Quebec, education, parents, and religion: a recipe for conflict

The Coalition Avenir Québec continues its remarkable record of concentrating power in the provincial government on behalf of its pure laine base. (Who says that it is only leftists who press for a strong centralized state? Only those who don’t know political history.)

Last weekend, the CAQ government drastically revised educational administration in that province, most notably dismantling school boards (except for English-speaking schools, in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit—hah!). It also gives the replacement for those boards, new “service centres” elected by parents’ groups, the right to demand that municipalities simply hand over land needed for new schools.

According to the Montreal Gazette, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said that “Quebec desperately needs more classrooms and the change was necessary because it could take years to negotiate land deals with municipalities.” Nothing like eminent domain to speed along progress.

The CAQ maintains that the very many changes in Bill 40—forced through the National Assembly by way of closure—will give more power to parents, rather than school board commissioners who don’t actually represent the publics they serve. According to the Gazette, “in 2014, only four per cent of eligible voters cast ballots for French boards; on the English side, turnout was 17 per cent.”

Meanwhile, however, the CAQ may have to rethink their current championing of parents’ rights. Indeed, this government, which is so antagonistic to certain religious groups that it legislates what religious symbols they can wear in public service, may have to rethink traditional Quebec indulgence of certain other religious groups.

According to the CBC, “Yohanan and Shifra Lowen, two former Hasidic Jews, … claim the Quebec government didn’t do enough to ensure they received a proper education.” Interestingly, the couple are not suing for monetary damages, but to compel a change of policy to make all religious groups provide an education that will be at least minimally compliant with the province’s general guidelines.

“Yohanan Lowen, who first launched the legal action, alleges that, when he finished school at 18, he could barely add or subtract, couldn’t read and write in English or French and was left unequipped to find work outside his community.”

Previously, certain concessions were allowed to Orthodox Jewish communities, but this lawsuit will bring such concessions to light. It will also, however, bring to the fore the tension between a parent’s right to educate a child as he or she sees fit with the state’s responsibility to ensure a child’s right to education isn’t compromised by a parent—or a religious community.

Quebec thus continues to be one of the main testing grounds of many educational issues in general Canadian life. If parents object to teaching about the theory of evolution, or same-sex marriage, or other religions, or First Nations rituals—all of which have been litigated in one or another jurisdiction across the country—what rights do they have to keep their children away from such teaching?

What if parents object to girls being educated alongside boys? What if parents strongly object to the history curriculum as being somehow unfair to their ethnic group or region?

What responsibilities, in turn, does the state have—do we all have, as a society—to make sure parents don’t prevent their children from receiving the education they deserve?

You will note that I have yet to inject any explicitly Christian content into this discussion. That is because, despite what this or that Christian group or lawyer or parent or clergyperson or teacher might say otherwise, Christians ought to recognize and to champion the rights of everyone involved. Christians properly sympathize and support parents, and the state, and religious communities, and ethnic groups, and especially the children.

Here’s hoping that when these issues surface again, as they surely will, in legislatures and courts, Christian intervenors will refuse—as they sometimes have in the recent past—to pit parents’ rights or groups’ rights against state responsibilities, as if righteousness resides on only one side of that tension.

And here’s hoping most of all that we remember that the people most affected by the decision are the people least able to represent their interests. The children—not their parents, not their teachers, and not their political leaders—must be the people Christians prioritize in all such debates.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).