MONTREAL — Amid increasingly strident criticisms of multiculturalism, both in Canada and abroad, a group of Quebec intellectuals is proposing an alternative that could save an idea that has become part of the national fabric.
Interculturalism is being branded as a new model for integration and a solution to some of the anti-immigrant backlash that has accompanied the debate in Quebec over the accommodation of minorities.
Interculturalism takes for granted the centrality of francophone culture. From there it works to integrate other minorities into a common public culture, all while respecting their diversity.
Its backers say it can also help multiculturalism weather some of the attacks it has suffered recently.
Those attacks have been most acute in Quebec, where a member of the Opposition Parti Quebecois bluntly declared last month that “multiculturalism is not a Quebec value.”
Even a scion of the family most closely associated with multiculturalism in Canada acknowledges interculturalism can make certain ideas about diversity more palatable in Quebec.
“The word multiculturalism has become synonymous in the mind of many Quebecers as being something that is imposed by English Canada,” said Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, whose father — former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau — made multiculturalism official government policy in 1971.
“For me (interculturalism) is more of a word we chose to use in Quebec that is acceptable when multiculturalism is beginning to be less so.”
Trudeau’s somewhat ambivalent endorsement speaks to the central problem interculturalism has faced so far: is it any different from multiculturalism?
Interculturalism’s leading champion in Quebec argues the two are separate concepts, though he admits they also have some overlap.
Multiculturalism’s founding assumption is that there is no dominant culture in Canada, says Gerard Bouchard, a sociologist best known to Quebecers for co-chairing a government commission into the accommodation of minorities.
“This is a non-starter in Quebec because everybody knows there is a majority culture in Quebec, it is the francophone culture,” he said.
“Any model to manage diversity in Quebec must take into account this major fact.”
It is a model, says Bouchard, that can deliver a certain cohesion to a society that feels its identity is perpetually under threat.
“We have to protect, to shield ourselves from anything that looks like fragmentation,” he said.
Interculturalism is itself not a new idea. It was bandied about unofficially by Quebec bureaucrats in the 1980s and began appearing in some official documents a decade later.
But in Bouchard it has found a passionate advocate. The brother of former premier Lucien Bouchard, he is perhaps the closest thing Quebec has to an academic celebrity.
Bouchard first argued for interculturalism in the reasonable accommodation commission’s final report, which he co-wrote with philosopher Charles Taylor in 2008.
But most of the report’s recommendations were ignored by Premier Jean Charest’s government.
Concerned that Quebec is still floundering through this high-stakes debate, Bouchard has taken up the charge once again.
An interculturalism manifesto appeared in Quebec newspapers last week penned by Bouchard and other leading Quebec academics.
Bouchard has also been making the rounds of television talk shows.
An international symposium on the topic will be held in Montreal in May.
The renewed interest in interculturalism comes at a time when multiculturalism is on the defensive.
Last month, conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared the policy had failed, saying newcomers should “accept to melt in a single community.”
Similar comments have been made by his right-wing counterparts in the European Union, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In English Canada, multiculturalism has also faced repeated attacks from the right, where it is often equated with moral relativism or, worse, a creation of the federal Liberals aimed at securing the ethnic vote.
In Quebec, it is seen as a way of limiting the political influence of the country’s francophones and has never been officially endorsed by the provincial government, in either its federalist or sovereigntist incarnations.
“We know very well why it was put in place,” the PQ’s Louise Beaudoin said during a recent debate in the provincial legislature.
“It was to dilute the fact, the concept, even the idea of two founding peoples in the… very foundation of Canada.”
Multiculturalism’s supporters make no quarter for such arguments.
“She’s wrong,” Trudeau said. “I’m sorry to see so much of the sovereigntist argument predicated on the fear of the English, fear of how vulnerable Quebec was.”
He adds that the feeling of insecurity felt by many sovereigntists is why they have “always wanted to build up walls and keep others out.”
But whereas Trudeau maintains this sense of insecurity is unnecessary, Bouchard says it simply comes with French being a minority language in North America.
It is interculturalism’s ability to address that anxiety that Bouchard counts as its key advantage over multiculturalism.
“Any model that seeks to manage Quebec’s ethno-cultural diversity effectively must take into account the existence of an ethno-cultural majority and the uncertainty that is associated with its future,” he says.
Bouchard does not count himself among those who believe multiculturalism has failed in the rest of Canada.
“It makes sense on the anglophone side of the country,” he says, pointing out that less than 30 per cent of Canada’s population is of British origin.
But he adds that Canadian multiculturalism is far from a static concept, and has adapted to the criticism that it contributes to the fragmentation of the national identity.
“In the last few years it has been changing in a very interesting way,” he says. “It is getting closer to interculturalism.”