
The report also suggested that one of the key sources of anxiety was the absence of targeted guidelines to handle accommodation or adjustment requests within a Quebec context. Among the 37 recommendations offered in the report, the authors said that the government of Quebec should develop its own policy for the management of diversity, suggesting it should take steps to promote and broaden awareness of a proposed new policy called “interculturalism,” and to enshrine it in a statute, policy statement or a declaration.
Positioned in contrast to Canadian multiculturalism, interculturalism was presented as a model that “seeks to reconcile ethnocultural diversity with the continuity of the French-speaking core and the preservation of the social link…thus afford[ing] security to Quebecers of French-Canadian origin and to ethnocultural minorities and protect[ing] the rights of all in keeping with the liberal tradition.”
In the years since the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, successive provincial governments have tabled various bills related to secularism, religious neutrality of the state and reasonable accommodation in Quebec. Bill 60, known as the Quebec Charter of Values, was introduced in 2013 by the Parti Québécois government. It did not pass and was dropped in the wake of the 2014 provincial election. In October 2017, the Liberal Party of Quebec passed Bill 62, An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality, which banned any person wearing a piece of clothing that covers the face from giving or receiving public services. In 2019, Bill 21, An Act respecting the laicity of the State, was introduced by the governing Coalition Avenir Québec. It passed into law that same year.
Quebec City Mosque Shooting
On 14 February 2017, in the wake of the terrorist attack on a mosque in suburban Quebec City, Charles Taylor published an op-ed in La Presse saying he no longer endorsed the recommendation of a ban on religious symbols worn by public servants in positions of “coercive” authority.