Religion, Ethics and Schools: Is Quebec's New Ethics and Religious Culture Course a Step toward Mutual Respect, or a New State Religion?

Article excerpt

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When I was choosing a school for my daughter in Quebec City, I visited the school closest to our house. I had no idea what questions to ask or on what I was supposed to base my decision. I decided it was the right school because I liked the smell of the staircase.

It was the oldest girls' school in North America, still run by the Ursulines, a Catholic religious order that had arrived here in 1639 with the idea of civilizing and evangelizing the children of the First Nations. Christianity and civilization were inseparable, if not synonymous, and this idea has determined the shape of the educational system in Quebec ever since.

In this section we present a debate between two people who have gone much further than their noses in looking at the Quebec education system, and specifically at the replacement of all religious education in Quebec schools with a new mandatory course entitled "Ethics and Religious Culture" (ERC). Georges Leroux is Professor Emeritus in the department of philosophy at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. Gary Caldwell was a member of the Etats Generaux sur l'Education and is author of La culture publique commune. He is deputy mayor of Ste-Edwidge-de-Clifton, Quebec.

The new course has provoked a debate in Quebec that touches on many important issues: How does Quebec wish to relate to its religious heritage? How should people regard cultures and belief systems different from their own, and how should we live together? What kind of society do we want to be? But it goes much further than this--it touches on how we learn to distinguish between right and wrong, between good and evil. It touches, ultimately, on the nature of freedom itself.

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Until ten short years ago, Quebec school-children were still being sent to different schools roughly according to whether they were Protestant or Catholic. Catholics and Protestants had never been able to agree on a common public education system, so each ran their own very different institutions and, until 1964, there was no provincial education department at all. Even once the state was involved, a dual system based on denomination was maintained for another 35 years. Catholic schools were mostly French, and Protestant schools, English.

This tidy solution was upset long ago by Jews, who had to become honorary Protestants, and by Irish Catholics, who fought to establish English Catholic schools. Catholic English-language schools attracted many new immigrant groups who were not English-speaking, including Italians and Poles; while non-Catholic immigrants, including Greeks, Lebanese and Chinese, landed in Protestant schools. With the declining birthrate of the Quebecois de souche, the language worries of the state began to outweigh denominational considerations. When, starting in 1981, all new immigrants were forced to send their children to French schools, it was a very clear signal that language, and not religion, would be the new faultline.

In 2000, the Catholic-Protestant divide in the school system was replaced with an English-French divide. This was a move toward a more secular system (the untranslatable verb deconfessionaliser gives the process a certain French revolutionary grandeur), and the notwithstanding clause was invoked to prevent minority religious groups from demanding religious education in schools. In 2005, Quebec took the final step in laicizing (another dashing republican word) the school system by definitively eliminating the choice of religious instruction in school altogether.

This required much legal and constitutional tinkering, some would say sabotage. Abolishing denominational schools had already required an amendment to the 1867 British North America Act and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Eliminating religious instruction meant abrogating section 5 of the Public Education Act and amending the Charter again. …