Religion as extracurricular

For centuries, women have been wearing religious headdress in Quebec classrooms. Until recently, it was Catholic nuns who sported these religious signs. Nowadays, it is more likely to turn up on a Muslim student or teacher. And many Quebeckers have been upset by the idea of showing one's religious colours. Over the past year, the Quebec classroom has been scrutinized for cases of reasonable accommodation. There was the Supreme Court decision to allow a young Sikh student to wear his kirpan to school. There was also the issue of what kinds of religious accommodations should be made in the cafeteria. And then there was the question of religious clothing in the classroom, most notably, the hijab. 
 
For this reason, the Charter of Secularism presented by the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) could have a major impact on the way schools operate in Quebec. The ideas it contains have been supported by several other major trade union bodies, including the Quebec Federation of Labour, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Quebec division), who together with the CSN represent nearly a million Quebec workers. Speaking to the Bouchard Taylor Commission during its last week of public hearings, CSN president Claudette Carbonneau emphasized the importance of a secular classroom. 
 
“I maintain that we are better able to protect diversity with schools that are truly secular. And it begs the question: what should we demand of representatives of the state? The Commissioners [of the Bouchard Taylor Commission] posed this question to plenty of participants [at public forums] – and only the unions were courageous enough to do anything about it. We will need to be able to answer questions like this. I truly believe in public services that are offered to the entire population, that people be able to have confidence in them, that they feel comfortable in this respect. When we were in the context of faith-based school systems, I would say that it wasn't a plus for anybody, neither for the employment of people from other religious faiths, nor for so-called ‘Québécois de souche.'” 
 
– Claudette Carbonneau, President of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, speaking on Radio-Canada television
 
 
It's certainly not the first time that Quebec has questioned the role of religion in the classroom. In 1997, the government appointed a Task Force on the Place of Religion in Schools, which resulted in a major reorganization of the Quebec educational system. Two years later, school boards were no longer drawn along denominational lines, as they had been for over a century, but according to language. An amendment to the Canadian Constitution (1997) eliminated Catholic and Protestant school boards in Quebec, to make room for French and English boards. And this fall, an Ethics and Religious Culture program will replace moral and religious education in Quebec, marking the final step in the process. 
 
It's a move which echoes the transition towards secular school systems across Canada, which occurred as early as 1867 in British Columbia and 1896 in Manitoba. Formal school education first began in Canada in the early 1800s, and by the middle of the century, governments had begun creating public schools with religious instruction. In Quebec, this meant the establishment of a Catholic school system with a separate Protestant network for the English-speaking minority. Eventually, Protestant boards across Canada evolved into secular systems, while the remaining faith-based schools were dealt with differently in each province. It is important to note that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (adopted in 1982) has often been used in defence of faith-based education, since it guarantees religion as a fundamental freedom. Nowadays, the Atlantic provinces provide no funding, whereas in the rest of Canada, religious schools receive partial or full funding. The issue of giving money to faith-based schools remains a hot topic in Quebec, made clear in 2005 by the intense public opposition to funding private Jewish schools. 
 
However, there is a big difference between funding religious schools and refusing any signs of religious belief in the public education system. Despite the slew of opinion polls, there have been relatively few accommodations actually requested in Quebec schools. And contrary to what might appear in the papers, the largest number of religious accommodation requests comes from Christians, as shown in a report published by the Comité consultatif sur l'intégration et l'accommodement en milieu scolaire. The Commission scolaire de Montréal – with easily the most diverse student body in Quebec, representing 193 countries and 151 languages – did its own extensive survey of religious diversity in its schools. It found that only 0.3% of their students requested a religious accommodation during the 2006-2007 school year (894 requests with a total student population of 106,000). Of these requests, 77% were accepted, 46% without any discussion needed. Among the demands refused, only 8% were with no negotiation. In fact, the most common reason to request an accommodation had nothing to do with the hijab, the kirpan or kosher foods. It was exemption from Halloween celebrations – 142 requests accepted, 10 refused. 
 
English Quebec has an older relationship with immigration than French Quebec. Since 1977 though, new immigrants to Quebec have been legally bound to send their children to French-language schools. This has had a significant impact on diversity in the English system. 
 
“Prior to the adoption of the Charter of the French Language in 1977, a disproportionately large percentage of new immigrants to Quebec registered in English schools. In the years since, access to English schools is essentially limited to those children whose parents studied in English in Canada. Consequently, the diversity of the English school population has been less pronounced in the ensuing years.” 
 
– excerpt from the Quebec English School Boards Association's submission to the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences
 
 
In the midst of all these discussions on the role religion should play in public institutions, Quebeckers will continue to debate what kind of secularism and for what purpose. Is the goal to create a religion-free space? Is it to create an environment in which individuals feel comfortable expressing their religious beliefs? The questions are plentiful, and the debate will certainly continue for years to come.



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[View all the columns »]
Claudette Carbonneau, president of the CSN (in French)
[Listen  ]

Ita Kendall’s report on secularism in Quebec workplaces, from The Link
[Listen  ]

CSN report (in French)

CSDM report (in French)

QESBA report

Comité consultatif sur l'intégration et l'accommodement raisonnable en milieu scolaire (in French)

The kirpan case in Quebec

 

 

Bethany Or is a multilingual Canadian of Chinese origin living in Montreal, and she is interested in the future of cultural diversity in her home and native land. As Radio Canada International's immigration specialist, she offers us a historical context on reasonable accommodation issues and moderates web discussions on the subject.





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