The Quebec state has imposed a new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program, from primary one to secondary five (Grades 1 to 11) in all schools, public and private.1 Officially in the making since 2005, the program was introduced in all Quebec schools as of September 2008. It replaces all previous religious instruction and moral education, and it is compulsory.

There is no doubt that this program represents a major development in education in Quebec, and that the thinkers behind it are serious and determined. In the words of the lead philosopher in the team that inspired the program, developed it and is now implementing it, Georges Leroux, “The choice that we are making a historic and … political choice,” and it represents “a genuine rupture.” The major intellectuals involved in the gestation of this remaking of religious and moral education – Jean-Pierre Proulx, Fernand Ouellet and Pierre Lucier along with M. Leroux – are among the most competent of contemporary Quebec academics, and their stated motives are beyond reproach: their fundamental objectives are the “common good” and individual freedom and autonomy.

In this essay, I first distill the philosophical and political postulates of the program’s apologists. I then proceed to issues the universal and compulsory imposition of the program raises for Quebec society: a population existing in space and time – in history – that is the inheritor of an already existing public culture the reformers manifestly wish to break with. Finally, I comment briefly on the implementation process, which has generated considerable controversy: active government “information” initiatives, resistance in the form of a citizens’ movement, and two court cases to date.

The seven pillars

For the purposes of laying out the philosophical and political postulates or premises involved, I rely here on Georges Leroux’s book published in 2007 for the explicit purpose of explaining the program, Éthique, culture religieuse, dialogue: arguments pour un programme2 (Ethics, religious culture, dialogue: Arguments for a program), from which the above quote is taken. This book is the public and official apology for the program and is the culmination of a dominant academic school of thought that has been in germination for at least half a century, in Quebec and elsewhere in the West. Drawing on Georges Leroux is also appropriate inasmuch as he has graciously agreed to respond in Inroads.

There are at least seven pillars to the intellectual underpinnings of the program:

  • unrelenting committment to secularism in all public institutions;
  • a belief in the plausibility of normative pluralism, which is the tortuous access road to universal truths;
  • an abiding belief in the role of reason in the formulation of our individual world views and, more particularly, of our ethics;
  • belief in the feasibility, by recourse to critical reflection via dialogue, of each individual arriving at his or her individual autonomy;
  • the necessity and capacity of the state in fostering and ensuring these ends;
  • the need for a shared public culture if a society is to function and survive;
  • the cultural corrosiveness of globalization.

Obviously these “pillars” are in many ways complementary and interdependent; nonetheless, they stand out as distinct articles of faith in M. Leroux’s book.

“Secularism,” as practised in the Quebec intellectual milieu, is a dogma from which there can be no deviation or exception. For M. Leroux, secularism is an achievement of modernity, a precondition of democracy and a condition of individual freedom. According to the most radical secularists, no religious authority may be allowed to prevail, even be visible, in the public arena. Hence the display of the Christian crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly or in municipal council chambers is an aberration to be suppressed as soon as possible – even if, as M. Leroux readily admits, Quebec’s social and moral collective capital is the product of a Christian tradition.

As it happens, after the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on the practice of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec recommended the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly in 2008, this body voted unanimously not to do so. The commission was headed by two academics supported by an “expert committee” composed of 12 academics and a high-level civil servant. Many municipalities have also refused to remove their crucifixes, despite the directives of the Quebec Civil Rights Commission.

Secularism is of course both a product and a condition of “normative pluralism.” The conviction that a society can function while recognizing the acceptability of varying normative systems is seen to be one of the characterizations of modernity. Differing and even contradictory value systems coexist in the private or “communautariste” niches of a pluralistic society, and their respective members interact together in the secular public sphere. A society that practises normative pluralism is not necessarily composed of individuals who practise normative pluralism. Indeed, given the spiritual dimension in our lives and our particular cultural heritage, many individuals will not be adepts of normative pluralism.

Normative pluralism is possible because in a modern secular state individuals will, as far as the public sphere is concerned, engage in “dialogue” during which, by the exercise of “critical reflection,” they will arrive at a consensus as to the nature and content of the necessary shared public culture in a spirit of civility which is the hallmark of a “vivre ensemble,” a way of living together. This is indeed the dynamic that is to prevail in the ERC program. As for the content of the program, it is ethics as entrenched in our charters and the presentation of the world’s major belief systems: religions, atheism and folk myths.

Yet, for the process of society-wide democratic deliberative discourse to take place, there are conditions that have to be created. Apart from the attenuation of religious authority in the form of existing communautarismes, there is a necessary respect of all for all – the vivre ensemble. In the situation in which Quebec finds itself, and given the corrosive influence of global culture, only the state is in a position of being able to establish and foster these conditions. By seeing to it that these conditions prevail in the educational system, which presumably is an instrument of the state, one can ensure the emergence of a “genuine common public culture” and a vivre ensemble sufficient to the task. The task is also one of ensuring the social cohesion of Quebec society. How transmission of a new cultural canon, whatever it may be (the old classical Western canon having been dissolved by globalization), can occur while operating on the basis of normative pluralism in a context of increasing diversity is not at all clear.3

I believe I have been fair – M. Leroux will tell us if I have not – in representing the essential beliefs of the proponents of the thinking that underlies the ERC program.

These seven pillars of the program are infused by an ideology that I would characterize as utopian voluntarism. The Leroux dispensation is voluntaristic because of its reliance on reason as exercised by individuals who have decided and are able to construct their individual ethic, and utopian because of its faith in a benevolent state operating on a level playing field in which all participants are well-meaning and equally committed to the common good and social “harmony,” a term that occurs throughout the book. There is no provision for the weakness of human nature, evil players, latent systemic perverse effects and determining conditions beyond the control of individual actors and the benevolent state acting in the common interest.

This ideology raises a number of issues for the citizens of contemporary Quebec who do not live in academia and who function according to the precepts of an already existing public culture. And I insist that Quebec society exists and, by all accounts, even in the considered opinion of Messrs. Bouchard and Taylor, functions quite well. This existing shared public culture is the outcome of collective wisdom, accumulated by trial and error and experience over at least five millennia. This existing shared public culture is, with the adaptation experienced as the result of five hundred years of experience in North America, essentially the “Western” or “Greco-Judeo-Christian” tradition, whose core is definitely neither as voluntaristic nor as utopian as the ERC program.

The role of parents

The first of these issues is that the role of parents in transmitting their culture, beliefs and values to their progeny is compromised, and no accommodation is made for this parental role. Young people are exposed to the normative pluralism of the ECR course beginning in Grade 1 at the age of six. At this age, children are still in the process of internalizing and consolidating the beliefs and convictions of their parents which are, in many cases, those of a religious community: what M. Leroux calls “communautarisme.”

In fact, through the ERC course, the school becomes a countervailing authority at a stage when children should still be under the influence of their parents. Not only does our existing public culture maintain this, but it holds that parents are responsible for the acts of their children until the age of 18. Furthermore, the methodology of the program intrudes on family by calling for reaching a consensus in a so-called neutral context in which the dialogue involves sharing with others the religious practice observed in their families.

In reality it is not a question of whether primary school pupils will be indoctrinated or not, but by whom. In our tradition, this role falls to parents and the communities of which they are members. The ERC program, inasmuch as it is imposed from the beginning of primary school, is a usurpation of the role of parents.

Second, although the program may be built on the principle of normative pluralism, not relativism, for the pupil it is a relativizing experience. If all religions as presented in the course are equally “true” then there is – at least until normative pluralism’s objective of eventual access to universal truths is attained – no truth at all. In the child’s mind and experience of the course, it is relativistic and may lead at best to disenchantment and at worst to cynical opportunism. This is a very real problem for young people who, before they are capable of critical reflection, have a need for certainty.

Schools and the state

The next issue is the role of the state in imposing values and beliefs. Most of us recognize that the state has a role in initiating students in our civic culture via a minimal curriculum, and in a shared cultural heritage via history and literature – what we call the societal cultural “canon.” Yet that is quite distinct from what is being proposed here. The stated objective of the ERC course is the initiation of young people – through exposure to various ethical and religious systems and dialogue – into a new and more adequate shared public culture to be propagated by the state.

However benevolent your conception of the state might be, this violates an essential tenet of our existing public culture, notably the separation of church and state. When the state imposes itself on the “church,” as opposed to the church imposing itself on the state, we have the same violation of this principle. (Interestingly enough, it is this very principle that made secularism possible.) In transmitting religious content, even if it is meant to be merely “cultural” and “neutral,” and by not allowing any exemptions to exposure to this content – which was the case in the first year of its implementation – the program encroaches on liberty of religion and conscience.

As it happens, the Mouvement Laïque du Québec, the major secularist movement in Quebec, has publicly criticized the ERC program for this reason, as well as considering the program inappropriate for primary-school-aged young people. Parents who have asked for exemptions have done so because they anticipate that it could cause serious harm to their children by calling into question the beliefs and convictions they are learning from their parents. Some parents claim violation of freedom of religion and conscience because the mere presentation to very young children of a variety of religious beliefs will relativize their parents’ own religious tradition or atheism.

Given the program’s avowed “political” purpose, to create and impose a new shared public culture and vivre ensemble, the state is indeed using its power of collective coercion to see to it that everyone experiences the course – there can be no dissidents. This is something new in Quebec: in its entire history of compulsory education, since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has always been provision for “dissenters.”

The role of the state in this program raises two related issues.The first is the capacity of the state to be ethical, let alone teach ethics. In our Western public culture, we neither conceive nor expect the state to be ethical. The individual legislator or state functionary is ethical or unethical, but not the state as such. The purpose of the state is to manage collective coercion in the interest of the common good as interpreted by our tradition and elected representatives.

The other related issue is that, in the Western tradition, schools do not belong to the state, and when they do it is an aberration that can become a serious problem if allowed to prevail. Schools in our public culture are part and parcel of civil society, created and administered by ratepayers’ associations (school boards), churches or even trade unions or guilds. They are in fact a “communautariste” reality, precisely the reality that the authors of the program have explicitly decided to exclude from education.

Nonetheless, Quebecers and others in the Western world have acquiesced since World War II in the idea that schools belong to the state and that teachers are the agents of the state, as indeed the Bouchard-Taylor Commission explicitly states.4 This is another deviation, a serious one, from our existing shared public culture. Schools are the extension of communities within civil society, and teachers, who are expected to act in loco parentis, are the moral spokespersons of these same communities. They are, above all, not agents of the state. The school in Ste-Edwidge where I live was, until recently, the school of the community of Ste-Edwidge and the teachers were fellow members of the community.

All of the above are issues because the program constitutes, as the authors themselves say, a rupture with the existing social reality. If we wish to continue to benifit from the liberty, creativity and prosperity that our existing public culture affords us, we should resist the voluntaristic utopianism of state-sponsored academics, while remaining conscious of the challenge and threats of our times such as the erosion of local cultures by globalization.

Deconfessionalization without debate

The process whereby the ERC course has been implemented is extremely revealing, and reflects a great deal about the motives and ethics of our new secular elite.

One of the major aspects of the whole process of secularization of Quebec society over the last half century has been the deconfessionalization of education, culminating in the implementation of the compulsory ERC course. What has been remarkable about the whole process is that the intellectuals who have been spearheading this process maintain that it is based on a societal consensus. The manufacturing of such a consensus, with the subsequent assumption that it exists in the population at large, is one of the great lies of recent years.

In fact, there is at present no such societal consensus, and there was never a genuine public debate on the “projet de société” consisting of an exclusively nondenominational school system. Pauline Marois, then Education Minister, promised such a debate during the 1997 joint Senate-Commons hearings on the abrogation of section 93 of the British North America Act – the objective the minister specified at the time was deconfessionalization of “structures” (school boards) only, not schools as such. The debate never took place.

During the preceding “États Généraux sur l’Éducation” of 1995–96, not a single group outside of the Montreal area asked for deconfessionalization during the public hearings of the first and open consultation phase. It was only in the second round of consultation, with a predetermined agenda presented to preselected audiences, that the subject emerged. As for the Proulx Task Force on the Place of Relig-ion in Schools in Quebec, Mme Marois’s follow-up on her promise of a societal debate, no truly “public” consultations were held. The churches of Quebec were either co-opted or simply ignored the government. None of the mainstream Catholic or Protestant churches initiated a debate within their communities, although the evangelical Protestant and Asian Christian communities did.

Parliamentary debate in the National Assembly on the bills dealing with deconfessionalization was virtually nonexistent, with no nominal vote being taken. When the Education Act was amended in 2005 to provide for the removal of all religious instruction in schools, this required a rewriting of section 41 of the 1975 Quebec Charter which explicitly guaranteed the right to religious instruction in public schools. There was a parliamentary commission to which one had to be invited. Needless to say, few opponents succeeded in getting invited.

With regard to the constitutional amendment which paved the way for compulsory and universal deconfessionalization, it was patently obvious to any constitutionalist interested in the subject that removal of section 93 of the BNA Act as regards Quebec would do away with any constitutional basis for denominational schools and would liquidate the autonomy of local school boards, which henceforth would no longer have the power to “administer” Catholic or Protestant schools. Yet not one of the half dozen Quebec constitutionalists spoke up at the time. As for the Catholic Church of Quebec, some of its spokespersons have now said that they were misled when they were told the objective was to deconfessionalize structures only but not schools.

The cultural and political elite may have acquiesced in deconfessionalization – although most of them continued to send their children to Quebec semiprivate denominational (prior to ERC) schools – but the people at large were never asked if they wanted it: it was never an election issue.

Denial of due process and abuse of power

Two trials involving the two parties who petitioned for exemption – the Lavallée family in Drummondville and Loyola High School, a private Catholic secondary school – resulted in the documentation of how the Ministry of Education had proceeded. During the trials, it became apparent that despite there being a provision in the Education Act (section 222) allowing for exemptions in cases where parents believed their children might experience “serious harm” by attending the course, no procedures – explanation of the section, forms for applying for exemptions, indications as to where a request should be addressed, appeal process – were available. And although more than 1,700 requests were made, none were granted. In the case of Loyola High School, which had requested exemption under an “exemption of equivalence” clause in the private schools law, the ministry did not even respond to the request; Loyola had to initiate the procedure by taking legal action.

The refusal of authorities to allow any exemptions as provided by law was, in effect, a denial of due process: access to the law and adequate opportunity to be heard and considered by the relevant authorities. One should have been able to assume that if legislators had left section 222 of the Education Act in the law book, it was because they intended to leave the door open for exemptions. But no, the government educational establishment took literally the prescriptions of the philosopher-conceptor of the program that there should be no exemptions.

Moreover, not only was there a denial of due process, but there was also a flagrant abuse of power. It took the form of the Ministry of Education instructing school boards not to allow exemptions: except for secondary five, the year in which the ministry issues graduation diplomas, whether or not an exemption will be granted falls under the jurisdiction of the school boards, not the ministry.

Another aspect of the implementation process has been that, despite the invocation in the ERC course itself of the Canadian Charter as an ethical standard, no deference was given to section 1 of the Charter, which states that none of the rights and liberties in the Charter can be restricted except by an intelligible rule of law, and within limits acceptable in a free and democratic society. In the present case, the restriction is compulsory attendance in a course that parents, in their sincere opinion, think may be a violation of their liberty of conscience and religion.

As for the first condition, the provision of an accessible and intelligible rule of law, what is flagrant is that there is an accessible and intelligible text that says exactly the opposite: that there may be exemptions. As for the condition that the restriction – in this case, compulsory attendance – be acceptable in a free and democratic society, the established test in Canadian jurisprudence is the Oakes test, arising out of the judgement in R. v. Oakes in 1986. This test lays out four criteria, all of which have to be met for the restriction to be acceptable in a free and democratic society:

  • there must be a real and urgent objective requiring the restriction of the right;
  • there must be a rational connection between the restriction of the right and the objective;
  • the restriction of the right in question must be as minimal as possible;
  • there must be proportionality between the restricion of the right and the objective.

The last criterion is judged to be superfluous by some authorities; hence, let us consider the first three. In the case of contemporary Quebec, I submit that there is neither the need nor the urgency for the restriction of the right of conscience and religion that arises from making compulsory a course designed to create a new shared public culture and to ensure civility and respect for others in the midst of diversity.

In actual fact, the diversity of Quebec society – the increase of which is the source of the need and urgency invoked by the course’s conceptors – is not great and is not greatly increasing. Eighty per cent of Quebecers are native French speakers and this proportion has been constant for the last quarter of a century. Furthermore, immigration has been and still is largely Christian in culture, with the result that 90 per cent of the population identified itself as Christian in the 2001 census. Admittedly, there has been an increase in the ethnic diversity of the one fifth of the population that is not native French-speaking.

Moreover, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, in its 2008 report, maintained that “the foundations of collective life in Québec are not in a critical situation,”5 and one reason is that Quebec society already has a working shared public culture. According to the same commission, “Québec … has acquired institutions, norms and guidelines that are components of what can be called … a ‘common public culture.’”6

As for the rational link between the objective of the course and the constraining measure – compulsory attendance – the disconnect between fostering respect in diversity and creating a climate of civility (“vivre ensemble”) on the one hand and the lack of respect for parents who believe their liberty of religion and conscience is restricted on the other is flagrant. In the name of fostering respect and tolerance for religious diversity, the dissidents receive a treatment akin to excommunication.

Which brings us to the third criterion, that the constraining measure taken be the least restrictive possible. Students who were withdrawn by parents and did not attend the course could have been allowed, for example, to read in the library instead of being expelled. In practice some more accommodating boards adopted this practice, while declining to inform the ministry. In Granby, where parents protested the severity of expulsion, the courts immediately quashed the board’s decision and required that the pupils in question be readmitted to their schools until the outcome of the trials.

In summary, given that there is no accessible and intelligible law justifying the compulsory nature of the ERC course – on the contrary, there are legal provisions for exemptions – and given that the government’s action fails to meet all the criteria of the Oakes test, we have here a straightforward violation of section 1 of the Canadian Charter, which makes the restriction unconstitutional.

Civil society is our real hope

In conclusion, we return to the avowed intentions of the conceptors of the program. Will the compulsory ERC course foster the emergence of a new shared public culture that will create society-wide civility and sufficient social cohesion to ensure that a supposedly increasingly diverse Quebec society does not succumb to the cultural corrosion brought on by globalization?

I think not. First, the program is based on an unduly voluntaristic premise: that each member of society will be capable of and interested in elaborating, through reason and dialogue, his or her ethical posture. Philosophers do this, and it is one of their contributions to society, but not all of us have the time, interest, capacity or disposition to do so.

Nevertheless, most of us need a degree of certainty about what we should and can do to be able to get on with our lives. And most of us rely on the moral and truth capital provided by a system of beliefs and convictions we have inherited, initially from our parents and subsequently via religion or models supplied by history and literature. Ideally, individuals internalize these beliefs. We may rebel against these “authorities” at some point, but at least we have something to be critical of, and the process of refinement or rejection is part of the edification of our autonomy. Karl Popper’s “burden of freedom” is not for everyone, and to impose it on everyone is both irresponsible and pregnant with unexpected consequences.

The other major weakness of the ERC program project arises from the utopian nature of its conceptors’ ideology. In their zeal to create the new Quebec citizen armed with a new “shared public culture,” they are proposing to effect a rupture with the existing shared public culture and the “communautarisme” it harbours.

Without civil society communities, most of us would be very isolated, atomized and hence vulnerable, especially in a globalized world that also undercuts communal solidarity. Thus, not only will the new shared public culture not be operative for several generations (the existing one took five thousand years to emerge in its present form), but the existing one will no longer be transmitted. After a generation of compulsory ERC acculturation, Quebecers will be ethically at sea, drifting from one fashion to another while becoming desperate for ethical and moral saviours. The accelerating growth of sects and evangelical Christian denominations in Quebec is a harbinger of this. And radical Islamism, which provides complete certainty, will find fertile ground for conversions in a ERC-nurtured population.

Furthermore, these utopians, by placing on the state a burden it is incapable of bearing, are contributing in yet another way to unfavourable prospects for Quebec society. Witness what happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Quebec when the state and church became too close: religion was, to a great extent, emptied of its real meaning and became predominantly a matter of social convention and social control, unsupported by internalized belief and ethics. The reality that Quebecers are very vulnerable to the worst effects of “modernism” is a function of the superficiality of the state-sanctioned Catholicism of the premodern period. Chances are that the state-sponsored new shared public culture and “vivre ensemble” will not do much better.

Another major obstacle to the success of the program will be that, despite the benefits of familiarizing students (particularly at the end of their secondary education) with major world religions, preparing teachers to accomplish this is no mean task. Can we reasonably expect all primary school teachers to be sufficiently familiar with Budhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – not to mention Christianity – to meet the desired objectives? Or will they simply regurgitate ministry-approved material?

Which brings us, full circle, to the prospects of counteracting the culturally corrosive nature of globalization, the peril of which is one of the seven premises the ERC program is based on. It is, I suggest, the communautarisme new and old of a free and pluralistic society that is our real hope. In other words, it is the vitality of civil society, and not the taking in hand of our “spiritual development” by the state (as the Quebec Education Act prescribes), that will be decisive. Already, there are indications that civil society, in many Western countries, is producing its own antidote to corrosive globalization.

On the strictly political level, the ERC program and its proponents will not succeed owing to failure to respet the conventions and tenets of our existing shared public culture – notably, the prerogatives of parents in education, freedom of religion and conscience, the proper role of the state, the separation of church and state, and the separation of powers (legislative, executive and judicial). In this last respect, the role of judicial institutions in determining whether the compulsory nature of the course is justified is going to be crucial.

I expect that the courts will eventually decide that the methods used to implement the ERC course are in violation of our democratic liberties: notably the right to due process and protection from arbitrary government action (abuse of power). And if this is indeed what happens, the final irony will be that the course and its proponents wll have been judged to be “unethical,” and the champions of secularism will have been found to have failed to adequately take into account the very conditions that made secularism possible: separation of church and state and freedom of religion and conscience.

However, should the courts eventually decide otherwise, or should the government decide to overerride the courts by invoking the notwithstanding clause, we would experience a revolutionary political and social change in Quebec – in the words of Georges Leroux, a historic development. In such an eventuality, members of the population will either acquiesce, resort to political activism or, as is possible in an open society such as ours, leave.


1 The course is not offered in secondary three.

2 Montreal: Fides, 2007. 117 pages.

3 I address this point in the “La déconstruction de la culture publique commune,” Recherches Sociographiques, Vol. 50, No. 2 (2009).

4 Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, report (Quebec, QC: Government of Quebec, 2008), p. 260.

5 Ibid., p. 18.

6 Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, Accommodation and Differences: Seeking Common Ground: Quebecers Speak Out, consultation document (Quebec, QC: Government of Quebec, 2007), p.11.