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Interculturalism under the spotlight in Montreal

Researchers and professionals take stock of interculturalism in Quebec three years after the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.

BY MYRIAME EL YAMANI | MAR 07 2011

In the shadow of continuing debates in Quebec over the place of religious symbols in the public realm, about 20 social science and humanities researchers, along with stakeholders working in the field, met at Université du Québec à Montréal in January to take stock of interculturalism as a model for social cohesiveness and immigrant integration in Quebec. The meeting offered a preview of issues that will be debated by scholars from Quebec and Europe during the International Symposium on Interculturalism to take place in Montreal at the end of May.

The chair of the symposium’s organizing committee was historian and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, commissioner of the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation that was set up by the Quebec government in 2007. He set the tone for the debate by outlining his concerns for the future of the province. “How can Quebec escape from its current ‘us and them’ duality, when immigrants are expected to represent 30 percent of the population in Montreal and 20 percent across the province within the next 20 years? How can we define a common culture for Quebec by focusing on immigrant integration while also recognizing the precedence of the province’s majority culture?”

Sociologist Micheline Labelle said, “We must stop thinking in terms of this majority-minority opposition. If integration theories and policies are now needed, they must be developed within a broader context such as the struggle against racism and the notion of participatory citizenship by all.”

A number of participants advocated an updating of the social contract presented in the Énoncé de politique en matière de diversité (Policy Statement on Diversity) adopted in Quebec in 1990, so as not to lump together newcomers, immigrants and ethno-cultural communities. These groups’ socioeconomic reality and identification within Quebec appear to be far from homogenous.

Several groups invited to the meeting, such as the Tolerance Foundation and the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse du Québec, outlined significant challenges in striking a balance between the legitimacy of differences and the value accorded to commonalities in Quebec society. These speakers pointed to racial profiling and systemic discrimination, specifically in the work environment. According to Robert Vyncke of Conseil Continuum, which promotes diversity in business, it is still necessary to provide intercultural training for business managers to eradicate areas of tension. “Major Quebec companies still remain reluctant to embrace programs promoting equal access, although some progress has been made on accom-modation prac-tices, which are however often perceived as privileges granted to minorities by the majority in Quebec,” he said.

Marie-Josée Duplessis of an umbrella organization for immigrant services underlined “the need to consolidate successful programs such as pairing and support services for immigrants or the recognition of our seniors’ intercultural skills.” She said adequate resources need to be made available to grassroots agencies “rather than sprinkling around some small change.”
The two days of debate and discussion on interculturalism ended with a presentation by François Rocher, director of the University of Ottawa’s school of political studies, on the government’s many interventions to promote Quebec diversity. It’s still necessary, he said, to build bridges between “the instrumentalist, humanist and affiliation dimensions in Quebec without trying to overcome the blind spots of a common historical legacy and while ensuring social peace in a neoliberal, democratic and secular society.”

One fundamental question remains: Should a law on interculturalism finally be created to promote a unique model of Canadian multiculturalism? Quebecers see the Canadian model as one of communitarianism and they consider the model in France as leaning too much towards assimilation. The debate should promote interesting insights on subjects such as education and the types of secularism promoted in Quebec. These matters will be examined from a comparative standpoint with Europe during the May 2011 symposium.

Myriame El Yamani is an independent researcher in ethnic and media relations.

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