Quebec Schools to Celebrate Diverse Holidays

Ingrid Peritz, Globe and Mail (Toronto), September 2, 2008

Quebec schools won’t be marking the arrival of just Christmas any more—now they will be required to note the passage of holidays like Hanukkah and Eid al-Adha, Diwali and the birth of the Sikh guru Nanak.

The dates on the school calendar are part of a controversial new course on ethics and religious culture that makes its debut in classrooms across Quebec this year.

It’s a historic shift in a province defined by Catholic and Protestant education for nearly two centuries. But there’s disagreement over whether the classes are a confusing buffet of moral choices, or a model of diversity for the rest of Canada.

At least one school isn’t happy with it, and is considering going to court in protest.

Loyola High School in Montreal has been teaching boys for 112 years, among them former governor-general Georges Vanier and Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Now, more than 600 parents at the private Catholic school have asked for exemptions to allow their children to opt out of the course.

Principal Paul Donovan says the Jesuit institution doesn’t have a problem with teaching world religions, which it already does; it’s the “moral relativism” in the ethics curriculum.

“Secular schools make sense in our culture. However, if you’re going to allow Catholic schools to exist, then you have to allow them to be Catholic,” Mr. Donovan said. “And you can’t tell us that we have to teach something that is contrary to that.”

The position has placed the school at loggerheads with the Quebec Education Department, which says the course must be given at all schools, public and private alike. Parents are stripped of their freedom of choice, Mr. Donovan argues.

“Parents cannot opt out, even if what they see in this course goes against their beliefs and conscience,” he said. The school is weighing legal action.

A smattering of parents across the province has also asked to opt out. Quebec has received requests for 600 exemptions, which do not include Loyola’s, and they have all been refused.

“They’ve taken junk food out of schools in Quebec and replaced it with religious fast-food,” lamented Sylvain Lamontagne, a parent of two in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. He says the course is offering a religious smorgasbord. “A child needs to learn his proper faith first. Even adults are fragile about our faith, imagine children.”

The Liberal government says the new course merely reflects the reality of immigration in the province, which has radically transformed Montreal’s classrooms. At the city’s largest school board, more than 56 per cent of students are foreign-born or have one immigrant parent.

The program tries to walk the tightrope of reflecting the diversity while transmitting the province’s religious and cultural heritage. So teachers will be required to give Catholicism and Protestantism predominance, and bring them up throughout the year due to their historical role in Quebec. Judaism and native spirituality come next in importance, and must be addressed in class several times each year.

Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism must be tackled several times within a school cycle, which generally lasts two years.

At Montreal’s largest board, elementary school teachers preparing the course have already received educational kits filled with religious artifacts, including a crucifix, a Muslim prayer carpet, an aboriginal talking stick and a Diwali candle.

One of the textbooks they will use offers up colourful drawings that explain that while most Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, for example, Jews mark the autumn harvest with Sukkot. In the chapters on birthdays, the book talks about the birth of Buddha and the annual festival of Wesak.

“This [course] will help children understand the world around them,” said Gilles Hotte, an adviser on the course who is helping train teachers at the Commission scolaire de Montréal. “The big difference [from the past] is that it doesn’t approach Catholicism as the only valid or most important of all the values taught by society.”

The course is also getting plaudits and international attention. The Dalai Lama, who is scheduled to visit Canada next year, wants to bring his support by meeting teachers being trained to give the course.

“The Dalai Lama has always said that no religion has a monopoly on ethics,” said Thubten Samdup, national chair of the Dalai Lama Foundation of Canada, who discussed the course with the Nobel Prize winner. “So for him, promoting human values and secular ethics is extremely important.”

“It’s not very often that a provincial government has taken such a bold step,” Mr. Samdup said.

The new course marks another major step in removing religion, which once dominated Quebec, from the public sphere. The march toward secularization in the province’s schools began a decade ago when the government moved to replace Protestant and Catholic school boards with linguistically based ones.

“This is historic,” said Jean-Pierre Proulx, a University of Montreal education professor who advised the government on the new course.

“We’re not aiming to form good Catholics or good Protestants or good Jews. We want to form good cultivated citizens, who are tolerant and able to enter into dialogue with others.” Prof. Proulx said. “Because ignorance often leads to intolerance.”

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