Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has opened another front in its quest to reinforce secularism, this time in the education system.
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge recently announced his intention to abolish, or drastically revamp, the ethics and religious culture (ERC) course, which has been compulsory in all schools since 2008. Currently, it is taught from grades 1 to 11, with the exception of Grade 9.
The government’s goal is to replace it with a program that emphasizes such values as civic engagement and tolerance, while playing down the religious aspect, Roberge said on Jan. 10.
A public consultation process is already underway.
The ERC, which was introduced by the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest, replaced the long-running moral and religious education program and did away with instruction in a specific religion. The goal was to have all Quebec students receive the same education, “while respecting the freedom of conscience and religion of parents, teachers and students.”
It followed the elimination of the confessional public school boards 20 years ago, which were reorganized along linguistic lines. The ERC was a required part of the curriculum in both public and private schools.
The current curriculum focuses on rights, co-existence with other people and values that make for an equitable society. Its religious component consists of learning about Quebec’s religious heritage and the different faiths held by Quebecers, including Judaism.
The government says its intention is to continue to encourage students to “reflect on the common good and the recognition of others … tools they need to carry out their duties as citizens in an ethical and responsible manner.…
“The main objective of this revision is to come up with new and enriching themes to completely or partially replace the content associated with religious culture.”
Members of the public can express their opinion on what direction the proposed program should take through an online questionnaire that’s available on the education ministry’s website until Feb. 21.
Among the eight themes listed as possible components of a new curriculum are citizen participation, democracy and interpersonal relationships, especially with differing cultures, as well as sex education, “digital citizenship” and responsibility toward the environment.
Public forums in which the public will have the opportunity to discuss the reforms with educational experts will be held on Feb. 7 in Trois-Rivières, Feb. 14 in Quebec City and Feb. 21 in Montreal.
A report summarizing the results of the public consultation is to be submitted to the government by the spring.
The government is aiming to have a new program in place by the 2022-23 school year, with certain schools piloting it the year before.
“We are abolishing (the ERC) to replace it by something new. But there are elements of the present course that are going to stay, such as ethics, the practice of dialogue, respect for oneself and others, the fight against stereotypes. We are calling it a profound reform,” wrote Roberge on Twitter.
In a way, the new program looks like an improvement.
– Sidney Benudiz
He added that the new program will definitely not be called ERC.
The ERC has been controversial from the start: secularists objected to reinforcing the idea that ethical behaviour goes hand-in-hand with religious belief; Catholics felt it was usurping their constitutional right to educate children in their own religion without comparing it to others; and nationalists, including the Parti Québécois, felt it was promoting multiculturalism, which is identified with federalism.
The CAQ committed to scrapping the ERC during the 2018 provincial election.
Two court challenges to the ERC ultimately went to the Supreme Court almost a decade ago. The first rejected the complaint that the program infringed on religious freedom, while a second upheld the private Catholic Loyola High School’s request to be exempted from the course.
Many Orthodox Jews also resisted the ERC, at least at first, contending that they should have the right to limit their religious study to that of the Torah.
Mainstream Jewish schools, however, found ways of accommodating the curriculum.
Sidney Benudiz, the director general of the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS), which represents nine schools, said that although its members have learned how to accommodate the ERC within their missions, none of them will be sad to see it go.
“In a way, the new program looks like an improvement. The whole issue of teaching religion has been controversial,” Benudiz said.
We are calling it a profound reform.
– Education Minister Jean-François Roberge
The suggested themes look “interesting and useful,” and are not likely to be a problem, even if sexuality is given more attention, he added.
The AJDS-affiliated schools, which include the Orthodox Beth Jacob School, are following the province’s new sex education curriculum, which became mandatory last year, although that only consists of five to 10 hours a year at the elementary level and up to 15 hours in high school, Benudiz noted.
“I’m just curious to know how all of these different topics are going to be taught in, say, one hour a week,” he said.
Lev Berner has taught ERC at Vincent Massey Collegiate, a high school under the English Montreal School Board with some 850 students, for the past six years. The curriculum is very broad and flexible, he said, and allows teachers considerable discretion in how they approach it.
Currently, he is teaching grades 7 and 8. In the former, he gives an overview of the Abrahamic religions, as well as other major faiths. In the latter, he teaches about how various religions approach moral dilemmas, as a way of getting the teens to examine their personal values.
Berner, who is Jewish but whose students are not, uses historical examples, such as when the Canadian government turned away of the MS St. Louis and the Holocaust itself, to get the conversation going.
“The ERC does give them some basic knowledge of religious life outside of their own,” he said. “I think the program is extremely valuable. It’s crucial, especially at the younger grades, that students learn how to decide right from wrong.”