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Privacy concerns raised over Quebec’s new compulsory education law

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The chassidic community is raising privacy concerns over a new Quebec law that allows authorities to enter any place, even a home, to determine whether children are receiving the mandatory education curriculum.

Lawyer Jean Lemoine, who represents the Association educative juive pour l’enseignement à la maison, submitted a brief to the government, outlining his clients’ worry that the law gives the state too much authority over how it goes about enforcing the law.

Bill 144, which was passed by the national assembly in November, was introduced last spring by Education Minister Sébastien Proulx, largely in response to “illegal” chassidic and other haredi schools, and the growing number of families in those communities that are homeschooling their children.

Its main objectives are to strengthen measures, to ensure compulsory school attendance and to set standards for homeschooling, namely that the required curriculum be followed. All children not attending a legal school must be registered with a public school board now.

A key part of the legislation is an explicit prohibition on “acting in any manner that compromises a child’s attending school as required.”

Article 14 of the law allows any person designated by the Education Ministry to “enter, at any reasonable time, any place where the person has reason to believe children required to attend school are receiving training or instruction not governed by this Act or the Act respecting private education … and require the persons present to provide their names and contact information and the names and contact information of the children and their parents.” The designated person is permitted to take photos and make recordings.

READ: QUEBEC BILL TARGETS RELIGIOUS AND HOME SCHOOLS

In the case of a private dwelling, prior authorization from the occupant would have to be obtained, or, failing that, a search warrant would have to be procured. The association believes a warrant should be required for any intervention, especially given that it might involve entering a religious or community institution.

“We also believe that to demand that the people found there furnish names and co-ordinates is unacceptable, raising fundamental issues of private life and self-incrimination. What’s more, the power could prove to be counter-productive, encouraging underground behaviour,” the brief states.

Representatives of the state wielding such power has a “sinister resonance” for members of the Jewish community, Lemoine said.

While the community has been assured by the ministry that authorities will act respectfully if such an intervention is required, he said that “experience has taught (his clients) that when agents of the state must deal with repeated denunciations, often under strong political or media pressure, it can lead them to act with vigour to show their will in applying the law.”

Under the Youth Protection Act, authorities will intervene if anyone, even an anonymous source, suspects a minor is in trouble. Such was the case last year, when police raided a chassidic school believed to be operating unlawfully.

Under Bill 144, those not complying with an inspection will be subject to criminal charges and fines that the association describes as “draconian.”

Quebec Education Minister Sébastien Proulx

The association represents families that are homeschooling their children under an arrangement made with the government three years ago. Currently, over 1,000 chassidic children are being monitored by the English Montreal School Board and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, allowing them to continue to attend their own schools for religious studies.

The association is happy with the relationship that’s been forged with the school boards, which it says have shown sensitivity to the community’s particularity, and thinks that the boards should continue monitoring the children’s education.

New standards for homeschooling, including how the school boards are to monitor it, are to be set out in regulations that have not yet been released.

At the present time, how the school boards should oversee the students’ progress is vaguely defined, according to the Quebec English Speaking School Boards Association, which has applauded the aims of the bill. But it warned that its members’ resources are stretched by the sudden influx of homeschooled haredim and that the lack of clarity on their role has hindered their ability to monitor students’ progress.

The opposition parties have criticized the bill for not going far enough in ensuring that every child receives the education to which he or she is entitled.

At a press conference following the bill’s passage, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault said that the fundamental problem is “the thousands of children still in illegal schools.”

“Presently, it is not hypothetical, it’s real, there are children who do not take courses in history … in science. There are children who do not have the chance to pass the exams of the education ministry, then obtain a diploma – a diploma that is so important for them to make their way in life from a professional point of view,” he said.

“So, with Bill 144, (Premier) Philippe Couillard is going to legalize the unacceptable.”