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 Université du Québec à Montréal. Gary Caldwell was a member of the États Généraux sur l’Éducation 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.

Until ten short years ago, Quebec schoolchildren 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 Québécois 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 déconfessionaliser 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.

I moved back to Quebec City in 1996, after many years away. If the school system was supposed to be educating children in the Catholic faith, it was evidently failing to keep them in it. The Catholic churches were almost empty. People knew little about other faiths, in spite of various efforts since the 1970s to include a smattering of other faiths in the curriculum. Sometimes I was asked, “Vous autres, les Protestants, croyez-vous en Jésus Christ?” (Do you Protestants believe in Jesus Christ?) Protestants were almost equally ignorant about Catholicism. Most schoolchildren had a scathing contempt for their “relig” (pronounced relish) classes. My francophone undergraduate students at the university knew very little about Christianity, the Catholic Church or the Bible. Whatever the education system was doing about it, knowledge of religion, or even knowledge of their own Judeo-Christian heritage, was clearly not being passed on.

Starting in the fall of 2008, Quebec replaced religious instruction with the new Ethics and Religious Culture course. The program is compulsory in all Quebec schools, public and private, though private schools (which are actually state-subsidized by up to 80 per cent) can offer their own religious instruction on the side. Given the increasingly diverse nature of Quebec society, the program aims, as Georges Leroux explains, to turn out people who respect one another’s differences and work together for the common good. On the basis of these goals, it teaches students about the moral equality of all human beings, about how to reflect on ethical issues using reason (as opposed to religious precepts) and about how to engage in dialogue on these issues in ways that respect others, whatever their convictions. It also aims to educate students about Quebec’s religious heritage (Aboriginal, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish) and the different religions now present in Quebec (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism).

It is hard to argue with the need for children to know a bit more about one another, and how to engage in dialogue. But many Quebecers objected to this removal of our right to religious education in the schools, basing their arguments on democratic, legal, constitutional, religious, educational and historical grounds. Gary Caldwell maintains that the removal of this right, and the process by which the course was imposed with very little public consultation, were deeply undemocratic and ultimately dangerous for Quebec society.

There have also been objections to course content. Some claim that presenting belief systems as all equally valid cannot be acceptable to anyone who is a believer, whether atheist, Christian or Jewish. The Council on Jewish Education in Quebec placed a third-of-a-page advertisement in the Montreal Gazette saying the course should allow teachers in Jewish schools to make

a value judgment on the beliefs being studied … Torah law requires Jews to epistemologically recognize the prophecy of Moses as absolute eternal truth, which cannot be contradicted by any other prophet. Therefore, when a Jewish school class studies a belief that is incompatible with the prophecy of Moses (e.g. atheism), the Jewish teacher is obligated to identify the incompatible belief as false.1

Others agree that ethics cannot be taught in a neutral fashion, and see in the course a statist agenda to impose a far-from-neutral, indeed fundamentalist, form of “normative pluralism” on the population – evangelizing the natives all over again. Can tolerance and a common good really be acquired through a combination of objective knowledge of others’ religions and reasoned dialogue? Or is this utopianism, as Gary Caldwell argues?

As for learning ethics without religious instruction at its heart, some would agree with Pope Leo XIII, who pronounced on the Manitoba Schools Question in 1890 that “to be desirous that minds should be imbued with good and at the same time to leave them without religion is as senseless as to invite people to virtue after having taken away the foundations on which it rests.”

This is not just a Catholic position. John Locke, the English political philosopher whom Georges Leroux claims as an ally, was himself a devout Protestant and believed that religious tolerance was above all an outcome of faith, as were both freedom and autonomy (he didn’t believe in extending this tolerance to Catholics or atheists, however). Universal public education came about in Scotland because of religion: reformers believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible for himself or herself and only then would be truly free to choose. This deeply held belief in the necessity of universal public education, which arrived in Quebec with anglophone immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, had a profound impact on the evolution of Quebec’s education system.

Some object to having their children learn about other religions before they have had time to consolidate their own faith, and believe that this undermines the parents’ religious freedom to educate their children in their own faith.

A broadside from the other direction entirely comes from humanists, such as members of the Mouvement Laïque Québécois, who criticize the course for linking ethics and religious culture at all. This movement argues that students will get the false impression that morality stems from religion, rather than from ethical philosophy. Placing too high a value on the spiritual life will undermine the supremacy of human rights which, they believe, can only be guaranteed by humanist values.2 Hostility toward religion per se in Quebec is not at all confined to a small group of humanists. It was widely expressed during the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation; and in a 2008 poll by Le Devoir, 29 per cent of respondents wanted no discussion of religions in the schools at all.

So why does the course combine ethics with religious culture? The answer lies in a concept called open secularism, as carefully outlined in the recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Open secularism is in contrast to the more rigid French version of secularism, out of which, for example, the Muslim hijab was banished from schools. “Secularism must serve civic integration,” wrote Bouchard and Taylor, “while challenging the premise that removal of difference is a condition for integration … dialogue, mutual understanding and cooperation between the citizens of a diversified society demand, to the contrary, that their resemblances and their differences be recognized and respected.”3

A new, integrated civic culture, a way of living together or vivre ensemble, is what the course aims to establish in Quebec. Gary Caldwell argues that the state has no business playing such a magisterial role, and that there is a public culture already in Quebec, one that was acknowledged by Bouchard and Taylor and whose Greco-Judeo-Christian foundations took 5,000 years to evolve. Georges Leroux, on the other hand, replies that Caldwell is out of touch with the modern world, and that while a common public culture may still exist in the villages of rural Quebec, the curriculum is failing Quebec youth if it does not prepare them for the globalized, pluralistic society of the future.

Among the range of reactions to the new course have been more than 1,700 demands for exemptions, demands which the Ministry of Education has instructed school boards to refuse in every case. This refusal has led to two major lawsuits. The first is by Loyola High School, a private Jesuit school that claimed it was already educating students about other religions, the common good and recognition of others – but in a manner in keeping with the Catholic faith. The Ministry of Education denied Loyola an exemption, arguing that its course was not “even-handed” and “does not meet the religious culture requirements of the Ethics and Religious Culture program, because the study of religions seems to take place in association with the Catholic religion.”

In a letter to the Montreal Gazette, Loyola’s principal wrote, “The common good is not secular; it is COMMON. Can we not pursue these things from within our own traditions and beliefs, or do we all need to become secularists first?”

The second case was in the small city of Drummondville, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, an hour from Montreal, where parents brought a claim against the government for refusing to allow their children exemption from the course. They were unsuccessful, the Quebec Superior Court judge ruling that the course did not limit the children’s freedom of conscience and religion. Parents in Granby in the Eastern Townships also failed to get an exemption, and when they withdrew their children from the class, the children were suspended – a move Gary Caldwell compares to excommunication. He contrasts this contempt with the respect formerly given to nonreligious parents who successfully fought to have their children exempted from religious instruction in the denominational schools.

There is much questioning over whether enough teachers will be competent to teach this very demanding course. So far, teachers have had between three hours and three days of preparation. Many also question whether they can teach it with the requisite neutrality, while others question whether this should be a requirement at all.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec, has been an outspoken critic of the program since its inception, and has complained loudly to Rome and in the international arena. His fellow bishops in the Assemblée des Évêques Catholiques du Québec, having reserved judgement until they saw the course content, have now remarked with disappointment that “Christianity’s contribution to the social and cultural life of Québec, frequently reiterated during consultations which led to the approval of the program, is barely evident and, in some cases, totally absent in the textbooks that were studied.”

Few Quebec children go to church on Sundays any more, but ironically, as one of the Quebec bishops pointed out to me, they are now being taken to church during the week as part of their ERC course. Abbots of monasteries and priests of sleepy parishes are reporting that they are suddenly finding their churches full of children for the first time in decades – children who are looking around them and asking lots of questions.

Having examined one of the textbooks in detail, I would love to have taken this course in school, and I would perhaps be less of a bigot as a consequence. I learned a lot about other religions than my own, and the section on dialogue demonstrates various forms of dialogue (conversations, interviews, debates), giving practical advice on how and how not to engage constructively in them; the same goes for how to present an opinion or question someone else’s opinion. It lays out some useful ground rules for how to discuss important and difficult issues. In fact, it reminds me of the classical rhetoric taught in Quebec’s private religious colleges, a system that was deeply rooted in our Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition but was abolished in 1967.

Quebec is not alone in being torn between religious and ethical education. In Berlin, where authorities banned religious education and introduced a course similar to Quebec’s in 2006, a referendum forced city officials to bring back religious education. The campaign was supported by both Jewish and Muslim groups. “It’s important that schools have enlightened Islamic lessons – and that we avoid unofficial Koran lessons in backyards,” said one representative of a Turkish Muslim group.4

I don’t believe we should or can do without religious education, not just for vivre ensemble but for resolving our most important, difficult and perhaps dangerous differences. Irish theologian Enda McDonagh, deeply involved in mediation in Northern Ireland, says that “even the essential and liberating moral language of human rights … is not adequate to the subtleties of human relations in such basics as trust, friendship, marriage and political reconciliation.”

Now, if only the Ministry of Education would follow its own rules for dialogue, and allow exemptions, instead of falling into what it calls an entrave au dialogue: argument d’autorité (obstacle to dialogue: argument from authority), I think I could live with this course until we develop a public religious education system that works, with qualified teachers who know enough about their own religions to actually teach them.

After all, Quebecers have several centuries of experience of living side by side with people of different faiths. What we can say is that we did not kill one another over religion. May we keep talking, in Inroads and elsewhere, and continue not to kill one another.


1 Janice Arnold, “Que. Religions Course Seen Incompatible with Torah,” Canadian Jewish News, September 3, 2009, retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.cjnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17526&Itemid=86

2 See Marie-Michelle Poisson, “Le cours d’Éthique et culture religieuse: Un dispositif idéologique pour faire reculer les Lumières,” retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.sceptiques.qc.ca/activites/conferences/mars-2009

3 Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, report (Quebec, QC: Government of Quebec, 2008), p. 138.

4 “Referendum Pits Ethics against Religion,” Spiegel Online International, April 23, 2009, retrieved November 6, 2009, from http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,620817,00.html