Quebec premier Jean Charest put his foot in his mouth in January when he announced – and one week later, after public outcry, retracted – that the government would give full public financing to private Jewish schools. This mini-crisis around a decision taken on the sly demonstrated once more that Charest scorns democratic process and also shows a disturbing lack of understanding of Quebec society. Hoping to slip this past the population, Charest instead revived a fundamental debate. In the next few months, Quebeckers may finally show their readiness to remove the last obstacle to the complete secularization of public schools.
Quebec society has changed a lot since the British North America Act of 1837 and the Quebec Act of 1877. In the British Americas, the French were Catholic and the English Protestant. The Constitution of the Dominion guaranteed each group the right to confessional schools. The Catholic Church also enjoyed guarantees that assured it control over its flock through the confessional nature of the health and educational institutions that it developed. The elite of the time saw this as an effective way to protect the French language.
If in the past Quebec defined itself on an ethnic basis, today the concept of the Quebec nation includes all those who live in Quebec. The Quebec identity is a question of citizenship and belonging to a political community. And today, Quebec is seeing the results of Bill 101; a new, diverse generation of Quebeckers, sharing French as a common language, participates in the evolution of Quebec and the renewal of its national culture.
The Quiet Revolution – that wave of reforms, modernization, secularization of socio-health and educational institutions and the democratization of the Quebec state during the 1960s and ’70s – did not make it all the way to the secularization of teaching. A further step toward this goal was taken between 1996 and 2000, following the Proulx Report on the place of religion within schools. Since 1998, public schools are officially secular and take language rather than religion as a defining factor. Despite this official secular status, the Quebec government has allowed a temporary continuation of school-based religious teaching for Catholics and Protestants. This compromise, aiming to appease (particularly Catholic) religious activists through the implementation of the new secularism in phases, is meant to end in June, 2005. In place since 2000, the compromise was supposed to allow the state to prepare the implementation of an alternative programme to teach religion from a cultural perspective in primary and secondary schools. Yet the Proulx Report recommended that “article 41 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Liberties should be modified so that it recognises the rights of parents … to assure the religious and moral education of their children in accordance with their convictions.”
Given this situation, the Charest government has three options. They can ensure that all religious groups enjoy an equal right to religious teaching, an option that seems impossible to manage. This seems, however, to be what Charest has been trying to achieve in practice, and even he has had to temporarily retreat. Another option is to prolong the “temporary” compromise, but he cannot continue this indefinitely, especially given that it is easy to question his motives. He may nevertheless be tempted to choose this route, if only to win some time. Finally, the third option is to complete the reform by taking religious teaching out of all public schools. The Quebec Secular Movement, a coalition, has revived its campaign toward this end. Even better would be to remove public funding from private schools, which are most often confessional schools. It shouldn’t be the business of a secular state to finance the private, religious sector!
Private School / Public School
The Quebec debate on the question of confessional schools cannot leave private schools aside. More than 100,000 students attend private primary and secondary schools – 10 per cent of all students and up to 20 or 25 per cent of secondary students in large cities. Quebec has the highest rate of private-school enrolment in Canada. This can be explained in large part by the incongruent generosity of public funding. These schools receive 60 per cent of their budget from the state – 80 per cent if tax deductions enjoyed by parents are taken into account. In 1997-98, while Quebec represented 25 per cent of the Canadian population, it provided more than 50 per cent of provincial subsidies for private schools. Between 1999 and 2004, Quebec private schools received a 20-per-cent increase in provincial funding for a 14-per-cent increase in their students. During this same period, public schools received only nine per cent extra for a nine-per-cent increase in students.
Private schools pick and choose their students, choosing those with the most financial means, for example. Public schools, which find themselves in last place in popular school rankings, suffer from serious underfunding. They lack the budgets to offer books to students and to repair leaky roofs. At the college and university level, the government has just transformed $105 million in scholarships into loans. This is an aspect of our distinct society that does not inspire pride.–translated by Jill Hanley
This article appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .