Friday, May 23, 2008

A slap in the face: a tale of the Brezhnev Doctrine

While I don't agree with all of it, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission Report is a very thoughtful, judicious, impressive document-- extraordinarily so, given the circumstances of its creation.

And the ink wasn't yet dry on it when the Charest government made clear how thoughtfully it would treat the the report's analyses and recommendations. It rushed to the National Assembly and introduced a unanimously-approved quickie resolution affirming that the crucifix would not come down off the Assembly's walls.

Bouchard and Taylro spent months, at the request of the Charest government, trying to conceive and describe a balance among the various rights, responsibilities, and identity claims at stake in the accommodation debate and related disputes. Their proposals rested in part on an "open secularism," a secular state that was not as reflexively anti-clerical or Jacobin as post-Quiet Revolution Quebec has sometimes been. One of the most prominent obstacles to that is the very public symbol of a non-secular Quebec that is the crucifix on the QNA walls.

Charest defended the crucifix as embodying 350 years of Quebec history, though it does no such thing. It was erected in 1936 by Duplessis, who more than any other politician embodies the Francoist Catholic-corporatist regime of the bad old days when members of minority religions were actively persecuted in Quebec.

The immediate rejection of the crucifix's removal is an obvious attempt by the government to escape any political fallout from the commission it appointed in its rush to survive the ADQ's challenge before the last election. Insofar as the commission made recommendations that depart from already-existing majority sentiment, it will be ignored. This was always likely, of course, but it did not need to be expressed in quite so obnoxious a manner. Bouchard and Taylor (and the taxpayers, and the hundreds of people who took part in the process) could be forgiven for wondering today why they wasted their time. Surely one of the things that we've learned in thinking about religious accommodation is that symbols matter, and the symbolic import of yesterday's action coulnd't have been clearer. Charest slapped Bouchard and Taylor in the face in exchange for their months of service.

But the graver slap to the face is to religious minorities. What they have learned is that questions of religion and politics remain ripe for demagoguery in Quebec. Any possible steps taken as a result of the report that will protect their religiou freedom will be slow, painstaking, reluctant, and potentially voted down in the QNA by the two opposition parties. Kirpans, turbans, hijabs, and kosher and halal food all apparently raise difficult questions that require careful government consideration even after the commission has done its work. The crucifix requires no such careful consideration. In short, religious minorities who might have been hoping for the unlikely outcome that the commission's report would be taken seriously now know better. The message from the Charest government to them is a variant on the old Brezhnev Doctrine: What's ours is ours, what's yours is negotiable.