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No Catholic schools in Quebec.

Readers who have been with us will realize that Catholic Insight has devoted considerable space to education, whether about content (curriculum), or legality (constitutional status), or Catholicity. Our very first number--Jan/Feb 1993--carried the article, "What is at issue? Joanna Manning and the Metro Toronto Separate School Board." In 1994 we sounded the alarm about curriculum (March) and the upcoming constitutional struggle (April, and May 1994: "Time bomb facing Ontario schools"). In 1995 and 1996 we carried this information process forward.

Yet religious leaders, trustees and teachers seem little inclined to do what is necessary to maintain Catholic schools: rally political support among Catholics and straighten out dissent. Without it our Catholic schools will disappear. The following article illustrates this theme among English Catholics in Montreal.

The Quebec government announced in June, 1996, that it will forge ahead with the implementation of linguistic school boards. The new boards will realign existing confessional (Catholic and Protestant) school boards along linguistic lines. What does this mean?

Back when religion meant something, both Catholics and Protestants in Quebec were given constitutional guarantees to denominational schools and school boards under the British North America Act. Traditionally, Catholic and Protestant school boards have each operated English and French schools. In 1988, the Quebec (Liberal) government passed Bill 107, an Education Act which established secular school boards by language. The law was challenged, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the denominational constitutional protections of the BNA Act applied only to the situation in 1867; i.e., to four school boards, one Catholic one Protestant, in each of th island of Montreal and Quebec City. Further, those school boards would be limited to students who declared themselves Catholic or Protestant, respectively. This was quickly recognized as unworkable.

Secular boards only

The 1994 election of the Parti Quebecois led to more delays and consultations, but ultimately, the PQ announced its plan: there will be nondenominational French school boards and English school boards. To appease those who value religious education--a majority of Quebecers, I suspect--the new boards will have Catholic and Protestant committees. Theoretically, these committees are supposed to ensure that Catholic or Protestant religious instruction is available where numbers of students requesting it warrant. Again, in theory, it will be possible to designate a particular school as Catholic, but in fact this will prove to be unrealistic in all but the most homogeneous communities, and would require an unusual degree of perseverance on the part of parents.

The most to be expected is an hour or two of elective religious instruction per week, which is wholly inadequate, and certainly comes nowhere close to what is traditionally meant by Catholic education. But even this paltry offering is too much for the secularists, including media, teachers and nationalists, who feel that any degree of religious instruction "divides" Quebec society. Questioned recently by Liberal Party education critic Francois Ouimet, former head of the Montreal Catholic School Commission (MCSC), Premier Lucien Bouchard said Quebec does not plan to seek a constitutional amendment to allow it to implement linguistic school boards only. Why should he? Only Michel Pallascio, the "ultra-conservative" chairman of the MCSC, publicly questions the wisdom of linguistic school boards with respect to Catholic education. Bouchard noted that he has yet to hear any objections from any religious lobby, including presumably, the Catholic bishops. As noted above, the Supreme Court has effectively hamstrung any religious-rights objections outside the cities of Montreal and Quebec.

Secular objections

The strongest negative reaction has come from the secularists. In addition to being panned by the Quebec French press, the government's plan has been condemned by a newly formed coalition of fifteen labour, human rights and nationalist groups, including the province's largest teachers' union. They view the concession of religious committees as outrageous. So they argue that it is a class issue, saying that old-stock Quebecers may hide behind their religion as a means of excluding those of diverse backgrounds.

Although Quebec society increasingly has separated itself from its Catholic heritiage, this is especially true of the current ruling class, whose vision of sovereignty is decidedly secular. Indeed, Education Minister Pauline Marois has herself expressed a preference for "neutral" schools, but believes there is still too much resistance on the part of francophone parents at this time. As already observed, the government does not anticipate the need, but Marois has warned that if her secular critics go ahead with a court challenge, she will appeal to the federal government for a constitutional amendment a la Newfoundland to formally remove parents' rights to religious schools.

English Catholics

English-speaking Catholics have fallen over themselves in support of linguistic boards. Under the government's plan, Protestant school boards become the English neutral school boards, trading their French language schools for English schools from the primarily francophone Catholic boards. English Catholics feel confident they will have a greater voice in the new set-up because the proportion of Catholics to Protestants (and others) in a English school board is higher than that of anglophones to francophones in the old Catholic school boards.

The real issue is whether or not there is a commitment to Catholic teaching. Although the right to Catholic education is provided for under the linguistic boards as noted above, some parents are sceptical about how Catholic an education can be in a secular system. While the law provides for the possibility of a school being designated Catholic or Protestant, both teachers and students may be of any or no religion, and both have the right to dissent from any religion class or activity.

Catholic parents shoulder the burden

At present, the Education Act provides for the creation of dissentient, or separate, school boards. The English-Speaking Catholic Council (ESCC) is among those calling for an amendment to the Education Act that would reduce the likelihood of the establishment of separate school boards. The ESCC is proposing that "the right to dissent may not be exercised concurrently with the establishment of linguistic school boards." Their sole purpose seems to be the desire to keep English schools viable. Anglos understandably feel themselves under siege. But at what price? Must English Catholics forsake their religion for their language?

Under the proposed amendment, any Catholic group of parents would be required to "state objections to the rules enacted and services provided by the linguistic school board." The effect would be to require those with objections to 1) first try the linguistic boards, 2) then bring objections to the absence of Catholicism, 3) then try to find enough parents to join them in requesting a school, etc.

Despite the optimism of the ESCC, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where English Catholics will have an opportunity to enjoy a truly Catholic education. Quebec has very burdensome restrictions on eligibility for English education, which, coupled with the overall atmosphere, creates a decreasing pool of anglophone students. Within that small pool (just over 100,000 in Montreal), perhaps 40 per cent are Catholic. Among Catholics, it is not known how many are even interested in Catholic education, let alone ready to fight for it. And of the fighters, how many live in a particular community in order to have reasonable access to a particular school?

It seems to me that Montreal English Catholic schools have no chance whatsoever. As Newfoundland Archbishop James MacDonald said about the amendment to Term 17, "It will make the total elimination of Catholic schools inevitable."

As for the bishops, experience has shown that the archdiocese keeps a hands-off approach to Catholic schools whether English or French, declining to get involved in matters concerning sex education, condoms and the like. What has now developed in some Catholic schools is scandalous. With this in view, can we expect that the bishops will assist Catholic parents whose children are in a secular school system which has already adopted the anti-life philosophy of the Planned Parenthood Federation? I fear not.
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Author:Regina Farrell
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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