Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Taylor speaks out

The latest from the Taylor-Bouchard commission:

'Who's to judge?' commission asks
Jeff Heinrich, The Gazette

A loquacious Charles Taylor made his daytime debut today at the Quebec "reasonable accommodations" commission her co-chairs with GĂ©rard Bouchard - and waded right into the controversial debate over veils and kirpans.

His first interjection took the safe form of a series of questions, preserving the neutrality the commission is trying to maintain as it hears from Quebecers across the province on the touchy issue of religion in society.

"It's a question I've wanted to ask of many (people who've presented) briefs," Taylor told Argenteuil resident John Saywell, one of 30 residents who addressed the commission, whose 17-city tour made a stop in the Laurentians today and last night.

"You talked about religious symbols and what they mean - but who decides?" asked Taylor, a Montreal philosopher and author.

"For example, some say the kirpan is a knife and is therefore an instrument of violence. Some people think the hijab reflects a situation of inequality between men and women. Some people think the crucifix reflects the violence we're now up against.

"But who's to judge?" Taylor asked.

Sociological studies in France and elsewhere have shown that young Muslim women wear the veil for myriad reasons, he said. Some do it out of faith, some do it out of opposition to their non-practicing parents, some do it out of reaction against the secular society around them.

"Is it really possible in a free society that someone can define for me under law what a symbol means for me?" Taylor asked. "I ask the question: Is there not something profoundly (wrong) about saying we'll decide in the National Assembly that what a symbol means is such-and-such and that if you don't like it, shut up?"

Added Bouchard, a sociologist and historian: "Isn't it the right of a group to live on the margins of society?"

The discussion got crustier when Taylor confronted Lise Bourgault, mayor of Brownsburg-Chatham who also was a Conservative MP from 1984 to 1993. In her presentation, Bourgault called for religious clothes to be banned entirely in public, because for her, veiled women "project an image of oppression" and makes her more and more xenophobic.

"I go to the Adonis supermarket (in north-end Montreal), I see women in veils behind their husbands who are pushing the shopping cart. It goes against so many battles we won for the equality for the sexes," Bourgault said.

"Why do people feel so threatened?" Bouchard asked her.

"We're threatened by terrorist movements," the mayor replied.

"There's reason to be afraid, but we should be afraid in an intelligent way," Taylor shot back.

"I throw into question your reasoning."

Bouchard also had a comment.

"If the burqa starts making in-roads in Quebec," he told Bourgault, "I don't think you'd be among the first victims."

The chairmen were more gentle with Ste-Sophie resident Lidia Quintana, a Chilean immigrant. Her sister, Carmen, was a household name in Quebec in 1986 when she came here for lengthy medical treatment after being severely burned by Chilean troops under the Pinochet regime.

Carmen has since returned to Santiago. had three children and and teaches psychology at university. Lidia married a French-Canadian, had children of her own, and settled in the Laurentians 16 years ago. Today she said immigrants should try harder to adapt to Quebec society, especially by learning French, as she did.

And she said accommodations of a small number of religious minorities go too far. Quebec should draw up a "Charter of Rights and Responsibilties of Immigrants" for everyone to sign, "before this problem degenerates," she said to applause, evoking an idea others have brought up during the hearings as well.

"You talk about a moral contract," Taylor replied. "You don't think that goes both ways?" he asked.

"We've heard that sometimes a lack of integration makes people fall back on their closed group and a feeling of alienation. It seems there's a reciprocal relationship going on that doesn't always work," he said.

"It's not just about accommodations."

Hear, hear, though I fear that he will not be heard.

There's also an update to my previous post on the hearings.