A contentious series of public hearings on cultural differences and immigrant integration get underway in Gatineau, Que., Monday night.

The hearings are part of a new commission headed by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gérard Bouchard, which hopes to cap the often bitter public debate on the integration of immigrants in Quebec.

The commission expects to hear from individual citizens, groups and institutions in addition to experts on cultural communities, immigrant issues, religion and Quebec identity.

A total of 17 hearings will be held in locationsthat range from rural outlying regions such as Rouyn-Noranda to Montreal.

Bouchard admitted he and Taylor have a tough job ahead. "Quebecers are very deeply divided around the mandate and the issues that we have to deal with," he told CBC News.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced the hearings earlier this year, a week before the provincial election in March, in a bid to temper a protracted public debate about immigrants.

The debate, played out in newspapers and on television networks, was fuelled by reports of a blunt immigrant code of conduct in Hérouxville, and later a ruling against Muslim girls playing soccer while wearingheadscarves.

Most recently, Elections Canada's decision to allow Muslim women wearing burkas to vote without showing their faces has again pushed the question of accommodation to the forefront.

"People are moved to make some of these objections to some of the accommodations, because of, on one hand, deep-seated cultural fears," Taylor said last week.

"Some of these fears are founded. Some of them aren't. And if you bring it all out, you can see thatsome of them aren't."

There are concerns about the hearings' open invitation to all groups, including extremists.

"That would only widen the gap," said May Haidar, a Montreal resident and member of the Canadian Islamic Congress."It would only heat the debate more and more."

The commission faces an additional challenge as Taylor will miss the several hearings to undergo arm surgery resulting from a fracture in April.

He said he will read reports from the hearings until he is able to join the commission on tour, expected to be on Sept. 24.

The hearings are expected to last three months.

With files from the Canadian Press