National Post Barbara Kay: Even secular Quebec needs to water its cultural roots

National Post - Wednesday January 29th, 2020

The cross on Mount Royal sits above Montreal in a file photo from Dec. 20, 2018.

On April 15 last year, a fire broke out in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Thousands of Parisians turned out to watch the threatening flames in stunned sorrow. Most onlookers were not religious, for France is a fiercely secular nation. But their anguished expressions told us they saw more than the possible loss of a beautiful old building. Notre Dame represents a huge chunk of France’s cultural patrimony.

When a rupture occurs between a nation’s vision and the founding/forming religion, there’s a void that needs filling, and canny political leaders know it. In Quebec, where the schism was more recent, the void was to be addressed by the 1999 Proulx Report on the role of religion in the public schools, which resulted in the Ethics and Religious Culture program (ECR is the French acronym), taught K-12 since 2008.

ECR was a misguided initiative, entrenched without public consultation. It was “about” religion, but designed in a multiculturalist dream palace by ideologues with no interest in lived religion’s dynamics. They were merely using religion as a thematic tool for sensitizing students to Quebec’s rich diversity of cultures.

They were merely using religion as a thematic tool

ECR shone a light on the tenets of the major religions — Christianity, Islam, Judaism — but also those of Wiccans and Raelians, with no discrimination as to their respective gravity or historical importance. Students were encouraged in “le questionnement” of their own religion, but there was no “questionnement” permitted of others.

So ECR was controversial from the start. Secularists objected to the implication that ethics and religious belief necessarily go hand in hand; Catholics felt — correctly — that their constitutional right to educate their children in their own faith without comparison to other religions had been foreclosed; and nationalists saw in ECR’s multiculturalist guiding principles the erasure of Quebec’s cultural distinction.

Religious parents and parochial schools rightly saw ECR’s theme-park approach as a threat to children’s confidence in their received religious teaching. But no child — not even the home-schooled — could be exempted on those grounds. There were legal challenges. Loyola High School’s case demanding exemption from ECR ended up at the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the school’s right to teach Catholicism “from its own perspective.”

The second candle of Hanukkah is lit at Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalemon in Côte Saint-Luc, Que., in a file photo from Dec. 13, 2017. Pierre Obendrauf/Postmedia News

A 2009 investigation of ECR was conducted by Université de Montréal Ethnic Studies researcher Joelle Quérin for the Institut de recherche sur le Québec. She concluded that ECR was not designed to educate children, but to “indoctrinate” them in moral and cultural relativism. Quérin paid close attention to prescribed and suggested classroom activities. In one case, students were invited to redesign the Quebec flag, replacing the cross with a more “inclusive” symbol. In another religion-trivializing activity, students were invited to create their own religion (“Youpi! Ma religion à moi!”).

Quérin also observed that the vaunted “dialogue” the program promised consisted of politically correct scripts to be followed without divergence. An editing team spokesperson told Quérin that if a student posed a question that did not conform to the “recognition” credo that all religions are equal and good, the teacher had to stop the discussion. Quérin concluded: “After having followed the ECR course for 10 years, the students won’t have a great knowledge of religions, but one thing is sure: no (cultural) accommodation will seem unreasonable to them.”

Premier François Legault’s aversion to multiculturalism is unabashed

Premier François Legault’s aversion to multiculturalism is unabashed, and his tolerance for cultural accommodation has defined limits, as his Bill 21, proscribing religious accessories in education and other government jobs, makes clear. Hence ECR is being retired; a replacement program will debut in pilot form in 2021. This time around, there will be public consultations.

What new ideas might the public come up with?

I like one proposed by a francophone journalist I admire, Christian Rioux, who wrote about this issue in Le Devoir recently. Rioux says that the ECR made a “folklorisation des religions,” which needs no translation. Better, he says, that real scholars of history, French and art, in which religion and its institutions and their effect on culture arise organically, renew the humanities program in schools.

A woman holds a Quebec flag with the slogan “Where is my free Quebec” while protesting the province’s new secularism legislation, Bill 21, in Montreal on June 17, 2019. Christinne Muschi/Reuters

“We forget,” he writes (my translation), “that the Bible is also a literary work, and that the Lettres Persanes by Montesquieu teach us more about Islam than many contemporary texts. In history, the Catholic Counter-Reformation should occupy a central place, so greatly has it influenced Quebec, right up to the present day. That’s without even speaking of (Quebec’s) own literary and artistic patrimony, whose sources are evidently religious.”

For many French people, the Notre Dame fire may have been the first time they understood in a visceral way that even 150 years of secularism does not banish collective attachment to a nation’s cultural roots. In every distinct society that values its unique character, those distinctive roots must be watered. Only then will they remain fireproof.

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