Quebec Protestants are welcoming the open secularism that has been proposed by the Quebec government, and they are even welcoming a new inter-religious school curriculum that has been opposed by Roman Catholics.
In a brief presented to the Taylor-Bouchard commission on the “reasonable accommodation” of minorities November 14, the Protestant Partnership in Education noted that Protestants are the largest minority in Quebec and said it welcomed a “secular” society but one in which religious viewpoints are freely discussed and neither promoted nor suppressed by the state.
The Partnership’s approach is based on an understanding of the nature of Quebec society. Historically, Quebec society has consisted of a French Roman Catholic majority and an English Protestant minority. Quebec society was then dominated by an alliance of the Quebec government and the Roman Catholic Church, which tried to keep Quebec isolated from English North America. Most of the province’s schools were operated by ‘Catholic’ school boards, with the rest of the schools under ‘Protestant’ school boards.
This alliance was overthrown in the ‘Quiet Revolution‘ of the 1960s, when Quebecois opted for a more secular society which could more readily adapt to the modern world. To some extent, Quebecois have flourished under the new approach, becoming richer, better educated, more involved in business and more confident.
However, there was a cost. In rejecting the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, Quebec society became the most secular in North America. While 86 percent of Quebecois still claim to be Roman Catholic, church attendance is lower in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada — and common-law marriage and support for abortion and same-sex marriage are higher.
In recent decades, immigration has made Quebec society much more diverse, particularly in the Montreal area. There are now 168 nationalities represented in the Montreal school system, and many of these groups want to continue their religious and cultural practices. Sikhs want the right to wear a kirpan or ceremonial dagger, Muslim women cover their heads with a hijab and Jewish groups want other provisions so that they can practice their religion.
As a result, there has been a backlash among the French-Canadian Quebecois, who represent the majority within Quebec. On the one hand, many Quebecois, as a minority within a predominantly English-speaking continent, feel their culture is threatened. On the other hand, having discarded the privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church, many Quebecois do not want to have to grant privileges to these new minority religions.
There have been calls for the removal of all religious symbols and elements from public life. These have included demands for the removal of crosses from Mount Royal, the provincial legislature and public buildings. There have also been suggestions that the wearing of religious symbols — such as Muslim hijabs, Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes — be severely restricted, as is done in France.
The Protestant brief
The Protestant Partnership in Education, established in 1993, is the only body representing all major Protestant groups in Quebec — more than 20 of them, including both mainline churches and evangelicals. There are over 350,000 Protestants in Quebec, about 5-6 percent of the population.
The Partnership brief was presented by president Roland Grimard and by Glenn Smith, director general of the Protestant ministry Christian Direction, who served as president of the Partnership from its inception to 2003.
The Partnership said it welcomes the change to a secular society in Quebec, “the gradual diminishing of the institutional role of religion,” because Protestants have more room to operate in a secular society than they had under the old governing alliance of the government and the Roman Catholic Church. The brief pointed out that Protestants in Quebec have a long history of surviving as a minority in Quebec while still making positive contributions.
The brief also held up Protestants as an example of different cultures living together in harmony, and noted that it is no longer accurate to consider Quebec Protestants English. Of the 1,000 Protestant congregations in Quebec, there are 432 French-speaking churches (up 8 percent since 1998), 350 English-speaking congregations (down 12 percent) and 218 churches speaking other languages (up 92 percent).
The brief critiqued “the myth of neutrality,” saying that everyone, including civil servants, operates from a belief in something. It is precisely Protestants’ religious beliefs that lead Protestants to support human rights, tolerance, democracy and contributing to the public good, the brief noted.
The brief also warned that secularism itself is not neutral and an intolerant religious dominance should not be replaced with an intolerant secular dominance. The brief noted that Protestantism is supposed to be lived out in daily life, therefore religious symbols such as crosses should be respected by a neutral secular society and religious viewpoints should not be silenced but freely discussed and debated in society.
The brief distinguished between practices which should be forbidden, such as the circumcision of young girls; practices which should be respected or tolerated, such as wearing crosses; and practices which should be “celebrated,” such as allowing religions to make a positive contribution to “the public good.”
Smith told CC.com that Protestants welcome “laicite ouverte,” the type of open secularism that promotes “a clearer separation of church and state,” so that the church is free to act in its areas of responsibility without state interference.
However, he said, Protestants will fight hard against “laicisme,” secularization which seeks to drive religion completely out of the public sphere. This privatization of Christianity is a problem, Smith said, because “there are public implications to a Protestant way of life . . . Secularization is not bad, but secularism is horrible.”
The Partnership’s expertise, and the reason for its creation, is education.
The Partnership’s brief stated that schools “should not dispense confessional teaching of religion.” Rather, “in Protestant education, the family is considered the most important educator and the place where responsibility for religious orientation should be exercised,” and parents “should not transfer this responsibility to schools.”
However, the brief argued that while the school system should not promote religion, students and parents should be able to freely declare and discuss their religious beliefs in schools.
When the Catholic and Protestant school boards were abolished, the government included religious teaching in the curriculum. Parents were offered the choice of having their children take either a Roman Catholic or a Protestant religion and ethics course in the public school system, while private religious schools were given partial government funding.
The government has now decided to replace the Roman Catholic and Protestant religion classes in the public schools with a single comparative religion course, called ‘Ethics and Religious Culture,’ which all students must take, beginning in September 2008.
Roman Catholics such as Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec, have strenuously opposed this development because previously most Quebec students opted to take the Roman Catholic religion course. Mario Dumont, leader of the Action democratique du Quebec opposition party, has also opposed this plan. However, the Protestant Partnership supports it.
Smith noted that the government consulted with the Protestant Partnership on the new curriculum as extensively as it did with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. This is because, when the current education act was written several years ago, the Partnership was able to get two key points included in the legislation: that the mission of public schools includes the “spiritual development” of the child, and that the education department must consult the Protestant Partnership whenever it is making changes that concern Protestantism.
While the government is obligated to consult with Protestants, it is not obligated to accept their input, but in this case it did. There was “negligible” Christian content in the first draft of the new curriculum, said Smith, but the Partnership worked to “make sure that Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular were well represented” and “we got most of what we wanted.”
Quebec exodus rivals mid-’90s stats
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National Post, October 29
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CanWest News Service, October 29
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Lorna Dueck, Globe and Mail, October 30
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Montreal Gazette, October 31
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National Post, November 3
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Canadian Press, November 20
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Globe and Mail, November 21
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Montreal Gazette, November 22
Also: National Post
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Graeme Hamilton, National Post, November 23
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National Post, November 27
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National Post, November 28
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Michael Adams, Vancouver Sun, December 1
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Canadian Press, December 11
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Globe and Mail, December 11
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Marina Jimenez, Globe and Mail, December 11
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Montreal Gazette, December 11
Also: Ottawa Citizen
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Graeme Hamilton, National Post, December 12
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Montreal Gazette, December 13
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Montreal Gazette, December 13
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Montreal Gazette, December 13
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Montreal Gazette, December 13
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National Post, December 13
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Canadian Press, December 14
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Canadian Press, December 14
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Montreal Gazette, December 15
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Globe and Mail, December 15
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CanWest News Service, December 20