Recently, there has been a lot of buzz around what people are referring to the ‘death of multiculturalism’ in Quebec. It is rather odd to ring alarm bells over the possible demise of an ideology that did not really exist in Quebec in the first place. ‘Multiculturalism’ is a distinctly ‘Canadian’ phenomenon that has been despised and criticized by a significant number of people in Quebec. The Quebecois, particularly separatists, have argued for a long time that the language of multiculturalism has been employed by Ottawa as a thin veneer for English-Canadian nationalism. Moreover, the Quebecois view multiculturalism as a strategy to denigrate and disparage the status of the Quebec nation by equating them with and reducing them to the standing of other immigrant cultural communities that now form a growing proportion of Canada’s population.
Quebec has been accused of trumping human rights by proposing the adoption of a Charter of Values that has come under scrutiny both within and without Quebec. The Charter is claimed to take away or curtail the rights of minorities, particularly those of Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews, while retaining Quebec’s Catholic heritage by protecting it through state sanction. It may well be the case that the Charter’s promulgation may trample on certain rights and Quebec politicians may pay a heavy price electorally if they go ahead with the Charter. Furthermore, Quebec would have to make sure that it does not go against its own principles of secularism and tolerance. But it is unfair to be critical of Quebec for failing to protect an ideology that it has never accepted and has fought against by employing several constitutional measures.
Multiculturalism was introduced by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. Since the beginning of the ‘quiet revolution’ in the 1960s, Quebec has been trying to carve out a new space for itself within the Canadian federation. One of its central demands has been that Ottawa should recognize it as a ‘distinct nation’. Ottawa made every effort to resist such demands, but Stephen Harper’s administration finally introduced a legislation that gave Quebec what it had been asking for. However, the recognition in itself is not sufficient and will be quite hollow unless Quebec is in fact allowed to pursue its own course. Many Quebecers have advocated for interculturalism as opposed to multiculturalism, and Quebec espouses a distinctly French model of secularism. The rest of Canada cannot impose its own ideology over a province that has always maintained its distance and sought to protect its distinctiveness.
The proposed Charter is one of many symbols that distinguish Quebec from the rest of Canada. Quebec has tried to adopt a separate immigration policy and its own version of secularism that is different from the way it is practiced in the Anglo-Saxon world. To argue that multiculturalism has failed in Quebec is surprising given that many Quebecers have been ardent opponents of it. Quebec’s opposition has been taken to mean, particularly by English Canada, that Quebec is intolerant. What is strange is that English Canadians are accusing Quebec for what they are already guilty of. Racial and immigrant intolerance is not totally absent from English Canada. That, of course, does not give a license to Quebec to be ‘intolerant’, but the recent Charter can hardly be claimed to be a manifestation of Quebec’s intolerance.
The Charter should be judged on its own terms. If there are inconsistencies, for instance the debate over the crucifix in the National Assembly, then they should be addressed, otherwise Quebec will simply give others the ammunition they need to brand all of Quebec as intolerant. Moreover, Quebec will be at a loss if immigrants, Quebec's Aboriginals, and the Anglophone minority feel excluded if this Charter is introduced. But what outsiders should realize is that Quebec is not like the rest of Canada, nor does it wish to emulate the rest of Canada. Quebec’s expressed mission has been to develop itself alongside the rest as a distinct community that has a different outlook and vision. Therefore, it does not make sense to judge Quebec on another basis and one that it has long rejected.
Quebec's proposed Charter does not signal the 'death of multiculturalism'. It is the actual beginning of a 'distinct society'. If Canada wishes to retain Quebec, it will have to allow Quebec to take independent action and organize its society according to its own values. We may not like what Quebec is doing, or its style of politics, but that is beside the point. The Charter is claimed to be xenophobic and intolerant, which it may be, but then our goal should be to be critical of the document and not charge Quebec with attempting to deviate from the 'English-Canadian' model, which of course is precisely what it is doing.