Is it likely that Hérouxville, set in Quebec's overwhelmingly white and francophone heartland, will ever witness the stoning of a Muslim woman?
Not really, mused Gérard Bouchard, the co-chair of a provincial commission looking into the reasonable accommodation of minorities.
"We're pretty far from stoning here," he said at an October 2007 public hearing in Trois-Rivières, about 40 kilometres south of the small town of 1,300.
Bouchard was speaking to Andre Drouin, a member of the Hérouxville town council that, nine months earlier, had created a national firestorm by adopting a code of conduct that banned the stoning of women and covering of faces, among other practices. (Some of the code's provisions were repealed at a later council meeting.)
Yet Drouin held his ground in the face of Bouchard's skepticism. "It doesn't matter in what country the stoning is taking place," he replied to Bouchard and his co-chair, Charles Taylor.
"Stoning takes place, and some of those people will want to come here. It's important to be preventive."
Exchanges like these have consumed the province since Premier Jean Charest formed the Bouchard-Taylor commission in February 2007, largely in response to the public firestorm over the Hérouxville news.
The debate has raged at great length: How far should Quebec society go to accommodate newcomers? At what point do the practices of minority groups clash with established norms?
These questions were not just being asked in, and of, small-town Quebec. Days before Hérouxville, located about 165 kilometres northeast of Montreal, adopted its code, a Montreal police officer had stirred public debate by writing and broadcasting a song about immigration. Newcomers, the song advised, should try to fit in — or get out of the province.
A month later, an 11-year-old Ottawa girl was ejected from a Laval, Que., soccer tournament for wearing a hijab. The province does not allow religious headgear to be worn during soccer matches.
Into this fray came prominent scholars Bouchard and Taylor, named to head the commission with a one-year mandate. Its final report was released on May 22, 2008.
The commission's most public face was a series of 17 public hearings held over almost three months, meetings held from the diverse neighbourhoods of Montreal to the remote communities of Rouyn-Noranda and Sept-Îles.
IN THE HOTSEAT
Taylor and Bouchard, the commission co-chairs, are both revered in the world of academia:
Charles Taylor is a philosopher, having taught at Berkeley and Stanford in California, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., as well as several other universities. He has written 20 books and his research includes modernity, multiculturalism and secularism.
Gérard Bouchard is a historian and sociologist who lectures at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Bouchard's research includes work on demographics, ethnology and human genetics. He is also the brother of former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard.
Before the hearings began in September, Bouchard admitted in an interview with CBC News that he had a tough job ahead. "Quebecers are very deeply divided around the mandate and the issues we have to deal with," he said.
The social fissures were on clear display in October, when the commission arrived in Trois-Rivières, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.
Among the dozens of speakers who flocked to the microphones during that stop was Jacques Lamothe, a resident of Trois-Rivières.
"Hardcore Canadian multiculturalism is a Tower of Babel" that will inevitably fail in a confusion of cultures, Lamothe told the commission. He spoke in French, but pronounced "Canadian" disdainfully in English.
Others vigorously denounced the attacks on multiculturalism.
"I am ashamed to be a Quebecer sometimes, like when I hear idiocies like those coming from Hérouxville," said Jean-Pierre Trépanier.
"Ignorance and fear produce xenophobia and racism, and the ideas of the extreme right."
By the time the public hearings ended in November, the commission had gathered more than 3,000 submissions. These came from ordinary citizens and interest groups, as well as various experts on immigration issues and Quebec society.
It heard from people like Farah Abdill, a Montrealer originally from Somalia.
"We immigrants, we're here because you say you need us," Abdill told a standing-room audience at a November hearing in Montreal's most multi-ethnic community. "But then we're labelled, and we're told we have to leave our baggage.
"I'd like to be a Québécois. I'll never be a Québécois. I'm black," Abdill said, concluding his two-minute presentation to hearty applause.
It also heard from a prominent Quebec lawyer and founding member of the Parti Québécois, who said that English and multiculturalism are threatening the French language.
Guy Bertrand told the commission that immigrants who come to Quebec must accept the French language and integrate into the French majority.
"No people on earth, no citizens, and dare I say — no commission can remain indifferent or insensitive to the need to protect the French fabric in North America," he said.
Report goes public
Because of the passionate and often opposing views which were aired at the public hearings, the eventual release of the final Bouchard-Taylor report was guaranteed to be a hot potato.
So, the publication of leaked portions in the English-language Montreal Gazette in the days before the report's release were received as a bit of a bombshell.
In the final report, though, the commissioners did their best to cool the hot rhetoric on the topic.
"The foundations of collective life in Quebec are not in a critical situation," the authors wrote.
The government must adapt to a pluralist, secular society and play a leading role in establishing better guidelines for "interculturalism," a variation of multiculturalism with a greater emphasis on integration, the report concluded. The commission also advised the government to draft greater measures, statutes and guidelines to counteract discrimination.
One of the 37 recommendations put forward was to prohibit provincial judges, Crown prosecutors, police officers and prison guards from wearing religious signs and clothing while on the job. Teachers, health care workers and students, however, should be allowed to wear hijabs, kippas or other religious clothing or symbols, the report said.
The report also suggested enshrining the principle of interculturalism in a statute, policy statement or declaration in Quebec's national assembly.
Charest has promised to respond quickly to the Bouchard-Taylor report's advice. But whether any of the recommendations can smooth over the rifts that have come to light in Hérouxville and other parts of Quebec remains to be seen.