It appears from Quebec government policy documents describing its proposed Charter of Values (the precise language of which has yet to be released) that it considers physicians and other health care workers to be state functionaries because they are engaged in the delivery of “public” health care. As state functionaries, they will be forbidden to wear noticeable religious symbols or clothing, unless local authorities exempt them from this restriction.
However, no exemptions will be allowed to parts of the Charter that will impose secularism and restrict accommodation of religious beliefs. These are central government policies that are to be enacted through the Charter of Values and related legislation. This gives rise to an important question.
Will the government of Quebec – sooner or later – use its Charter of Values to suppress freedom of conscience and religion among health care workers?
An answer to the question is suggested by a review of the Quebec government’s continuing efforts to establish state hegemony in the moral and ethical education of children.
Abolition of denominational education in Quebec
When Canada was established in 1867, the BNA Act (now the Constitution Act of 1867) guaranteed that Quebeckers living outside Quebec City or Montreal were entitled to denominational schools if they were a Catholic or Protestant religious minority, or if they lived in Montreal or Quebec City and were Catholic or Protestant. Most schools outside Montreal and Quebec were operated as Catholic schools, not as a matter of law, but because that reflected the majority. The Constitution Act of 1982 continued the arrangement.
Beginning in 1988, the Quebec government moved to abolish denominational school boards and replaced them with linguistic boards (Bill 107). Schools themselves could, under the new system, continue to identify themselves as Protestant or Catholic, and access to denominational education continued to be guaranteed. Implementation was delayed until after 1993, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the arrangements – including the continued provision of denominational schooling – were not unconstitutional.
Bill 109 (June 19, 1997) established procedures for electing linguistic boards, but opposition from parents who wanted to ensure the continued protection of denominational schooling was significant. Thus, the government of Quebec asked the federal government to abolish constitutional safeguards that protected denominational education in the province. The Liberal government’s point man for the project, Stéphane Dion, delivered the amendment before the end of the year. Dion and Liberal Senator Lucie Pepin offered assurances that denominational education would continue to be protected by existing provincial law.
Three years later, Quebec abolished Catholic and Protestant schools (Bill 118, 14 June, 2000). However, private denominational schools were unaffected, and parents could ask state schools to provide classes on general morality for their children, or Catholic or Protestant religious instruction. The overwhelming majority of parents continued to ask for religious instruction.
The next moves came in 2005 with the passage of Bill 95. Having earlier obtained the abolition of constitutional protection for denominational education, the Quebec government claimed that it was unconstitutional to offer Catholic and Protestant religious instruction in state schools.
Establishing state sovereignty
The new law prohibited all religious teaching in the state school system, something not unusual in Western democracies. However, it also required all schools – including private denominational schools to teach the state’s newly minted Ethics and Religious Culture course to all students in all grades (except one secondary school year). All home-schooling families were also subject to the law. The Minister of Education stated that no students would be exempted from the course.
To ensure that objecting parents did not interfere, Bill 95 also amended the province’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms to nullify parental authority in education, making the state – not parents – the final arbiter of “the rights and interests of children.” The course was introduced in September, 2008. McGill Professor Douglas Farrow of McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies warned Quebeckers what it had in store for them. The Ethics and Religious Culture course, he wrote, “is intended to wean children away from traditional religious and moral commitments and to train them up in an ideology antipathetic to those commitments, the ideology of so-called ‘normative pluralism.'”
“It is intended to teach them the Sheerman principle that faith is all right as long as people are not that serious about it. It is intended, in other words, to pry them away from their most basic communities of socialization – their families and their houses of worship – and to unite them in the state, with the state, and under the State, a state that regards itself as more fundamentally important than their families and churches.”
In late 2009, a doctoral candidate who carefully analyzed the course from a nationalist perspective published a paper confirming Farrow’s criticism. She described the Ethics and Religious Culture course as a mechanism for ideological indoctrination. National Postcolumnist Barbara Kay distilled some of the report’s criticism for her English language audience:
“Two values dominate the program’s objectives: learning to ‘vivre ensemble’ (live together) and arriving at the ‘bien commun’ (the common good). How does ECR produce social harmony? By constant ‘dialogue’ and ‘recognition’ of other cultures, which can only be accomplished, in the words of ECR mandarin Georges Leroux, by inculcating in children ‘absolute respect for every religious position’.
“But according to ECR, ‘every religious position’ includes pagan animism, witchcraft (Wiccans ‘are women like any other in daily life’), and the nutbar Raelian Movement ( ‘technologically, [the Raelians] are 25,000 years in advance of us’). To bundle superstitions and cults together with authentic religions, then demand deference to all, is to discourage actual respect for any but the state religion of ‘normative pluralism,’ the real aim of the program.
“In its indifference to objective knowledge, in its crusade to hallow cultural relativism and a strictly Charter-of-rights based identity, ECR stimulates heritage students’ detachment from their own cultural touchstones, and chills critical thinking in all students.”
Legal challenges by objecting institutions and families have, thus far, been unsuccessful, and an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada is pending. The prospect of successful political action at the provincial level seems remote, as the only party to support parental authority in education lost badly in the 2008 provincial election, while the parties responsible for driving forward the new law made substantial gains.
Voter turnout for the 2008 election was a record low; only 56.5 percent of voters went to the polls in 2008. This improved significantly in the 2012 election (to about 75 percent). However, the election results promise no change to the status quo. The Liberals (50 seats), now the opposition party, introduced the course when in power. The Parti Québécois minority government (54 seats) has made no commitments and may be divided on the issue. Only the Coaltion Avenir Québec (19 seats) is willing to modify the course. It would eliminate it in primary school, but retain it in secondary school. Its reason for doing so is that time in elementary school is better spent learning “core subjects,” and the material is more suitable for secondary school students. It continues to support the objectives of the course.
This outline suggests that the principal political parties in Quebec are committed to the position that the state and its functionaries are the primary authorities in education, including the moral, ethical and religious education of children. They appear to relegate parents and subsidiary institutions – especially religious authorities – to what is, at best, a secondary role: one, moreover, that can be unilaterally defined and limited – perhaps even abolished – by state power.
There is no reason to believe that health care workers and their associations will be treated differently. It is very doubtful that the government would afford state functionaries a deference that it denies to parents in the education of their own children.
Return to the question: will the government of Quebec – sooner or later – use its Charter of Values to suppress freedom of conscience and religion among health care workers?
The Quebec government’s assumption of sovereignty over education and the religious and ethical instruction of children, to the exclusion of their parents, suggests the answer.
Indeed: it also suggests an additional reason why the government might have been willing to allow local authorities to exempt health care workers from the rule against the wearing of religious symbols – on the condition that the exemption must be renewed every five years. If the government’s Ethics and Religious Culture course functions as described by Joëlle Quérin and achieves the objectives identified by Douglas Farrow, Quebec children will be weaned away from religious belief and practice, cured of any desire to manifest religious belief in clothing or symbols, and conditioned to expect – and demand – the elimination of public expressions of personal religious commitment.