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Proulx Report and the role of the state in Quebec schools.

The Proulx Report constituted partial delivery on a promise made by the then Minister of Education (Pauline Marois) to organize a public debate on the question of religion in schools. She had announced her intention to commission a study subsequent to the tabling in 1996 of the report of the "Estates General" on education (on which I wrote in Inroads 5). It recommended the laicisation of Quebec schools. In the interval between the Estates General report and the Proulx Report, the government implemented one of the recommendations of the first report, to the effect that Section 93 of the BNA Act, which entrenched Protestant and Catholic denominational schooling, be repealed, thus removing all constitutional obstacles to complete Quebec control over education. In December 1997, upon request from the National Assembly, the Canadian Parliament amended the Act.(1)

Given that the Proulx Report deals with religion in Quebec schools, the title of this article may appear incongruous. It is not. The assumptions, reasoning and conclusions of the report raise fundamental questions about the appropriate role of the state in contemporary Quebec schools, questions which not only cry out to be addressed, but which should have been addressed long ago. Perhaps the most important contribution of the report will be to finally bring us face to face with these questions ... no mean exploit. Before proceeding to a critique, let it be said that the Proulx Report (as distinct from the commissioned studies that go with it) is a comprehensive and conceptually rigorous landmark treatment of a complex subject.

The report in fact constitutes a moment de verite precisely because what it sets before the Quebec authorities and public starkly portrays the consequences of a certain ideological mindset very much present in Quebec's contemporary intelligentsia, particularly the middle-aged intellectual and cultural elite who are the first-generation beneficiaries of the public-sector expansion accelerated by the Quiet Revolution.

I will first review the mandate given to the task force, its interpretation of the mandate, and the location of the authors in the educational firmament of Quebec. From there I take on one of their assumptions, to wit, that the public schools are an extension of the state. I then place the idea of greater state control over public schooling in the context of educational reform in contemporary Western societies. Quebec is shown to confirm the diagnosis of educational reformers that a root cause of the deterioration of public education is the erection of state monopolies. After reiterating what I believe should be the proper and necessary role of the state in public education, I lay out five reasons to shelve the Proulx Report.

A report for the state, by the state

Straight off, the authors tell us that they began by reflecting on what might be the interest of the state in education: "nous nous sommes longuement interroges sur l'interet que l'Etat pouvait porter, en rant qu'Etat precisement, a l'education religieuse des citoyens qu'il represente." When they take pains to clarify what they see their mandate as being, they insist, "nous tenons notre mandat de l'Etat."(2)

It is particularly important to note their seeing themselves as mandated by the state. They could have interpreted their mandate quite differently. Admittedly, their instructions came from the Minister of Education and the mandate does indeed say that their report is to be submitted to the Minister of Education. Nonetheless, the Minister, whose announced purpose was to set the stage for a wide public debate on the role of religion in Quebec schools.(3) had indicated upon creation of the task force that their report would be referred to a parliamentary commission, as indeed the Proulx Report authors themselves point out.(4) And she in fact did just that.

Given these circumstances -- that the report was to be the catalyst for a wide public debate and that it would be brought before the National Assembly -- the authors could have seen themselves as mandated, via a minister of government, by the National Assembly. They chose instead to see themselves not only as being mandated by the state, but to consider the question exclusively from the perspective of the state.

This chosen "statist" perspective is not unrelated to the composition of the task force itself. Without exception, all eight of its members are employed in the public or para-public apparatus: professors in state-financed universities, state administrators, or teachers and administrators in the public school system. They all depend on the state for their salaries. A task force of eight "technocrats;" not a single independent professional, member of the clergy, writer, artist, or businessman, etc.... not a single citizen who earns his or her living independently of the state apparatus: in this material sense they are all technocrats. Admittedly, they were named as experts on the question of the role of religion in schools; yet are there not clergy or church lay leaders who are also experts on this question? Does one have to be in the pay of the state to be an expert on the question of the role of religion in public schools? And what about the spokespersons of civil society, the unpaid voluntary community leaders? Are none of them qualified to examine the question?

To facilitate matters, the members of the committee, in addition to being public sector employees, were seconded to the task force by their institutions. In other words, they were paid their salaries while they worked on the report. Furthermore, the presentation of the report to the various instances of the educational apparatus (managers, school professionals, specialists in moral and religious education, executives of parents' associations, etc.) and to the media was done at the expense of the state. And all of this took place before the report was submitted to the National Assembly!

Indeed, the Education Committee of the Quebec parliament, by the admission of Mr. Proulx, was 28th in line: the elected representatives of the people came after several categories of technocratic flora. As for the distribution of the report, the principal concern -- again in the words of the president -- was to make it available throughout the educational system.5 And indeed, several instances of the educational apparatus, even some school board central parents' committees, had had the opportunity to accept the report before it was submitted to the Assembly. True, there were time constraints. As the educational apparatus goes into hibernation from April to September, there was a rush to get the report distributed before the summer. Yet the inappropriateness of its being submitted to the Assembly after being distributed and deliberated throughout the apparatus did not seem to strike the president (or, for that matter, the deputies)! Again, the frankness -- or single-mindedness -- of Mr. Proulx is disarming: he told the deputies, straight off (and to their face) that the report was written from the perspective of the state for the state ("un document qui fournit a l'Etat, en rant qu'Etat, un discours sur la place de la religion a l'ecole").(6)

The reason why I have insisted, at length, that the report is a discourse on the subject from a state perspective, by the agents of the state, is to account for an assumption, something taken for granted, present in the opening paragraphs of the report. The enormity of the assumption is only apparent when one steps back from this premise taken for granted by the authors and asks: since when is education the proprietary domain of the state?

Do schools belong to the state?

We proceed to the reasoning of the report. Given the "statist" assumptions, it was not surprising, during one of the public presentations to invited members of the educational apparatus, to hear Mr. Proulx, in response to his own rhetorical question, "estce que l'ecole appartient aux parents, a la communaute (ou societe civile) ou a l'Etat?" answer: "a premiere vue, c'est a l'Etat parce que c'est l'Etat qui paie."(7) A spontaneous exclamation of surprise erupted simultaneously from the crowd of some four to five hundred. Taken aback by such a reaction, Mr. Proulx qualified his assertion by adding that state revenues come from taxpayers who are parents! He then put forward the position on the question contained in the report, to the effect that schools are a partnership run by parents, civil society and the state. This partnership, he went on, was manifested in the conseils d'etablissements (school governing councils) recently set up by the provincial legislature. (Incidentally, the still-existing school boards, which actually own the schools and which are presumably the instrument of local management, are left in complete abeyance in the speeches of Mr. Proulx as well as in the report.)

A brief digression on the councils is thus in order. The Commission des Etats generaux sur l'education (1995-1996), in response to demands for local control expressed at its hearing, had recommended the creation of these conseils d'etablissements composed of parents and "quelques representants des professeurs." However, by the time it found its way into enabling legislation in the new school law, the "quelques representants des professeurs" became "une majorite faite des representants du personnel de l'ecole." This meant that the educational apparatus can impose its will through a union mot d'ordre, or simply a union boycott of meetings; and this is exactly what has transpired. In the course of the first year of operation, several such councils in Montreal were neutralized by union boycotts.

Effectively, the union decided very early that, although the law gave the councils no say over teacher selection, they still had too much power. In subsequent collective bargaining the unions used their power of boycott over councils as a pressure tactic. All of this, given the power dynamic already at work in the system, was predictable. It is thus rather surprising to see the councils enshrined as the institutional demonstration of a working partnership among parents, civil society (there is one nonvoting community member) and the state. In reality, the councils were quickly eviscerated. (It is indicative that many of these councils pronounced themselves in favour of the Proulx Report -- some without having read the document(8) -- and this before it was submitted to the Assembly.)

While the new conseils d'etablissements perform no such function, there was once a partnership between the school boards and the state in education, but over the last half-century the state has taken on such a preponderant role that we are now faced with a quasi-state monopoly in public education, the outcome of which is a progressive nationalization of schools.

The step that cleared the way for the Proulx recommendations was the repeal of all four clauses of Section 93 of the Canadian Constitution. Section 93, which guaranteed the right of local denominational communities to "manage" their schools, was the only real remaining constitutional limit to complete Quebec government control over public education. This shift to state stewardship of education was apparent in the Quebec government presentation before the Joint Commons-Senate Committee on the bilateral (Ottawa-Quebec) amendment of the Constitution. For instance, two McGill professors of education, during research on Section 93 directly funded by Quebec, proclaimed that the doctrine according to which teachers act in loco parentis was obsolete, as teachers are "now agents of the state."(9)

Given this new assumption that teachers act on behalf of the state -- rather than parents or civil society -- there is no longer a partnership; rather it is the state which is in a position of imposing a statist purpose or logic ("finalite") on schools. These are identified in the Proulx Report as the need to promote a shared civic culture ("un espace civic commun"), and to reinforce social cohesion ("renforcer la cohesion sociale"). The major substantive recommendations of the report, to wit: a unique school type precluding the possibility of a choice between a secular school and a denominational school; exclusion of religious teaching of any kind in the school program; an obligatory state-designed course on the culture of religions; and the abolition of all pastoral counselling will, if implemented, contribute to consolidating the state monopoly. In addition to the political advantages that accrue to nationalization, the state has an objective material interest in consolidating that monopoly, an interest thus served by the recommendations of the Proulx Report.

Breaking with the Western tradition and modern practice

The nationalization of public schools flies in the face of the wisdom of the Western tradition. Despite periodic rationalizations based on republican tenets(10) of the process -- the necessity of the state ensuring citizenship education -- takeover by the state of schools has always been considered as undesirable, an aberration. Where possible, existing non-state schools were left in operation to be supplemented by state-created schools. More recently, at the end of the 20th century, Western societies, without exception, have been seeking to shake loose state monopolies over public education that grew out of the imposition of obligatory school attendance. Shaking loose the state monopoly usually requires a diversification of the delivery of educational services through rehabilitating institutions (where they still exist) which enjoy a historical legitimacy in civil society (such as the American "parochial" schools) or by the creation of new institutional mechanisms such as "charter schools" or "school vouchers."

The underlying conviction driving this search for diversification is the accepted (except in Quebec) observation that schools outside the state system provide a better quality of education at a lower cost. In Quebec there already exists an example of such diversity; and it is the partially funded so-called private schools d'interet public which are in reality semi-public schools. These schools, which are institutionally autonomous, do, generally, provide better quality education at a lower total cost. Paradoxically, but reflective of the power dynamic at work, the government's program is progressively to reduce funding to these schools. In part as a consequence of this reduction, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate. The Ursuline Sisters' secondary school in Quebec City -- the oldest school in North America -- is a striking example. Among these semi-public schools are the twenty or so "ethnic" (Jewish, Armenian, Greek, etc.) schools which came into existence since the war, and which are the envy of ethnic minority communities elsewhere. (Quebec is the only state outside of Israel to fund Jewish schools!)

The question which obviously comes to mind is why these schools are able to do better at less cost. The explanation, boiled down to the essential, is that in these schools the overriding purpose is educational; whereas, in the state-controlled system another logic has, over a half-century, inexorably displaced the educational raison d'etre. The last quarter-century of educational reform has convinced most Western societies that the proper place of schools is not within the state realm, but rather within civil society, from whence they came.

Hence, I submit that the experience of our civilization has shown that schools do and should belong to civil society. When they have been appropriated by the state or any other political power (e.g. the Church in Quebec from 1850 to 1950), problems have emerged. The proper role of the state in education is not one of running schools but rather that of protecting civil society, whose institutions do the educating. It is via the intermediary of civil society that the state contributes to education. This is a view explicitly rejected by the Proulx Report authors (pp. 85-88) who conclude that only the state is capable of assuming the responsibility involved. We shall return to the proper role of the state in education after describing the consequences of state control over Quebec's public schools.

The consequences of state monopoly on education in Quebec

In liberal pluralistic society each institutional order has its own driving logic: the state's is political, the market's is economic and civil society's is moral and educational. Failure to respect the appropriateness of each institutional domain's intrinsic logic leads, inevitably, to institutional failure. Schools cannot educate by coercion, while the state cannot function without coercion. Hence, by its purpose and logic the state is not capable of educating in the sense we understand education in the Western tradition. Once one allows a political logic to infiltrate education -- when for instance a teachers' strike is settled on grounds of maintaining the social peace -- schools begin to deteriorate.

The deterioration is a result of bureaucratization, of the arbitration of corporatist interests, of the de-responsibilization of the actors (parents and pupils especially); all of which are necessary processes in the political realm. In Quebec (as elsewhere) we have been experiencing this deterioration for the last fifteen years in our public high schools. Certain comprehensive high schools (polyvalentes) which were good schools in the 1970s, are not so today -- which is why the cultural and intellectual elite no longer send their own children to these schools. We could soon face a similar deterioration at the primary school level, where a flight to private schools has already begun. Both the Premier and the Minister of Education, themselves products of public primary schools, now send their children to private primary schools.

Stopping this deterioration requires loosening the grip of the state on public education, rather than consolidating it by following the republican secular model underlying the Proulx Report. What we need is an arrangement like that which prevails in the Republic of France -- the grand champion of the secular state -- where one-fifth of all schoolchildren attend ecoles libres (schools free from the state) financed by public funds (except for capital costs).(11) This is the direction we should be moving in. Our insular media would have us believe, in terms of public education, that Quebec is reactionary, whereas the rest of the Western world is modern and progressive. We risk becoming the laughing stock of our contemporaries in other liberal societies!

Today we must campaign for the separation of the state and education, in defence of the same principle on which we demanded the separation of church from state in education. The principle was not that schools belong to the state, but rather that the church should not be able to exercise undue influence because invested with a political prerogative, i.e. monopoly. When citizens can choose to send their children elsewhere, they are in control and free of political constraint.

The state's proper role in education

What does the state's role in protecting civil society entail when it comes to education in its widest sense? It consists of maintaining social order -- keeping violence and intimidation out of schools -- and of protecting culture -- for example through the educational provisions of Bill 101. It entails assuring equality of opportunity; parental choice with regard to schools, the literacy and numeracy required for access to economic spheres, and access to the cultural heritage of society through, for example, maintenance of libraries and museums. All of these are responsibilities towards civil society and it is incumbent on the state to assume then. These imply police protection, language and media legislation, redeployment of public funds among schools, a minimal curriculum, and sanction of results: in no case do they entail running schools.

In a liberal democratic society the state should not see itself as responsible for attaining equality, as opposed to equality of opportunity, via schools. The purpose of a minimal curriculum is to ensure access to the existing culture of civil society; not to create culture. While "un espace civique commun" as evoked by the Proulx Report authors may be desirable, and the state may well have a justifiable role in seeing to its transmission via schools, the state is incapable of manufacturing such a cultural phenomenon. It is doubtful that the state would be capable of identifying and articulating such a cultural reality even if it already existed. In cultural matters, when the state sets out to create, rather than confining itself to protection and transmission, it usually ends up stifling creation and creators.

Finally, with regard to the sanctioning of educational objectives, the state should limit itself to precisely that, the sanctioning of attainment. The how of the attainment is not the domain of the state: in other words, the state should not be in the business of pedagogy As for the certification of teachers, here again the state's role should be limited to certifying (for the benefit of civil society authorities) competencies possessed or attained, rather than courses taken and programs followed. Consequently, the state should not be involved in training teachers, much less in maintaining a state monopoly in teacher training -- as Quebec now does through the obligatory four-year socialization of teaching candidates in state faculties of education.

Why Quebecers should reject the Proulx Report

Because it is intellectually rigorous, the Proulx Report should be read by anyone interested in the question of confessional schools. It provides a vue de l'esprit of the theory, as opposed to the practice, of public education in Quebec. Its concept of schools run by a partnership of parents, civil society and the state turns out to be pure rhetoric, and the belated attempt by the president to put some flesh on the concept by pointing to the school governing council as the locus of this partnership sadly testifies to this.

Two other manifestations of the abstract disincarnated reasoning in the report should be noted. The first is the assumption that only a secular school is neutral. Had they sent their own children to one of Quebec's public high schools, which are de facto secularized, they would have known better. The other is that high school students can learn to appreciate, or even understand, the major religions of the world, a surprising assertion about a society in which Catholics and Protestants have not been able to arrive at an understanding of the other's world vision after at least two hundred years of coexistence.

The Proulx commission recommendations should not be followed for four distinct reasons. The most general of these is that the recommendations constitute another step down the slippery slope: the penetration of a political logic into our public schools via the consolidation of a state monopoly over the running of public schools. It is precisely this monopoly which is undermining our public schools. We are going down the wrong road in public education, becoming the exception, in matters of education, in the Western world. Even Hungary -- a society familiar with state monopoly -- is reopening public denominational schools!

The second reason has to do with the way the repeal of Section 93 was carried out. The Proulx Report affirms that Quebec's denominational schools and the teaching of religion constitute a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- which is technically correct following the repeal of Section 93. The Charter, we should note, explicitly states that nothing in it invalidates the rights and protections accorded by Section 93; and it includes a "notwithstanding" clause which allows legislatures to override the Charter, subject to certain conditions. Hence the discrimination of which we are supposedly guilty exists only because we stripped ourselves of our historic rights and did not avail ourselves of the notwithstanding clause. In fact, in the 1997 lead-up to the repeal, the Quebec government and the Roman Catholic Church of Quebec both assured the population that the amendment would not prevent local communities that wanted to retain their denominational schools from doing so.(12) Now we know that this was a misrepresentation by those in a position to know better: the population was simply duped.(13) Yet the Proulx Report explicitly proposes to consecrate exactly the outcome that the population was assured would not come to pass. Implementing the recommendations of the report would thus perpetuate this betrayal of the population.

The third reason is quite simply that the population of Quebec has not yet expressed, in any convincing way, a wish to deprive itself of access to denominational schools and religious teaching. It would be antidemocratic to strip from the population an option that people have not asked to be removed. In affirming the above, I invoke "The State of Education in Quebec,"(14) the report of the Commission des Etatsgeneraux sur l'education, on what was, without a doubt, the most extensive consultation on education in Quebec since the Parent Report in the 1960s. Its consultations involved public hearings to which all Quebecers were invited, as opposed to the closed hearings of invited representations held by the Proulx group!

The final and foremost reason for putting aside the Proulx Report is that the expressed will to use schools for political objectives (reinforcing social cohesion and the propagation of a common civic culture) constitutes an infringement of exactly the liberty we need in Quebec to build the liberal, pluralistic society the authors invoke. It infringes the liberty necessary for a civil society sufficiently vigorous to maintain and build the human and moral resources without which Quebec will not survive. Without the availability of choices, civil society withers. Civil society in Quebec, burdened as it is with all kinds of constraints -- not all of which are unique to the province -- will not be up to the task if the state is allowed to appropriate public schools for its political purposes.

Most modern states have a "state-building" agenda and most try to use schools to forward their agenda. Our own federal government tries, but fortunately, has not the constitutional power to do so, but the state must be held in check. This is one of the necessary tensions of a liberal democratic society: the state, the market and civil society depend upon, but are in a state of constant tension with, one another. It is our duty to keep the state in its place with regard to education, to prevent the state, like the market, from permeating our schools.

The grand liberal tradition in Quebec did not struggle over two centuries to free our schools from the ecclesiastic monopoly just to see it replaced, under the guise of respecting the doctrine of the separation of church and state, by a state monopoly. Acquiescing in such a statist grip on our public schools would result, in concrete terms, in the American scenario: liberty to choose for those able to pay for entirely privately schools, and state "establishments" for the others. This would be a sad day for democracy in Quebec. We would be divided into two subcultures, thus forsaking the essential egalitarian quality of Quebec postwar culture. The great irony is that the process of democratization of education in the postwar period could culminate in a division of the population into a small, highly cultivated elite sent to private schools by families who care about education and who have the means, and a mass which is culturally ill equipped to be free citizens in the sense in which freedom is understood in our Western tradition. At least the prewar clerical classical-college system, staffed as it was by celibate priests and nuns, ensured that the elite was constantly being renewed.

I conclude with a final comment on the ideological orientation of the Proulx Report. In the course of their argument, the authors put forward a republican and a communitarian solution of the religion in schools question, and then explicitly opt for the republican solution. They explicitly envisage the creation of a societal identity which favours the individual's attachment to his fellow citizens over that to family and community. When speaking of their chosen option (in the section entitled Les orientations), the authors make a point of the importance of horizontal as opposed to vertical identities: "Cette option delaisse la voie de la socialisation aux identites verticales, autrement dit celles qui nous rattachent a nos racines familiales ou communautaires. En revanche, elle favorise celle des identites horizontales qui faconnent les ideaux partages en commun."(15)

Are Quebecers ready for a new republican civic religion laid on by the technocracy? Therein lies a clue as to why -- to the surprise and chagrin of its authors -- the report was so critically received.


(1) See my article on the repeal of Section 93 of the BNAA in L'Agora, vol. 5, no. 3.

(2) Ibid., pp. 8-9.

(3) Ms. Pauline Marois, before the Joint Commons-Senate Committee on the amendment of Section 93, November 1997, Ottawa.

(4) Report, p. 9.

(5) Debats de la Commission de l'education, June 9, 1999, p. 5.

(6) Ibid., p. 1.

(7) Video of the presentation on April 9, 1999, in Montreal.

(8) For example, in the school board Les Hauts Cantons, the parents' central committee approved the report without having either read it or consulted the school councils.

(9) Foster and Smith, "Restructuring Education in Quebec: the Amendment of Section 93," brief to the Joint Commons-Senate Committee on the Amendment of Section 93, October 1999.

(10) In this respect the authors of the report have no inhibitions: see pages 88 to 92 on the context of "la responsabilite propre de l'Etat a l'egard de la formation des citoyens."

(11) These schools are denominational (to be precise, Roman Catholic); and the personnel are chosen by the school authorities. Half the clientele is non-Catholic!

(12) See Caldwell, "The Question of Denominational Schools in Quebec and the Repeal of Section 93 of the Canadian Constitution," brief to the Joint Commons-Senate Committee on the Amendment of Section 93, September 1997.

(13) See the opinion ("avis") of the Catholic Committee of the Superior Council of Education on the constitutional amendment of Section 93, made available to the Government and the Opposition in October 1997 (before the amendment was passed or even discussed by the Joint Committee).

(14) See, in "About Confessionality," the section "What We Heard," p. 111.

(15) Report, p. 212.
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Author:Caldwell, Gary
Publication:Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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