The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) recently announced its intention to abolish the mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course taught in schools around the province. The decision comes less than a year after Bill 21, a law that prohibits certain public servants from wearing religious symbols, passed in the National Assembly. Some have called the move to end the course an extension of Québec’s commitment to ‘secularism.’ The CAQ has also launched a consultative survey that invites the public to suggest new themes for the course’s replacement, which will partially or wholly abandon religious topics. Like in the case of Bill 21, Québec is using the separation of government and religion to mask its xenophobia. Ending ERC courses will ultimately be harmful to the province’s youth, who stand to benefit from the added understanding of the province’s multitude of religions.
Created in 2008 under the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party, the course, which looks into the vast array of different cultures in the province and encourages students to consider ethical dilemmas, has remained controversial since its outset. Following its introduction, the Supreme Court of Canada considered : One in which parents complained that the course went against the religious and moral beliefs they taught at home and another, Loyola High School v Quebec AG, where a Catholic private school fought against having to teach students about morality in the context of other religions. While the Court ruled against the parents in the first case, their decision in the latter led to an exemption for some private institutions from having to teach the course.
In this context, it becomes clear that numerous interest groups in Quebec are more preoccupied with avoiding exposure to a diverse range of religions than protecting secularism, as the CAQ claims. In 2009, sociologist Joëlle Quérin published an article that denounced the course, claiming that it went too far in promoting multiculturalism and served to fundamentally change the nature of Quebec’s culture, traditionally conceived of as French-speaking and Catholic.
Querin’s view is representative of a broader debate between proponents of multiculturalism and those of ‘interculturalism’: The latter claims to stand in defence of a common Québécois French culture that integrates newcomers into a secular society as opposed to encouraging cultural pluralism. ‘Interculturalism’ is supposedly the logic behind Bill 21, and now the decision on ERC courses. The consultative survey outlines eight potential themes for the replacement class: Citizen participation and democracy, legal education, green citizenship, sexuality, personal development and interpersonal relationships, ethics, digital citizenship, and societal culture. These themes, the government claims, are meant to reflect the values of a modern, secular Quebec. However, these themes can and should stand alongside the currently existing religious component of the course.
Despite their alleged commitment to secularism, the actions of some CAQ politicians suggest other priorities. As of 2011, 82.36 per cent of Quebec residents identified as Christian, and 75 per cent as Catholic more specifically. Premier Francois Legault drew criticism in December for telling California Governor Gavin Newsom that all French Canadians are Catholic. Legault’s comment exemplifies how Quebec politicians use the secularism argument only when it serves them, and evidently to specifically target religious minorities.
The fact that such a large proportion of Quebecers practice a single religion reinforces the need for a course like ERC. Despite McGill’s location in a relatively multicultural city, a large portion of Québec’s population is rural, and many Québecers have little exposure to cultures other than their own. As such, ERC can serve to introduce those living in less diverse areas to different cultures. Doing away with this course means that some students may be less likely to learn about religious acceptance, which could be particularly damaging to religious minorities in the context of rising immigration rates in the province and country.
There is no doubt that the new themes that the education ministry has proposed are important and relevant. However, it seems clear that the priority in scrapping ERC is to avoid teaching students religious tolerance. Unfortunately, the CAQ’s policies are popular, and the changes will likely be made before the end of Premier Legault’s mandate. Still, as young people living in Quebec, McGill students opposed to these policies have a responsibility to organize with faculty associations, contact Members of the National Assembly to voice their disapproval, go to demonstrations against discriminatory policies, similar to the Jan. 17 student protest, and defend those made vulnerable by the province’s xenophobia.