Try­ing to put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle

Tay­lor re­verses stance on ban­ning re­li­gious signs

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - CHAN­TAL HÉBERT Chan­tal Hébert is a na­tional af­fairs writer. Her col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

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 Gérald Bouchard in­ad­ver­tently planted the seeds of Quebec’s decade-long fix­a­tion on re­li­gious vest­ments in gen­eral and the Mus­lim veil in par­tic­u­lar.

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 Québec and the Parti Québé­cois, that came to mean any­one in a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity. Even that term soon lost any sem­blance of mean­ing.

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 a sub­stan­tial court rul­ing that would in­firm 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 the writ­ing of 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.

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.

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