EDITORIALS  CAQ’s “Secular” Education Promotes Xenophobia

The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government recently announced its plan to abolish the Ethics and Religious Culture (ECR) course, which has been compulsory in Quebec elementary and high schools since 2008. The CAQ seeks to replace the ECR course with a broader, non-religious course set to begin in Fall 2022. This is in line with the party’s wider vision of a “secular” Quebec, an ideology which led to the passing of the xenophobic Law 21 in June 2019.

It is important to note that this sentiment was not formed in a vacuum – Quebec as a province has a long history of religious discrimination. Jewish people have continually been discriminated against in the province’s legislature and universities, including a quota on Jewish students at McGill University that was only removed in 1956. Even after a Quebecois white nationalist killed six Muslims in a mosque in Quebec City, CAQ Premier François Legault alleged that Islamophobia is not commonplace. The current immigration “values test” continues a legacy of racist and xenophobic restrictions in Quebec, which, contrary to common belief, existed prior to the rise of Islamophobic sentiments post-9/11.

The Quebec secularist movement has long asserted that ethics should not be taught in association with religion, claiming that it may set a precedent that conflates the two. The Parti Québécois and the CAQ government have both supported abolishing the course in the past, on the grounds that it “promote[s] the federal vision of multiculturalism,” and over-accommodates other religions. According to the new curriculum, notable topics of this course will include citizen participation, democracy, legal education, sexuality, interpersonal relationships, ethics, and eco- and digital-citizenship.”

Quebec’s Education Minister Jean-François Roberge issued a statement to Radio-Canada on January 10, 2020, claiming that “the objective [of the course] is to make more room for 21st-century themes.” This loaded language places religious faith as a relic of the past – rhetoric which is often leveled against religious people of colour and those practicing non-Christian faiths, who are targeted by Law 21 and the racism that fuels it.

The ECR course was originally established in 2008 by Jean Charest’s Liberal government to replace Catholic ethics education in Quebec, and claimed to promote “justice, happiness, laws and regulations” while respecting “the freedom of conscience and religion of parents, students and teaching staff.”

Some Catholic parents have felt that this mandatory curriculum violated their right to teach their own moral and religious framework” to their children, a claim which was taken to the federal level twice. One of these instances was in 2012, when a group of Catholic parents in Drummondville appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the ECR curriculum infringed upon their religious freedoms. However, the claim was refuted by Marie Deschamps, the puisne justice at the time, who argued that “exposing children to […] various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute an indoctrination of students that would infringe the freedom of religion.”  In 2015, a Jesuit private school in Montreal, Loyola High School, approached the Supreme Court of Canada with a similar argument, asserting that the teachers should not have to cover religions that conflict with the Catholic teachings of their curriculum. Their claim was accepted under the condition that the school would submit an alternative curriculum for review.

Clearly, the interpretation of what is considered “infringing on religious freedom” is inconsistent. The CAQ’s discriminatory “solution” for respectfully and comprehensively educating children about religion only serves to remove the possibility for crucial conversations about respect for non-Christian faiths. These conversations are often the foundation for combating the bigotry that is promoted by xenophobic groups such as the CAQ.

Erasing religion from the curriculum entirely is a destructive move on the part of the CAQ. By refusing to educate Quebecois children on the existence and practices of other religious faiths, the CAQ is shaping a generation that will be unprepared to grapple with questions of personal freedom and religious freedom.

In a predominantly white, Christian society, the absence of other religious education is not a neutral position.

You can participate in an online consultation (in French only) over the ECR’s abolishment, or email the Ministry of Education at consultationsECR@education.gouv.qc.ca, both of which must be completed before February 21. You can also make your voice heard at the public consultation in Montreal on February 21, where education experts will be present to discuss the proposed reform.