Recently the notion of ”œculture publique commune” (shared public culture) in Quebec has re-emerged in two very distinct and public contexts: the Bouchard–Taylor Commission (BTC) and in the ”œEthique et cul- ture religieuse” (ethics and religious culture) course (ECR) that the Quebec Department of Education intends to make obliga- t o ry in all Quebec elementary and secondary schools in September 2008. Here we intend to explore the significance of the re-emergence of the notion of shared public culture, which was first floated by myself in 1986, relaunched in 1993 and 1994 and finally presented in book form in 2001, only to subsequently be largely neglected. To see the notion rather abruptly invoked by two state bodies is, to say the least, intriguing; indeed the BTC in its ”œDocument de consultation” speaks of it as an ”œexpression courante” [current expression].
Why should it suddenly be re-invoked, and why by the state as opposed to an individual? Having been the one who both argued for the pertinence of the notion in 1986 and pro- posed provisional content for it in La culture publique commune: les ré€gles du jeu de la vie publique au Québec et les fondements de ces ré€gles, published in 2001, I feel justified to raise the question and to speculate on the reason for the sudden renewed interest in it.
To establish the context, I should say a few words about where and why I introduced the notion of the existence of a shared public culture in Quebec. At the time, in the late eighties, the language of multiculturalism and intercultural- ism and the integration of immigrants was being institu- tionalized in the public sphere: a new wave of academics and public servants were flooding public discourse with it and, in a symbiotic relationship, building their careers on it.
This discourse asserted that the existing narrative ”” Canadian or Québécois – had to be re-invented. I argued that Quebecers already had a shared public culture into which ”” even if it was constantly being renewed ”” immigrants and young Quebecers needed to be integrated by a better expla- nation and transmission of this shared public culture. A few years later, Julien Harvey ”” a Jesuit priest, now deceased ”” and I decided to advance what the content might be in var- ious Quebec journals such as l’Action nationale and L’Agora.
This effort solicited a surprisingly widespread reaction, which was essentially that a shared public culture was indeed necessary. For instance, the Centrale des enseignants du Québec, the Assemblée des évé‚ques du Québec, and the Conseil des relations interculturelles (CRIQ) affirmed the need. However, no one was prepared togooutonalimbastowhatthecon- tent might be.
CRIQ even argued that it should not be inspired by ”œle patrimoine culturel ou les références culturelles véhiculées par les indi- vidus composant la société québécoise” [the cultural heritage conveyed by individual members of Quebec society], which would presumably not be inclusive enough. I had argued precisely the oppo- site: the inspiration should be found in the existing cultural heritage. Hence, they chose to speak of a ”œcadre civique commun” [shared civic background] with- out, however, giving it a content except in terms of abstract universalistic values (respect, tolerance and equality). Two years later, Jean-Pierre Proulx, in his state- mandated report on the place of religious teaching in Quebec schools, spoke of the need for an ”œespace civique commun” [shared civic space], again without pro- viding anything specific as to content.
Thus there was a recognition of the need for a more explicit shared pub- lic culture, but indifference toward the content Harvey and I had tentatively advanced. In the meantime, to fill the value vacuum ”” ”œvide des valeurs” as rec- ognized by the EÌtats généraux sur l’édu- cation (1995-96) ”” ”œchartism” was beginning to dribble in by default: the Quebec 1979 Charter and the Canadian 1982 Charter became references. In 2001, taking notice of this decade-long indiffer- ence, I decided to venture a formulation as to the content in my book La culture publique commune. The book was pro- posed as an exploration of shared public culture in Quebec; a point of departure for debate on the question, proposed by someone who is, by conviction, reluctant to codify such important matters, a believer in the ”œliving constitution.”
The response in the public arena, which is normally quite responsive to this type of Quebec-centred introspec- tion, was quite deafening. While peo- ple seemed to recognize the need to elaborate on the shared public culture, no one engaged the debate as to its nature and content.
One explanation is that critics who were generally favourably disposed to me owing to other pieces I had published, although they disagreed with me on the content of this book, declined to attack me; in other words, through their silence, they were being considerate to me: another manifestation of the inherent civility of Quebec society. Another take is that it was not sufficiently Quebec-ori- ented and failed to tap into the ”œsolidari- ty” of Quebec society. My hypothesis is that political correctness did not allow for my insistence on the centrality of the Greco-Judeo-Christian heritage, i.e., the heritage of Western civilization.
Now we come to 2007 and the sud- den references to shared public culture in the preliminary documents and hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and its subsequent report, and the statement in the religious cul- ture and ethics program that one pur- pose of the course is to create a ”œvivre ensemble” [living together] and a ”œvérita- ble culture publique commune” [true com- mon public culture]. These are, of course, invocations of the need for elab- oration of the shared public culture, but reflect a lack of interest in a specific con- tent, be it the one I proposed or another.
As it happens, the BTC report makes several references to the notion of a com- mon public culture early on in the sum- m a ry, later in recognizing the paternity of the notion, and in signalling the shortcoming of the notion (and its pro- posed content). Interestingly enough, the notion is judged as both being ”œtrop statique” [too static], ”œartificielle” [artifi- cial] and, later in the report, as ”œdéfinie principalement sinon exclusivement en termes de droits et de valeurs uni- verselles” [defined principally, if not exclusively, in terms of universal rights and values]! Consequently, the authors decide in favour of a two- headed notion; a combina- tion of a shared civic background and ”œvaleurs publiques communes” [shared public values], terms that appear throughout the report, but that are explicitly advanced in the introduction to chapter 5: ”œLes normes de la vie collective” [the norms of collective life]. As to the content of these two notions, it is essentially based on the charters, including the French language Charter, and series of founding docu- ments published over the last 30 years by the Quebec government and its advisory boards.
It is striking that, apart from a vague reference to the historical experience of Quebec as a welcoming and very egalitar- ian society, all the documents are of state origin, the Quebec state as it happens. It is in this corpus of ”œbalises et repé€res” [mark- ers and indicators] that one finds the con- stitutive elements of the Quebec identity. It is also striking that the responsibility of making this corpus better known and of up-dating it is assigned to the state and its agents. Interestingly enough, school teachers are explicitly designated as ”œagents of the state.”
Effectively, Bouchard and Taylor (and their phalanx of academic advi- sors) could not bring themselves to affirm that it is Western civilization, which is the outcome of the Greco- Judeo-Christian tradition adapted to Quebec’s historical context, that new- comers ”” immigrants and newborn Quebecers alike ”” should adapt to. As for the conceptualizers of ECR, their position is clear. The very purpose of the course is to displace the Western tradi- tion from its central position in our pub- lic sphere. This was not at all clear to me until the course became public and its state-mandated authors came onto the public stage to support their relativistic normative pluralism ideology.
Of course the problem here, at least in terms of the existing public culture, is that first, the state has no business using schools for this purpose; and second, the state is simply not capable of gener- ating a real shared public culture, for reasons that are readily apparent to those of us who are grounded in the existing public culture.
This instance of social engineering by the Quebec government raises another issue, which is the difficulty of finding the absolute or fixed reference point of a shared public culture: the absolute or transcending high moral ground to which one can appeal to pro- vide certainty, or a semblance of collective consensus on ”œtruth” for a given society. In the ECR program as published, when the crunch comes as to what this transcending reference is, it is ”” pre- dictably ”” our charters. Once we have effectively forsaken our ethical truths and find ourselves on the thin ice of moral pluralism, the only societal (in this case Quebec or Canada) consensus that presents itself is the charters. The charters have for some time been well on the way to becoming part of Quebec’s civic religion.
The main problem with the charters as the final ethical reference in a societal shared public culture is that they are not a transcendent reference, a reference that transcends the contemporarycontext. By this I mean that the state (in its federal and provincial man- ifestations) created the charters, and it created them to be catalogues of human rights, not to be the fountain of truth or an ultimate moral reference. This has two serious implications.
First, if the state creates the charters, the state can change them, which is pre- cisely what the government of Quebec has already done and proposes to do again. Witness the following sequence of events. In 1998, Quebec ”” without any public consultation or debate ”” asked the federal government to abrogate arti- cle 93 (denominational school rights) of the BNA Act. But since the special school rights of Roman Catholics and Protestants were reaffirmed by article 29 of the 1982 charter, the abrogation of sec- tion 93 would also call for change to the Charter. Ottawa complied and, bingo, it disappeared from both the 1867 Constitution and the 1982 Charter. Later, in 2007, Quebec also changed article 41 of the Quebec Charter, which guaranteed parental rights to religious instruction in public schools. This again was done with- out even a nominal vote in the National Assembly. Two changes in a decade: this does not bode well for the stability and transcendence of the absolute moral ref- erence of our civic religion. What the state gives, it has already proved itself ready to take away. But it can also add: currently the provincial government is proposing to add a clause on gender equality in the Quebec Charter of Rights.
The other difficulty is that our char- ters are not in fact republican instru- ments ”” that is, founding documents born of a revolutionary break with a pre- revolutionary culture. They are, despite the semi-entrenched status of the federal Charter, creatures that can be changed by those legislative bodies (here I distinguish between parliament and state).
In Quebec’s case, the Charter is, as we have seen, not entrenched at all: a simple amendment in an ordinary statute (law 95, 2005, amending the Loi de l’instruction publique) eviscerated an article of the Charter. How could it be then that a legal instrument treated so lightly by the state itself could become the ultimate moral reference in a shared public culture? We are a long way from the American Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of Human Rights. We are still functioning within the logic of a parliamentary political culture, and the content of a vivre ensemble or a véritable culture publique commune has to reflect this if it is going to be politically feasible, given the existing and as yet to be displaced shared public culture.
As to the nature and content of the existing shared public culture, allow me to briefly describe what I deemed it to be in 2001: the dynamic behind it and its actual content.
A society’s shared public culture is the product of a particular history ”” in Quebec’s case, 400 years ”” and of the wider civilization of which the society is the inheritor. In the case of an immi- gant or, as Louis Hartz put it, ”œfrag- ment” society, it also reflects the degree of isolation from the mother society or societies. Let me begin, by way of illus- tration, with three cultural traits that are, in my opinion, defining character- istics of Quebec’s public culture.
Quebec has long been known for its civility and its social egalitarianism. Since I cannot comment here adequately on the genesis of these societal traits, suffice it to say that the former is no doubt a legacy of French and British manners and norms, inspired in both cases by a Christian social ethic. As for the second (social egalitarianism), there are no doubt many factors at work: the common rural (”œhabitant”) past; the de-capitation (by repatriation to France) of the elite at the time of the British conquest; the lack of a grande bourgeoisie and an indigenous landed aristocracy; the very real ”œcircula- tion of elites” afforded by the classical colleges, which recruited extensively in the farming and working-class commu- nities; and finally, an administrative elite (clergy, religious teachers, nurses, etc.) that was not self-perpetuating and con- strained to continually recruit from the wider population.
This brings us to the solidarité invoked by Jean-Jacques Simard and others. Quebecers are exceptionally sol- idaires, socially, even if this translates into a massive shift in norms or political alignment. A major re-alignment in this respect can take place quite quickly: in the space of a single generation, in fact!
Obviously such solidarity is, in part, the consequence of a minority society constantly under siege, and of a societal experience whereby three generations co-habited in very limited physical quarters, as Léon Gérin documented in L’habitant de St-Justin (1956). This last historical experience produced (socio-economic deter- minism at work) what the sociologist Colette Moreux called ”œla sociabilité de consensus” [the sociability of consensus]. Of course, macro and micro societal conditions have changed greatly in the last half century, but the ”œcordes sensibles” (Jacques Bouchard) and the ”œraisons com- munes” (Fernant Dumont) reflect such a shared historical experience. And, in fact, contemporary Quebec is a liberal- pluralistic society in waiting, the solidar- ity feature still being very much a reality. And finally another defining characteris- tic of Quebec’s shared public culture – as opposed to Canada’s ”” is the fact of French as the common public language.
This having been said regarding the historical socio-economic dynamic that resulted in the particularity of the present shared public culture, there is nonetheless a cultural content that originates in the wider historical experi- ence of Western society, and its mani- festations in French and English societies. Even at that, much of this historical content, by a process of cultural sedimentation and distillation, has undergone significant modulation in Quebec. As to what this ”œcontent” is, I attempt a preliminary synthesis in my book La culture publique commune; I will simply highlight a few elements here.
There are, of course, our funda- mental liberties (of speech, of con- science, of movement, of association, of integrity of the person, equality ”” of all, including between men and women ”” democracy, and due process). These fundamental liberties manifest them- selves concretely in our judicial, politi- cal, social and economic rights, which can take quite different forms from one historically distinct society to another within the Western world. Just three examples, which vary from society to society: the presumption of innocence, the right to bear arms and political sys- tems. In the case of Quebec, English common law and the French civil code both played a part in shaping the con- tent of Quebec’s shared public culture.
These liberties and rights have a more explicit origin and justification in well-developed basic principles, such as the separation of powers ”” be it that of Church and State or that of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary ”” the rule of law, or the covenant linking generations.
These principles are, in turn, the incarnation of essential beliefs such as the intrinsic value of every human being, the existence of free will, the recognition of individual responsibility, the possibili- ty of a more just society, the triumph of good over evil, the existence of the com- mon good, the capacity of humans for courage and generosity, etc. This rich and complex constellation of liberties, rights, basic principles and essential beliefs gives rise to an understanding of what our civic duties are and what constitutes civic virtues. The duty to come to the aid of those in distress is an example of a civic duty, and the refusal to be intimidated is an example of a civic virtue.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that such a shared public culture, creat- ed in the nexus of Western civilization and particular historical societal experi- ence and socio-economic conditions, is a dynamic, evolving cultural phenome- non. For instance, the right to a renew- able environment and the duty to respect the environment were not to be found in the explicit formulations of social values as late as 50 years ago. And owing precisely to this evolving ”œliv- ing” value of the shared public culture, codification is always inadequate. Catalogues of rights and responsibilities, like human rights charters, suffer from this inadequacy: there is absolutely not a word concerning the envi- ronment in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
My 2001 effort at explana- tion was motivated by a concern that the content normally transmitted by imbib- ing the historical record of one’s civiliza- tion and society, through reading of the literary canon and studying philosophy and history, was becoming tenuous, and that consequently there was a need to provoke debate on what the content actually is. Such a concern derives from awareness that no society can function well enough to survive if there is not a recognizable shared public culture.