Special to the Montreal Gazette December 15, 2016
Last week, news broke that the Parti Québécois had quietly tried to block prominent lawyer Tamara Thermitus’s candidacy for the presidency of Quebec’s human rights commission. Unnamed sources suggested that despite her impeccable credentials, her job with the federal government was a liability and, worse, she was suspected of harbouring multiculturalist beliefs.
This bit of backstory should raise more than eyebrows.
It is well known that multiculturalism is verboten among Quebec’s political and chattering classes, regardless of partisan affiliation. However, to have multicult-phobia actually move a political party to reject a qualified candidate (who also happens to be a black woman) should tell us something about how pernicious the current ideology is.
Accusing multiculturalism of having failed, Quebec intellectuals use “interculturalism” as an alternative to respond to Quebec’s specificity. While the idea could have become a generous alternative to multiculturalism (much as Charles Taylor and others tried to do), things have not worked out that way.
Interculturalism starts from the premise of the de facto precedence of Quebec’s majority culture over others. That practical reality was not supposed to have morphed into legal precedence, nor to have operated in a way that perpetuates the privileges of that majority. However there are troubling indications that it has done just that.
Other rights have been subordinated, including racial and religious equality. This is in part the result of Quebec’s brand of laïcité-lite that has imposed religious neutrality on non-majoritarian faiths and individuals as well as on the state. Equality and reasonable accommodation for minorities have become battlegrounds in the fight for “Quebec values.” The Supreme Court keeps having to intervene, as it did in the Multani decision in 2006 (to permit an observant Sikh boy to wear a sewn-in, concealed kirpan to school) and in several other cases after that.
In 2011, the National Assembly barred Sikhs from its precincts after having invited them to participate in a debate on reasonable accommodation. In 2013, there was the PQ’s nativist Charter of Values, Bill 60, built squarely on the foundations of Quebec values and interculturalism.
In 2015, the Quebec Liberals introduced Bill 62. It is nowhere as troubling as the Charter of Values, but it does weaken the flexibility of the public sector in accommodating religious minorities. Both Quebec’s human rights commission and the Quebec Bar Association have objected to several aspects of the bill.
As for the practical effect of protecting the “de facto precedence” of the majority, minorities are dealt with as satellite communities revolving around the “host society” until they are absorbed, effectively assimilated, and no longer seen as threats. Nowhere is the impact of this approach clearer than in the relatively poor employment prospects of immigrants in Quebec and, of course, in the low representation of minorities among the senior ranks of the Quebec public service. The issue is systemic and transcends party loyalties, and yet we continue to be forced to ask questions for which the answers are, depressingly, well known. How many senior appointments among Quebec’s public institutions, agencies and commissions are from racialized or ethnic minority backgrounds? How many are anglophones or allophones?
When the news about Thermitus became public, the PQ quickly pivoted, perhaps mindful of the appalling optics, and said it would support the appointment. That is good news, even if it’s not yet clear whether Thermitus will get the job. But the broader issue of the rejection of multiculturalism in Quebec reminded me of something that Zadie Smith, the British-born novelist, said in November while accepting a literary prize: “The people who ask me about the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ mean to suggest that not only has a political ideology failed but that human beings themselves have changed and are now fundamentally incapable of living peacefully together despite their many differences.” That is not an outcome any of us should be prepared to accept.
Pearl Eliadis is a human rights lawyer in Montreal. Twitter.com/pearleliadis